May 10, 2019 Growing & Complex Businesses en_US Manufacturing workflows are a form of quality assurance. Use the strategies in this article to continually increase and optimize your workflows. 4 ways to improve your manufacturing workflows by 30%
Growing & Complex Businesses

4 ways to improve your manufacturing workflows by 30%

By Andrew McDermott May 10, 2019

Are manufacturing workflows essential?

It certainly seems that way. Workflows eliminate waste. They cut costs, ensuring your firm remains competitive in the marketplace. They keep your inventory management costs down. Of course, workflows are essential.

Is your workflow as efficient as it could be?

That’s the thing about workflows. They can be optimized, simplified and/or scaled. There’s typically room for more improvements to be made.

Why does improving manufacturing workflows matter so much?

Manufacturing workflows are a form of quality assurance. A workflow produces a repeatable process manufacturing firms can use to create a consistent, high-quality product.

Your business is essentially a series of processes, each one forming a link in a chain. Here’s why workflows aren’t always as efficient as they could be.

That’s right, I’m talking about bottlenecks.

According to Manufacturship, a bottleneck is anything that interrupts the flow of money through the organization from beginning to end.

It’s a blockage or congestion that restricts or limits production. Your workflow won’t produce the results you need if the bottlenecks aren’t addressed. When we use the word “bottleneck,” what specifically are we looking for?

Bottlenecks are usually:

  • Short or long-term: Short-term bottlenecks are temporary disruptions to workflows (e.g., the loss of a key employee who hasn’t been replaced). Long-term bottlenecks are often indefinite. The negative effect tends to compound over time. It could be an outdated process, faulty machines or obsolete legacy software.
  • Visible or invisible: Visible bottlenecks are either obvious or known. Workflow congestion that has a workaround or will soon be addressed. Invisible bottlenecks, on the other hand, can be known unknowns, unknown knowns or unknown unknowns. Invisible bottlenecks can only be found if you’re actively looking for them. Invisible bottlenecks are indefinite by nature.

Bottlenecks are typically centered around two types of causes:

  • Systems: Typically refer to processes, structures, tools and resources (e.g. faulty machinery, accumulation, issues with throughput, gaps in existing workflows, etc).
  • Performers:refer to people that are directly or indirectly involved in the workflow in some way, shape or form. This could be an affiliate, supplier or employee.

There are a few example causes including accumulation, throughput and wait times. Here are two strategies you can use to unblock these bottlenecks:

  • Increase the performance/efficiency of any bottlenecked steps. This could be as simple as finding and fixing the bottleneck. You could also temporarily increase performance/efficiency elsewhere to compensate for the bottleneck(s).
  • Decrease the input/importance of the bottleneck. If you’re dealing with a faulty process, for example, you can eliminate the steps that are at the source of the problem. You can replace, eliminate, remove or quarantine

These are one-sided (high level) solutions to a bigger problem. Improving bottlenecks is a straightforward way to improve manufacturing workflows. How do large manufacturing firms improve workflows?

I reached out to Brian Oneil with Bemis Manufacturing Company to learn more about how his company improves its manufacturing workflows. Bemis is an international company shipping more than 100,000 units per day, across various product lines.

Tactic #1: Cross-training employees

Manufacturers who cross-train are adaptable. They have the ability to adapt to changing production schedules and unexpected events quickly.

“It’s having enough of the right people who are cross-trained and

prepared to help out in whatever capacity is needed,” Brian explained. “It’s also being able to help people hit key metrics and that everyone knows what those

metrics are and how to achieve them.”

Cross-training employees comes with important benefits:

  • Manufacturers are able to manage unexpected absences, illnesses, emergencies and departures
  • Increases the employability of employees who are cross-trained
  • A decrease in operational silos, turf wars and politics
  • An increase in employee efficiency
  • Forces teams to consistently evaluate outdated techniques, obsolete tools and bureaucratic drift

Job rotation is a necessary supplement to cross-training. Cross-trained employees receive consistent training to ensure their skills do not deteriorate. Cross training is a necessary refiner. It forces firms to look at their policies and procedures.

