Theory of Constraints. Quick Response Manufacturing. Six Sigma. Lean. Total Productive Maintenance. Total Quality Management. The lexicon, tools and methods around improving manufacturing these days seems to be endless. A quick Amazon.com book search reveals some impressive numbers.
We, being the continuous improvement community, make it more complicated than it really needs to be sometimes to the point of confusing and frustrating those very people we are trying to help. Don't get me wrong, I have used each of the methods listed above in some application as they have their place in my manufacturing heart. But it is our job to make this concept of continuous improvement easy and fun, not complicated and by the book.
Over the years I have found that in its simplest form, by focusing to improve one of the following four things -- making sure not to make the other three worse -- we can make continuous improvement something anyone at any level of the organization can easily understand and implement.
By making a process or job easier for the operator it typically results in less time and therefore less cost for the company.
But easier can also be in terms of the health and safety burden it puts on the operator. Easier is one that has countless benefits: It makes the product better because the operator is less tired and can focus better at their task; easier means the operator can get more done in the same amount of time -- all of which helps to make the product cheaper.
Every company should always be looking for ways to make their products better. This can come from changing a component or material, adding features, or simply improving an assembly process. Sometimes companies struggle with this one because on the surface it almost always results in raising costs. Be sure to always consider defects and breakdowns when looking to make the product better. It may result in adding dimes to the COGS but save dollars on the service and warranty. When looking to make the product better for the customer, one also needs to be careful. Don't make a Bentley when all that is needed is a Toyota. Always keep the customers' expectations in mind.
As the saying goes, "Time is money," and there is no place this is more evident than on the manufacturing floor. Unless one is working with some exotic materials or where machines are doing all the work, the majority of expense comes from operator wages. No improvement is too small, as saving a second per operator can add up to huge time savings for the company. While "Time is money" is true, so too is "Work smarter not harder." Never expect an operator to work faster by simply increasing their effort. This is not sustainable physically or mentally. The process needs to become easier, thus allowing them to work faster.
A cheaper product is always a good thing. It can come through labor cost, raw material reduction or inventory holding costs, just to name a few. While there are tons of opportunity to make it cheaper, there is a warning: Never compromise on any of the others in an effort to make it cheaper. There are countless stories where companies tried to make a product cheaper -- through material, a vendor or labor -- only to have it completely backfire. Remember, you get what you pay for. Always perform a total cost analysis to understand what the implications are for the company as a whole before implementing a cheaper option.
And one additional thing...
Never ever for any reason jeopardize the safety of the workforce. There may be an improvement that goes four out of four on the above, but it makes the working conditions unsafe for the team. Don't do it. The savings will never be worth the potential impact it could have on the organization or the people that work there.
David Hall began his career as a process engineer at Toyota while in college, where his love for manufacturing began. Over the years his career has taken him to work with numerous Mom-n-Pop to Fortune 100 companies in assisting them with optimizing their operations and supply chain through lean manufacturing techniques. Hall is currently serving as the vice president of manufacturing at Post Glover Resistors, which specializes in high and low resistance grounding solutions, dynamic braking resistors, and harmonic filter resistors for electrical noise dampening. Hall holds a BS in mechanical engineering as well as an MS in manufacturing systems engineering. He has a master's certificate in lean manufacturing, a Six Sigma greenbelt and is a graduate of the Lean Executive Leadership Institute.