Driving Autonomous Improvement

Over the last couple of weeks Anna and I have been having some fun conducting coaching sessions at Alca Fasteners in Darlaston. It’s a great company with a strong tradition of manufacture, a united workforce, and a strong positive culture. With a new, highly experienced management team they are shaping themselves for success, you can almost taste it. Together we are rolling out our Accelerated Improvement Model, and the feedback has been quite humbling. We are enjoying it, but can we drive autonomous improvement….


After initial sessions talking about culture, and the role of leadership in improvement initiatives, we started to talk about foundations of improvement, and flow. This led to our use of the “Paper Airplane” Game, that I am sure a lot of people will be familiar with. The idea is to demonstrate the significant benefits of moving from batch manufacture to single piece flow.

The game starts with a requirement for each operator to produce batches of five aircraft each. They have to make five, before they can deliver any – This usually results in zero deliveries and masses of Work In Progress (WIP). As we progress to flow lines the deliveries pick up, and the WIP goes down and eventually we end up with just one aircraft in progress at each work station, and a lot of delivered product that is all right first time. In all three sessions, we got our expected outcomes, we had a strong consensus that single piece flow was a better method. Bingo!

I don’t want to focus on the game, and the expected results. What I do want to talk about is our observations about the teams’ ability to solve problems, organise themselves and produce a system that is better. In most cases the system got too complicated at a point, and with a little coaching, the team reflected on this and made the next iteration of the process simpler and better.


autonomous improvement, alca fasteners

What we saw at Alca was that people want to make a difference, but ofttimes aren’t trusted enough to actually do it – so autonomous improvement it possible.

We watched fascinated, as some good operators, committed to the business, were getting an opportunity to improve something. Relishing getting an input into the design of a process that they knew little about just an hour ago, started to improve and reiterate it. They learnt the process, helped one another, thought about what would make delivery better, and implemented changes without thinking too much about it.

Imagine what the workforce could do to a process that they know intimately. The stuff they do every day!

I stopped thinking about the Game as a demonstration of flow, and started thinking about it as a catalyst for creative process redesign – the essence of autonomous improvement by the workforce. We talked at length with the teams about how they could make changes that would make a real difference to the way the company meets its objectives. How like the game, it would take more than one iteration of process redesign to get to the optimum performance?

Obviously, we caveated that improvement would need to be done in a way that is sympathetic to the customer, and regulatory needs, but we could always make a difference.


When we left, the teams were enthusiastic about change. We drove back to the office thinking about the cultural aspect of the session. Anna shared her thoughts on the autonomous improvement we witnessed in the game. She was right! With minimal coaching from us, the teams had not waited to be managed and told what to do. They had lead themselves to a better process.

In one session they were joined by one of the Directors, and they still maintained a level of autonomy. Isn’t that interesting?

autonomous improvement


As leaders, we often make negative assumptions about our workforces.  They won’t be interested in change, they won’t understand it, or they will cause problems. Perhaps, we force change on them, and they feel that they must accept the change because rank trumps experience (Or in some cases, common sense!)

Maybe that’s why our workforce’s aren’t enthusiastic about change, even when the change is for the good. Maybe this is why autonomous improvement can never happen in such environments.

I am generalising, but it has made us think that if we give the guidance on improvement, and get out of the way, these process experts (operators!) will deliver redesigned processes that far exceed our expectations. Solving more problems than we recognise, and at the end of it they will have had fun. Moreover, they will have a more intimate relationship with the organisation, and its objectives. Maybe, a lot more intimate than the relationship we constantly try to inflict on them.


In conclusion, we think that a more externalised leadership role may be better for process improvement, and indeed autonomous improvement. It will allow your teams to see that you trust them. It will drive more accountability into the teams by giving them ownership of the processes, and the subsequent improvement.

We aren’t saying that leadership should play no part. We are saying, act as a guide. Don’t step in too early when the team hits a road block. Give them a chance to overcome it themselves.

Trust will drive a better sense of value in what the workforce do, and that will drive more autonomy when the process starts running in its new iteration. This will give the added benefit of freeing up leadership / managerial time in day-to-day operation. Our leaders will have time to do all the things they always say they haven’t got time for. How great is that?

If you would like to know more about our workshops, or our Accelerated Improvement Model, get in touch. We’d love to hear from you…

Please contact

Doug Allen, Executive Director doug@supplierdevelopment.com

Anna Lavender-Moore, Director anna@supplierdevelopment.com