Are you working on the wrong problems?

By Rick Wheeler, Life Cycle Engineering
As published in SMRP Solutions magazine

Anyone that has ever worked in a manufacturing site has been told “that area or equipment is our problem child or bottleneck”. But is it really? Would a detailed analysis of the data agree with the popular opinion?

We often find that what popular opinion or folk lore say is the problem isn’t really the biggest issue. This happens for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it’s the issue that got the boss’s attention, or worse yet, their boss’s attention, so it becomes the focal point. Perhaps years ago that was the bottleneck based on the production plan at that time. People grew accustomed to it and their thinking didn’t evolve as the business conditions changed. In other cases a total lack of collection and review of process data makes it impossible for people to recognize where the real losses are occurring. Think about the old adage about the frog and the boiling water: the frog just sits there as the water gets hotter and hotter until it’s too late. We often work with clients who, like that frog, are sitting there doing the same things over and over while their worlds get hotter and hotter until one day they realize they have got a major problem!

I recently worked in a plant that was positively sure that the end product assembly area was the bottleneck of the whole facility. I asked a cross-section of the people working in that plant how they knew that. They had various theories and circumstantial evidence of why that was the plant’s bottleneck. However none of the theories seemed to add up. So we assembled a cross-functional team and developed a high-level value stream map of the process. For those of you not familiar with value stream mapping, I’ll share the following.

Value steam mapping (VSM) is a visual means to depict and improve the flow of the manufacturing and production processes, as well as the information that controls the flow of materials through the process. It is the preferred methodology for identifying the inherent losses within an operation.

As a management tool, VSM is used to graphically illustrate, analyze and understand the flow of materials and the information needed to process them. Unlike process maps that are limited to mapping the sequence of tasks that are performed to complete a procedure or process, value-stream mapping provides the means to:

  • Display the interaction between multiple functions within the manufacturing process as well as ancillary functions such as production planning, scheduling, and materials management, etc.
  • Show the flow of information (communications) and materials throughout the complete manufacturing or production process. Coordination and in-process materials are common sources of significant loss in far too many plants. Value-stream mapping provides the means to visualize and recognize these limiting factors.
  • Highlight problems, inefficiencies and losses within complex systems. Since the value stream map integrates information and materials flow, as well as the sequence of tasks—including cycle time and lag between tasks—the ability to identify restrictions, bottlenecks and all other factors that limit effectiveness and efficiency is greatly enhanced.
  • Develop and implement countermeasures in a highly visual way that facilitates culture change within the organization. The entire value-stream mapping process utilizes graphical depictions of limiting factors that all stakeholders can easily visualize. The process is also designed to actively involve all stakeholders in each stage.
  • Focus direction for the lean transformation teams, front-line supervision and upper management towards continuous improvement.
  • Serve as a dashboard to monitor and continuously improve the process

In the plant with the bottleneck mentioned above, their process started with receiving raw materials, conversion and various processing of those raw materials into various components, assembly of those components into a final product, and packaging of the final product for distribution. Our value stream map broke that work into eight major operations.

The first thing we learned by building the map was that while the plant had 90+% of the data required, no one was looking at it in this manner. It took several days and iterations to actually collect the data and build the map. The second thing we learned was that popular opinion about the plant bottleneck was wrong.

It was true that the product assembly process got a lot of attention when things went wrong. It was also true that the potential for big impacts to the bottom line existed in that area so it certainly had management attention. But when we examined the data a couple of things became evident. The equipment was designed to operate at a rate that could easily outrun the upstream areas. However, due to a high level of quality rejects the operations group had dialed the equipment back to a lower speed. There were also administrative processes around the supply of the components and associated paperwork that caused delays in startup which negatively impacted output.

Those were certainly useful things to learn and plans were put in place to reduce the quality rejects by returning the equipment to its like-new condition. There was also an effort made to improve the efficiency of the paperwork process. However, returning this area to a condition where it could reliably operate closer to design rate would, in fact, not increase the overall all throughput of the plant.

What the VSM revealed was that the process directly upstream was in fact the limiting factor for production. The most interesting response to this revelation was from the site leadership team. They initially rejected the findings and asked that we recalculate them. We had the team review the value stream map with the process engineering group and they “validated” our findings.

Let that fact sink in. It’s a great example of how strong the folklore or accepted common knowledge can be. Even when presented with data that clearly shows that the folklore is wrong and we are focusing on the wrong problems we still find it difficult to accept.

So again I ask, are you working on the wrong problems? Don’t just trust the accepted common knowledge. Use the value stream mapping process to analyze the data and remove the subjective biases that exist in every organization. It will help you get out of the hot water before it’s too late!

Rick Wheeler is a Principal Consultant with Life Cycle Engineering (LCE). He has a broad range of experience in the pharmaceutical, chemical and nuclear industries. Rick trains clients on best practices and coaches corporate and site leadership teams on organizational change management. He has led many process improvement initiatives resulting in substantial cost savings. You can reach Rick at [email protected].

© Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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