Technology + Common Sense: Manufacturing’s Dynamic Duo

From the archives, by Stanley Gucwa

Technology – I love it. Cell phones, fax machines, surround sound, all that stuff for home and office is great. If we could only use it more here in the world of manufacturing.

Aha! I’ll bet you were just thinking to yourself, “but we can incorporate technology into manufacturing, you nitwit. You just need to be more innovative.” And you would be absolutely correct. The problem is that current technology can’t (or at least at a reasonable cost) replace the human beings putting the stuff together. Yep. Stuff. All manufacturing is about putting “stuff” together. I’ve been in manufacturing for over 25 years and every place manufactured something radically different from slot machines to military missile launch controls. It’s all just “stuff”. The common denominator is that it took people to put that stuff together.

Sure, technology was there; better tools, faster punch presses, ergonomic chairs, but the people were the same Homo sapiens in each factory.

Want to have some fun? Consider that Homo sapiens the most technologically advanced asset you’ve got. Now work with that asset to figure out how to put your “stuff” together right the first time, every time for the least cost.

I’ve tried them all. Holler, praise, threats, rewards, punishments, you name it. Nothing works forever. But the closest I’ve come was to communicate. And I mean communicate just about everything you can legally about the business. When I started at a former company it was amazing how little communication took place throughout the place. From management to the factory floor nobody wanted to talk to one another. First day on the job I asked one of the industrial engineers to explain the product flow on one particular assembly line. “Well, first the cabinet is assembled at each of these work stations. The final product is then tested. It then goes over to the inspector where a sheet is written up with the defects found. It is then pushed down to Fred over here who fixes the defects. It is then re-inspected and, . . .”. Hold it! Here comes my silly question.

“You mean that we build stuff (there’s that word again) so that we could fix it before we ship it?” “Of course. You don’t want us to send out bad product, do you?” I can’t resist the next silly question and major radical idea. “How about building it right the first time?” By this time the I.E. is looking at me like I’m some big bag of “duh”. “People do make mistakes.” “I know that” I said, “but did anybody tell them?”

Now the look is kind of inquisitive but still not sure. “Take Fred over there and find something else for him to do. Have the person that made the defect come over and fix it” Back comes the look like I’ve got rocks in my head. “But that will stop the line!” Yep, once. But I’ll bet he never makes the same mistake again since everybody stopped working to watch him go over to the end of the line to fix a problem he caused.

We went back to some of the past inspection records and found that every single product off that line had the exact same defect – a loose ground strap. And on every one of those products the repair guy, Fred, fixed it. Nobody bothered to tell Joe that he was leaving the ground straps loose. Once he was told, the single largest defect in the plant disappeared.

Common sense.

Picture a boat floating in an enclosed bay. Hidden by the water, rocks of various sizes and heights rise from the floor of the bay. The boat represents the manufacturing operations side of the business, the rocks represent the build-up of problems in areas such as quality, materials, engineering, and process. The water represents inventory, labor, and automation technology.

To increase manufacturing profitability, production managers work to reduce inventory levels and/or labor costs (often through automation). As inventory and labor are reduced, the water level lowers. What eventually happens? Right on! The biggest problem area becomes exposed.

As production manager, what are your options? (1) Chip away at the problem or (2) raise the water level…which hides, but doesn’t solve, the problem.

What’s the easier option? You got it. Throw money at the problem by increasing inventory or adding extra inspection or re-work staff, not to mention overtime…or automating (what is probably a flawed process). Raise the water level, and your spending.

What’s the smarter option? Leave the problem exposed. Chip away at it until the process flows smoothly. Harder, yes. But the road to lean production. Cautiously lower the water level (reduce inventory, reduce labor, automate) until another problem occurs. Chip away at that new problem, using technology AND common sense tools, then continue reducing inputs as a proportion of outputs. Occasionally, you’ll strike a blow that’ll shatter the rock and you can really drain your production costs. Next thing you know, you’ll be the low cost (high profit) producer.

Common sense. Knowledge Branches:

  • Management. Function: Operations
  • Management. Sector: Manufacturing
  • Management. Soft Skills: Communication