Midsize business

4 ways to improve your manufacturing workflows by 30%

Efficient manufacturing workflows can help businesses reduce waste and cut costs, ensuring a manufacturer remains competitive in the marketplace. Manufacturing workflows also work hand in hand with proper inventory management to help ensure businesses run optimally.

The nature of manufacturing means a company can always iterate on its workflows: improving, simplifying, and scaling processes that work. Let’s dive deeper into the importance of good manufacturing workflows.

Why does improving manufacturing workflows matter?

Manufacturing workflows are a form of quality assurance. A workflow produces repeatable business processes that create consistent, high-quality new products.

Your manufacturing workflows are essentially a series of manufacturing processes, each one forming a link in a chain. One thing that can cause workflow issues are bottlenecks.

Bottlenecks are anything that restricts or limits the production process. Your manufacturing workflows won’t produce the results you need if the bottlenecks aren’t addressed with optimizations. When we use the word “bottleneck,” what precisely are we looking for?

Bottlenecks usually have these characteristics:

  • Short or long-term: Short-term bottlenecks are temporary disruptions to workflows (e.g., the loss of a key employee who needs to be replaced). Long-term bottlenecks can throttle efficiency for longer periods of time (think months or years). The negative effect tends to compound over time. It could be an outdated process, faulty machines, or obsolete legacy software.
  • Visible or hidden: Visible bottlenecks are either obvious or known. Workflow congestion that has a workaround or will soon be addressed. Hidden bottlenecks, on the other hand, can be known unknowns or unknown unknowns. Hidden bottlenecks can only be found if you’re actively looking for them. Hidden bottlenecks are indefinite by nature.

Bottlenecks are typically centered around two types of causes:

  • Systems: This refers to processes, structures, and resources (e.g. faulty machinery, accumulation, supply chain issues, malfunctioning workflow automations, etc).
  • Performers: This refers 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.

Typically there are two heuristics for thinking about how to resolve bottlenecks:

  • Increase the performance or efficiency of any processes that are being limited. This is as simple as finding and fixing a bottleneck or increasing performance elsewhere to compensate for it.
  • Decrease the input or importance of the bottleneck. If you’re dealing with a faulty process, for example, you can eliminate and change the steps that are at the source of the problem.

Of course, these are high-level ways to think about solutions to concrete problems. Brian O’Neil, planning manager with Bemis Manufacturing Company , is on the ground optimizing manufacturing workflows every day for a manufacturer shipping more than 100,000 units per day. These are a few of the strategies he’s used to improve the manufacturing workflows in his company.

1. Cross-training employees

Manufacturers who cross-train their employees 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 that forces firms to look at their policies and procedures.

2. Using the 5 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. When you encounter a problem, bottleneck or challenge, you repeatedly ask “Why?” until you get to the root of the problem.

Brian says, “When you get down to it, it’s usually down to five [whys], and you have your best answer.”

Here’s why it works.

Asking why 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.

By 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 or 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 process improvements to your workflows, optimizing both performers and systems.

3. Monitoring key metrics

Smart manufacturers identify and rely on key metrics that drive the business so they can diagnose its health.

At Bemis, Brian leads production meetings where they go over eight key metrics. Each metric has a specific goal attached to it.

If you’re looking to consistently improve your workflows you’ll want to set, establish and monitor in real-time the key metrics driving the business.

Structuring your business around these core metrics can help your business find inefficiencies in workflows. When combined with these other strategies, firms are able to consistently streamline 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 production increase of 10 percent and 30 percent the second year.”

4. One-piece flows

Batch production is a traditional tried-and-true production process, but it comes with several downsides:

  • Batch manufacturing requires a significant amount of space, large equipment, and extensive resources.
  • A large chunk of time is required to reset and repair machines, which leads to lost revenue.
  • Raw materials need to be ordered and stored in large batches so shortages and downtime can be a consistent problem.
  • Batch production requires that employees spend a significant amount of time on the same piece of machinery. This can lead 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.

One-piece flows can be faster, more efficient, and require fewer resources than other manufacturing workflows. Using one-piece flows, it’s easier to cross-train employees and further improve 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 using the batching process. And actually, when we did 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 and is now a believer in one-piece production workflows.

Get started with workflow management

Manufacturing workflows always allow room for improvement. They’re essentially a form of quality control for manufacturers: repeatable processes manufacturers use to create consistent, high-quality products.

Use these strategies to continually optimize your workflows. Start by identifying bottlenecks and use one of these proven strategies to improve them, which will get your business on the road to producing exceptional workflows.

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