Podcast: A Day In The Life of a Director of Continuous Improvement

By Published On: May 2, 2023

Hosts: Mike Ogle & Chris Gaffney

In This Episode:

We explore the role of a Director of Continuous Improvement with Tim York! Currently, Tim serves as a Director of Continuous Improvement for American Products. Tim answers questions about his current role related to:

  • What are your day-to-day position duties?
  • What do you enjoy most about the position?
  • How can you advance from your position?

Who is Tim York?

Tim York has more than 20 years of manufacturing experience, holding roles ranging from temporary laborer to facility management to corporate leadership. He has always had a passion for improving the processes to maximize the success of the business and the individuals that work hard every day to earn a living. Over the course of his career he has found great opportunity in taking advantage of company trainings, participating in cross-functional teams, leading lean projects, and pursuing higher education. Through these efforts, he has been blessed to be in a position to help not only himself and his family, but also his peers, his company, and more importantly, the individuals that drive the success of their organizations.
[00:01:27] Chris Gaffney: Welcome to another episode in our series on A Day in the Life. This is our series where we spotlight roles throughout the supply chain continuum to help you navigate and develop your own career path, and we’re bringing professionals to the table to speak about their particular role and what they do to be successful in their role day-to-day.

And I am Chris Gaffney and my co-host Mike Ogle and I are thrilled to welcome Tim York to the series. Tim, thank you for joining us and we’re gonna make this simple for the audience. We’re gonna go through a set of questions and those questions will help folks understand what you do day-to-day. So, if you’re ready to go, we’ll dive in and I’ll ask Mike to lead off.

[00:02:24] Tim York: Sounds good, gentlemen.

[00:02:26] Mike Ogle: Thanks Chris and good to have you with us Tim. How long have you been working in this particular area and what led you to pursue this type of role?

[00:02:22] Tim York: So, the continuous improvement function really for me personally, the entirety of my career, in manufacturing, has been involved in some sort of lean methodologies. So, really my first career step was, in a tier one automotive manufacturer. And of course, we all know they’re steeped in lean methodologies in the Toyota Lean system. So, from an early time, the lean principles were taught at really every level of the organization. So even again, starting out at the production floor level, working through the different positions that I was in, there were different tools and principles that we would apply to everything we did. So my experience is essentially hands-on, right? So, through training courses, through various entities, things like that, just continuing education. That’s really where I got to the role I’m in now, just applying all those tools that I learned in free education over the years, if you will.

[00:03:29] Chris Gaffney: So, Tim, if you think about all those kind of skills that you picked up in your tool bag along the way to prepare you for your current role where you’re in more of a continuous improvement leadership role, if you had to give people advice on what the critical kind of both hard, CI (continuous improvement) skills are and what are the soft skills to make an impact in that space? What are the few that you would really spotlight for those who kind of aspire to something similar?

[00:03:56] Tim York: From a soft skill standpoint, I’d say obviously understanding kind of a thinking outside of the box, type, mindset, right? So, we understand, we look at processes, the ability to ask the questions, why we do things that we do. So being able to look at a process to kind of analyze it in your own mind and find ways to make that better. I would consider those soft skills. From a hard skill standpoint, again, like I said before, it’s free education out there that these companies offer, right? Those of us that are on the production floor to those that are in a senior leadership role, and it’s taking advantage of those experiences. Some companies, they really want a candidate or an associate that has the certifications, right? We’ve gone through our college careers and maybe that’s what our degree path was in, as in continuous improvement or those types of regimens. And some companies, like where I’m at now, they really wanted somebody who was hands on, somebody who started from the ground, and got their hands dirty doing the work from the production floor on up.

So, the best piece of advice I can tell you is when you step into a role in continuous improvement, learn to dislike the phrase, we’ve always done it that way, right? Because that’s what gets us every time, right? That’s what keeps us from being able to sustain any significant level of improvement. You have the challenge of working with tenured employees, that have done things a certain way over a long period of time, and you’ve gotta be able to drive the culture to the who moved my cheese mentality, if you will, get out there with your current organizations and ask the questions.

You know, do we do six Sigma projects? We’re into yellow belt and green belt projects that exist out there. And many organizations, and I would definitely give the advice to somebody who’s wanting to continue to grow in the profession and get in involved in these projects, whether it’s leading the project or if it’s being part of a cross-functional team, that you learn tools that really in any manufacturing environment is absolutely applicable for continuous improvement. And it just obviously builds your resume, having those experiences.

[00:05:59] Mike Ogle: Tim, at a high level in looking at some of the objectives of your role and then, trying to provide people with a little bit of a high-level overview as well of the typical day-to-day tasks. Can you help somebody understand those objectives and tasks?

[00:06:14] Tim York: Sure. So really overall, in my role, the objective essentially, it’s simple, right? It’s make the processes safer, make ’em better, and make ’em faster, right? So that, I mean, that’s really what we’re trying to function with. It’s creating production flows that essentially eliminate the eight forms of waste and gives us the opportunity to function the high level of efficiency in a safe, quality minded fashion.

One of the neat things, the day-to-day tasks are really fluid, right? So, the ability to multitask is a huge key to what I do every day when I go into work. The continuous improvement role, essentially, it touches many functions within the organization, right? So it’s not just safety, it’s not just quality. There’s the production flows we talk about, there’s standardization things that we talk about, it’s utilizing primitive knowledge, to make the processes better. So, you’re really touching a lot of things in the business.

A day could be going in and putting your hands-on moving furniture around the plant, right? Are we maximizing where our equipment is sitting to be able to provide us with, with good throughput. It could be time studies, right? I could spend the day out on the line just with a stopwatch and collecting data. Me personally, I find a lot of value in working shoulder to shoulder with our production associates. I feel like they’re our greatest asset to the subject matter experts. So a day could be spent running a machine, or palletizing parts or whatever those tedious tasks can be to obviously earn the respect of my associates. But learn the job and be able to make educated decisions on how to make the process better, right?

And then there’s analyzing data and other types of administrative tasks that go along with it. You know, a lot of spreadsheet crunching, right? A lot of digging down and pivot tables and things like that. So, it just kinda all depends on what we’re trying to facilitate at the time, what the senior leaderships, where do they have their heartburn, and those are the tasks that we go through and we tackle on a day-to-day basis.

[00:08:09] Mike Ogle: When you get reviewed on a regular basis, what are the big picture kinds of things that those that you report to, really have in mind, to talk with you about?

[00:08:18] Tim York: Sure. No, that’s a great question. It comes down to the bottom line, essentially, right? We’re trying to make our processes better so we’re more profitable in the end. that’s what we’re doing, the, and the steps that we go through to get there. That’s what the people that I report to, that’s what they’re looking for, right?

I tell people in the past and I tell my subordinates, we’re an indirect role within the business. So, at minimum, one of our objectives needs to be, to provide the company with cost savings or cost avoidance that essentially mitigate what our salaries are, right? So, when I sit down with my senior leadership, that’s what I’m bringing to the table. You know, these are the projects that we’re working on. Here’s what our ROIs that we’re focusing on. And here’s the projects as we move forward, right? And what the benefits of those are to the business, right? Because that’s, again, being indirect, our sole purpose in life is safer, better, faster, and what are we doing to get there?

So those, that’s what I bring to the table with my senior leadership. One of the things I facilitate, at my current organization is I do a weekly download, with the CEO and the president of the company just to show ’em, here’s the hit list, if you will, that we’re working on. Here’s the status of where we’re at. If we have any roadblocks that we need some support to get through. Whether it be financial, whether it just be directive, the efforts are, bring these things at the table and show that we’re providing what to, it’s a checks and balances, right? We wanna make sure that we’re providing value in our roles for the organization, but also meeting those key metrics that our senior leadership is expecting to see we have on the bottom line.

[00:09:49] Chris Gaffney: Tim, you mentioned a lot of interaction with the direct folks in the process that you work with and support, but given that we’re talking about an end to end supply chain, there are upstream and downstream players involved both inside of the organization and outside. So, as you think about your work, the projects, that type of thing, who are the other stakeholders upstream and downstream of the direct process you interact with that come into play as you’re trying to make some of those improvements?

[00:10:22] Tim York: Yeah, sure. The key stakeholders, in my opinion, they really exist at every level of the organization, right? So, we talk about our board of directors, right? They’re talking bottom line, we wanna see profit margins, we wanna see revenue increase year over year, right? You’ve got the operations leadership team, they’re under a lot of pressure, especially in today’s environment where supply chain, can be compromised to a pretty significant level.

