Lean Processes and DOWNTIME

While it hasn’t always been practiced with any great rigor, the concept of waste reduction has long been a part of American business tradition. Ben Franklin’s common- sense reminders of “waste not, want not,” and “a penny saved is a penny earned” have been well taken by such luminaries as Henry Ford, who introduced the modern assembly line, and the founders of time-and-motion studies and scientific management, Frank Gilbreth and Frederick Winslow Taylor. By the 1970s, Japanese industrial engineers had integrated all these concepts and more into a framework that eventually came to be known as lean manufacturing. Mostly derived from the Toyota Production System (TPS) and guided by industrial engineers Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo, lean manufacturing is based on the idea of preserving (or increasing) value with less work. In the parlance of lean manufacturing, anything that doesn’t increase value in the eye of the customer must be considered waste, and every effort should be made to eliminate that waste.

It’s easy to see how this mindset can be generalized to any systematic business process, and indeed it has. In recent years, businesses of all types have begun to implement lean processes, often simply referred to as “Lean.” Eight forms of waste have been defined and targeted: seven from the original TPS system, and one added by American experts as the concept became more obvious to and accepted by mainstream business. Numerous acronyms for these Eight Wastes have been proposed as aids to memory, but the one that seems to have caught on best is DOWNTIME. It’s simple, straightforward, and appropriate. Here’s what each of the letters stands for:
Defects
Overproduction
Waiting
Non-utilized/underutilized talent
Transportation
Inventory
Motion
Excess Processing

Systematic elimination of these wastes can result in faster processes, lower costs, higher quality, happier workers and, most importantly, happier customers. In this article, we’ll take a look at each of the DOWNTIME wastes in detail.

D is for Defects: mistakes that require additional time, resources, and money to fix. In a manufacturing process, a defect might involve a defective part that has to be remade; in a white-collar job, it might include erroneous paperwork that needs to be redone. Defects tend to be the result of:

• Poor quality control
• Poor repair
• Poor documentation
• Lack of standards
• Weak or missing processes
• A misunderstanding of customer needs
• Poor inventory control
• Poor design
• Undocumented design changes

Completely eradicating any form of waste is impossible, but defects can certainly be limited by the application of standardized work plans, more stringent quality control at all levels, a full understanding of work requirements and customer needs, and simple job aids such as checklists.

The O in DOWNTIME stands for Overproduction. In some organizations, workers just blindly keep producing, even when those who receive their output either aren’t ready for it or don’t need it. Basically, what you end up with is too much stuff, too early, that the customer doesn’t necessarily want. This is especially common in manufacturing, but it can occur in any workplace situation in which there’s a bottleneck. Overproduction may occur due to:

• Just-in-case production
• Unclear customer needs
• Producing to a forecast
• Long set-up times
• Attempts to avoid long set-up times
• Poorly applied automation

The solution to overproduction is to establish a reasonable work flow for the benefit of the customer, which in this case is whoever acts as the downstream consumer of what you produce: your client, another organization within the company, the general public, or whatever the case may be. Be sure that there are well-established procedures in place for every process in your organization, and if necessary, implement new processes to keep work from backing up behind particular bottlenecks in the organization.

Speaking of bottlenecks, one of the worst in any organization is Waiting, the third letter in DOWNTIME. This is actual downtime, which occurs whenever work has to stop for some reason: because the next person in line is overwhelmed, because something broke down, because you’re waiting for approval, or because you’ve run out of something. Causes of waiting can also include:

• Mismatched production rates
• Very long set-up times
• Poor shop layout
• Insufficient staffing
• Work absences
• Poor communications

Whatever the cause, workers have to sit around twiddling their thumbs while waiting for the bottleneck to be cleared. There are many ways to handle this, though some may run up against other waste reduction efforts; one of the more obvious is the need to provide adequate staffing to handle the workload at the bottlenecks, which some managers may target as a source of monetary waste. Otherwise, efforts to push decision-making ability to lower levels, better quality control to ensure the reliability of necessary machinery and systems, better supply control, and employee cross-training to prevent bottlenecking during absences can all serve to limit this form of waste.

The concept of Non-utilized/underutilized talent, while not included in the original Japanese list of the seven wastes, is an integral part of the American concept of DOWNTIME. Rather than being transparent to the system, people themselves have been plugged into the equation, in the sense that poor utilization of existing talents, ideas, abilities, and skill sets is a waste as real as using ten pounds of iron when five will do. This type of waste can be caused by a myriad of things, not least:

• Lack of teamwork
• Lack of training
• Poor communications
• Management’s refusal to include employees in problem-solving
• Narrowly defined jobs and expectations
• Poor management in general

If the above list sounds oddly familiar, it should: many of these failings are the same ones that result in a lack of employee engagement, which can hamstring any organization’s productivity. Failing to eliminate these lapses will result in a lessened ability to tap into the human resources available to you, which makes it difficult to effectively attack the other seven DOWNTIME wastes. You know the solution: empower your employees, rectify any lacks in their training, and stop micromanaging. Basically, you have to treat experienced people as process experts who know what they’re doing, not as interchangeable spare parts in your system. Don’t just tell them what to do: ask them to think, too.