Tactic #2: Five whys method

As the name suggests, the 5 Whys method is about asking why. It’s a Six Sigma causal chain that enables teams to quickly identify the root cause of any particular problem. The premise is simple. You encounter a problem, bottleneck or challenge, you repeatedly ask the question “why?” Until you get to the root of the problem.

Brian says, “When you get down to it, it’s usually down to five, and you have your best answer as to why, or what’s in your way of improving something.”

Here’s why it works.

This enables you to work through the many layers of symptoms masquerading as causes until you arrive at the root of any particular problem. It’s common for the answer to one problem to lead to another question. However, while this method is called 5 Whys it often takes less than five questions to find the root cause of a given problem.

Using the 5 Whys you’re able to:

  • Fix problems completely and permanently
  • Reduce expenses due to patches or incomplete fixes
  • Reduce additional expenses due to maintenance/downtime
  • Increase productivity, efficiency and performance
  • Decreased time-to-market

Just like with algebra, you’re able to check your work with a “therefore” chain. Using the five whys, you’re able to make systematic improvements to your workflows, optimizing both performers and systems.

Tactic #3: Monitoring key metrics

Smart manufacturers rely on key metrics. They identify the metrics driving the entire business whether things are going well or not.

At Bemis, Brian leads production meetings where they go over eight key metrics including safety, shortages, quality, on hold, scrap, sanding, output and schedule attainment. Each metric has a goal attached to it, for example sanding needs to be over 88 percent.

If you’re looking to consistently improve your workflows you’ll want to set, establish and monitor the key metrics driving the business. Here are some important metrics to monitor:

Structuring your business around these core metrics improves manufacturing workflows. When combined with the 5 Whys and one piece flows, firms are able to consistently increase workflows.

When Bemis implemented these changes, the results were positive and immediate. Brian quantified the value in his department, stating, “We saw a first-year increase of 10 percent and 30 percent the second year.”

Tactic #4: One piece flows

Batch production is the traditional tried-and-true workflow. It’s a quick and common method of production but it comes with several downsides:

  • Batch manufacturing requires a significant amount of space, large equipment and extensive resources.
  • Machine downtime/resets. A large chunk of time is required to reset and repair machines. This leads to lost revenue.
  • More raw materials need to be ordered and stored so shortages and downtime become a consistent problem.
  • Batch production requires that employees spend a significant amount of time on the same piece of machinery. This leads to decreased morale and higher turnover rates for entry-level positions.

With one piece flows, a single item is completed for every one item that’s started. The focus is on finishing a single product from start to finish with as little “in between work” as possible. Operations are often placed in a U-shaped configuration with the flow moving from right to left, counterclockwise.

Here’s a one piece flow in action.

One piece flows are dramatically faster, more efficient and require less time, money and resources. Using one piece flows, it’s easier to cross-train employees, further improving efficiency and productivity as a result.

How did this work for Bemis? Brian says, “I didn’t really believe in the one piece flow. People are just always the batching process. And actually when we did do the one-piece flow, the quality of the part was better and we actually got more product out than we did before.”

The results spoke for themselves. Once Brian saw this in action he changed his mind.

When it comes to workflows, there’s always room for improvement

Manufacturing workflows are essential but there’s always room for improvement. Your workflows are a form of quality assurance. They’re a repeatable process firms can use to create a consistent, high-quality product.

Unless you run into bottlenecks.

Use these strategies to continually increase and optimize your workflows. Start by eliminating bottlenecks. Use these four tactics to iterate and improve and you’ll find you have the results you need to produce exceptional workflows.

Here are a few more tips on analyzing key metrics and cross training employees to improve your workflows.

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Andrew McDermott is the co-founder of His work has been featured on Entrepreneur Magazine, Fox Business, and other top 1000 sites. He shows business owners how to increase average order values by 20 to 40%, automatically. Read more