It is undoubtedly a sincere goal for many but, like perfection, can be elusive. Nevertheless, on the journey towards Optimisation, cost effective continuous improvement often proves very worthwhile for those with the persistence and patience to embark and stay focussed upon their Lean journey.
So why is it that difficult? After all, every manufacturing operation is simply a conversion process from inputs to finished products, isn’t it?
Yes and No. The concept is simple enough but it’s the variety and quality of the myriad of raw materials, the capability of processing machinery, the production methodologies and, of course, the people, all of which are necessary in order to complete the conversion process efficiently.
One of the tools often used in Lean/Six Sigma is SIPOC. Lean practitioners love their buzzwords and mnemonics that mean a lot to them but for many, might as well be a foreign language. SIPOC, on the other hand, is a very useful one as it reminds us of the steps appropriate to any conversion process and, in their appropriate order – Suppliers, Inputs, Processing, Outputs, Customers.
At any stage of SIPOC, variation, and consequently some degree of waste, will be inevitable but optimisation comes from ensuring that such waste is kept to a minimum.
We have all heard this expression many times. In my opinion Lean/Six Sigma is just a more sophisticated and structured way of looking at what Frank Price highlighted more than 30 years ago, very pragmatically, in his excellent book, ‘Right First Time’, with his six quality questions:
Whether you prefer the more sophisticated terminology of Lean/Six Sigma or the more down to earth Frank Price ‘Right First Time’ terminology, the results are the same: it’s about reducing variation and wastage, whilst consistently meeting high quality standards with optimal efficiency.
The first and last of these questions would come under what Lean/Six Sigma practitioners would describe as VOC (Voice of the Customer) which should, of course be the loudest voice of all.
Questions 2, 3 and 4 would come under VOP (Voice of the Process), which is all about the capability of the production process to meet the required standards.
Lastly, question 5 is known in Lean/Six Sigma terms as VOB (Voice of the Business) which is really about making sure the company still makes healthy profits whilst satisfying the other five questions.
In theory, this might seem simple enough so why are there not more examples of performance optimisation?
Because, in practice it isn’t that simple. Returning to our SIPOC mnemonic, each one of these steps in the conversion process carries risks, variation and wastage, in addition to value added.
Optimisation can only come therefore from measuring, analysing and improving each of these steps whilst maximising the value added, at minimal cost.
It goes without saying that each of these steps also carries the risk of human error which can be one of the biggest contributors to failure, wastage and batch rejections, especially within busy manufacturing environments with short batch runs and frequent changeovers. Interestingly, in spite of all the awareness of continuous improvement, automated label verification, Lean/Six Sigma, etc., batch rejections, within the food and drink industry, increased by 74% in 2015 against 2014.
If human error is one of the greatest contributors, what can realistically be done to improve and sustain high levels of compliance at lowest manufactured cost?
We have first to understand why the human errors occur in the first place.
From our own experience, over more than 40 years serving the FMCG manufacturing industry, we have found that the root cause of all human error comes down to three things, or a combination of them:
The challenge therefore for factory floor management is to find better ways to engage and involve the operational personnel to minimise the risk of these very human frailties causing problems. Encouraging ownership of the process helps, as does frequent training and coaching but one weakness within so many companies remains their high dependence upon paper recording and disparate systems with no integration and little, if any, real time performance visibility.
The perpetual challenge for systems designers and integrators such as ourselves at Harford Control is to continuously develop integrated, paperless solutions which help to maintain awareness, encourage the following of standard operating procedures and give clear, unambiguous action instructions at every stage of the manufacturing process. Ease of use must also be a pre-requisite of such systems.
Where such systems have already been deployed, coding and labelling errors are eliminated, as are a whole range of other potential errors, materials utilisation improves, wastage is reduced and efficiency is improved, often by 20 to 30%.
But, such dramatic and sustainable improvements rarely happen overnight, even with the best of systems. Apart from the high levels of operational discipline which the right systems can bring, and the instant visibility of actionable information, training, understanding, patience and persistence are essential, but can be very cost effective.