Why (and How) to Take a Plant Tour

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In recent years, managers have recognized how manufacturing capabilities contribute to a company’s overall strategic strength. The ability to respond quickly to customers’ orders, to customize products to match customers’ exact requirements, or to ramp up production rapidly can be a powerful and difficult-to-imitate competitive weapon. But many corporate managers identify their plants’ capabilities only by accident—as a result of chance conversations with plant managers or operations specialists. Consequently, many managers do not have the information necessary to cultivate, shape, and exploit their company’s manufacturing capabilities. As plants develop, however, they need guidance to build capabilities that meet current and future needs. Plant tours can be a powerful way of providing factories with that kind of direction.

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Almost everyone who leads, works for, or interacts with a manufacturing company can benefit from seeing a factory firsthand. Plant visits allow senior executives to build a better understanding of a site’s performance potential; to assess a competitor; to rally the frontline workforce; and to communicate the company’s performance, strategy, and current challenges. Plant visits allow managers to review a supplier’s qualifications, to share best practices with a partner, or to benchmark performance and practices. Shop-floor operators can assess another plant’s operations and apply what they’ve learned to their own factories. Consultants can benefit a great deal from tours, even of plants that are not part of their current assignment. Such tours allow them to amass knowledge about their clients quickly and to build a store of experience that will be useful on future assignments.

Managers often question the need to travel to remote locations to see a plant, particularly one in their own company. Even though management and financial reports are near at hand, factories are as difficult to understand solely by the numbers as they are to manage that way. Traditional reports rarely present an up-to-date, thorough picture of an operation’s performance. Financial information tends to give an outdated picture of operational health: it will often reflect a plant’s performance as it was a year or so ago. If a site has recently begun a comprehensive improvement effort, for example, the effects of the initiative may not yet be visible in any reports. And numbers rarely reflect a plant’s revenue-generating potential, or the new capabilities it has developed. Finally, because financial and other conventional reports rarely indicate an explicit path for action, it is difficult to use them to learn how to improve performance.

Even people who know that plant tours are valuable can find it difficult to put them to effective use. First, unclear objectives often turn touring into tourism. If visitors don’t know why they are taking a tour and what they hope to accomplish on it, they won’t know where to focus their time and effort. Second, many people lack an organizing framework to structure observations and accelerate learning. Without such a framework, the myriad observations made during a tour cannot easily be woven together and will not readily yield general conclusions. Third, information about plants and how to tour them is inevitably comparative; and those who have seen more, see more. Inexperience makes it difficult for younger, nonoperations-based managers in particular to make the most of a tour, since they are still building the knowledge base they need to draw comparisons. However, by setting clear objectives and applying an organizing framework to make sense of what they see and hear, visitors can make the most of plant tours—even if the industry, products, and processes are unfamiliar.

Setting Clear Objectives

Unfortunately, most visitors don’t begin thinking about the tour until they are in the plant’s parking lot. The tour will be far more valuable if they spend time framing their objectives before the visit. There are three primary reasons for taking a tour: to learn, to assess, and to teach. Although those objectives overlap to some degree, they lead to very different types of tours. Learning tours are undertaken by people who believe that an operation has a feature or an ability that is valuable; they want to find out precisely what that ability is and how it works. Most often, the goal of a learning tour is to bring back the knowledge acquired on the tour to replicate the capability. Assessment tours are undertaken to determine how well a plant is doing either along an important dimension of performance or in terms of its ability to fulfill its role in the company’s operations strategy. Teaching tours are undertaken to pass knowledge from the visitor to the plant being toured. The three types of tours demand different questions and focus on different parts of the site.

Learning Tours.

The primary objective of most plant tours is to learn. There are a few general principles that can help increase how much visitors learn during a tour.

