Do you remember the classic 1954 movie, “On the Waterfront”? Remember those scenes in which the longshoremen were in the cargo hold off-loading ships? The work was done manually. Cargo nets were lowered into the cargo hold and filled by hand, and then the process was reversed as cranes lifted the cargo nets and swung them over to the pier. It was labor-intensive and slow.
In the 1950s, shipment of goods by ocean-going freighter was in decline. It took longer and longer to get cargo delivered. Ports became badly congested as ships waited to be loaded or off-loaded. When merchandise sat idle waiting to be loaded, it was increasingly subject to theft at the docks. Costs rose while shippers and customers grew more and more impatient with the losses and delays.[pullquote]
For many years, the shipping industry tried to deal with rising costs by designing and building ships that were faster, were bigger, and could be operated by smaller and smaller crews. In short, the shipping industry concentrated on improving the economics of ships while the ships were in transit from one port to the next. The problem was that the shipping industry was working on the wrong problem.
The main expense of a ship is the interest on the invested capital. Ships cost money every minute of the day, regardless of whether they are in port or at sea, similar to the investment in plant assets. Ships make money when they are transporting materials, and they lose revenue whenever they are delayed. Constant overhead with reduced revenues means less, or no, profits.
Ships were designed to be faster, to hold more cargo, and to be operated by smaller and smaller crews. Ships simply got more cargo to the congested ports faster; they waited in line longer and took more time to load and unload. There was still a bottleneck at the pier, much like the time it takes craftsmen to walk down jobs, order materials, or coordinate work times. Those activities displace the actual work that the craftsmen could be doing.
The right problem to work on then is neither how fast the ship moved from point to point nor how many people were required to operate the ship. The problem to solve was how to increase the turnaround time at the dock so the ships could be making more revenue-generating trips each year.
When the shipping industry focused on the right problem, things began to change. The result was the emergence of the roll-on/roll-off (RORO) and container ships. The industry shifted to loading and unloading freight in containers that were more easily handled and transferred to and from rail cars and trucks. Modular blocks of materials could be transferred quickly. Organizing the freight before it was brought to the dock reduced the time at the pier. Improved turnaround time allowed the valuable resources to be utilized more fully.
The results have been dramatic. In the 30 years between 1955 and 1985 ocean-going freight volume increased 500%, while overall unit cost per ton shipped was reduced by 60%. Time spent in and around ports was reduced by 75%; congestion and theft dropped substantially.
The lesson: Always work on the right problem.
Just as shipping companies in the 1950s focused on the wrong problem, plant and maintenance managers sometimes focus on buying mobile technology, golf carts, and pick-up trucks to get craftsmen to and from the jobsite faster, thinking that will greatly improve utilization. That’s working on the wrong problem.
For maintenance organizations, high-value resources are craftsmen. The right problem to work on is to remove barriers that keep these high-value resources from performing the maximum volume of value-added work. Craftsmen should maximize the number of high-quality jobs completed. Concentrate on reducing nonproductive activities for better craftsmen utilization.
The best way to do this is to be designing, implementing, and sustaining good work management processes. Drive work toward planned and scheduled tasks; appreciate and reward avoidance of unscheduled work. Craftsmen should be freed up to be focused on high-quality workmanship. Free them up by getting control of the work. A planning function should walk down the job, develop task descriptions, and arrange for parts, materials, and permits. A scheduler function coordinates and allocates work to available craftsmen days ahead of when the work will be performed. Foremen and line supervisors keep disruptions away from craftsmen. Measure performance and keep everyone accountable to efficient operations.
Solving the right problem will reduce cost and increase productivity.