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Keeping an Eye on Continuous Improvement at Costco Optical Tour

Costco-Winners-5.jpgWinning teams from the Process Palooza Great LSS Race were recently treated to a very special tour of Costco Optical manufacturing facility to see firsthand what continuous improvement looks like in action.

Costco Optical, one of its two major plants, produces a wide array of lenses for its club members, and as it turns out is located right here in National City. With over 320 store locations directly relying on this facility, there are a lot of eyes on production capacity and efficiency.

Winners excitedly toured a pristine, well-lit manufacturing space, gaining an inside perspective on how Costco leaned its operation for success. From the stockroom, where employees tag and prep blanks of lens, through surfacing, coating, cleaning, and finishing, to final inspections, wrapping, and shipping, guests saw it all. At each stage, guests saw small, simple changes that were introduced to improve workflow, reduce uncertainty, streamline physical movement, cut down workload or production time, and ultimately, improve work quality.

Carlos Rojas, Director, Clinical Trials Project Management Office, recounted, “There was no ‘analysis paralysis’ nor the need for a perfect model out of the gate. Start small, get feedback, allow for mistakes, then deploy the product while the time is right. That translates directly from the factory floor to the office park.”

With a Kaizen focus on their Return-on-Investment (ROI), these employees ushered over 4,000 brilliant, innovative ideas. Over time, these small ideas have produced powerful, positive impacts to both the production line and the employee’s pride and commitment to their work.

“I was particularly struck by how pervasive (the Lean approach) had become in the organization. It has been adopted wholeheartedly and simply part of how things are done, which you could easily see in the employees themselves, who owned their work and their process,” Jeno Bonetti, IT Services Programmer Analyst, said.

Prior to the adoption of a lean mindset, the facility was reactive, suffering from expensive inefficiencies and lacking internal drive and engagement from team members. The plant, however, found its way through thanks to a Lean approach to its manufacturing workflow.

Interestingly enough, continuous improvement was not a strategy delivered from the top down, but rather organically grown by the employees, who most clearly saw the opportunities for continuous improvement. It was for this reason that invitees learned the tour was led not by managers, but by the supervisors and employees, who remain closest to the process itself. After all, who knows how to do a job better than the person whose responsibility is that job?

“One of the most impactful things I saw was that Costco took the time to recognize their employees as individuals by having their respective country flags posted on the wall. To me, that showed respect for the individuality of their team members as well as an effort to further engage their employees in becoming part of a winning team,” added Lorena Almeida-Smith, Associate Director, HRPP.

The Costco management team was very clear about their intention behind all of this. Continuous improvement is a shared goal, and while efficiency improves production and increases profits, continuous improvement is not a reward solely reserved for the organization. No, continuous improvement is for the employee, as well. When owned and led by the employees, it is about employees owning their work and making their lives easier through their ideas. Work smarter, not harder. The fact that it comes directly from the employees themselves is quite possibly Costco Optical’s greatest source of strength.

“I was particularly struck by the evident enthusiasm for Kaizen and process improvement with every team member we met. Clearly, the Kaizen recognition boards they had placed throughout the site continued to reinforce this mindset. It’s something I would like to implement here at UC San Diego,” stated Todd Owen, Interim Program Manager, Lean Six Sigma and Supply Management at UC San Diego Extension.

“I sincerely appreciate the time the Costco team members took to show us that employee engagement is key in making their organization successful. They showed me that even the smallest idea could have a huge impact over time,” added Almeida-Smith.

After all this, Costco Optical’s San Diego facility produces far more glasses in a fraction of the time with a breakage rate during production that has gone down by more than half. And that still doesn’t hold a candle to the empowering culture employees created for themselves. It’s not hard to see what you can do when you hone your focus, assess your processes, make a small change for the better, and let time do the real work for you.