January 30, 2014
To find time to dedicate to continuous improvement activities, a metal fabricator should have a good idea what employees do every day before assigning additional tasks.
In prior columns I have alluded to a major impediment to consistent improvement: lack of resources and time. I have also asserted that improvement in every aspect of the business is not just desirable, but is an absolute necessity in a competitive environment.
Fabricators and other producers of custom parts, especially those with less than $10 million in annual sales, are faced with a conundrum: How do I improve when everybody I have is completely tied up with operating the day-to-day business? Managers of fabrication businesses are very sharp people. They understand the need for improvement, but are often at a loss about how to find the available human resources to accomplish and sustain this critical task.
Given the fact that most companies must improve their cost structure (or add to their contribution margin) by 3 to 5 percent every year just to stay the same financially, it’s not hard to see why owning and managing a small to midsized fabrication company is so challenging. Few things are as stressful as the potential loss of a significant customer. But I submit that knowing that you are inexorably falling behind competitively (and therefore financially) is equally stressful. These owners and managers know that they are probably losing the competitive battle, even if current and past results are generally satisfactory.
For many companies, the go-to solution has been better, faster, and less labor-intensive machinery and equipment. The floor traffic at FABTECH® attests to that. The latest show was, as usual, impressive.
It’s natural to think that new machines lead to a better, less costly operation. But I view this as a partial solution at best, and it comes with its own risks. Its success relies on a number of variables, not the least of which is volume and part mix, the least controllable variables in custom fabrication.
For this reason, I always advise that companies avoid adding to their fixed cost base (that is, buying new stuff) until they have wrung all available performance and capacity out of what they have (through, for example, lean initiatives) or until existing equipment can’t satisfy customer requirements.
So if better machinery is only a partial solution to the improvement challenge, what is the other major part? Is there an improvement solution that is independent of part mix and volume? Moreover, can you find the time necessary for continuous, sustainable improvement? The answer to both is an unconditional yes—and it lies within your people and what they actually do every day.
Like machines, people have a finite, realizable capacity (I addressed this in October’s “Adding rocks to the knapsack” column, p. 70). But unlike machines, people usually are operating at or near their effective capacity. Nobody hires people to sit around waiting for some assignment. People generally are busy all day, hence the time problem in the improvement challenge. But the real question is not whether people are busy, but what exactly they are doing.
Just as I always assess critical machine availability and uptime, I also assess what people actually do in a typical day. What tasks do they perform, and just how important are those tasks? Can they eliminate extraneous tasks? For the things that are truly important and indispensable, they may be able to save time with better organization. This in turn creates time for improvement. I call this part the “days in the lives.” It’s critical and it works.
Just as traditional financial statements rarely give a complete picture (beyond the top and bottom line) of what is really happening inside a company, the typical control documents that describe what people do in the company, like organization charts and job descriptions, don’t really describe what people actually do. Generally speaking, the descriptions are most accurate at the operator level and least accurate at the senior management level. Nothing surprising about that.
But beyond the operator level, nowhere does any control usually exist for determining what tasks are more important than the other tasks, nor what time should be allotted to these tasks. Further, there is rarely any control that measures or even acknowledges inevitable “task creep,” where more and more rocks (tasks) are added to the knapsack.
Often we find that people are not only spending time on tasks that somehow got added to their core job function, but they are often spending time on tasks of dubious value to the company’s performance. (For some culprits, see Typical Time Traps sidebar.) Further, the company usually has no way to audit and correct these issues. It’s no wonder everybody is operating at maximum capacity, with zero time for improvement.
I have found that this scenario is most acute in the functions critical for improvement: supervisors, group leaders, and technical staff, including maintenance. Without their support, even the most well-designed improvement project will stall.
The least reliable way to find out what people do and the time it takes is by asking them. The best way is to spend a day or two simply shadowing them and doing some rough recording. You will be amazed, but every time you do this, you will see obvious things that will allow you to create time available for improvement.
Only observe and take notes. Do not suggest any changes. Observe the days in the lives with all of the foibles, imperfections, successes, and failures. After you see what folks are really doing, you can map what they actually do to what their core duties are. You may have to do this a number of times to get a suitably realistic picture. And for up to a week, you can have the observed person record his own tasks and times, without independent observation.
Record the times to do the actual tasks, and assess whether the time is proportional to the importance. Then eliminate or significantly reduce the time spent on the least important tasks. Reduce the time it takes for all necessary tasks where possible. And finally, design controls to regulate task creep.
Is this method perfect? Of course not. Observation usually affects what is observed, and when the worker is recording on his own, the act of measuring and recording takes time. But we’re not looking for perfect accuracy here. We’re looking for obvious time wasters that create little value.
Once you uncover and eliminate these time wasters, you can, if practical, create a standard work format detailing the daily or weekly tasks that remain. This standard work assigns approximate times to the regular, necessary tasks; a buffer time slot for irregular work; and a fixed time slot available for improvement work.
So a typical standard work format might look like this:
Doing a days-in-the-lives exercise will help greatly in constructing a standard work format, especially for support functions. Most important, keep the improvement activities time slot fixed. This will force you to streamline other tasks—a necessary but rarely done activity that in itself is an improvement.
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