There Are No Silver Bullets

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering

If I had a nickel for every time a client has said, “…but you don’t understand, we’re different,” I would be a rich man. While it is true that there are differences, this is too often an excuse we use for not doing what we need to do—acknowledge our shortcomings and admit our imperfections. Then and only then can we overcome limitations and truly achieve our full potential. 

This is especially true when it comes to continuous improvement. I have lost count of the times when I have visited plants that have embraced or adopted Lean, Six Sigma, TPM or one of the other alphabet soup of continuous improvement philosophies only to find they really have not. In many of these plants, the leadership, implementation team, and sometimes even the associates on the floor know all the right words and can parrot all of the important words. But it quickly becomes clear they do not really understand what the words mean or the real philosophy of continuous improvement.  

In a recent visit to a large discrete manufacturing plant, I heard the V.P. of Operations espouse the merits of Lean and the value of Kaizen. What he was really taking about was Kaizen Blitz—short duration, high intensity improvements, not Kaizen—a methodical, long-term continuous improvement process. When asked, he affirmed that their transformation from almost totally reactive to world-class would be accomplished in a few months and with no other effort than a few teams implementing Kaizen. The instant gratification of Kaizen Blitz, even though gains are not sustainable, was his and the company’s preferred solution, rather than a slower, steady journey to sustainable excellence. How one can expect brute force changes, such as those created by blitz activities, will survive without changing the culture that enable the deficiencies in the first place escapes me. Unless and until the enabling culture is changed, nothing is sustainable.

As in this example, we have become a culture that is obsessed with instant gratification and short-term focus. Read any trade magazine or listen to the multitude of continuous improvement consultancies and you will be bombarded with proven solutions to your problems. Although the solutions vary, most share a common theme: the solution is quick, cheap and painless. Some focus on maintenance; others on reliability and still others on production improvement. Maybe it is just me, but none of these solutions and their associated gains ring true.  

A statement I hear often is that maintenance is the sole reason a company cannot capture and retain market share. No matter how hard I try, the logic behind this escapes me. If one really looks into the “maintenance deficiencies” that plague most plants, the true cause is not maintenance. Most deficiencies, regardless of where they are generated, manifest as maintenance issues, e.g. breakdowns, unplanned cost and reduced output. The old saw “One operator can wreck a machine faster than ten mechanics can repair it” is true. To resolve these “maintenance deficiencies” one must address the sources of the visible symptoms and that means deficiencies in production, operations, engineering, procurement and other functions whose combined deficiencies create them. Anything short of a holistic—a total approach to continuous improvement must result in partial, less than desired results.

I have learned with absolute certainty that there are no silver bullets—no quick solutions to the complex issues that must be resolved before any company can capture and retain sufficient market share and margins to assure continuance and profitability. Once this simple fact is accepted, one can begin the process of reengineering with some assurance of success.

Where should you start? There can be only one answer—everywhere, but with production or manufacturing as the focal point. The interdependency of plants and corporations forces a holistic approach. Think about how you would improve your production organization. The best place to start is to eliminate variability in the way work is planned and executed. If one looks at the results of each operating team and shift on a day-to-day basis, the level of variability is clear. Next, eliminate the waste and losses by value-stream mapping all of the work activities required to effectively produce the requisite output; create value-added standard processes and procedures and then enforce them. 

As you go through the process, one thing should become clear—the ability to effectively produce or manufacture depends on the supply chain, engineering, maintenance, human resources, sales—in other words, the entire company. A holistic or total approach is the only option that assures changes that eliminate the loss and waste in today’s environment, precludes recurrence of poor practices, and engrains a culture of continuous improvement.  

Oh, before I forget, there is one other small thing you must do to transform—enforce policies and standards. When did compliance with company policy and adherence to established practices become optional?

A few years ago, I was asked to help a mid-western manufacturer of high-end automotive consumer products. In our initial conversation, the General Manager laid out the problem—they were losing a little more than $2 per unit shipped, resulting in a significant annual loss. He, and others, believed that a technology problem in their foundry was the reason for high scrap rates and low production rates. What we found was quite different. While their foundry technology was dated, the real reason was simply failure of their operators to comply with standard procedures. Their procedures were near perfect; they simply were not being used. As a result, throughput was less than 50% of capacity—not enough to cover fixed costs and their scrap rate in excess of 25%. The truly amazing part of this story is that no one on the management team had any idea that this was going on. Why? For the same reason the problem occurred in the first place: no one from the management team, including the front line supervisors, were on the floor and no one was looking at the performance data. Because they already had valid standards and standard work procedures, solving the problem was straightforward. Get the supervisors back on the floor and universally enforce the procedures. Within a month, the plant was consistently doubling their previous daily output—and making more than $4 per shipped unit.

I can hear you now. “You just don’t understand. We’re different.  We know what’s going on in our plant, and besides we can’t afford to make the kind of investment you’re talking about. It takes too long.” I once felt that way too, but after striving for excellence for these past four plus decades, I encourage you to reconsider your approach. Change takes time and cannot be achieved by selective or partial solutions. No matter how hard or how often you try, there are no silver bullets and no way to shortcut the change process. Approach change with an open mind and patience to see it through. The results are certainly worth the effort.  

Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s letter. Hopefully, it has raised a few thoughts that will help you take the next step in your journey to excellence. I welcome your feedback and am happy to respond to specific questions. You can reach me at [email protected]

Best regards,

R. Keith Mobley
Principal, Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

“There are no silver bullets; change takes time.”

Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of plant performance optimization, reliability engineering, predictive maintenance, and effective management. He has more than 35 years of direct experience in corporate management, process design and troubleshooting. For the past 16 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].

© Life Cycle Engineering.

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