The first way to enhance learning is to focus on practices rather than on numbers. A plant tour provides an opportunity to observe how work actually gets done. Even the most lucid description of how work flows are managed around a shop or how operators use charts and diagrams to solve problems is no substitute for seeing things happen in practice. For example, managers at John Crane Limited, a mechanical seal company in the United Kingdom, often spoke of using “squares on the floor” to control work-in-process levels. A yellow square was painted on the floor at each station’s input and output locations. When either square was full, the operator stopped work and coordinated with downstream and upstream operations to solve the workflow problems. In effect, Crane had built a simple, visible shop-floor control system similar to the Japanese kanban system. By actually seeing such a system, visitors are able to develop a clear mental picture of it. They can then answer questions such as, How far apart are the squares, and how many are there? and Which processes use this system, and why? And they are better able to envision how a shop-level innovation might be introduced into another environment.

Even the most lucid description of how work flows are managed around a plant is no substitute for seeing things happen in practice.

The second way to enhance learning is to make sure the right people are on the tour: different people will focus on and have insights into different aspects of a work setting. In the late 1980s, for example, Daewoo, a Korean shipbuilder, began a program of visiting Japanese and European shipyards to learn about new methods of constructing ships. The people on the tours included some senior managers, but most were welding operators—which made a profound difference. The operators were able to relate the various practices they saw at the Japanese and European shipyards to their own jobs. They were able to see more clearly how new operating practices might be replicated in their own plant. The welders also were able to identify for senior managers real innovations and merely incidental differences. Finally, they were able to communicate credibly and effectively what they learned to their shop-floor peers at Daewoo.

The third way to enhance learning is to keep an open mind. Much of the learning that occurs on a plant tour is unexpected. It is not unusual for a visitor to go to a site intent on observing one process or operation and to end up picking up excellent ideas in a completely different area. Visitors should take care not to home in too exclusively either on their own areas of expertise or on those aspects of the plant that the host is most proud of. Similarly, practices that might seem commonplace to the host may strike others as important innovations. For example, managers at the Cummins Engine plant in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, painted milling and grinding machines different colors based on their statistical capability to perform their designated operations: green for a machine that could do the job easily, yellow for a machine that had more difficulty performing the job, and red for a machine that had great difficulty holding the required tolerances. The simple innovation of color-coded machines directed workers’ attention to where it was most needed. This tool was particularly powerful in a multilingual environment in which communication can be a source of confusion, and it could be just as powerful in many other environments. But few people in the plant considered this basic innovation remarkable.

One must resist the temptation to be too judgmental. It does not pay to judge the effectiveness of a practice or to compare that practice with one’s own operation before finding out why the operation is run as it is and what might be learned from that information. For example, at one paper plant in Ohio, the crew that managed changeovers of the main machine from one paper grade to the next was organized according to a very rigid hierarchy. The foreman had a nonrotating crew of people, each dedicated to one job. Everyone simply obeyed orders during changeovers. Many observers remarked on how old-fashioned this practice seemed in an industry that was increasingly embracing empowerment and rotating teams of operators. The fact was that this crew could change over a machine from one grade to another faster than almost any other crew in the industry. Each person knew his or her job, could do it better than anyone else on the crew, and was perfectly content to be part of a group of people that worked like a well-oiled machine. Even if a practice seems at first glance to be inferior, look for the rationale behind it.

The fourth way to enhance learning is to visit plants in different industries and to resist the immediate temptation to visit only plants “like ours.” Almost all operations confront some of the same problems—for instance, how to marshal the flow of work through a facility, to translate customers’ demands into products or services as quickly as possible, or to involve operators in process improvements. When touring outside their home industry, visitors often can witness completely new ways of accomplishing familiar tasks. In contrast, when they stay closer to home, visitors typically do not encounter new methods or practices. People tend to carry customs and practices with them when they move from job to job in a particular industry, making much of any given industry homogeneous. To see something different, it is valuable to travel far from home.

Assessment Tours.

