Times Past, Present and Future

The New Year is a good time for reflection and review, for planning the year ahead and for resolving to improve. The time of year – and the title of this blog – Manufacturing Times – got me to thinking about the importance of time in a business. In many ways the squandering of time is one of the worst forms of waste – it’s invisible and once it’s gone we can never get it back. As manufacturers our approach to times – manufacturing times – has changed greatly over the last 20 or 30 years, and not always for the better, in my view.

 I’m talking in particular about production times – the time that it takes to achieve a specific task or perform a value-adding operation.

I would argue that accurate times – or at least good estimates – are pretty much essential for a well-run manufacturing business. Why? Because they’re so fundamental – we need accurate times so that we can:

  • Calculate the true cost of a product, so that we know the margin or contribution that each product creates
  • Plan the loading of machines and people, so that we have the right capacity in the right place at the right time
  • Establish a realistic production schedule, so that everyone knows what to make when
  • Quote achievable and competitive lead-times, so that we attract and retain customers
  • Measure performance, so that we know where we’re doing well and where we need to improve

Back in the early days of mass-production there was a great emphasis on Scientific Management, Work Study, Industrial Engineering and the like. With the advent of Lean Thinking, many manufacturers no longer have any effective means of establishing accuracte production times. This strikes me as particularly ironic since many of the great pioneers of Lean – including Taichi Ohno at Toyota – were first and foremost Industrial Engineers. Perhaps we no longer want to employ the armies of Work Study engineers that were once common in most manufacturing businesses but in my view it’s essential that we at least understand and apply the basic principles.  In a future article we’ll consider exactly how to calculate Standard Times but for the moment let’s look at some of the basics:

Perhaps the most important point – and one that confuses many people – is that we need to establish a “standard” time for each operation. This should represent the time taken by a competent operator to perform the task at the maximum rate that can comfortably be sustained over the working day and working week. The word “Standard” is so important – Lean is all about setting standards, measuring and improving performance and following “One Best Way”. Employing a random group of individuals and having each of them do things in their own way and at their own speed and to their own level of competence might be the right approach for a group of creative professionals but in most production environments it’s often a recipe for poor performance, low morale and ineffective leadership. Let’s think first about how we should approach the task of establishing Standard Times:

  •  involve the people who work in the area that’s being measured – where possible, train them to do this
  • start with the current “one best way” of performing each task
  • wherever possible, assess a competent, trained operator
  • take at least ten measurements of the time taken for each task (statistically, the accuracy of our results depends greatly on the number of measurements or observations that we take), and use the average (mean) of these

If you’re one of those many manufacturers who would benefit from more accurate production times, I hope that you’ll “resolve” to tackle this in the New Year and we very much look forward to hearing your comments and experiences …….

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