We see the available workforce, if you will, has declined to some extent, right? So how do we overcome the challenges of being able to get folks in the door and get ’em out on the production floor to work, right? So, we find ourselves walking down the path of automation and things of that nature.

And then again, to your point, when we talk about the direct associates, again, I’m a firm believer that, if you want to improve your process, it starts at the production floor, right? These are our subject matter experts. These are the folks that, they live in that process. This is their home, right? And so, our engineers out there in the workforce, they’re very intelligent. Our management’s very intelligent. But we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t understand that our workforce is really who drives the improvement. And so, they’re a huge key stakeholder for me. And so that’s why I make the point, I like to get out there and work with our associates on the floor because they’re the ones that are doing the job. They’re the ones that are gonna drive that revenue and that bottom line and keep us in the black. And so, I think it’s critical to make sure that we spend a lot of time focusing on what their needs are. And we talk about process improvements and things like that, but it could be something as simple as tools they need to do the job, right? Things that we overlook or, we don’t understand the value in it. And something small as a tool can be instrumental in them increasing what their efficiencies are every day.

So I think in summary, I feel like they’re stakeholders at every level of the organization. In my role, it’s imperative that I understand what those individuals need to satisfy, their direction or their key indicators.

[00:12:26] Chris Gaffney: I will ask a follow up. If I think of my own experience in continuous improvement, at some points, we had issues with our ability to either have machinery worked the way it was supposed to, or raw material didn’t perform. So, we worked upstream, whether it’s upstream with an equipment vendor or raw material vendor. When we had to address something that was limiting our ability to deliver our output. Talk to me about that type of interaction as well.

[00:12:53] Tim York: Yeah, so it’s a good question. When we work upstream, we look at the different, essentially, what are the bottlenecks? What are the elements that are keeping us from producing what we need to producing? So, when we talk about, suppliers and vendors, I did about a five-year stint as a senior purchasing agent in automotive industry. And what I’ve figured out at those times is that there are these companies out there that we rely on for our raw materials or equipment service needs. They have a really fantastic engineering group, right? And so, this is their bread and butter. And so, relying on those groups to bring in third parties and when we have issues that we need to address, say it’s from a machinery standpoint, who’s the representative of these particular pieces of equipment and utilizing the resources that exist there, upstream, to increase whatever that productivity or, whatever the issue is, the roadblock that we run into.

And so, from my position, it’s working very closely with the sourcing groups and material groups to understand what that roadblock is and what our options are. So, if it’s utilizing our third-party resources, or maybe it’s looking to diversify our supplier base, so we’re functioning maybe more domestically or more North American, if you will. Right. Versus going across the pond to get our product.

[BREAK at 14:07] [00:14:58] Mike Ogle: Tim, a question we always like to ask, especially in a day in the life, what do you enjoy the most out of your job?

[00:15:06] Tim York: That’s a great question, cuz we could probably be in here a long time talking about that, you know. But, I think the most enjoyable part of what I do every day is the interaction that I have with the entire organization.

Just a kind of a synopsis of my history. I’m an operations guy at heart. I mean, that’s really from the production floor through facility management. Those are the types of functions I’ve done. So, the human resource element, the KPI element, right? The profit loss elements, right? And then so you’ve dealt with those every day and the stress and pressure that comes with those.

And, there’s still pressure and stress that come from a continuous improvement director. But like I said earlier, I touch multiple facets of the business. And so that interaction with every level of the organization and the team members, that’s probably the most satisfying part. If it’s sitting out on the line and I’m working with one of our associates and they say, if I had a hole punch right here, man, I could just, I could knock so much more of this out. And you go, you get ’em that tool and, they’re excited about it, right? I mean, they can’t wait to get that next product, come down the line and use this new tool. You know, that’s extremely satisfying.

You sit in this role, the job’s all about successes, right? It’s all about win. It’s all about trying things, you know, having a hypothesis of how we can make it better and collecting the data and having a win, right? Well, if it’s a small win or it’s a big win, it’s just, it’s fun, right? It’s exciting. No, I don’t feel like the majority of people wake up in the morning and turn their alarm clock off and say, I’m gonna go fail today. You know? I think people get up by nature, we’re competitors and we wanna win. And I get to be in a role, that gets to help facilitate our team having those little or big successes, really every day. Right.