The main purpose of assessment tours is not to acquire new knowledge. Rather, it is to use what visitors already know to evaluate a plant. There are a number of different types of assessment tours. Some aim to determine whether a plant can fill a particular role. For example, a customer may visit a potential supplier to assess quality, or a corporate planner may visit a plant to decide if it could develop the ability to fill orders quickly enough to support the company’s new strategy. Other assessment tours focus less on a plant’s existing capabilities and more on how that plant might be changed to perform better or differently in the future. For example, a tour can provide a much deeper understanding of the potential value of acquiring a plant or making a capital investment in it. Visiting a site also is essential for assessing what is needed in a turnaround. Only with sufficient direct observation is it possible to develop the right prescription for improving the operation—whether it be capital for reconfiguring a plant, new management, or different improvement techniques.

Before embarking on an assessment tour, decide which elements of the operation are to be assessed and how they will be judged. One particularly useful technique is to divide a group of visitors into subunits, each of which focuses on a particular aspect of the operation. For instance, one group might concentrate on material flows, another on quality, and a third on human resources management, training, and compensation.

Regardless of the approach used to make the assessment, it pays to be on the lookout for problem areas. For example, the chief operating officer of an office equipment company was assessing one of his plants to determine if it could supply parts to another operation that was developing a promising stream of new products. The plant’s managers had assured the company’s management that it was well positioned to fulfill this new role. The plant, they reasoned, had recently made significant capital investments in modern, state-of-the-art component-placement equipment. But during a visit to the plant, the COO noticed some important features of the operation that the plant’s managers had overlooked. Those features suggested that the plant would have difficulty doing the work. First, the material-transfer-and-handling systems were too rigid to accommodate new, unanticipated products. Second, the conveyor system prevented the plant from taking on new tasks because it fenced off a large amount of floor space. Finally, the plant’s material-control policies, which made sense for long runs of comparatively stable products, would have collapsed in the face of a rapidly changing production schedule. The COO had to observe only a few production runs and changeovers to uncover those facts. As a result of the tour, the company was able to avoid a logjam in the new product stream by devoting renewed attention and resources to reconfiguring the plant.

Teaching Tours.

Plant tours are important vehicles for bringing new knowledge to the tour’s host. An expert’s insights are much more powerful and credible when shared in person on the plant floor than they are when submitted to the plant’s staff in the form of a written report. For example, a plant network manager can add tremendous value by transporting the best practices of one plant to another and demonstrating how those practices might be applied on the floor. Without regular visits, it is difficult to transfer this knowledge effectively.

There is, however, an art to such teaching. Simply ordering people to perform a task in a different way—without helping them understand why performing the task differently might be better—is an ineffective method of teaching. One excellent teacher is Chris Evans, the chief executive officer of North End Composites, a 90-person subsidiary of the Sabre Yachts Company in Rockland, Maine. Founded in 1970, North End started out making composite marine hulls and built a reputation for outstanding quality and customer service. By the time Evans took over managing the company in 1995, however, North End was in decline. The company still made only marine-related products and was in danger of being marginalized by competitors with a broader product range. Evans realized that the company needed to broaden its product line but immediately ran into a problem: plant workers knew how the manufacturing processes worked to make standard marine composite parts, but they didn’t always know exactly why the processes worked. “Some people on the floor had great expertise, but there was a lot of black magic in the manufacturing processes,” Evans says.

Evans began methodically asking people questions such as, “Why do you leave this piece to cure for three hours but the other pieces for only one hour?” and “Why do you use this kind of material?” In this manner, he encouraged people on the shop floor to think about the manufacturing processes and how they could be applied to making other products such as ultralight carbon-fiber hulls or enclosures for magnetic-resonance-imaging machines. By probing in this manner, Evans was able to help workers acquire the knowledge and skills they needed to make new products—without years of trial and error.

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“Posing the right questions is a great way to instruct people,” Evans says. “It’s far less threatening than just telling them. In any case, you often don’t have all the answers. Having people teach something to you is a great way of teaching them.”

Employees who see that senior managers notice and care about what is happening on the shop floor are much more likely to become involved in a plant’s process of improvement.

In addition to sharing knowledge, senior managers can have a tremendously positive impact on the morale of a plant’s workforce when they conduct teaching tours. By asking the right questions, they send a powerful message about their commitment to superior performance. When a senior manager asks the right questions, the plant’s employees learn that what they do matters. Taking an unscheduled side trip or speaking to operators who are not part of the official tour strengthens that message still more. Employees who see that senior managers notice and care about what is happening on the floor are much more likely to become involved in the process of improvement.

Applying an Organizing Framework

No matter how clear their objectives, many visitors come away with only a vague understanding of what they have observed on their tours. Visitors rarely have a conceptual framework for understanding and organizing what they see and hear on the factory floor. Such a framework would help visitors ask better questions, gather more helpful information, and make more informed decisions. We recommend a four-part framework: identifying a plant’s strategic role, structural alignment, day-today management, and improvement path.

Strategic Role.

It is vitally important for a visitor at the outset to understand what role the plant plays in the company as a whole and whether the plant’s managers know what that role is. One way to find that out is to ask, What does this plant aim to do exceptionally well? Does it aim for low cost? High quality? Quick response? Many plant managers will use such phrases as “world class” and “best practice,” but they often do so to cover a multitude of strategic sins—not the least of which is an inability to accept the fact that having a strategy means not doing certain things. It is simply impossible to excel at everything.

Plant managers must understand that having a strategy means not doing certain things. It is simply impossible to excel at everything.

For example, large, diversified paper companies might have two kinds of facilities: those that produce large orders of low-cost commodity goods and those that produce small orders of high-margin specialty value-added goods with short lead times. Each type of operation requires a different plant configuration and different skills and practices.

Although it is vitally important that a plant understand its strategic purpose, the fact of the matter is that many do not. Often, managers do not establish clear priorities. Consider how many shop floors and reception desks have banners displayed above them that read:

This operation will be a high-quality, low-cost facility providing outstanding flexibility, reliability, and customer service. We commit to generating the most innovative products at the leading edge of technology. We pride ourselves on safety and care for the environment. We will strive to be world class on every dimension, while providing a rewarding work environment for our people—who are our most important asset.

Such well-meaning, but fundamentally muddled, objectives are often the result of design by committee. One can imagine the circumstances that give rise to them. A meeting is held in which someone proposes that low cost be the most important dimension of improvement for the plant. “But what about quality?” asks another member of the team (1990s’ code for committee). “What about flexibility?” asks yet another. Soon the plant’s mission statement includes everything and says nothing.

Try to ascertain during the tour if the plant’s managers really do have priorities and have made decisions that reflect them. One can uncover important clues by talking to people on the floor. Plants rely more and more on operators to be a source of new capabilities rather than simple machine tenders, and a visitor needs to find out if operators understand the plant’s strategic priorities. Find out whether their perception of the plant’s role matches that described by managers. Do frontline personnel know whether cost, quality, or flexibility is the highest priority? If they refer only to the particular product they are working on, they may not understand the strategic role of the operation as a whole. How is information concerning the plant’s strategic role shared and used in the plant? Who gets this information? Does it drive action? Does each individual understand his or her role in executing the plant’s strategy? By answering these questions, visitors can determine whether a company’s strategy has truly been woven into the fabric of the plant’s day-to-day operations.

Key performance indicators for the operators themselves provide another valuable clue to how broadly the plant’s role is understood. Do the operators focus on performance measures that are clearly tied to the plant’s mission? For example, management’s goal may be to change a plant so that it competes on its ability to provide customized products. But if people on the shop floor are focusing on maximizing the utilization of equipment, the plant is unlikely to meet that goal.

