The Real Problem

Dec. 21, 2004
It's negative variety.

Smplicity is the wave of the future," says Gwendolyn Galsworth, who heads Quality Methods International, a Dayton, Ohio-based consulting firm. "It's the coming revolution." But if the assault on manufacturing complexity is focused on the plant floor or on paperwork systems, she asserts, it won't get to the heart of the problem -- which is rooted in various policies that impact product-design practices. "The Japanese developed JIT because they couldn't handle the complexity," she says. "But the JIT/lean manufacturing approach at its best can be seen as a fairly sophisticated coping mechanism for dealing with complexity that is triggered elsewhere. It does not attack the source. "The problem itself is unwarranted variety . . . in products and in component parts." Often, she notes, the variety can be triggered by policies that originate in sales and marketing, data systems, accounting, or purchasing -- as well as in the design function itself. Galsworth is quick to point out that variety is often necessary and good. "It gives the company's customers choice, creates markets, and builds a competitive position. This is positive variety. It costs, but the customer is willing to pay for it. It is triggered by the customer's need for selection." In contrast, there is also "negative" -- or unwarranted -- variety that customers wouldn't be willing to pay for. "Negative variety is never triggered by the customer. It is always triggered by the way a company does its business, internally and externally. "Negative variety is the enemy of simplicity," she asserts. "It adds complication -- but no value." In her book, Smart Simple Design (1994, Wiley & Sons), Galsworth gives this example of product variety gone out of control: Despite a sales slump in 1993, one automaker offered customers 87 different styles of steering wheels, 300 ashtrays, 437 dashboard meters, 1,200 carpets, and 110 possible radiator models. Companies that build their reputations on providing the widest possible choice to customers often create "nightmares" in their MIS and production systems. "Even when hot new products give a company an unassailable market presence," she asserted in her book, "the same products can produce soaring cost, complication, and confusion inside its walls." Complexity is anchored to parts variation, Galsworth tells IW, and often that variety stems from informal policies or from the lack of a standardized language for naming parts. "People introduce their own names for things. This is where design and MIS collide head-on," she says. Because the information in parts databases is often inaccurate, incomplete, or obsolete, design engineers find it difficult to make sound decisions on sharing of common parts. So they routinely create new, only marginally different parts, thus swelling parts inventories. It costs an organization from $5,000 to $50,000 to introduce a new part, she points out, because "the part creates a wake -- a trail of transaction material, processes, paperwork, relationships, computer transactions to track it, racks to store it." If simplicity is going to be the next revolution, companies will first have to learn how to distinguish positive variety from negative variety -- and then find ways to minimize the latter. One approach is to examine why the "multiplicity of differences" exists, Galsworth says. "You have to ask: What formal or informal policy caused that multiplicity? And is that policy a sound one?"

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