So You Want to Work in Continuous Improvement?

By: Christina Kach

At some point during an internship or in your Industrial Engineering coursework the terms “Lean,” “Six Sigma” or Continuous Improvement are certain to surface. And perhaps as you learn more about these topics, you’ll find yourself wondering if this is just another class or industry jargon, or if it is an actual career, or branch of IE, that could be pursued. From firsthand experience, I can tell you that yes it can be a career path, and an ever-evolving and rewarding one, and a strong skill set to have in your repertoire. Let’s examine what it is like to work in continuous improvement, and what you can do to get started down that path.

The first thing to remember is that Industrial Engineering essentially is all about “process improvement.” Every job you take as an IE will in some way be focused on Process Improvement. Continuous Improvement roles go steps beyond to include Lean and Six Sigma methodologies, along with employee engagement, and looking to not just meet business goals in the present, but set up businesses for success in the future. Just as IE skills are welcomed in manufacturing, health care, service industries, transportation, and small businesses, so are Continuous Improvement (CI) minds. You’ll find in many companies, the Industrial Engineers are hired into CI type roles as the skills are so transferable. And that is more than just the textbook knowledge you gained in school on operations research capacity analysis, and facility layout or simulation. We are inherently good at communicating, like working in team settings, are intrinsically motivated by helping others, like project planning, and enjoy managing schedules and analyzing data. So, the “soft” skills that are needed are found inside many IEs toolboxes already. This is how I know that IEs are good fits in these roles. We come equipped with the talents and attitude needed to be successful.

Speaking from my own career path, I started small in my CI journey. My first exposure to the topics was as an Intern for General Electric Aviation. Here I was able to work smaller scale, hands-on, projects to make improvements to an engine assembly plant, such as tool control and cycle time analysis. Having enjoyed it so much, I continued to read and learn on the Lean/Six Sigma topics throughout my remaining years at school. I remember reading “The Toyota Way” and using it for a book report. Some pieces of my internship at Raytheon were also using Six Sigma skills. My first full time position at Raytheon after graduation was in an Operations Continuous Improvement role working on more complex problems of kanban set up and resource allocation. After some time in supply chain and engineering functions, for the past two and a half years I’ve found myself back in the CI role – it is my passion and what I am drawn to – and getting the chance to work at a more strategic level to drive change. After 5+ years of Industrial Engineering work in Manufacturing, I am currently transitioning to a new job where I will be using my IE tools in a service industry. I am excited for that next new challenge and adventure. That is one of the evolving pieces of CI I spoke about earlier in this article – you can apply what you learn to so many industries. And, as an added bonus, as more areas, like service industries and supply chains, catch wind of the success stories of CI approaches, more of those job functions will open up and will be looking to be filled with people educated and enthusiastic on these topics.

There are a few keys to success to know before getting started down this path.

  • You are smart enough, you have the skills, and you can do it. Confidence is a must.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Just because you are not in a specific CI role doesn’t mean you can’t keep your eye out for improvement opportunities in your current job. ANY job can be a CI job if you look for ways to make improvements to your work.
  • Don’t present problems. Present solutions.
  • Start with learning the basic skills of Continuous Improvement. Find classes or read books (Lean Production Simplified, The Toyota Way) to start to learn the terminology and techniques.
  • Continue your learning and stay on top of trends and industry best practices by reading blogs and books or by attending conferences. This is also a way to start growing your professional network.
  • Seek out knowledge from LinkedIn, the internet, and Twitter on topics. Be the curator of your own knowledge library (for whatever field you choose!)
  • Share good findings on articles and best practices with an audience (LinkedIn or Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets)
  • Build relationships with your teammates.
  • As with most career paths, Continuous Improvement is not an overnight success or accomplishment. It is a journey. A journey of developing your skills and helping the business reach goals now and set up for future successes.

Seeing the impact of our work to a business, the reward of coaching someone through a problem to a solution, using strengthens and developing new skills as are all rewarding pieces of this endeavor. That being said, as in any job, not everything comes up roses. Be prepared for buy-in struggles as a change agent. To remedy this issue, when pitching a new idea or project, put yourself in the audience’s shoes. What concerns and questions will they have? Do you understand the impact to the business? As a support role, your goals will be to help your teammate’s succeed and improve the business. You’ll sometimes feel like you don’t get to “own” anything this way; but the positive is that you get to be a little involved in everything, and learn a little of everything.  One thing to be cognizant of is getting comfortable. Every so often, take a job or assignment outside of your comfort zone. Scary, yes, but these moves are extremely beneficial to your development and career. Focus early on in your career or with a new job on small wins; these will help build trust and a strong reputation for your talents with your new team.

I hope some readers out there are considering Lean/Six Sigma as a career skill to learn. Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have at cfkach@gmail.com, through LinkedIn, or on Twitter @ChristinaKach. For more young professional advice, check out my blog at http://www.catchcareers.com

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