If it becomes clear during the tour that a plant does not have a clearly defined strategic role, visitors should try to find out why. Often, a lack of focus can be traced to senior managers, who in turn may be giving plant managers conflicting objectives. For example, a business unit manager urged one textile plant to become more responsive to its customers. A memorandum from headquarters stated, “Responsiveness to customer needs through quick response and reduced order quantities is now the primary objective for the South Falls operation.” The performance of the plant and its managers, however, was still measured in terms of tons of fiber produced. Such miscues by top management can be a recipe for confusion and disaster.

Structural Alignment.

Once visitors have identified a plant’s strategic purpose, they then must ask, Does the plant have the right equipment for the job? This question addresses the plant’s structural alignment, or how well its physical equipment and systems fit its strategic role. Without the proper tools, even the best managers cannot make a plant function well.

During the tour, look for distinctive elements that might contribute to (or diminish) the operation’s competitive effectiveness. Are there characteristics of the hardware that would make it particularly easy or difficult to perform the job expected of the plant? For example, in an electronic assembly plant, rapidly programmable machines allow for fast changeovers, which are particularly important if the plant is moving to quick-response manufacturing. Don’t limit your focus to things that work well. Look for evidence of excessive investments in huge or extremely complex “monument” systems that, once implemented, are expected to solve the plant’s problems. Talking to people about such investments can reveal a great deal about how a plant is run. Why was the new degreasing machine put in? How was it justified? Why was the money spent here and not in the worn-out machine shop? How did the last few investments in capital equipment turn out? If you had to pick a white elephant in the plant, what would it be? Why was the project so disappointing? A pattern of poor capital investments typically indicates a mismatch between a plant’s structure and its strategic role: the plant needs to do one thing but buys equipment or systems to do another.

Structure refers to more than just “hardware,” however. Visitors also should examine “software”: the manual and computer-based systems and processes that run the plant. Physical information flows—in the form of routing cards and stock tags—are becoming much less common as computer-based systems replace them. It is considerably more difficult to assess computer-automated systems during a tour, however, because they are opaque to the casual observer.

Still, there are ways of collecting some clues about an operation’s information systems. Rather than asking about the particular hardware or software used to run the plant, ask operators how they access the day-to-day information they need to carry out their jobs. What do they think of the computer system? People often are very complimentary about systems that help them do a better job. Is the system designed to exclude them from the decision-making process? Or does it give them information to make better decisions? How would they improve the system if they had the chance? How often is the system changed to meet the needs of the plant better? How often is the system down?

Visitors also should try to determine how well integrated the information systems are. Because they often interact with a physical environment, manufacturing-based computer systems are notoriously complex. Subsystems are added over time, and, as a result, systems often cannot communicate well with one another. Do people have to take information out of one system and reenter it into another? Do people understand why the information is needed and who uses it once it is entered? Find out how easy it has been to adapt systems as requirements have changed. The prefix soft in software can be misleading. Software for manufacturing is so complicated and interdependent that it often is just as difficult to change as the plant’s physical equipment.

Of course, much more detailed analyses of a plant’s hardware and systems can be made. But for the purposes of a plant tour, in which rapid assessments must be made, one’s own eyes and ears—along with the people who actually use the equipment—are the best guides. A few complaints and grumbles should be taken with a grain of salt, but widespread dissatisfaction with a plant’s equipment and systems is an important clue that something is amiss.

Day-to-Day Management.

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Having determined the plant’s direction and whether it has the right equipment, the next question to ask is, How well is it being managed on a day-to-day basis? To assess day-to-day management, visitors must consider a plant on three levels. At the first level, a plant is a set of processes: it comprises the physical methods used to transform material and information from one form into another. At the next level, a plant is a set of systems—computer-based and manual—that facilitate and coordinate those processes. At the third level, a plant is a community of people. A plant can have all manner of processes and systems; yet absent a common sense of purpose, it can flounder competitively.

