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Improve by asking the right questions

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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

Companies ask me to implement Lean, introduce advanced technology, or improve productivity.
These kinds of objectives are all in my ‘wheelhouse’ and I am passionate about implementing these tools.
Often it just takes the initial plant tour and a brief discussion with operation management to identify the biggest productivity hog. The reason the company is not performing to its potential is because production is WAITING, RESTARTING, and WAITING again. The most obvious location is in the assembly area where parts from different streams need to come together. If one part is missing or is not to specification, the flow stops.
Addressing fit and availability, or the lack thereof, is the most important step towards productivity. We have seen productivity increases of 25% and more just by driving to secure fit and availability consistently.
Some companies look for solutions by buying high-tech equipment. This might work, especially to achieve better fit and quality, however, more often than not it’s just that more parts are produced faster and more waiting time has been created.
Lean manufacturing, especially 5S is a great improvement tool. 5S is the perfect initiative to clean up the factory and bring change to the organization. If your problem is fit and availability and you are not addressing these basics, the workers will still be waiting. They are just waiting in a clean plant.
Compare this with driving to a long distance destination. If you stop too often for gas, air, coffee and washroom breaks, it does not matter how fast you drive. Every time you stop, the slow but steady drivers will continue to pass you.

See your bottleneck
Keeping everyone working all the time is an impossible task; it’s like herding cats. Trying to force 100% production engagement from everyone might even turn out to be counterproductive.
You need to understand your bottleneck. Once identified, your management and scheduling energy can focus in on this. You make sure that the bottleneck is well served. You need to assure that this work place /group is well supplied – all the time:
• All raw materials
• All work instructions (drawings, details…)
• All purchased and manufactured parts
• Required work force (quantity and skills…)
• All equipment and tools in working order

All other workplaces need to keep up with the bottleneck, just enough so as not to create any shortages or delays in the bottleneck. Getting too far ahead is counterproductive as it ‘buries’ the bottleneck in material, causing extra work in accessing the required material.
At first it might seem counterintuitive to slow down a process. It doesn’t mean to slow down, take it easy and stand around. Reassigning the extra resources helps. If the team is sufficiently cross-trained, they see when they're getting too far ahead. They can stop their work and assist with the downstream bottleneck for example.
A number of readers might think that if they achieve this, the current bottleneck is no longer the problem, and some other process will become the bottleneck. That is true, widening the bottleneck always identifies the next limiting process. You would then just repeat the same exercise with that process.

Success motivates
This simple method can lead to a win-win situation. Missing parts/information is one of the leading reasons for frustration on the shop floor. There is management pressure to achieve the target output, however the group of workers cannot work because they are waiting for parts or information. To address this we need to look at the entire organization - not just the shop floor. If parts and/or information are available (fit and availability), the work often gets completed with time to spare and without stress.
True bottlenecks become visible
It is often said that ‘assembly is the bottleneck.’ However, when we take a closer look, often they are behind because they did not get all of the material/information. By the time the last missing piece arrives, there is not enough time, leading to late shipments and/or requiring extra overtime. This is not a true bottleneck. The hold-up is further upstream.
It takes a small, but significant shift in our approach. When following an order through the factory don’t look at the leading part, monitor the last part! By focusing on the trailing part intuitively the plant converts to a pull system versus the usual push system.

Are you getting better?
Starting to fix your ‘fit and complete’ - challenge needs strong management attention. In some companies it has become a part of the daily roll call - the daily production meeting. If the owner or a senior manager asks every day:
• What were we short of yesterday?
• What did not fit and why?
• What do we need to do differently?
The focus of the operation team will change. Soon the questions can change to:
• What is in the risk of being short?
• What do we need to do to fix this and stop it from happening again?

The thin edge of the wedge
To bring change, it is not just management asking questions. You need to implement some corrective actions. One is to implement a strong expediting function.
Expediting is a Band-Aid solution - it does not fix the root of the problem. According to the Lean book it is non-value added work. Like a real Band-Aid it is a quick fix to help you through a current problem, it is not a long-term solution.
If the company is performing well, no expediting is required. So because something did not go to plan the expediter needs to save the day. The expediter is therefore the best source of information. His/her daily feedback is a clear finger-on-the-pulse on how well the organization is functioning. This feedback can drive the entire continuous improvement process. The idea is to make that job obsolete.
Driving the change from this angle assures you that you are working on improving the organization and improving the service level to your customer. It also allows you to clearly identify the priorities on capital investment projects and improvement projects.
It all starts by asking the right questions.

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


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