Archive for the ‘Tools U Can Use’ Category

Visual Controls 102–Build on the Basics for big Payback

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Nearly everyone is familiar with the concept of visual controls.  A trip to the local grocery store will enlighten us.  Starting with the parking lot, there may be Enter and Exit signs, parking space striping and directional arrows.  Inside we will find shelves that hold standard quantities of designated items and hang tags in the bread section that tell the stocker it’s time to reorder.  At the check outs we find lights to indicate which registers are open and dividers to place on the conveyor between our items and those of other shoppers.  The stockers know when to retrieve carts from the parking lot by looking at the remaining rows of available carts at the front of the store.  When they replenish the shelves, they know how much product to bring out because an empty shelf represents a standard quantity.

We apply these principles at home, in the office and in the manufacturing plant to varying degrees because they have become part of the culture.  This standard way of using visual signals to maintain order is what I call Visual Controls 101.  It empowers us to manage operations without complicated analysis and time lags in information flow.  The use of visual controls is a key component of lean manufacturing.

Unless you already have a serious and ongoing Visual Controls effort underway, you can probably benefit from a coordinated effort to simplify every function of your operation through the use of Visual Controls.  I am always amazed at the level of resources manufacturers commit to improving cycle time compared with the small effort they make to improve the logistical tasks of production.  In fact, more often than not, when I evaluate an operation for simple ways to reduce cost or improve throughput, the prime targets are work flow, material control, access to tools, supplies and information, and similar logistics issues.

You can make significant improvements in your operation with little or no expense by spending a few minutes every day observing activities and asking questions.  To do your own evaluation and begin your journey to the next level, Visual Controls 102, start by standing in a spot (or spots) where you can see most of the manufacturing operation and ask yourself these questions:

  • Can the technician on each operation see his/her work in process?  Is the WIP quantity correct?  How many more need to be produced?
  • Is every operation that is scheduled running?
  • Can you tell by looking, why a scheduled operation is down?
  • Is all of the tooling, information etc. available for the next job?
  • Are all of the components, in the correct quantity, available for this assembly?
  • From ten feet away can you tell if the correct product is stored at each inventory location?
  • Is the quantity in inventory over or under a requirement?
  • Are all of the hand tools, supplies and information required for the operation available nearby?  Are there unnecessary or redundant tools & supplies there?
  • Can you associate all raw materials or work in process with the correct job?
  • Which containers are empty and which are full?
  • Is anybody waiting for something?  Is anybody searching for something?
  • Are there any “orphan” materials in the area i.e. unknown quality, unknown need, leftovers?

If you cannot answer each of these questions from where you stand, or if the answer is not acceptable, you may have found a need for visual controls.  As you discover opportunities for improvement, ask yourself these questions to find simple solutions:

  • Can we add information to the system in the form of process sheets, status boards or lights, floor & wall markings, color coding?
  • Can we simplify and define the process flow?
  • Can we add or remove containers, carts, etc.?
  • Can we label shelves, containers, locations?
  • Can we visually show where things belong (or not)?
  • Can we use container or shelf size/number to control production and inventory quantities?
  • Can we stage tooling and kit components?

You may be surprised to find that no matter how often you do this, you can still discover new opportunities.  Throughput will improve at each iteration as you reduce wait time, eliminate wasted motion, avoid communication errors and scrap, and prevent over/under production.  The exposed rocks analogy describes this situation.  As you lower the water level in the stream by improving throughput, you expose the biggest rocks (opportunities).  Each time you make an improvement, the water level falls and new rocks are exposed. 

These concepts can be applied to job shops as well as mass production operations.  I have successfully applied the principles to very small lots produced a few times a year as well as high volume situations.  In fact, the smaller order sizes are often overlooked when developing visual controls.

If the production process has been studied and optimized, don’t forget the front end and back end.  The steps outside of direct manufacturing can also benefit from visual controls.  Look at set up, estimating, scheduling, shipping, packaging, and any other task required to complete the order.

Remember, continuous improvement, by definition, is something that happens all the time.  By keeping the focus on the small, inexpensive, process improvements you will create a culture that is prepared for transformational change when and if it is warranted.

That’s Manufacturing Made Easy.

Your Comments are always welcome.

Bill MacDonald     is an experienced Operations Manager/Technical Director and owner at

 JLS Consulting of Midland, Michigan. 

For more information visit our web site or Email .

Are You Sure you’re Ready for that Kaizen Event?

Friday, April 30th, 2010

So you think you’re ready for a kaizen event.  Maybe this is your first attempt, or maybe kaizen is already a part of your culture.  If your business is mostly mass production with the same operators and few changeovers, you may have standardized work firmly embedded in your operations and you may have high conformance to the established procedures.    Unfortunately, this is not the situation for many manufacturers.  Some of us contend with changeovers on every shift (or shorter) and mid-volume down to single piece quantity requirements.  The result may be a different team member performing an operation each time the job runs.

To find out if a process is kaizen ready, try this simple test.   Ask different employees at different times to explain how they do their part of the process.  You must ask in such a way that your question is not seen as part of a test, audit or performance review to insure that you don’t get the “official” answer.   Having a visitor or non manufacturing person ask the question is even better. 

Obviously, if the person by person descriptions of the job are radically different you are not ready for a kaizen event.  If lean principles are part of your operations strategy you will probably not hear radically different descriptions, especially if you have already worked on this particular operation or work cell.  You may, however, hear subtle clues that indicate the operation is not as standardized as you think.

Phrases like “here is how I do it”, “so and so might do it differently”, “any way that works”, “whichever method you like, as long as you end up with…”, “I like to get these all finished first”, “I do this at the end” are indicators that the concept of standardized work is not clearly understood and probably not effective on this operation.

You may believe that you (or your organization) have “explained” standardized work sufficiently but it is usually not that simple.  This is because the underlying principle of one best method is counter intuitive; therefore, simply having standardized work explained is not sufficient to create uniform practices by team members.  Permanent behavior change comes as team members participate in the process of work design and create a better result, by selecting one method and continually improving it.  Indeed, one criterion for choosing the initial method is the likelihood that it can be improved even if all agree it is not currently the best way.

One of the most important characteristics to develop in your production team is the element of “buy in” created as the team works through the process as described above.  As the continuous improvement process causes further refinement of the method, the team will come to own that procedure.  When each individual discovers that the continually improving procedure produces better results than any of their original methods, there is a high likelihood that the team will embrace and defend it.

It is at this point that kaizen events can begin with a process already improved, due to the reduction in variation normally caused by different operators.

Standardized work is an important pre-requisite to a successful kaizen event.  Without it, it’s like taking a different route to work every day while trying to optimize fuel efficiency by improving your braking.  Since true “buy in” usually is weak when the standardized work method is first written, it is incumbent on the facilitator to make sure it is actually in practice before attempting structured kaizen events.

That’s Manufacturing Made Easy.

Your Comments are always welcome.

Bill MacDonald     is an experienced Operations Manager/Technical Director and owner at

 JLS Consulting of Midland, Michigan. 

For more information visit our web site or Email Bill’s Email

Manufacturers’ Crystal Ball—Our 2010 Best Guess

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

If we had to sum up the manufacturing community’s attitude in a phrase, it would be cautious optimism. Recently I conducted an informal survey via internet and in person with my manufacturing contacts. I wanted to get a feel for the primary challenges our industry will face in 2010 and make sure we are prepared to help our customers profit from the opportunities we identify.

In discussions with around twenty manufacturers, the number one concern was their ability to meet the need for additional, qualified manpower in the production arena and their ability to predict such an event. There seems to be a general sense that sales will increase leaving them shorthanded but none were confident enough to begin hiring and training employees. Many said the “good problem to have” would be a large, sudden increase in demand for their products. No one I talked to could point to actions they had taken, or documented increases in sales, but all were hopeful.

Several people reminded me that the challenge will be more than just putting bodies in place. Many experienced employees were eliminated in the recent economic downturn. The ramp up to higher production could be troublesome until the new technicians are fully trained. Maintaining productivity and quality levels will be a challenge if the upturn is steep. A significant point is the uncertainty around their optimism. Some manufacturers are experiencing severe cash constraints and most are reluctant to spend until they have hard evidence of a need, even at the risk of lost opportunity on the upside. In addition, there is the risk that any upturn may not be permanent. Companies are reluctant to make manpower commitments if they believe they will be entering the downsizing cycle again in the near future.

Additional concerns are the ability to maintain and improve manufacturing process controls and engineering controls after prolonged operations with reduced technical staff. Continuous improvement activities have been curtailed in some instances and will need to be jump started. The same ambivalence regarding forecasting and timing of investment in manpower applies here as well.

The message for manufacturers is that anything we can do now to insure a faster screening, hiring, training and validation cycle may put us in a more competitive position when and if the upturn comes. Attaining that higher output level a few days or weeks ahead of competitors could present opportunities to capture new business and improve the bottom line early in the business cycle. If the recovery turns out to be a V or W or worse, the watchword will be agility.

That’s Manufacturing Made Easy.

Your Comments are always welcome.

Bill MacDonald is an experienced Operations Manager/Technical Director and owner at
JLS Consulting of Midland, Michigan.

For more information visit our web site or Email Bill’s Email

When is a Corrective Action…NOT?

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

The industrialized world is overrun with experts, gurus, authors, consultants and people like me that will be happy to supply a variety of “tools” that you can use to make your business more….(fill in the blank here). The quality blogs have discussions about which is better—Design of Experiments (DOE) or regression analysis and similar academic subjects. It reminds me of the time I saw the famous health professional on PBS. After several questions from the audience about which exercise is the best; swimming, running, weight training, etc. he finally answered; “The best exercise is the one you do”.

Here is the challenge with all of those tools. They only work if you use them. Improving your business operation is very much like improving your health. Just as the garages and basements of America are filled with dusty exercise equipment and workout videos, many companies have spent money on training programs, software and consultant based transformation packages such as Lean or Six Sigma. Just as with your personal health, there is no silver bullet you can purchase to instantly improve your operation. Improvement will begin when you find your best exercise, that is, “the one you do”.

If you are in the manufacturing field you have probably encountered a Corrective Action Report (CAR), Discrepant Material Report (DMR) or a variation of this document. Often it is part of a formal problem solving process referred to as 8D or TOPS which is, in turn, a subset of the overall corporate procedures to promote product quality. This is one of the simplest tools you can apply to any operation. You can make it work without an “extreme makeover” team of consultants and a multi-year plan. You can train most of your personnel in its application with little fanfare and you can apply it to problems from the front office to the shipping dock. It will not save you thirty million dollars in the first thirty days.

Here is what it will do:

• It will cause your manufacturing and business systems to become better, little by little, day by day through small changes that prevent problems.

• It will shift your organization’s efforts away from “work arounds” and repairs to continuous improvement.

• It will reduce the tendency to assign blame and increase the tendency to fixing problems.

• It will develop personal accountability by reducing fear of punishment, requiring problem resolution and providing a tool to do so.

• It will shift the burden of dealing with bad material, data, product, etc. to the natural owner, not the user (customer).

• It will prevent downstream disruptions and additional cost by removing defective material, data, product, etc. from the process stream.

• It will develop the analysis and communication skills of your personnel.

If you are not already using this tool, you should make it “the one you do” immediately. If you currently use this procedure, or you plan to start tomorrow, use any form you like, call it what you will, but it must have these key characteristics. Otherwise, it is NOT a corrective action.

1.   A clear statement of the Discrepancy (or defect) in terms of customer (internal or external) expectations. Example: Address information incorrect on Form A123 or Tapped hole missing on one of twenty pieces, part no. A123. The statement does not describe how the condition occurred; i.e. typist double keyed entry and it does not describe why; i.e. typist had wrong information.

2.   A description of the action taken to remove the discrepant material (documents, parts, information, etc.) from the process stream and prevent it from re-entering the process stream. This is called Containment and it is NOT the end of the corrective action process.

3.   A description of the action taken to “dispose” of the problem from the customer’s point of view. The customer needs no further action to continue his/her process. Accounting adjustments are made, parts are replaced, information is corrected, etc. This is Disposition, the problem is not necessarily resolved and prevented long term but the customer is no longer affected by this event.

4.   A clear statement of the Immediate Cause based on investigation. Example: machine operator did not complete drill/tap operation or typist did not detect double keyed entry. Note: this is rarely the same as the root cause of the problem.

5.   A clear statement of what allowed the condition to occur. Look for a weakness in your system such as lack of training, control, information or an assignable cause such as a worn machine component. This will be the root cause. A simple way to get to the Root Cause is the five whys method. Think of the song I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. She swallowed the cat to catch the bird…immediate cause. Why did she swallow the fly…root cause?

6.   A clear statement of what was changed in processes, systems, procedures, training, controls, etc. to prevent the problem from happening again. This is the Corrective Action. If possible test the corrective action by turning the change on and off and recreating or simulating the discrepancy.

7.   Some procedures have a separate step to validate the corrective action. I prefer to use the form closure as Validation that the corrective action is in place and working. This method works well with computerized production control systems where the open document can be flagged for the next production run, customer order, etc. and reviewed for validation.

If the words in the sixth step sound suspiciously like the words in step two or three, it is probably NOT a valid corrective action. Remember, the primary reason you use this procedure is to make your operation better by eliminating the possibility of producing defects. This is a simple process to master but it requires leadership. Just going through the motions is like touching your toes with your knees bent. You can say you did it, but what’s the point?

Running the marathon is only good exercise if you do it. Start by walking to the mail box. A transformational, project style improvement plan is only effective if you do it, start with a corrective action procedure and do it all the time, every time. Your product will improve every day and you will begin to create a culture that will lead you to the marathon.

If you would like a copy of a Discrepant Material Form along with an instructional “cheat sheet” send me an email or go to the web site and click on the request for information button at That’s manufacturing made easy.

Bill MacDonald