Archive for March, 2010

How to be Second Best with the Program du jour

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Is anyone out there old enough to remember management by objectives (MBO).  Remember when no self respecting CEO would dare to say “No, we don’t use MBO”.  How about statistical process control (SPC)?  Remember when every single open position description said “must have SPC experience”.  Back then, if you didn’t have SPC experience, your career was toast.  I remember touring manufacturing plants where the walls and bulletin boards were covered with control charts.  It seemed people actually believed that if you charted enough things you would magically become the best.

A trip to the business section of any book store will tell you what the current popular programs are.  Those I mentioned are just two of the many management and quality tools that have been seen as the next best thing in manufacturing.  Many of the longest lasting concepts seem to have been helped by the existence of a three letter acronym, used by those in the know, such as TPS, TOC, GMP, TPM, TQM, JIT, DOE.  Don’t forget the others such as cross-functional teams, group technology, cell concept, consensus decision making, matrix organizations and so on.  I am sure I have forgotten several of them and no discussion would be complete without mentioning the current favorite, six sigma.

Now let me be clear.  Most of these concepts are powerful tools that I have applied, and will continue to apply, for substantial gains in all types of operations.  Having each of these tools and knowing how to use them gives you the power of the mechanic or machinist with the roll around tool box. Imagine if we expected that person to do the job with only a hammer in the box.  The old saying is that if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

It seems to me that in almost all cases, the most successful implementation of each of these programs was in the operation that originated them in the first place.  That’s because, at the time, the concept did not have a name.  The creators were observing real world challenges and inventing effective means to control and improve the processes involved.  They applied scientific methods to get the desired results and modified their approach as required.  Eventually, in those companies the organization adapted to support the practices that worked the best.  Of course, as soon as word leaked out of these phenomenal results, there was a rush to the publishers so the rest of us could share the success.

It’s not that simple.   There is no book you can buy, no training program you can adopt and no consulting firm you can hire that will substitute for doing your job as a manager, engineer, executive, etc.  A sure fire way to guarantee you will remain in second place is to find the program du jour, spend lots of time and money creating a bureaucracy with a vested interest in the program, and expect continued outstanding results.

Here is why this is true.

  • You get less than 100% of the effect seen in company A because of subtle differences between your situation and theirs.  It is very difficult to understand these differences because you are not inventing the system with your operation in mind.
  • While you are spending all that time implementing a program, the world will change.  No one will anticipate the change and gain the skills to meet the challenge because of the belief that “the program” will fix everything.
  • Your solutions will, on average, cost too much and take too long because you will apply the complex tool to problems that don’t require it.   Example: You can move a lot of dirt with a bulldozer but, if the pile is small, a hand shovel may work better.  (Remember, if the only tool you have is a hammer…).

By implementing the program du jour you send a message that the best way to resolve a problem has already been discovered; that individuals and teams are not responsible for results (the program is); that the way to be successful in the company is to “get with the program”.   This is contrary to the kind of teams that we all know intuitively we want.

I believe that, even in the companies that create these programs initially and report dramatic results, it becomes harder to sustain those results over time.  This is because the culture that invented the program has been replaced with a culture of dependency on that very program.  It is no surprise then that periodically corporate America goes looking for the new program du jour.

So what’s the solution?  I think we are writing and reading the wrong books.  When company A develops a formula that gets results we all scurry to copy the culture at that company after the fact.  This is backwards.  The culture we need to mimic is that which allowed the “program” to be created.  A culture in which many team members are working to understand their environment and how they can control it is what causes this kind of innovation.  The environmental conditions that existed in company A before “the program” are the ones we need to create in our company.

Of course, this is not rocket science.  We all know that as executives, managers and engineers it is our duty to not only have many tools, but to have the ability to select the right tool and the skill to apply it.

If you want to be second best, buy the books and get with the program.  If you are an executive and you select the currently popular program, your board of directors will love it.  By the time they understand that you have spent a lot of money and you are still second best, it will be time for the next program.  If you are a manager or engineer and you are competent in a currently popular program, you will have job security until your program is replaced by the new program du jour.

If you want to be the best, you still need to master the tools of the trade.  And you need to be able to determine how and when to use each tool. You will probably have to teach those around you how they work if they are not the current favorites, but you will get consistent results with the least effort and expense.  You will be able to respond quickly to new market conditions and you will be able to solve unique problems as they arise.  You will need to be very good at personal marketing because your value may not be obvious to those deep into program du jour.  You will have more fun than everyone else and, eventually, people will want to write books about what you do.  Don’t give it a name.

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 http://www.MfgMadeEZ.comor Email: info@mfgmadeez.com