Preparing to Excel: Get Ready for Manufacturing Transformation

To compete successfully and build sustained progress, manufacturers need to optimize their processes, product quality and productivity. That doesn’t mean that a commitment to continuous improvement is an end in itself. Just as successful part production requires preparation, so does the transformation of your approach and its results. That preparation demands open mindedness as well as technical readiness – and knowledgeable preparation makes the process even more productive.

On the path to manufacturing transformation, awareness and understanding build improvement: Awareness of what actually happens on your shop floor and an understanding of its consequences. Without the ability to quantify the events that make up overall performance, however, your shop has no basis on which to evaluate itself. To enhance production and improve part quality, you need a comprehensive source of data about your actual performance, not just anecdotes about what happened.

Verbal reports from operators, managers and other personnel contribute to an awareness of production events, but humans make unreliable narrators. Understandably, individuals want to maximize the positive aspects of their performance – which, by definition, means minimizing the negative. Unfortunately, the only real path to improvement requires an objective look at problems and solutions, not just praise for what works well. Observations and analysis from personnel can shed important light on a shop’s strengths and weaknesses, but these reports cannot substitute for objective data.

The best and most obvious sources of production data are the machines on your shop floor, but to understand their use and behavior, you need access to the real-time data they generate during production. Networking those machines makes it possible – and easy – to access and analyze production data so you truly understand what slows you down or results in rejected parts. An investment in secure networking technology goes a long way toward improving the outcome of machining operations.

Along with a well-informed view of machine performance, you also need to work toward process stability. That requires a conscious effort to establish routines that standardize how you approach and accomplish your work, from tool selection and machine setup to job scheduling and equipment maintenance. Stability and repeatability go a long way toward helping you find profitable paths to productivity.

Your shop also needs well-established, sensible standards for its machining results based on a thorough quality control (QC) process. QC should validate machining outcomes, not simply intercept bad parts. To achieve that standard, you need an understanding of what constitutes quality, from how you order tools to how you produce parts.

Shops that commit wholeheartedly to the process of transformation make the best progress toward it. If that commitment lives at the executive level and dies on the shop floor, it becomes a slogan rather than a way of life. Everyone’s contribution helps determine whether your shop thrives or fails, which means that ownership needs production’s input and vice versa. A true team effort demands a company-wide commitment to transparency, open communication and continuous improvement.

The success of team improvement depends on whether it’s really a team effort. Successful transformation goals require everyone’s input, from owners and managers to operators and office staff. Good ideas come from everyone, so the process must be open as well as honest, and everyone must understand and buy in to the value of the results. Just as importantly, the process should be an open book, with frequent updates that keep everyone aware of progress – and genuine encouragement to offer candid insights.

That kind of honesty can affirm your shop’s approach or reveal uncomfortable truths about your everyday assumptions. Even the best-run shop isn’t perfect, so most often, full disclosure and frankness unveil a mixture of positives and negatives. From the negative side of the ledger, the most important outcome is improvement, not finger pointing. The self-protective impulse to pass the blame like a hot potato does not serve the overall goal, and actually deters individual employees from making their best contributions.

Hand in hand with these tenets of operational honesty, shops need to eliminate the silos that disconnect processes from one another and create productivity bottlenecks. One of the easiest ways to spot these constriction points is to look for areas in which the status quo becomes an end in itself. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” may signal an enduring approach, but simply allowing history to repeat itself does not serve the process of improvement.

All these aspects of awareness and commitment come together both to answer important questions and raise further inquiries. To determine “Now what do we do?” a shop must know “What do we do?” Much of the progress toward improvement relies on analyses you can undertake yourselves and barriers you can break down on your own (See our blog – From Good to Great: 5 Shops That Need Transformation).

With full access to the technical data underlying your shop-floor performance and a thorough commitment to meaningful observation, your shop can make substantial progress toward your goals of transformation and success. When the “Now what?” becomes a puzzle, look for outside expertise to help connect your discoveries about your shop to ways you can overcome its problems.

ON THE PATH TO MANUFACTURING TRANSFORMATION

Even the best shops can improve. If you want to make your improvement as revitalizing and productive as possible, learn a little bit more about your own operation first – and make sure you focus your process on an honest exploration.

  1. QUANTIFY HOW YOU DO WHAT YOU DO

Do you really know how your shop operates, or do you simply rely on expectations instead of reality? Just as you need to know your starting point to plan a trip, you need to know where you stand to figure out how to improve.

  1. EXAMINE THE PRODUCTION DATA FROM NETWORKED MACHINES

If you really want to understand why one machine always seems to be more productive than others, or certain jobs seem to stall partway through production, access your production data and look for patterns that explain your problems.

  1. STABILIZE YOUR PROCESSES

Set up routines that determine how you process jobs, and use them to set up expectations of how work moves through your shop.

  1. ESTABLISH SOLID QC STANDARDS

Create a process for checking your work at strategic points in its production. Rather than use QC as a way to intercept problematic parts, make it a set of checkpoints that ensure you’re shipping out your best output.

  1. INVOLVE YOUR ENTIRE TEAM

Make improvement an everybody-plays, everybody-wins exercise that uses input from your entire workforce to solve problems, question old procedures and look for new ways to excel. If you don’t involve everyone, you make transformation look like an executive exercise instead of a shop-wide collaboration.

  1. FOCUS ON IMPROVEMENT, NOT FINGER POINTING

People get defensive when they think you’re blaming them for things that they may not have known better than to do. Be honest, but don’t be accusatory. Remember that you’re trying to document where you are and move forward as a team.

  1. UNBLOCK YOUR BOTTLENECKS

Look for points in your process at which everything screeches to a halt – and figure out why. Is one process waiting for another? Have you run out of tools? The answer will guide you to make things better.

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