[00:16:47] Chris Gaffney: I’ll ask the flip side, Tim, what are the most challenging aspects of your day-to-day and obviously watch outs or, things for people thinking about this to know what they’re getting into.

[00:16:59] Tim York: Sure. Yeah, I feel like that’s a strength. What’s your strength, what’s your weaknesses kind of question and interview. Right. But, honestly, truthfully, one of the biggest challenges is the workforce that we do have in place right now. Right. We talked about it’s hard to build our workforce just because the folks aren’t available.

The end result is you have the tenured workforce, right? And they’ve been doing things a certain way for a very long time and it’s worked, right? So, the old cliche is, why fix it if it’s not broke? And I think the biggest challenge is when you walk in, you have those folks that are anchors and you know, there’s reliables, they come and we’ve got to have them to run a business. But when you try to change the culture, there’s always apprehension, right? There’s always pushback. And that’s probably the biggest challenge I feel like we face from a continuous improvement standpoint is how do I tell the 20-year employee that we can do this better when he or she doesn’t see anything wrong with what we’re doing, right? So, that’s probably the biggest challenge is really driving a culture to say we’ve always done it that way, not being an okay statement. Right.

[00:18:03] Mike Ogle: And Tim, one of the primary reasons we get into this day in the life is to be able to help people understand career paths as well as the individual jobs. And we always like to get an idea of rather than you personally, but you think about somebody in this type of position that you’re in, where do you go from here? And then the other piece of advice, if you’ve got that as well, is how do people get to where you are?

[00:18:28] Tim York: Yeah. So, I think, for a common career path, I think there’s a multitude of ways to go, right? Because, like I said before, you’ve got organizations out there that want somebody who’s gone through the education process and gotten the degrees that way. And you’ve got folks that are like me, that have gone kind of, well, I’ll say the blue collar route and, and really taken advantage of the opportunities that were set in front of ’em.

So, to me a common path for continuous improvement, is going through a certification type function. There’s plenty of entities out there. Technical colleges and programs that are specifically designed that teach lean methodologies, right? I feel personally there’s more value in the hands-on, taking advantage of the education that organizations will provide to you. And having that foundation of understanding kind of how the cogs work, right? You’ve been out there and you’ve turned the wrenches and so you really understand that. So, for folks out there that are looking to go down the path of continuous improvement, No, I think really if you can kind of find a delta between both those paths is never a bad thing. Because having that hands-on experience, I believe is key, right? I feel you go out there and you have that 20-year tenured employee and you say, I’ve got this piece of paper and I’m gonna show you how things are gonna be better, you’re gonna get bucked off the horse real quick, right?

So, for me personally, from a growth standpoint, I’m a believer in take a step and stabilize. You know, I’d love to tell you that at some point, well, I won’t lie to you. I’d love to be the CEO of the company. I mean, that’s absolutely a goal of mine. Do I tell you that in the sense that I have a timeline on it? I don’t. because again, I’ve taken this role as director of continuous improvement for the organization. So ,I have multiple plants that I’m functioning with, and I wanna stabilize that, right? So to the next step can be what it’s gonna be. Right now, the first step is to make my organization stronger, by utilizing those tools, that I gained by walking down the path that I did.

When I look at my peers across other industries and you know, a good friend of mine, he just took a position as a director of continuous improvement over several plants in the Midwest and, his path was the same as mine, right? He and I worked on the floor at the automotive plant, you know, making parts. And he took a path of a continuous improvement leaders is what they call it, of that organization, which his main focus was, you know, the basic lean tools, the five whys, the fish bones, the time studies analyzing data, where we would gain the most from a productivity standpoint.

So, I honestly feel like the path that my peer and I have gone is really one of the most valuable. Right, because you’re still taking advantage of the education the organization’s providing for you. It’s probably not a secret that most companies within the United States are looking at these lean methodologies and applying continuous improvement in every element they can at every level of the organization. And so they’re obviously, you know, companies are going to be inclined to want to train, their associates to apply these tools. And so I think walking the path, we took advantage of the opportunities that the organization offered to us. Asked a lot of questions and, got our hands dirty and a lot of the things that were going on. Right.

[00:21:35] Chris Gaffney: You said it yourself, you aspire to run a business one day. So, in your experience, where do you think success in the current role could lead you? Or where have you seen it lead others in terms of where they go? Where they go from here?

