Continuous Improvement: Moving Forward To Stay Ahead

continuous improvementIn 1994 Qualifirst Foods moved 15 years ahead of our competition when we released our first “automated” catalog. This was a major step.

When I had first started working here, the salespeople had to put the catalogue together themselves, using supplier brochures and labels actually removed from the products themselves. The tools of the trade were scissors and glue. This was cutting and pasting old-school.

Obviously, this was time consuming and far from perfect.

Later we looked at Microsoft Access, which was a new program at the time, and we immediately saw the potential for creating an updated, automated catalog.

One year later, our first one was released.

As we grow and evolve as a company, and as the outside world continues to change, we realize we always need to continue to look for better ways to do things. There are certain things that we should no longer do, some that we should do differently, and some that should be further automated.

The resources that automations frees up allows us to help our team to focus on those tasks and innovations that will keep up moving forward. The evolution of our catalogue symbolizes the importance of constantly testing our assumptions and of looking for ways to stay ahead of the competition through continuous improvement.

Continuous improvement is not a new concept to us; in fact we have always held high standards, which naturally demand constant review of achievements and of opportunities in order to do better. One of the ways to do this is to take the time to ask how a task can be simplified, by identifying steps that at first glance seem to be essential, but with a second review are either unnecessary or could be automated.

Here’s a classic example:

At some point not so long ago it was obvious that we needed to print 5 copies of each invoice, using a dot matrix printer.

Today we print just one copy using a laser printer, but even that seems too much, and so we are looking at how we can stop printing that one copy, replacing it with digital. The filing of pink, blue and yellow papers represents a whole set of repetitive tasks and language, both of which are now consigned to history.

Continuous Improvement through task elimination involves identifying tasks that were once labeled as “must be done” and acknowledging that they are no longer needed. After a short period of transition, their absence is no longer noticed, and people start to wonder why we were ever doing them in the first place.

Paperwork:

Six years ago we looked to see if we could find tasks that were repetitive and could be automated, and we found two: one was the procedure used to purchase products, and the other was the process used to ship goods out. Transferring product between Toronto and Vancouver had always been both time consuming and virtually impossible to do accurately.

Also, placing orders from our suppliers overseas was a challenge, since we always need first to check sales in both Toronto and Vancouver. To resolve the delays and confusion, we located one of the leading industry automation applications and automated most parts of this process.

It is now much faster and more accurate.

At the time we were also hand-writing the customers’ names on all the boxes of our outbound shipments, as well as manually contacting freight companies for every order we had to ship out. This created a whole range of extra paperwork. We implemented a shipping system that automates the printing of labels and eliminates most of the paperwork.

One of the signs of a successful automation deployment is that afterwards you can’t imagine going back to doing it the old way, once you see all the extra work that it took.

Consolidation: Does a task fit better combined with another job?

Tasks should be grouped together into jobs that will fit a specific type of person. They should also be grouped in a way that allows someone to transition from one task to another without disturbing the flow of work. For example, before we pack orders for shipping we check them for accuracy.

When we first started doing this, this task was performed by an individual from the office. But we determined this was a better fit for the warehouse staff. After increasing our resources in the warehouse and with some extra training we transferred this task.

always question yourself and automate repetitive task

Rethinking: Does this task have to be completely rethought due to external changes?

Prior to the 1990’s it was common for companies in our industry to deliver goods mostly with their own fleet of trucks. But after that time, we started getting approached by courier companies who offered to deliver our products in the Toronto area.

After some additional evaluation we realized that using courier companies was a less expensive solution that would allow us to provide better service to our customers. Now we use carefully selected local courier companies in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal – companies who are known for giving personalized service.

A more recent example of our rethinking strategy can be seen in the way our job postings and job boards work. As I announced in a previous communication (on the career page) we are actively looking for a manager in Vancouver.

Job Posting:

As I started investigating job posting sites I realized that a great deal had changed in the job posting world. Aggregators – online companies that locate job postings and repost them on marketplace sites – are now the dominant force. This has three major consequences:

  • First, no matter where you post your job announcement, it will end up on an aggregator site such as indeed.ca, which demonstrates that it is less important as to what job board the announcement is initially posted on.
  • Secondly, job postings are fighting for place in a “Google world,” which means that for your announcement to be found it must include the right keywords.
  • Thirdly, old announcements don’t disappear, which runs the risk of the position being reposted even after the position has been filled.

Our completely revised and improved job posting strategy is to use a career page that links to a site that processes our applicants (www.theresumator.com) and we will also post for free on indeed.ca when we need to. This way we are always networking and promoting our company to potential candidates the same way we do for customers, rather than of posting expensive ads. If we had not adapted to these external changes we would still be using our own delivery trucks and paying for expensive and ineffective postings on job sites.

Prioritizing Orders:

Traditionally the role of invoicing has been given to one of our customer service reps. But Jodi looked at this setup once again, and decided it made more sense for orders to be invoiced directly from the warehouse. Last week we tested this concept in the Toronto warehouse.

Our next challenge is to determine how we take this task and add it to an existing function in the warehouse. An order is invoiced after it is packed. Therefore one of the options we will explore is having the person who packed the orders doing the invoicing directly afterwards.

Picking and Packing:

About five years ago we stopped printing our packing slips until a picker was ready to pick an order. This reduced the handling of packing slips but created an additional task of determining order priority so that a picker could quickly choose which order to pick. It remained to be determined whether this task should be done in the office or the warehouse.

The answer had long been the office, and so last week we tested from the Toronto warehouse. Given that orders are continuously being dispatched, whoever is handling the picking is often interrupted. Since many factors go into the act of packing, it can be a stressful task, which led us to the question: Can we automate this task?

Microsoft vs Google:

Our email is hosted by Google and we use many applications that integrate more or less into Google. When we assessed Google’s range of apps back in 2009, we felt it was a good decision to work with them. Since then, Microsoft has moved forward, and we believe a revised integration between Google and Microsoft would make our life much simpler by combining email, customer relations management (CRM), project management, online storage and many other features all in one place.

The question to be asked is: Is Google Apps still the best solution for our email?

Improvement belongs to all of us:

As Qualifirst changes and as the world changes, the way to do things continues to evolve. We need to constantly seek out better ways to do things, and each and every one of us is key to challenging the way we do things now. Each Qualifirst employee should always be asking four key questions:

  1. Do we really need to do this?
  2. Can we do this better?
  3. Can we automate this task?
  4. What should we be doing that we are not doing yet?

The answers to these questions will be included in future weekly emails and blogs.

Weekly Quote:

“no matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.”

― Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success

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