Lean Manufacturing Principles: Consistent is Better than Fast

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, manufacturers have had a devotion to, not to say an obsession with, efficiency and speed.  Everyone talks about efficiency, for example.  I hear folks who couldn’t define efficiency on a dare speaking of its virtues.  I hear references to the need for more efficiency in situations and circumstances where efficiency would be difficult and maybe impossible to quantify, e.g., physical therapy and product design.  Even in those situations where efficiency as a concept and a metric makes sense, it’s used incorrectly as often as not.  And all this is apart from the fact that much of what managers do to promote and improve efficiency actually hinders it.  But that’s another discussion.

I’d rather that managers talked more about consistency and predictability.  Let me give an example:  let’s say it takes me an average five hours to complete a product changeover on a particular piece of equipment.  The longest it ever takes me is five hours and 15 minutes and the quickest I ever get it done is four hours and 45 minutes.  On the other hand, your average changeover time is four hours and sometimes you get it down in two hours but other times it can take you up to eight hours.  Who would you rather have doing your changeovers?  Who is going to make it easier to establish and meet a production schedule?  I’m am, of course, even though I might not be as fast or as “efficient” in some cases.

We can play this same scenario out with any operating factor or metric: scrap, cycle times, errors, delays, uptime.  My view is: better mediocre and consistent than highly variable.

Now I know what you’re thinking:  “But shouldn’t we always be striving for excellence rather than just consistent mediocrity?”  The answer is: “Of course!”  But consistency is fundamental to excellence.  Again, if I can be consistent at less than excellent performance, that’s a step forward from highly variable performance that is only occasionally excellent.  Further, the steps I take to get more consistent will also help me achieve excellence.  The path to eventual excellence goes right through consistency.

Lean Manufacturing Principles: No “Manufacturing Heroics”

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be going over what I consider to be some of the fundamental principles of agile thinking and practice.  Every approach, every model has to have a set of principles on which it’s founded.  To take a really big example, all the laws in the US are built on the principle that all people are created equal and are entitled to equal protection under those laws.

My agile principles won’t be quite as meaningful but you get the idea, I hope.

So, let’s get started.

A few years ago, I was visiting a plant in Kankakee, IL.  I was talking with one of the operators who was giving me chapter and verse of the problems he ran into in trying to produce a quality product efficiently.  Bad material, bad schedules, bad information, bad tooling, bad equipment and on and on.  He concluded by saying, “But, in spite of all that, I get it done.”

In his own eyes, and I’m sure in the eyes of his managers, he was a “manufacturing hero”.  He fulfilled the mission, met the goals, captured the hill in the face of nearly insurmountable obstacles.  But it occurred to me at that moment that his “heroism” was a significant part of the problem.  The company, and certainly the customers of the company, would have been much better off if that operator and his associates at the plant told management, “I’m not running this bad material.  I’m not operating this faulty equipment with it’s inadequate tooling. And I’m not running this ad hoc, reactive schedule you keep handing me.”  Better yet, of course, would be a management team that held inviolable the principle that operators never have to “just get it done”, that they always have adequate, capable materials, tools, equipment, supplies, and information to do their jobs.

I’ve seen “manufacturing heroics” played out in other ways in other organizations.  The supervisor who grabs a wrench and pushes everyone aside to fix a die or a machine that’s not running right.  The managers who spent time each day in long meetings developing operating schedules. Hours of overtime expended because the ship dates had to be met.

I know, I know…there are times when any manufacturing operation has to resort to these tactics.  The question is, are these tactics the norm, as they clearly were in the Kankakee plant?  If the operations are continually dependent on “manufacturing heroics” to get product out the back door, something is clearly wrong.

Agile concepts and tools are designed to get rid of these heroic actions.  But the first step is to quit holding them up as the sort of behavior that’s expected or desired.