It is no secret that visibility is essential to optimizing your manufacturing operations. With incoming materials and outgoing orders all tracked and managed from a spreadsheet or paper forms, it is near impossible to understand what is truly happening on your plant floor, let alone where you should focus your improvement efforts.
In our recent webinar, You Can’t Fix What You Can’t See: Three Ways to Shine the Light on Optimizing Operations, participants were asked if they could express how their operation is performing without leaving their chairs. Not surprisingly, 35% said no, and that’s not uncommon. In the competitive world of manufacturing, process manufacturers are faced with the challenge to gain true visibility into their plant operations and optimize with the resources available — this is not an easy task. However, with the right approach and tools, it is possible.
To improve a process or operation you have to understand your current performance levels first, and to do this you must have visibility of your operation. Once you know where you are you can plot a course to where you want to be, then prioritize and deploy existing resources to move toward your goals. All of this starts with a decision and carries forward with more and more decisions. These decisions will shift from reactive to proactive along this journey, and the only way to do that effectively is with accurate and robust information. This post will go over three ways you and your teams can do this.
1. Understand Challenges To Continuous Improvement
Continuous Improvement is a necessary part of manufacturing to stay competitive in an ever-evolving market. Understanding the challenges of continuous improvement is the first step in solving them. Sometimes that means asking the hard questions and uncovering hard truths about your operations, but this is the fuel for improvement.
Lack of Visibility
Throughout the manufacturing industry, there is a lack of visibility and understanding of the current state of their operations. Real-time visibility is a major challenge for many manufacturing enterprises but it’s not just about getting the data; it’s about getting the right data at the right time and using it for the best outcomes.
Even if you have the best data, are you able to distill it down into an organized list of things that are happening and how they’re working? To have a clear understanding of the current state of your operation, there are four main questions you can ask yourself:
- What’s really happening on each line?
- How are we capturing data?
- How are we viewing downtime?
- What is the capacity of my resources?
If you don’t know the answer to all of these questions, it’s likely you have less than optimal visibility of your current state. Without true visibility, continuous improvement is nearly impossible. It’s like driving your car by only looking at the rear-view mirror.
Manufacturing facilities saw a 39.9% loss of employees last year, drastically adding to the age-old challenge of finding and keeping the right talent in your organization. That’s why it’s so important for managers to get to know their team members on the floor, find out their strengths, and leverage their experience and wisdom. We work for people, we’re employed by companies.
From low numbers of qualified and trained employees to high turnover, continuous improvement is made particularly challenging when your human capital is inadequately trained. If you have people coming in and out of your operation, they must learn new processes and steps, which will slow down production and improvement. Conversely, even if you have the best people in place, it won’t help with continuous improvement if they don’t understand the concept or how they can contribute to it.
When you show your operators they are not “just a number,” and give them a clear understanding of the value they’re providing with the effort they give and the data they record, they have a more vested interest in the organization overall. Getting information from your operators can be invaluable to improving your processes.
You may have employees in maintenance or on the line who are capable of much more than just what they were hired to do. Since they are already a part of your organization, they have unique and valuable insights that can assist with continuous improvement.
Your company culture should provide a supportive environment to retain those you have. Provide them with the right tools and information to do the things they’re hired to do and to appreciate their contribution to the organization. It’s helpful to teach them how to understand how the data and information they provide are helping the company, so they can feel confident having conversations about it.
When your workers feel appreciated and valued, their work becomes more meaningful for them and they’re more likely to put their best feet forward for your company. If they’re able to measure their own performance by the data they’re given, they’re more likely to appreciate it.
Your employees should be properly trained so they can do their best work, which will in turn improve their working conditions and make them more likely to contribute to your company.
New tools, new technology, new buzzwords, new problems, new goals, and new ideas - all mixed in with the existing processes we are trying to manage and improve. Every piece of every part of your operation is an asset - people, equipment, controls, and more. Today’s managers and stakeholders need to be able to effectively prioritize and deploy their existing resources and assets despite the noise.
Instead of constantly addressing issues as they happen and dealing with the squeakiest wheel in a fire-fighting mode, leaders must be disciplined and learn to respond to operational challenges with data proactively. Using analytics and real-time data, you can have an accurate picture of what’s really happening so you know the right steps to take to make the right changes or improvements. Focusing on data allows leaders to remove some of the haziness surrounding problems, and make sound decisions based on facts and patterns, rather than just trying to quiet the noise.
Relying on Outdated Processes for Manufacturing Optimization
Spreadsheets, tribal knowledge, and word-of-mouth significantly inhibit continuous improvement, as well as outdated or unnecessary process steps and procedures that no longer fit the operation.
Manually collecting line data delays your ability to analyze it and address issues quickly, poses the risk of human error, and increases your chance of receiving inaccurate or inconsistent line data.
Real-time data has become essential to staying competitive and profitable, but this cannot be achieved without adopting the right technologies in each leg of your operations, or without engaging your team members at every level of the organization.
You should also evaluate your processes in the case of downtime. Are you relying on old, outdated processes for tracking the amount of downtime you incur? Does everyone know who’s accountable if the line goes down, and what steps they should take to minimize downtime? Does your team know when a line or process has stopped, or if it is running at the right speed?
Having reliable, accurate, and consistent data will help you develop actionable steps to address these and other issues in a more timely manner. Pen and paper records from yesterday telling operations leadership why they underperformed just isn’t enough to drive improvement these days.
2. Optimizing Resources
In a labor-challenged market like manufacturing, it’s imperative the resources you have are being utilized effectively. How are you allocating and using them? Are they focused on the business priorities and are they deployed efficiently and effectively?
Here are a few questions you can ask to better understand your current labor resource allocation.
- Are all team members clear on what the goals and objectives are each day?
- What non-value add tasks are they being assigned to or doing that could be eliminated or minimized?
- Is double work happening, like entering paper records into a spreadsheet for later analysis and reporting?
- Have benchmarks been set for each role so team members know what is expected of them, and have they been trained to perform optimally in that role?
- Are you training and growing your next set of leaders so they can fill in effectively when called upon?
- Are teams using the same language and verbiage when discussing challenges or objectives so they start from common ground?
- Do you know your team members’ strengths and skills so you can best utilize their time, effort, and knowledge?
Take time to assess the responses to the questions above, and make a plan to address any areas which should be improved. Scrutinize each step in your process and ask how things could be better, and then attack the problems and opportunities presented to the team. You may have equipment or people who can be better utilized to increase production and speed up or simplify processes. If you carry on with the status quo, you will continue to get the same results.
3. Steps for a Smart Approach to Operationalize Efficiencies
If you don’t have a clear understanding of what’s happening on your lines, it makes effective, long-lasting continuous improvement nearly impossible. Downtime is one of the greatest concerns for today’s manufacturers, but many can’t pinpoint the exact causes for why their process stops. Without a culture of urgent, continuous improvement at all levels of your organization, your improvement efforts will flounder and your results will continue on the current trend.
Here are some steps you can take to operationalize an efficiency-focused culture and help you keep your finger on the pulse of your operation.
Automate and integrate the collection of machine data and process performance through sensors, PLC’s, HMI’s and digital operator interfaces. Connect your equipment and systems with Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and digital forms to blend all your data sources and records together into a single source of truth. Be sure you have a clearly-defined process for how that data is collected, who collects it, where it resides, and most importantly, how it will be used to drive your process forward.
Eliminate manual processes for data collection, verification, reporting, and visualization. When you’re able to collect data in real time from machines and automatically apply analytics, compliance, and visualization, it expands your capability to assess that data and use it in an actionable way.
Meaningful dashboards and alerts help teams understand what’s happening in their operation, and ideally they are provided to teams in real-time. Visual dashboards and performance metrics should be put in front of the right people: those who are working on the floor that can take immediate action and effect change, and those who drive and formulate continuous improvement efforts and projects. Teams at all levels should have as much up-to-date information as possible so they can quickly and appropriately respond to any issues.
Use the data you collect to detect trends and build mechanisms to proactively identify issues. These data and information sets will help you hone your processes and stay ahead of any changes or shifts in operational performance, rather than reacting to events.
Align your teams on prioritization, processes, responses, and ownership. Having everything lined up and prioritized increases accountability. Ensure employees understand the objectives of their roles, how to do them effectively and properly, and why they’re important. Lead from the front and inspect what you expect.
Communication Is Key To Manufacturing Optimization
Whether you have two lines or 100, each individual working those lines is going to communicate differently until you align them and get them organized with their communications and objectives.
Operator A and Operator B might be seeing the same issues but communicating them differently, even if they’re getting the same data and information. Often, these workers are viewing data and metrics at the end of their shifts, so they’re not able to address issues in a timely manner.
To get your operators more invested in the outcomes of their work, emphasize the importance of their contributions to the overall organization’s success. Make sure they understand the value they hold in the company and how their successes are critical to the success of the company. Celebrate their wins with them, and thank them for what they do. When they know what the metrics and data mean, why they are put in place, and how it measures their performance, they’re more likely to be invested in achieving success.