Finding Improvement in the Margins

Jamie Flinchbaugh

Continuous improvement means that we look for problems and waste under every rock. We spend most of our time, however, looking at the core activities. We look at core process efficiency because if I can get just a little more out of my core activities, then there is great scale in those improvements. Often, however, we neglect all the stuff on the margins around the core activities.

Yet there are often greater gains to be found in the marginal activities, because they have received less attention than core activities. Just by focusing on them a bit, they can improve.

Shift start is a great example. There are many things that we cram into this period: stopping things, starting things, communicating things, organizing things. We tend to have more meetings right around shift start than at any other time of the day. And yet we either haven’t started production or haven’t gotten up to full speed yet. Do you measure the time from shift start until you reach full production?

In examining one operation, we found that it wasn’t just shift start but the start of the week that had the most to gain. We lost an average of half a shift not being up to speed. Equipment needed to warm up; the line needed to fill. Simply by bringing in six people four hours earlier, we were able to gain more production than with any other improvement.

Meeting starts follow a similar pattern. We might build an agenda and be thoughtful about who to include in the meeting, but then we miss the 10 people sitting around for six minutes (equaling a total of an hour’s capacity) waiting for the meeting to start. Analyze the reasons a particular meeting starts late (not all meetings as the causes are too generic). It could be the location, the time, other meetings or other reasons. I’ve found that once meeting owners actually focus on this, if they honestly face the reasons, they can make solid gains.

New product introduction is one of the more massive handoffs we have, from a range of development activities and resources to a range of production activities and resources. Start by looking at how many problems are solved during new product introduction that could have been solved before the process began.How clean are the handoffs, meaning are there rework loops? And how quickly are problems found and owned, which can be a problem when two different organizations begin to overlap?

New employee orientation can be another underappreciated waste. I don’t mean the event of orientation but the process involving everything until the person becomes as proficient at their job as their predecessor. For some simple math, imagine you have 5% turnover and it takes you eight months until someone is proficient. What is it worth to the organization to get that down to four months? Yet once the person is hired and in a job, we tend to consider the problem solved. This involves methodologies such as Training Within Industry, coaching and mentoring for the employee, and clear ownership between HR and functional managers on the related tasks.

If you examine these opportunities, there is a pattern in them. They are all connections, or handoffs. We tend to spend more time optimizing our activities (how we do something) and less time on improving the connections. There are two primary reasons for this. First, they are less visible. We might measure our activities down to the finest level of detail, but the connections usually require more observation to truly understand them. Second, they aren’t owned. Activity A is owned by one resource, and Activity B is owned by another. But who owns the connection? Perhaps both, or neither. Lack of clarity in owning the connections means they receive less attention. The connections in your organization are often missed opportunities for improvement. Every handoff is an opportunity for a delay or an error. Eliminate handoffs where you can, and structure and improve them where you can’t.

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