UpFront: Are You at Full Throttle?
By Brian J. Hogan
During visits I've made to many companies and plants in the US, Japan, and Europe, a consistent theme often emerges. I'm told that operations were running at a certain level, then competition, or new management, or some other shock to the system forced a reorganization (perhaps with lean principles in mind, perhaps not). Suddenly morale improved, everyone pitched in, and new capacity emerged. What this sort of thing implies, of course, is that there was a good deal of unused capacity—either plant-wide or throughout the company—and the changes tapped into that capacity.
The great co-founder of the Toyota Production System,Taiichi Ohno, compared inventory to a river that conceals rocks. As inventory is removed, the rocks (waste) become visible, and can then be removed. Perhaps our everyday approaches to work act in a similar manner to conceal or suppress capacity, and it may be that thoughtful reconsideration of how we do things can release that capacity.
This observation probably applies both to hardware and to human resources. Almost every builder of modern machine tools and machine controls will tell a visiting editor that their products—especially the new multitasking machines—can do more than customers realize. Builders of machines and controls talk about metalcutting routines and software rarely used by the customer, who tends to buy the machine/control for a specific project, and doesn't grasp its full capacity.
And intelligent people, when challenged and given the opportunity, can do really impressive things. It seems to be true that if the person on the floor or in the office is interested in the job, and feels personally involved in the work, his/her work capacity increases significantly.
There may be a great many operations that run, so to speak, at half-throttle, with underutilized equipment tended by personnel who spend mornings looking forward to lunch, and afternoons waiting for the end of the working day. The true value of lean probably doesn't lie in creating new capacity, but in its ability to push operations a bit closer to the real underlying maximum performance achievable by a company.
Every manager or engineer strives to create a stable process, whether the process functions on the floor or in the office. Products and conditions change, however, and if the process doesn't also change, productivity will suffer.
In a sense, we work in new factories and offices every year, as the work we do evolves, and new equipment arrives. But we don't recognize the "newness" because it comes upon us gradually. Perhaps the most critical job of every manufacturing engineer or manager is to constantly address processes, and involve everyone in continuously optimizing them to maximize production capacity.
This article was first published in the February 2008 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.