Our Fifth Deadly Waste is Transportation: waste caused by moving things around. This is less of a problem in a business office than in a manufacturing plant, since most of what white collar workers “transport” can be sent by email these days. Otherwise, too much transportation tends to increase costs, wastes time, increases the likelihood of product damage and deterioration, and can result in poor communication. In general, transportation waste can be caused by:

• Poor plant/office layout
• Excessive or unnecessary handling
• Misaligned process flow
• Poorly-designed systems
• Unnecessary steps in system processes

Like most DOWNTIME wastes, transportation issues can be defeated by common-sense efforts such as simplifying processes, repairing physical layouts, handling products less often, and making distances between steps as short as possible. In an office situation, simply providing enough printers and other equipment for everyone can limit transportation waste.

Next up is Inventory, another item more important in manufacturing that in the standard office environment, but still something you must be aware of. The actual issue here is having too much inventory. The industrial methodologies that spawned the concept of Lean are based on the practice of Just-In-Time production, in which products are made only when they’re needed, not based on a forecast. A good example is a restaurant that cooks your food only when you order it, as opposed to one that has a series of entrees ready to pop in a microwave. While the former takes a while, it produces only when there’s a demand, so waste is minimal and the product is fresher. The latter may get your food to you more quickly, but it’s not as fresh—and often, they have a lot of entrees left over at the end of the day.

Otherwise, excess Inventory may be caused by:

• Overproduction
• Poor layout
• Mismatched production speeds
• Unreliable suppliers
• Long set-up times
• Misunderstood customer needs

Basically, eliminating excess inventory involves adjusting the workflow and adopting the J-I-T process, which can be adapted to office environments as well as manufacturing. Remember, all you really need to do is produce enough to satisfy your downstream customer.

Next up is excess Motion, because simply having to move around too much can slow you down significantly. Here’s a classic example: an industrial engineer once observed that bricklayers often worked from piles of loose bricks placed at foot level, so that every time a worker reached for a brick, they had to bend all the way down to the ground. Putting the bricks on a platform at waist level sped up the bricklayers by as much as three times. Get the picture? The more you have to move around reaching for that file or trotting back and forth between your desk and the printer, the more time gets wasted. Typical causes of excessive motion include:

• Poor workstation/shop layout
• Poor housekeeping
• Shared tools and machines
• Workstation congestion
• Isolated operations
• Lack of standards
• Poor process design and controls

The solution here is to tighten things up: basically, to make sure everything can be easily located and put into play whenever it’s needed. Re-arrange the office or shop layout to decrease the distance between stations, and make it easier to reach things that are often used. Make sure all tools and parts are close at hand, and provide extra printers, copiers, and fax machines for your employees. Standardize all folders, drawers, and cabinets, and make sure everything stays organized so that it doesn’t take more than a few seconds for anyone to find a file they need. Finally, make sure everything about the work area stays neat.

E, the final letter in DOWNTIME, is for Excess Processing. This is any unnecessary effort expended in order to complete a task: double-handling, permission seeking, unnecessary steps, re-entering data, making too many copies or reports, and the like. Excess Processing can arise from:

• Poor process control
• Lack of standards
• Poor communication
• Overdesigned equipment
• Misunderstanding of the customer’s needs
• Human error
• Producing to forecast

Whatever the cause, the result is predictable: wasted money, time, effort, and resources. Your only option is to closely examine your processes and fix them: institute standard operating procedures, empower employees, get your documentation up to par, implement J-I-T processes (if applicable), and do everything you can to shrink processes without sacrificing quality. If you’re working in an office, stop copying everyone on emails and quit sending out so many reports…and see who screams. Eliminate as many meetings as you can, and let people do their jobs without getting permission every step of the way.

In Conclusion…
DOWNTIME, DOTWIMP, TIM WOODS, WORMPIT, TO WISDOM—there are various acronymous ways to internalize and remember the seven or eight wastes associated with Lean, depending on how you define and order them. We’ve chosen DOWNTIME not only because it’s easy to remember, but also because it makes more intuitive sense than the others. “Downtime”—time wasted instead of adding value to the final product—is a common result of all eight of the wastes described here.

The point is to recognize these problems in your organization and to develop a thorough understanding of them, so that you can take corrective actions to limit them. Being human, we’ll never eliminate waste completely; but an organization that can trim away most of the fat will be more agile and more capable of competing in any marketplace. The ability to move at the rate of customer demand, by producing exactly what’s needed when it’s needed, will allow for a saner workplace in which productivity and profitability can rise to remarkable levels.

 

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