Lean Six Sigma

4 steps to responding to real-time problems

If your plan is to improve processes and reduce downtime but you’re not even at the ballgame, it’s time to embrace smart manufacturing.

By Bob Argyle, Leading2Lean

Have you ever attended a football or basketball game where the coaches are missing – where no one, not even an assistant coach, is on the sidelines giving direction, instruction, and encouragement, and the players on the field are merely told to play hard and win? Hopefully, you’ve never witnessed a game like this. It’s chaos.

Just as the physical presence of a coach is vital to a successful sporting match, the presence and oversight of maintenance, operations, and plant management on the production floor is vital to successful plant operations. It ensures that equipment is functioning properly, employees are able to effectively do their jobs, and production goals are being met.

Realistically, we know that not all plant managers can spend their entire time walking the production line. But thanks to advances in technology, there are ways for those managers to virtually know exactly what is happening in their plant in real time. That way, their trips to the factory floor are more focused and productive.

With a simple text alert, pop-up message, or ping on a smartphone, tablet, or computer, bottlenecks or downed machines on a busy production line can be identified immediately. Issues that need to be addressed also can be escalated based on severity and impact. This helps ensure that problems are not just visible but that they are actually seen.

Looking for immediate solutions? Here are four things to consider implementing immediately that will get you closer to actively responding to real-time problems.

1. Let go of paper

Most employees own a smartphone, so it’s time your industrial plant embraced similar technology. Pull down all the whiteboards and the clipboards that have paper tracking sheets. Start thinking of ways to utilize the technology you already hold in your hand. If that smartphone technology can help you navigate your way in an unknown city, it can certainly be harnessed to track problems on your plant floor.

Think of it this way: 30 years ago, if you were driving home from work and someone wanted to get a hold of you on the phone, he or she couldn’t, right? Now, however, it doesn’t matter if you’re home – people can still reach you.

The same is true of real-time manufacturing technology. When a problem strikes and you aren’t able to see that problem in real time, it’s like you never knew it happened. But by combining  real-time and mobile technologies, no matter where you are – on the plant floor, in your manager’s office, out to lunch, or home in bed – you can easily be alerted to immediate problems in your plant. Thus, opportunities for real improvement can be acted upon instead of getting lost or buried in the past.

2. Use the technology you have, with an upgrade

Find some sort of application, system, or software-as-a-service (SaaS) for your mobile and desktop computers that will allow you to identify, capture, and instantly record problems as they happen on the plant floor. This technology must be able to track data in real time, as opposed to doing a manual data dump at the end of each night.

Maybe you’ve tried some simple apps or cobbled together your own system, but now you’re looking for a more-comprehensive playbook. Both large and small plants are embracing manufacturing-specific cloud-based software. Whatever technology you implement, realize that you need a method that is visibly displaying problems as they are happening.

3. Embrace transparency

Back in our coaching scenario, the entire team and every individual teammate knows exactly what to do during a specific play based on the previous results of the game. The coach has given everyone a specific assignment, task, or goal – sack the quarterback, use man-to-man defense, or even punt the ball.

Similarly, for data to truly be actionable on the plant floor, it must be visible to everyone in real time (from the production line to the boardroom) so that problems or inefficiencies can be tackled immediately.

Transparency is also how you will find truth on the assembly line. If data are presented in a visual manner, problems can be easily identified while also providing an irrefutable case when you need to rally support for directing resources to specific problems. Collecting this real-time data also provides more accurate historical data, surfacing the chronic issues so they can be addressed. It’s amazing what I see during my factory visits. I find that there are many creative ways of getting production through the process and out the door. I like to refer to it as jumping through hoops. What if we just eliminated the obstacles, which would eliminate the need for the expert hoop-jumpers?

4. Identify root problems

When similar problems persist day in and day out, it’s time to put effort into digging deeper to discover the root of the problem.

For example, if you continually have to restart your computer throughout the day because it freezes up, it might seem normal and become part of your daily routine. But that is the problem. Why has rebooting your computer daily become routine? It’s time to research the problem and find out exactly why the computer stops working. Once you find and fix the issue, you might be surprised at how much more productive you become.

Sure, major breakdowns happen on a production line from time to time, but chronic, daily issues should ultimately become your biggest concern.

As a coach, if your game plan is to improve processes, increase productivity, reduce downtime, and better maintain equipment, but you’re not even at the ballgame, it’s time to embrace smart manufacturing with an eye to real-time analytics. These four quick ideas will help initiate the process, but now is the time to get all your coaches, players, and support staff at the same game, too, so everyone can react immediately and change the game plan for a winning outcome.