If You Can’t Say “Efficiency”….What DO You Say?

Last week, I made the case for leaving the word “efficiency” out of your lexicon.  Just in the past few days, I ran into another example of why manufacturers need to quit saying (or even thinking about) efficiency.

I’m working with a client that’s seeking to improve its manufacturing cycle times and on time delivery to customers.  The manufacturing process has, generally speaking, two steps.  The first step will often run orders that aren’t due to be delivered for weeks (even months) because…”it’s more efficient”.  The problem is that the second step of the process often doesn’t have what it needs to run and send to shipping, even as other WIP sits for weeks.  Again, all in the name of “efficiency”.

My client’s problems, and I’d guess most of the problems in US manufacturing, aren’t due to “inefficiency”.  They’re due to variation in the manufacturing process that prevents smooth, consistent, predictable flow.  That’s the word to replace “efficiency” with…”FLOW”.  In my example above, the mistaken idea of “maximizing efficiency” hindered flow.  And the customers suffered.

Before COVID, I had a client that made small and large roll formed parts for automotive.  The large parts were run on very large mills that were about 25 yards long or more.  When I asked how long setups for a given product took, operators answered that the quickest ones took a couple of shifts.  The longest ones could take more than a week.  That’s a lot of variation.  That variation led to production schedules being thrown completely out of whack.  Schedule changes led to late deliveries and unhappy customers.

When we first started working on improving setup time, I told them that, while I wasn’t eager to keep seeing setups that took more than a week, nor was I intent on reducing every setup to two shifts.  I told the operators that achieving a consistent changeover time was more important that achieving a fast (or “efficient”) changeover time.

All of you can list any number of sources of variability that your manufacturing processes exhibit.  You fight with them all the time.  A long time ago, during a Steering Committee meeting, the President of the company I worked with said, with exasperation, “We’ve been talking about these same problems for over a decade.  Why can’t we ever seem to make any progress in getting rid of them?”  In effect, he was asking why he and his colleagues were so bad at reducing variability in the company’s manufacturing processes.  (And this was an operation that publicly posted each employee’s “efficiency rating”.)

All to say that talking about, thinking about, tracking efficiency just doesn’t do much to improve your operations.  Instead, talk about, think about, and track variability with the goal of improving flow.