If it can"t be measured, it's not real

August 25, 2008
By: Tim Heston

There"s nothing like the Olympics to spark dreams of human potential. Something about the event brings out romantic optimism in me. I know that"s what the producers at NBC were aiming for and, with me at least, they"ve succeeded.

For instance, I must have replayed Usian Bolt"s races 10 timesespecially that 9.69-second 100-meter dash. Am I big track and field fan? Nah. Do I like to run? Only when chased. But something about his races last week stirred up something inside me.

What about Michael Phelps? Sure, his eight gold medals count for a lot. He made history. He"s known for his incredible workout routines and his bulldog tenacity. But he also has a bodyhis long torso, big feet and hands, and long armsseemingly built for the water (which, by the way, inspired this very funny parody from The Onion). Bolt, on the other hand, overcame odds. The 100-meter race especially captivated me. It wasn"t even Bolt"s specialty. According to commentators, his tall body is better suited for the 200-meter run, but Bolt won the 100-meter sprint anyway.

And he made it look easy.

Bolt won his first gold right around the time I was diving into an article that will appear this fall"s Chief Concerns, a supplement to be published with the October FABRICATOR. Sources gave me stories of scheduling mishaps and lessons learned, and about what"s driving the changes, even within today"s small job shops: data.

Sources told me that, with enough data, a shop can make a lot of manufacturing"s challenges look easy too. But like Bolt, shops must overcome some serious challenges.

Observing shops in recent years, I"ve found that data often drills down only so far, and software may be band-aided together. A person may need to manually enter information from one system to the next.

Wouldn"t it be great if the estimator or manager could log in to one system and see everything the shop floor has done for the past few years? He could drill down to minutia: How many laser lenses did we go through during such and such a time? How often did we change welding tips at the robot cell this month? How much do we spend on press brake tooling today versus this month last year?

Technology, such as all-encompassing manufacturing execution systems (MES), tout seamless data integration across an organization--with maintenance data linked to productivity data, linked to estimating, scheduling, material resource planning, accounting, front-office tasks, and all the rest. But when it comes to smaller operations (and even big ones, in fact), few have everything linked seamlessly. Smaller shops may not have the IT or financial resources, and larger ones may have various plants with managers who have their own way of doing things.

Does a shop need granular data all the time? Probably not. Just as Bolt doesn"t track is heart rate 24/7, a manufacturer probably shouldn"t obsess on the minute details. Some also have told me that, if everyone has access to data, managers may not be able to see the forest through the trees. There"s validity to that argument.

From another viewpoint, scanning bar codes, keying in job data to software, and all the rest may make it seem Big Brother"s watching over the shop floor. Management knows everything you"re doing at all timesthey just need to pull up the data.

In my view, a good company culture may thrive on having so much data. Employees see the results of their good work, and the data prove it. Whether a company needs fancy software to get this data is another debatable issue. But most would agree that however it is obtained, data helps drive continuous improvement. Companies use data for employee reviews, and some even base bonus or profit-sharing programs on it. That"s putting the data to good use. But put such a data-collection program in an unhealthy company culture, and maybe that Big Brother mentality will emerge too.

Just as Bolt"s world records are based on the clock, continuous improvement in manufacturing is based on data. If anything, having easily accessible data keeps companies honest in their lean efforts. Here, I think the adage applies.

If it can"t be measured, it"s not real.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314