Consider first how well a plant’s processes are being managed. Excessive scrap and product-and-process variability are signs of poor process management. Product variability is fairly easy to observe, because it usually is carefully tracked and historical data are usually available. Process variability is much more difficult to determine during a short tour because the right measures are not always tracked. When observing overall production quality, try to look beyond the degree of variability to determine whether the plant’s personnel understand its underlying causes. Do operators systematically identify sources of variability? Does one machine frequently fail to produce to specification, and what causes it to do so? Do operators know which variables to monitor? Is the manufacturing process more like a science or an art? Is it the kind of process that varies regardless of the particular operator? Are there standard procedures to follow when the process fails? Keep in mind that acceptable levels of scrap or variability are determined by a plant’s strategic role. For instance, a plant intended to provide a very broad range of products will usually generate a larger amount of scrap than will a low-cost plant.

When a process fails, managers and operators in plants that manage processes well are like good detectives on the trail for clues. They insist on knowing why a failure occurred and are not satisfied if it seems to be “all right” for the moment. More important, they find novel ways of transmitting that zeal for knowledge throughout the operation. To learn about machine uptime, look for evidence of a rigorous review of the causes for downtime. Is the typical response to breakdowns fire-fighting heroics or proactive problem solving?

When considering how well existing systems are being managed, one should look at work-in-process levels, lost items, the frequency of mistakes, and the availability of machines. Ask for or calculate some simple ratios: How many days of work-in-process inventory are there? How many man-hours per unit are required? How often does the customer-request date match the actual delivery date? What is the ratio of the time the product is actually being processed to the total throughput time? People on the shop floor are a good source of anecdotes regarding lost materials or products. It is worth asking for stories of both typical and exceptional mistakes. Ask plant personnel to identify who really runs the shop, decides what to make and when, and deals with such problems as late or missing orders. Typically, people will praise a person who knows how to handle a crisis (a sign that crises are common) or one who finds solutions to problems before they arise (a sign that they are not).

To assess the plant as a community, make a point of gathering as much information as possible by talking to people not on the tour schedule. As you walk around the plant, see if employees are merely caretakers of equipment or if they are more like craftspeople involved in improving the overall process. Caretakers watch the production process and hope that nothing will happen that requires them to act. They feel entitled to their jobs and want to be paid for their time and experience rather than for actual action or progress. In a plant full of caretakers, challenges will likely be met with such excuses as, “We don’t do it that way” or “It’s the other shift’s fault.” Caretakers frequently use the word they when referring to management, another function, or another shift as the source of problems. They do not believe the plant is improving and do not feel that they play a meaningful role in the improvement process. In contrast, craftspeople are actively engaged in both production and the improvement process. They grasp the entire, integrated production process, not just their piece of it. Their thirst for facts, insight, and feedback compels them to challenge established methods and to conduct experiments on how to improve the operation. They know they play an important part in improving performance and are committed to doing so.

Plants usually are composed of a mixture of caretakers and craftspeople. Look for patterns within the plant. Are the caretakers primarily in one area, function, or shift? If so, how does the current mix affect performance? Are managers aware of any problems, and are they addressing them? Is there an aggressive program in place to build a higher number and proportion of involved and committed craftspeople within the plant, particularly in critical areas?

Managers constantly nurture the processes, systems, and community of their plants to ensure that the overall operation runs smoothly. Broader strategic thinking may be increasingly important in a plant manager, but managers who can’t run a plant on a day-to-day basis are in trouble—regardless of strategy. A plant tour offers an opportunity to gather clues at each of these levels about how well the plant is being run.

Improvement Path.

The final element of the conceptual framework consists of determining whether managers have identified and articulated a path of improvement for the plant. If managers and employees are aware of the strategy that the plant has in place to improve its performance and can describe it conceptually, that strategy is much more likely to be successful. Visitors first should find out if there is a clear improvement strategy in place. Although it is difficult to make a full diagnosis on a single plant tour, a few visible signs often attest to the overall strength of the improvement process. (See the chart “The Elements of an Improvement Strategy.”) This chart provides a general framework for analyzing any operation’s improvement strategy. Visitors can examine each of the elements described in the chart by asking the right kinds of probing questions.