[00:21:52] Tim York: From a continuous improvement standpoint, the nice thing about that is it’s a toolbox that applies to so many different areas of the business that getting to senior leadership roles is a very clear path, right? Because we have that knowledge, we have the applicable experience of applying these tools at the production level, even into administrative level. So, I believe the path, again, my peers are essentially kind of sitting around the same level I am right now. Which I’m actually pretty happy to be at this level, to be honest with you.

But, let’s say we go back to a plant function, right? And we have an individual there is a continuous improvement leader. A continuous improvement technician. These are the individuals I’ve seen, will apply those tools and they’ll make the improvements that they make. And these are our next keystone supervisors, right? And these are our next value stream managers, right? Because they’re applying these tools and they’re improving on their certain areas of responsibility, right? Whether it be a production crew or if it’s an entire department, and then progressing, obviously up to plant management.

I think it’s a clear path to let’s say a vice president of operations or a president of operations. I think when you get into senior operations leadership very easily by having the experience in the lean methodologies cuz they’re so applicable to really every aspect of the business.

[00:23:11] Chris Gaffney: I would absolutely agree with you and I think that’s a key message for our audience. Many folks aspire to those roles and in many cases the clearest path is to be in that hands-on interaction, improving the process at one scale, moving up, improving a department, moving up, improving an entire operation. So, I think that’s great insight.

So, the last question I would ask, I would normally ask, what advice do you give others who are interested in this? But I’m gonna ask it in a different way. What advice would you give your younger self at the front end of this journey that might have helped you along the way?

[00:23:51] Tim York: That’s a loaded question, Chris. You know, if you think about it, what would we tell ourselves when we were 18 years old? Right. We’d probably have a lot to say. But if I was to go back and tell young Tim York, what he needs to do, it would be the same advice that I’ve said here. Take advantage of what the company offers. Right. I think young Tim York was probably, well, I know he was very stubborn. Right. And he knew everything, that nobody could tell him any different. And it took a little bit of some hard knocks, a couple knots on the head to realize, that there’s opportunity out there if you want it.

Maybe I didn’t feel like the company was for me or the company was against me, or maybe they didn’t have my best interest in mind. And the truth of it is, the company is functioning just like if we were trying to run our own business, right? That’s what these individuals and senior leaders leadership are doing. They have KPIs that they have to report to, and so they’re running a business. And so, it’s not a function of the company is against you, the company offers these opportunities. And so, 18 year old Tim York, I tell ’em, take advantage of it. Right? Don’t be stubborn right off the get-go. And understand when they sit out there and they say, we’re gonna do a project, on your machine and we want you to be a part of it, I say jump in front of that, get in the middle of that team and be part of it and learn everything. Be a sponge and soak up everything they’re gonna teach you because it’s free education.

Most companies offer tuition reimbursement. Okay? Take advantage of that. The company’s not against you. The company’s here to help you. You are their most valuable asset, and the company wants to see you grow as much as you want to grow, within the organization, obviously, right?

I’ve always believed you have anchors and you have climbers. Okay. And to me, our folks that are anchors, the John or Jane Doe that comes in at 5:30 in the morning with their lunch bucket and they go to work. And when three o’clock rolls around, they clock out and they go home, that’s what they wanna do. I wanna take care of my family. And that’s absolutely key to running a business. Right.

But we also have to have climbers. And I was lucky, younger in my career that I had managers that recognized that I was hungry to learn more and progress. And they took the opportunity to wrap their hands around me and listen to me when I asked questions, even if they were silly questions, I still asked the questions. I wanted to know, you know, teach me more, and putting forth the effort and the initiative.

Cause we need those, those are our next leaders, right? Those are, we go through succession planning. We need those folks. And it’s our opportunity as leaders to really teach ’em, right? Teach ’em the things that we learned the hard way. Let them make some mistakes, cultivate that next generation, to lead the business and the teams to continue to be successful in their businesses.

[00:26:35] Chris Gaffney: Well, Tim, this has been wonderful and exactly what we would hope. And I think a lot of businesses and we would encourage continuous improvement as potentially a linchpin experience for many career paths. So, you have done a great job kind of getting light on what a day in the life looks like for someone in a CI leadership role. So, we thank you so much for being with us.

[00:26:59] Tim York: Yeah, guys, thank you so much for taking time and I’m excited to help the next person or next generation that wants to move into these kinds of opportunities. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a very satisfying role to be in.