Month: October 2013

Keeping Up vs Catching Up

Keeping up vs Catching Up

One of the worst common adages we have all heard is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s hard to say where this would apply. Does it mean, don’t change the oil in your car until the engine seizes up? Don’t replace the bearings on a machine, even though they are squeaking, until they have welded to the shaft? In fact, it is really hard to come up with a good example where such false logic makes any sense. However, it is very common to see examples in practice, particularly when it comes to keeping software up to date. I have been involved with software systems from both a buyer’s and seller’s perspective over my career, witnessing the full range of thinking on this topic.

At the one extreme, some companies wait until every hardware and software component is so out of date that they might as well be working with typewriters and drawing with pencils. In those cases, work often comes to a complete stop when one of the weak links fails altogether. This can be catastrophic when production is dependent on output or stored data that has just become inaccessible. Or work may have slowed to such a crawl that even overtime and extra workers can no longer keep up with demand. That is when software vendors get the urgent calls, from workers in a state of panic, who are trying to keep things patched together because the boss has seen no value in upgrades over the years. And the cost of repair at that point is excessive.

At the other end of the spectrum are those companies that understand that their technology infrastructure is just as critical as the machinery on the factory floor. Those companies maintain everything they purchase, because they see the importance of keeping all of their investments in top working order. Sometimes that means maintenance and upgrades, whereas other times replacement with a newer model is the best way to stay current.

Then in the middle we find many companies that fully embrace that thinking when it comes to machinery, but apply a completely different set of logic to their software. That category understands the value in keeping up with the best machine technology, upgrading for higher output or better quality, while their software systems fall further behind. That group often wakes up one day, realizing that higher output in the factory has become constrained by low output in the office where the processing actually begins.

Lean thinking employs another adage, “If it ain’t broke, break it.” Which translates into always looking for improvement.

Understanding the Whole Picture: Monitoring Business Processes

This past week I noticed a post in one of the groups I follow on LinkedIn, which is about tracking jobs on the shop floor. This is a highly controversial topic, with pros and cons regarding a number of aspects of the issue. Of course every manufacturer wants to monitor the status of production, manage inventory, and collect cost data. However there is a price tag for everything, and many approaches actually run counter to the primary objective, which should be maximizing productivity.

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Comments on this post highlight some of the contradictions. They talked about how difficult it is to get workers to correctly record their hours and other production metrics. That is itself is a reflection of a conflict that managers must take into account. On the one hand, workers understand that their main goal is production, so when they are asked to stop their work to record something, that in itself contradicts that main goal.

Several posts also mentioned the importance of continuous process improvement. Most facilities are always changing machinery, flow, and other aspects of the production process. Also in many make-to-order factories, the products and lot sizes are almost never the same. Therefore, detailed historical data is often out of synch with current production, so what is the point of trying to collect every detail? Simpler and lower cost tracking schemes monitor work center throughput and material usage, which is far less intrusive and results in more meaningful metrics.

Management is often too focused on direct labor in the first place, when in fact the overall throughput is the result of many other factors. For example, to keep work flowing smoothly requires perfect synchronization of materials, input from prior processes, available machine time, tooling, output space, and many other variables all timed to an accurate schedule. Any of these factors can delay the process, and most have nothing to do with the direct worker. Often the best place to start improving production throughput is in the front office, where the planning and support activities begin. If that work is not done well, then measuring direct labor is of little value.

AWI 61st Annual Convention For The Woodworking Industry

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The 61st Annual AWI Convention “kicked off” yesterday with an action packed schedule. However, the most successful event of the day was the “Behind the Scenes Manufacturing Plant Tours”. The tour included two stops with two completely packed charter buses, filled with woodworking professionals eager to learn the secrets to the success of these high profile AWI Members.

The host companies were Advanced Millwork, Inc., who is a leading architectural millwork company that has been making visions become reality for their central Florida clients in their 32,000 square foot Orlando facility. The second host, Creative Concepts of Orlando, has been providing design and manufacturing services to the central Florida area for a half a century. They provide examples of their specialized capabilities regarding fine commercial cabinetry and architectural millwork by offering unique and innovative ideas to their clients. As the attendees made their way through these plant tours, they experienced the craftsmanship, creativity, utilization of technology and overall excellence of these manufacturers. Attendees were able to see the fully operational facilities from the office environment, where all the design & engineering originates, to the shop floor, where the production takes place. Many thanks to them for opening their facilities to help share their success with those in our industry!

In the evening, attendees participated in mutual collaboration and connected with AWI leaders & members at the Welcome Reception and Product Fair. Each attendee had the opportunity to learn about exciting products & offerings from various industry exhibitors.

Alan Beaulieu, President of ITR Economics was a speaker yesterday at the AWI Convention in Orlando, FL. Many attendees commented they really enjoyed his presentation and found it to be very informative. Not only from a global understanding, but very practical standpoint. He was very effective in summarizing with some specific recommendations what businesses should be doing now to prepare for future economic conditions in the US. For those interested in finding out more about Alan Beaulieu you may visit his website at itreconomics.com