Why (and How) to Take a Plant Tour

The Elements of an Improvement Strategy

First, a visitor should find out if management understands the context for improvement. Why is there a need to improve in the first place? Within what kind of competitive environment does the organization operate, and what demands for improvement are being placed on the organization by the environment?

Second, the visitor should try to identify what the goals of the improvement process are. Look for specific goals with specific time frames. For example, “Reduce the defect rate to 1% by August 1997” is a more effective goal than “Improve quality.” On what dimensions of performance does the plant aim to improve? An answer of “everything” is evidence of an unclear improvement strategy. When companies strive to improve everything at once, they rarely see significant improvements on any dimension. For example, a manufacturer with a fierce new competitor that is offering consistently shorter lead times should decide either to meet that competitor head-on or to pursue, for example, a low-cost strategy. Trying to tackle both at the same time would be a mistake because the two goals are likely to conflict.

Third, the visitor should ask whether the improvement effort has a clear focus. The focus may be on particular departments or functions, on cross-plant processes, or on relationships with suppliers and customers. Does the focus fit the objectives of the improvement strategy? For example, a plant struggling to build its ability to respond quickly to customers’ orders might focus on material and information flows across different departments. In contrast, a plant concerned about improving the quality of a product might focus on individual departments in which there are problems.

Fourth, having determined why the plant needs to improve, what dimensions of performance it aims to improve on, and where the focus of the improvement effort is, visitors next need to address how it will improve performance. What methods does the plant use? For example, a plantwide effort to improve responsiveness will benefit from reengineering the order-to-delivery process, whereas a plant with nagging quality problems might benefit from a total-quality-management approach. Is the plant using techniques and tools—such as statistical process control or self-directed work teams—that will deliver the required improvements?

Fifth, the visitor should find out what resources are being pulled together to work on the improvement project. A lack of vital resources can be a sign that management is not committed to the improvement process. Where are the resources coming from? How many people are actively involved in the process?

Sixth, the visitor should look for clearly defined organization and timing. Whether improvement teams follow the existing organizational structure or are staffed cross functionally, the number of team members and the frequency of team meetings should be clearly specified. Look at the staffing of improvement initiatives. Are they staffed with people who have not only the right skills but also the ability, authority, and will to implement solutions? Look also for reinforcing mechanisms that maintain the energy behind the process and keep it on track, such as scheduled status reports and regular process reviews.

Seventh, the visitor should examine the plant’s learning processes. It is important to look for signs that management is improving the improvement process itself through a concerted effort to learn from other operations and to make the most of what has been learned along its own improvement path. See if management is following the improvement process closely in order to apply the lessons it learns in later projects.

Even the best-designed improvement strategy can be hampered by “scheme burnout.” Too often, plant managers latch onto the flavor of the month—some new management theory they pick up in an airport bookstore. A given plant may have been exposed to a long series of managers bringing with them an equally large collection of improvement philosophies. When one new initiative after another is launched, long-serving people in the plant will discount the latest one with a sigh of “Here we go again!” Listen for clues that belie an excessive number of prior campaigns that might take the wind out of the sails of the latest initiative. Managers must be committed not only to change but also to a particular approach to change. By keeping an eye out for scheme burnout during the plant tour and by tracking the seven elements of improvement strategies, visitors will be able to determine whether a plant’s improvement strategy has been well conceived and is being implemented effectively.

People going on plant tours will benefit greatly from setting clear objectives and applying a conceptual framework to structure what they see and hear. But there is one final prescription for making the most of plant tours: take lots of them. As people see more plants, they develop a more practiced eye and build a richer base of comparison for subsequent tours. Even a plant that seems to be of no direct interest can help build that base. The essence of successful manufacturing organizations is their ability to do things of value for their customers that their competitors cannot. A plant tour is a powerful way of developing a deep understanding of what those capabilities are and how they might be exploited.

A version of this article appeared in the May-June 1997 issue of Harvard Business Review.

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