Efficiency is in everyone’s interest. However, achieving it is heavily dependent on the quality and timeliness of crucial performance data. Live, real-time information is crucial for any manufacturing business.

Waste benefits nobody, whether it is a waste of materials, time or energy. … One of the things that I have learned in manufacturing is that the operators almost always know a better way to do things. After all, when the process jams up it is the operators on the factory floor who have to clean up the mess, not the decision makers upstairs. However, in my experience, the voice of the operators is often the most ignored.

It seems strange, then, that management often relies on the purchase of new equipment to grow capacity rather than investing in getting the most out of the people and machinery already in place. With most industries averaging an efficiency, measured as overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), between 30 percent and 50 percent there is clearly more to gain from what is already there.

Every day a fresh story seems to be breaking in the media of yet another manufacturing facility closing, with hundreds of jobs lost. I often wonder how this is possible if management has been making decisions based on the right information, made available at the right time. I also wonder how much time, if any, management has invested in training themselves to become an efficient low-cost producer.

Professional sports teams provide a wonderful example for manufacturing teams to learn from. Consider a football team. The players are much like the operators; the team captain is the supervisor who makes sure that all players put in for their shift; and the medical, physiotherapy and fitness trainers are the maintenance department.

What gives a team a competitive advantage? Most obviously, the players need to be fit to play. No player can expect to be physically fit without training, and fitness takes time and commitment; it doesn’t happen on its own.

There are two critical areas that a football team depends on to stay on top of its game. The first is access to live information. Good teams train hard, exhaustively monitoring their performance as they practice strategies they believe will lead to victory. On match day, every key detail is measured as it happens and real-time decisions are executed based on up-to-the-second information.

The second critical area is coaching. Professional teams have specialist defensive, attacking and even goal-keeping coaches – all working directly with the players, monitoring performance, giving feedback and improving their game. This is what it takes to win when faced with serious competition.

Reinforcing Reflexivity

Access to the information we rely on to make decisions impacts something I call “reflexivity.” By this I mean that our best responses can only be as good as the timeliness of the information that would trigger these responses. Poor reflexivity makes it hard for coaches to help the operators be the world’s best, most efficient, lowest-cost producers. It is all but impossible to lift performance when it counts the most if the team has to wait until tomorrow to see the current scores for today’s game.

And yet, most manufacturing businesses can only review their operational performance tomorrow at best, and on average at the end of the week. All too often key information is not available at all; or if it is, it is too late and too hard to understand, use and apply.

Consider the cycle of obtaining product information in a typical organization. This is normally written by the operators on manual worksheets at the machines. If you have ever perused one of these worksheets, you would have quickly noticed that everything seems to be recorded in blocks of five or ten minutes. If something took two minutes, or if the operator was busy, it isn’t even written down. In other words, accuracy is entirely dependent on the availability and discretion of the operator filling out the form.

Consequently, reflexivity is minimal. Before any decisions can be made, the worksheet must, firstly, be completed; then physically collected; then entered in to a computer; and finally, the piece of paper itself may be archived. This process takes considerable time and labor and yields costly, low-quality information, which is not even available when it is needed.

Live information is a must-have for any manufacturing business to sustain a competitive advantage. There are many vendors who supply solutions for collecting real-time feedback. However, collecting accurate information is only one part of the total solution. Engaging operators to work with these tools and make the most of a suite of sharp analytic reporting capabilities is important too.

The most critical element, though, is accessibility and ease of use. Great information is completely useless if it can’t be understood or accessed when and where it is needed. Having it in a computer on someone’s desk may be better than on a piece of paper. But true accessibility is the power to see what is going on all of the time, whether at work, on your home computer, or using your tablet or smartphone.

What happens next is magical. Suddenly, just like the football team, the coaches have the power of knowing how everyone is going right now. Key information is no longer invisible but is readily accessible to all. Like any football player in front of an enthusiastic crowd, operators lift their game, knowing that their performance is being monitored; and they respond in kind by challenging the coaches (that is, management) to help fix deficiencies they identify.

Management now has incorruptible facts with which to track initiatives and to justify improvements where they are warranted. The feedback loop is complete. And because quality of feedback is necessarily dependent on the attentiveness of the listener, the more managers listen, the more operations will contribute. The result is a positive feedback loop where all team members are engaged and interested in improving efficiency. This feedback dynamic has long been understood in sport and is a standard practice applied by all professional football teams.

I believe the same approach can and ought to be applied in every manufacturing business. Live information, easily understood and accessible, given to operators and managers. In every case, improvements will quickly follow.

Editor’s note: Originally published in AMT Magazine.

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