The Mother of Invention


I had a chance to stop and visit an old client the other day – an specialized injection molder of consumer products - and was pleased to learn that their manufacturing cycle was 63% better than it had been when I first met them. By manufacturing cycle I mean the normal cycle it takes for them to mold some of everything …. Make product A – change the machine over and make product B – change over to product C, etc… until they have made some of everything and they are back to making product A again.

They kept enough inventory to cover demand over the course of the cycle (or so they strove for) but their big problem was the unexpected, large customer order that often dropped in during the cycle. Murphy’s Law being what it is, too often that order came in shortly after they had run those items and they had insufficient inventory to cover it. This left no choice but to break into the cycle and run those items again, which caused everything else to tumble. The other items would be run later than planned, stretching the cycle out, and then there was insufficient inventory to cover them.

Ike most companies in that situation they were looking for a magic scheduling formula or a more perfect crystal forecasting ball to solve the problem. Like most lean folks, however, I urged set-up/change-over reductions to shorten the cycle and minimize the frequency, magnitude and impact of the problem. I was right, of course, because Shigeo Shingo and Taiichi Ohno were right.

To be sure there were other inputs to the improvement – a simple demand pull method and more statistically valid methods of determining the inventory needed to cover the cycle, but set-up reduction was at the heart of it, and the improvements there translated into significantly less inventory, better on time delivery and lower costs.

The driver of their success was a young lady in charge of the molding process who ‘got it’ and crated a burning platform – instilled a sense of urgency to get it done. And that is normally the key ingredient. There is really not much technology or math involved in set-up reduction. It is primarily recognition of the need and making it a high priority. The actual techniques revolving around moving things from inside to outside are pretty simple. Her success came from instilling that sense of urgent need in the people working in and around the molding operation. She instilled in them the belief that reduction in set-up/change-over times was not an improvement opportunity – it was a dire necessity.

I recently saw a cruise ship go through the change-over process and it is really quite similar. Dock and disembark some 3,000 passengers and their luggage and take on 3,000 new ones, restock tons of food and supplies, perform necessary maintenance to the ship, then sail again all in the course of a few hours. They have all sorts of specially designed devices and a very well trained crew of folks to do it … but they have to. That turnaround is the key to their success. In that regard they are a lot like the NASCAR or Indy cars – change-over fast or die.

So often we try to analyze and intellectualize improvement when so often it is really little more than convincing ourselves and the people involved that it is an urgent necessity. When everyone understands that they have no choice but to pull out all the stops – that the very lifeof the overall organization depends on it - it is amazing how creative and successful they can be.

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