How to create a culture of continuous improvement

One minute briefing: Bosch UK president Steffen Hoffmann on how the Japanese concepts of Poka-Yoke and the Five Whys can apply far beyond manufacturing.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 16 Jul 2020

As president of Bosch UK Steffen Hoffmann would not normally be involved in the level of detail he’s found himself working in over the last couple of months.

In the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic it was the procurement of PPE equipment and the HR conundrum presented by the government’s furlough scheme. As the crisis wore on this morphed into future gazing to ensure that customer projects remained on track despite the destabilising impact of the global crisis. 

Reinventing his job role is something that Hoffmann has had to grow comfortable with. In his 26 years with the German-founded automotive, white goods and Internet of Things giant he’s worked in Germany, Japan, the UK and South Africa, in roles ranging from plant manager to finance.

His management style was particularly influenced by three stints in Japan, which taught him a valuable lesson about how organisations can reinvent themselves and create cultures of continuous improvement. 

“Any company that works largely with the automotive industry [60 per cent of Bosch’s global business is automotive] will to a large extent apply Japanese principles. 

“For example, in a plant things will go wrong all the time. The first thing you need to do is really understand the deep-rooted causes behind the problem. It’s called The Five Whys method. 

[This involves asking the question ‘why’ multiple times, in order to go deeper than the first answer and uncover multiple causes that may not initially have been apparent.]

“Then absolutely refrain from blaming anyone personally for the problem. If you want to create a culture that strives for continuous improvement you have to create a culture where failure is welcome. Try to understand the problem, then fix it in a way that makes sure that the process is stable and the mistake cannot happen again. 

“It’s about management style. That step-by-step mindset and level of quality control quickly becomes a fixture of the process. The Japanese call this Poka-Yoke (fool-proofing) in manufacturing. It’s originally from Toyota. If you have a method in place that makes sure that mistakes cannot happen again, your quality control gets better and better. 

“You can apply that to many other fields. Take HR for example. You can look at the way your recruitment process works and try to understand it by a key performance indicator. Say you want to reduce your lead time. Make small changes, reduce it step-by-step. Then you can see whether each step works and what the potential negative effects are. If it’s wrong you can step back and try a different approach.”

Image credit: Bosch UK 


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