Under Control


A reader writes:

Ask five blind men to describe an elephant, and you will likely get five different answer that; when combined, may not look very much like an elephant at all.

Which reminds me of the Saturday Night Live skit - back when it was actually funny - of Chevy Chase and Jane Curtin arguing whether or not anew aerosol product was a floor wax or a desert topping. As the huckster selling the product, Dan Akroyd was quick to point out that it was both - a floor wax and a desert topping.

What does this have to do with manufacturing? Well, think of how people view reengineering; the most recent addition to the toolbox that includes JIT, TQM, and other techniques we use to invigorate our companies and the way we do business. Is it an operational approach, or is it technology? Does reengineering mean better information technology or fewer levels of hierarchy in the organization?

Several years ago, manufacturing at Modicon, the PLC-maker located in North Andover, Mass., was productive, but certainly not as efficiently or lean as possible. There were production lines and storage strategies dedicated to specific product families. Capital equipment was duplicated across these lines in a manner that led to waste, and production facility wasn't delivering the customer response sought by upper management. Some manufacturing was being done offshore to take advantage of lower labor costs, but the offsetting problems in raw materials, work in progress, and finished goods in the inventory pipeline was staggering. Add to this the challenge of quickly and effectively executing an engineering change order, and it became clear that something had to give.

Modicon recognized the problems and took action. Manufacturing and service were brought back to the United States. All manufacturing for all product families were drawn into a new state-of-the-art facility. The facility was built for Modicon with attractive lease terms. The company introduced new storage, material handling, and warehousing methods and technologies to streamline manufacturing, applying lessons from Kanban systems and pull-based scheduling. They introduced work teams, giving responsibility for a product family to a single group that cross-trained. Suppliers were drawn into the plans as well. The list of vendors were trimmed by more that 70%, and those who remained were asked to participate in the quality effort. Modicon enforced participation by tying performance to payment, and rewarded it with loyalty to the vendors. All incoming quality control was effectively eliminated.

What does all of this have to do with elephants, desert toppings, or reengineering? We've taken a variety of groups from the US, Korea, Japan, Europe, and elsewhere on tours through that manufacturing plant. What you learn over the course of many tours is that depending upon who leads the tour, you get a different view of the elephant.

Financial types will focus on the cash angel: better use of capital equipment and a new facility with a long-term lease helps the company better serve the customer. The manufacturing guys talk about product flow through the plant and worker empowerment. Operations people will tell you about vendor programs, storage strategies, and increased turns. The sales guys tell you it all works because the plant uses Modicon products that you too, for a price, can have as your own.

In reality, reenginnering is all of these. Sure, they are using state-of-the-art technology in surface-mount work cells, using vision, expert systems, and other technologies to their fullest. Yes, the transport system that moves product from point A to point B is controlled by modern automation products. Yes, anytime you can get a good deal on your lease, it's great.

But taking the longer view, this is reengineering.

If you asked the folks at Modicon if they've reengineered, I'm not sure what answer you would get. My guess is that whatever you got would have a trunk, but from there I won't make any conjecture.

- Bob DeSimone, Flavors Technologies

As appeared in Manufacturing Systems Magazine January 1995 Page 12

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