UpFront: Process, Process, Process
By Brian J. Hogan
No reasonable person would argue against the idea that a thorough understanding of how one intends to perform a task is critical to success. Of course details of that understanding may need to be revised as time passes. Putting matters a bit differently, to succeed you must develop a sound process, and continuously improve the process after it's implemented.
That's not necessarily how manufacturing in North America operates. It's probably true that in many cases top managers either are indifferent to the processes involved in production and administration, or simply assume that a sound process is in place. Examining the process, whether it's the process on the production floor or in the front office, can be tiresome. Everyone wants to act, to push ahead with the project, whatever it might be—after all, that's what we're paid to do. Methodical examination and optimization of the process hardly grabs the imagination.
But if you look at Toyota and other companies that have succeeded in achieving high production efficiency and low cost, process is at the center of everything. Such organizations ask How and Why—again and again.
How will we do that? Why does the procedure take that long? How can the takt time be reduced? Why do we need those forms, those files, that equipment? Why do we need that much buffer? How can we reduce inventory?
The process-centered organization realizes that development of an effective process should precede all other work. No process is perfect, all processes require adjustment as experience reveals weak points, but beginning with a robust process will always reduce waste. Simply put: Sound processes create sound products and profits. Weak processes crush quality and raise costs.
Further, this principle applies to every area of operation in the organization. Too many managers react to problems by hurling personnel and resources into the breach without first striving to fully understand what's going on. An example of such behavior took place in the US auto industry, which reacted to the entry of strong foreign competitors with marketing campaigns and pressure on suppliers, rather than careful examination of the competitive situation.
Today, we see the Big Three going through a very difficult reappraisal of processes in every area of their operations. Better late than never, to be sure, but consider the damage that might have been avoided if managers had placed process at the center of things.
The most essential task of manufacturing engineers and managers, as well as general management, is creation of a sound process for production and administration. Enhanced by continuous improvement efforts, good processes yield good products and systemic efficiency. Take care of the process, and it will take care of you. Neglect process and you'll suffer.
This article was first published in the November 2008 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.