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Get a huge productivity boost by working on the basics

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Operations Excellence by Sepp Gmeiner
Sepp Gmeiner is a partner with Lignum Consulting. For feedback, questions and/or suggestions please email

When someone talks about a potential productivity increase of 20% or more, it gets everybody’s attention, especially when little capital investment is required.
The solution, in theory, is so simple it sounds like a consultant stating the obvious. When looking at different company’s operations, I always like to understand their bottleneck. What is the constraint that holds them back from achieving the higher output? We can do this on a company macro, or departmental micro, level. The further you go down the process chain the more often you find interruptions and delays in the flow.
Workers cannot complete a particular product/order because a part is missing. If they find out after they started the project they need to take the semi-completed product, put it aside and set up for a different product. They start the next product to find out the parts do not fit together and they need to rework /replace them. So they check the next job, just to find out that the information is incomplete, which requires them to ask the supervisor/engineering for clarification. When these things happen too often there is no way that a worker can make up the lost time.
The simple key to productivity is fit and availability.
This is not a new challenge. Every manufacturer faces these issues. However, the more we move to the ‘make-to-order’ environment, the more ‘lack of fit and availability’ will rear its ugly head and erode productivity.

This is more than just parts fitting together.
This includes the full specification of the parts/products, like sizes, tolerances, colour match, material selection and process quality. I would also include having the correct and complete information available. This includes work orders, drawings, CNC-programs, etc.

All the above need to be available when they’re required and where they’re required. If the next part required is ‘somewhere in the department’ or at the bottom of the pile it is not really available, as it requires additional non-value-added time to make it available for the next process.
In the past, when orders were batched more – availability was secured by adding a percentage of extra parts – just in case. But now that the demand is for one or two parts of a kind, even one extra piece is not a real option anymore.
A short-term option is to increase the time buffers before critical operations. This allows workers to have all parts accumulated and a bit of extra time to reproduce some of the missing parts. If this ‘little fat’ increases the availability, it is warranted as a short-term measure. The real challenge is when you have lead-time pressure to do with less time buffers (lean).

To manufacture with a higher level of fit and availability, you need to make fit and availability more of a priority. In the classic continuous-improvement-method approach, you need to find out why parts do not fit and/or why they are not available.
The question about what was holding you back today from having a record production day, is a good starter. Systematically address the most frequent offenders/reasons and reduce or eliminate the root causes.
You always start with the bottleneck and solve its constraints until something else becomes the bottleneck.
The solutions might lead you to different parts of the company.
To eliminate constraints, you might implement changes in purchasing, scheduling, engineering, maintenance and machining etc.
Even if everything improves, there is always the chance that parts will get damaged or a mistake is made. Things happen. The challenge is how to replace these few parts per day quickly and without interrupting the main manufacturing process too much.
Depending on the size of the organization the solutions vary. One approach is to create a fast-reacting manufacturing cell dedicated for such rush parts and keeping the interruptions away from the main stream.
This improvement process needs to continue until fit and availability can be achieved and sustained for an entire day, every day.
It cannot be repeated often enough - nothing erodes your overall productivity more than workers running out of work, because of lack of fit and availability. Check with your people on the line. The potential for a 20-25% improvement is a safe bet in most cases. I have even seen a doubling of the output when everything fits and is available when and where it is needed. 

Sepp Gmeiner is a partner with Lignum Consulting. For feedback, questions and/or suggestions he can be contacted at

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