Robots are not the answer for a small business! To produce value at optimal cost, small businesses need simple techniques, not expensive robots and complex MRP systems,. Your processes should be able to produce a high variety of outputs at high quality levels with fast cycle time, low operating cost, low inventory, and good information flow.
Start with understanding your process today, displaying it on a process map. In the book Lean Thinking, Womack and Jones described the mindset for process mapping this way: “Can you put yourself in the position of a design as it progresses from concept to launch, an order as information flows from initial request to delivered product, and a physical product as it progresses from raw material to the customer, and describe what will happen to you each step along the way?”
Process Design Principles
1. Standardize: Define how your process should work, and how you measure whether it does, at each step along the way. Standards enable a common assessment, a common understanding of success, and a shared basis for analysis.
2. Simplify: Shorten the flow so less can go wrong. Remove steps that do not add value, either eliminating them or moving out of the critical path with work cells, subassemblies, or shifting tasks to other steps, or to the customer, supplier, or outsourcer.
3. Balance the Steps: Organize your process into major steps so that each requires the same time interval (called takt time by Toyota). This enables work to flow through the process at a continuous pace, without wasting time in queues waiting to be processed.
4. Use a pull system to obtain continuous flow: Each work step pulls what it needs from the prior step “just in time.” You don’t order or produce large quantities that wait for subsequent processing. Instead, each step produces only small buffer quantities, not mountains of “work in progress.” Continuous flow is the opposite of “batch and queue.”
5. Visual Alerts: Design visual signals for monitoring progress, prioritizing work, triggering the pull (and ordering) of inputs, and displaying incomplete sets of parts (“kitting”). Visual signals enable quicker response than burying these key measures and events in expensive information systems.
6. Find and Optimize the Bottleneck: Identify the one process step that determines the pace for the entire process. Focus on improving its throughput to drive the productivity of the entire process. See below for tactics. Once you improve the bottleneck, rebalance the steps for a faster cycle time, and look for the next bottleneck.
7. Continuous Improvement (kaizen in Japanese): Improving one process affects other processes. Modify them, and then return to the first one to improve it further. This yields constant gains in productivity and profits, rather than delaying benefits by waiting for the perfect overall solution before implementing.
Some Proven Tactics to Implement the Principles
- Establish time, volume, and quality metrics for key steps; these enable workers to inspect the quality of their own work. Monitor results per person and per product. Investigate and correct shortfalls.
- Rejects must be corrected by the group who produced them.
- Design work processes and tools so they can be used only in the right way or edits to prevent input errors, e.g., tabs on jigs (mistake-proof, or poka-yoke).
- Create subassemblies removed from the main flow.
- Condense work steps or subassemblies so several are done by a single person or work cell. This removes handoffs, which often result in batch-and-queue delays.
- Use your computer system rather than manual records for recording and storing information about process flow and task completion.
- Limit options offered; customization is inefficient unless it comes with a high enough price premium.
- Look for ways to offload tasks. Consider whether customers or suppliers can perform some inputs themselves.
- Periodically assess outsourcing alternatives for non-core tasks and processes.
C. Balance the Steps
- Reorganize tasks into equal-length work steps.
- Use work cells and subassemblies.
- Recognize that one worker can operate more than one machine.
- Prescribe and limit the size of buffer stocks.
D. Pull and Continuous Flow
- Prevent overproduction in any one work step by triggering replenishment of the buffer stock via a signal from the following work step.
- One example is a colored card (kanban) placed within the buffer stock so that it is exposed when the stock is low enough that replenishment is needed.
E. Visual Alerts
- Kanban is one form of visual alert.
- Another is kitting: making a box with a shaped spot for each part in a set to be delivered to a work operation, to reveal when the part is missing.
- Colored flags can show whether a work step’s progress is in danger of missing its time target.
- Jobs waiting for bottleneck processing can be marked with colored tags to show priority for customer due dates.
E. Optimize the Bottleneck
- Offload work by (1) re-examining product design to avoid the need for the bottleneck processing, (2) outsourcing, and (3) inspecting for rejects before they reach bottleneck processing.
- Minimize bottleneck downtime by scheduling operators and maintenance.
- Maximize the bottleneck throughput by adding more capacity such as a bigger machine.
- Optimize its flexibility to adjust to shifting priorities by organizing the work in small lots and streamlining setup routines.
- Improve the operations within the bottleneck step.
- Place the bottleneck as late in the production process as possible.
F. Continuous Improvement
- Implement improvements quickly to gain immediate payoffs. Just as small lot sizes improve efficiency, small improvement steps improve quality and profits.
- Plan for a series of process improvement efforts.
- Reflect on newly-learned methods and expertise, and standardize them so the same type of gains can be applied to other processes more quickly.
This article draws on “Lean” techniques based on the Toyota Production System, and the Theory of Constraints first demonstrated in Eliyahu Goldratt’s The Goal. GE’s famous Six Sigma methods support these approaches by stressing measurements and analysis techniques at each step of the analysis and improvement effort.
Creativity in Process Improvement
Operations people often have limited opportunities to use their natural human creativity at work. So when they have the opportunity to use that creative ability to map a process and then improve it, the employees enjoy the change and appreciate the owner’s trust and respect for their abilities. They get great satisfaction from designing improvements, and go beyond the norm in their efforts for successful implementation.
Employee motivation, teamwork, and satisfaction all get a boost, at the same time company quality and profits grow. Use their creativity! It will be one of your best investments.
Tom Gray helps owners save and grow their companies. He is a management consultant focused on small business and telecom, a Certified Turnaround Professional (CTP), a Certified Business Development Advisor, and a Certified SCORE Mentor. He can be reached at 630-512-0406 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See www.tom-gray.com. For Tom’s new book Business Techniques in Troubled Times: A Toolbox for Small Business Success, see http://www.businesstechniquesbook.com/