Posts Tagged ‘“lean manufacturing”’

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

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: