01 May 2023

Don’t Make Time Studies and Productivity Improvements Overly Complicated

Over the years, I have noticed manufacturing operations tend to make productivity reviews and improvements overly complicated. It seems the larger the organization, the greater the complexity and delays due to bureaucracy and the proverbial “silos”, where you would have to send an army of manufacturing engineers to the area to study takt times, movements and create flow charts and then computer simulations.

In February 2020, I was looking into an assembly operation appearing to be underperforming. The company had more than 300 employees in 3 separate facilities. There were no process documents or labor standards, but this particular operation was geared to long run assembly operations.

I began by spending “casual time” in the plant subtly monitoring the throughput of the various stations and recording the time product spent in each station. Through the casual observations, I was able to keep track of the time and calculate theoretical throughput quantities. It was obvious no station spent more than 15 minutes “hands on” with the product, yet the daily outputs were proving to be 8-12 units per day on each line. There were two lines producing the product, yet their combined daily total never exceeded 24 units.

I spent time during the next couple of days double checking my reviews and was convinced the lines were running at less than 50%. The next step was to spend time casually talking to each of the members of the lines to specifically determine challenges they experienced that might cause delays. The conversations revealed no significant issues, as the products were highly repetitive.
The plan unfolded to bring in just one of the lines on a Saturday morning, to run an experiment to determine the true throughput capabilities of the lines. We brought in the normal employees in their daily roles for the test. At the start of the morning, I pulled the entire group together to inform them it was my observation the cycle times at each station were no more than 15 minutes. To offer a little buffer, I informed the group we would be moving the product out of each station in 18 minutes. If a station completed their operation in less than 18 minutes, they were instructed to hold the product until they were instructed to move the product down the conveyor table.

To “exaggerate” the process, I brought in a traditional egg timer and small party air horn, purchased at the local Walmart. People ask why not just a stopwatch or cell phone, it was to have the annoying ringer of the egg timer sound, followed by a blast from the air horn. The egg timer was placed at the first station of the line, so the folks at the beginning would know their exact time. From my studies, it was obvious to me this station was the primary reason for the low output. I know a “push” system is not optimal, but in this case it was useful to show the true potential.

From the start, every station moved product at the 18-minute mark with no difficulty. It was obvious at this pace, folks were not being asked to overly exert themselves to keep pace.

At the end of the test, we learned the pace was reasonable. I pulled the group together to review the results and ask each station for any challenges experienced. None were noted. At this point we set the goal for each line to product 25 units per day, starting Monday.
Without exception, the two lines produced 48-50 units per day, literally cutting the labor cost for those specific functions in half. The moral of the story is that labor analyses and productivity improvements do not have to be these very complex operations. Common sense and leadership can make huge gains, particularly in smaller operations lacking sophisticated resources.

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