Lean Manufacturing: Throughput Time




In order to appreciate the successful program that has been described above, it is important that there be a counterbalance upon which one can weight the evidences to determine if the effort has real value. The company experienced some failures in this process. If my memory serves me correctly, all of the "failures" were a function of human relations difficulties and were launched after violating some very basic rules. Yes, we made our rules and we violated them. I suppose that simply provides that we are human and capable of having to relearn. Often we think that we can somehow short cut those things that we have "mastered".

It is also worth mentioning that "failure" is subject to definition. While we had a few failures in the sense that the end result did not match what our initial expectations were, I doubt that we had any true failure because of the learning that occurred in each individual involved. It made them a better team member for the next effort when they applied that learning.

I feel that integrity demands that I describe one area that I consider to be a failure and why. This was an area where I was personally involved in the process with varied roles on the team.

Mistake 1

In an inventory control experiment, a group of individuals were brought together and the objective for the "team" was established by upper management. Although a particular set of problems is normally evident before a team is put together for problem solving activities, the establishment of the specific objective from outside the team has a considerable negative effect and may, in fact, focus the team in the wrong direction. The team must be left to its own devices to determine the problem set and then proceed after understanding of the objective has been reached by the team.

Mistake 2

The second mistake made in this particular team was using the team environment to attempt resolution of a politically sensitive organizational problem. Some areas of conflict must be dealt with outside the team environment. It is my opinion that this was an example of one of those circumstances.

Mistake 3

Embarking upon a technical problem that was not developed in the literature and could not be illustrated with an example in a rather extensive survey of industries. The one example of how the problem was being managed was not considered practical for our application. As a consequence the process became a lengthy R&D effort. The net result of this set of circumstances was a very lengthy (in excess of six months) process that netted little learning considerable animosity and no solution set for the stated problem. The perception of the outcome does, to this day, vary with the perspective of those individuals that were involved in the process.

In retrospect, it appears that the R&D effort (MISTAKE 3) would have been interesting and exciting had it not been commingled with the other two elements that I have described as mistakes.

Even Mistake 1, had it existed alone, would have been able to be overcome by the team. The strength of teams had been such that stated needs or requirements by upper management had been able to be modified based on the logic associated with team findings.

Having said that, it would appear that the basic problem with this "failure" is one of two things:

1. An inordinate amount of organizational politics became imbedded in the process, or

2. The synergistic friction of three mistakes made the problems so complex as to render them unsolvable in any reasonable period of time.

A comment on the length of time that a team should remain alive. While the team has ultimate responsibility for setting goals with intermediate milestones and charting a clear and planned course, our experience has been that the longer a team is in existence the less effective it becomes. Teams that go on for very long periods of time should be viewed with some concern for their effectiveness as a function of the time being spent. There are teams that should be established on a somewhat permanent basis; however, often times the team makeup should be adjusted periodically in order to provide fresh views. In the truest sense of the team, anytime a new member is introduced to the team, the team must go through a readjustment period and build trust between the new member or members and the old members before the team can begin to function again in an open environment.

Other Good Things

Another team focus was in our office area associated with customer orders. We took the number of steps in processing a customer order from 14 to 7 and reduced the total time from some 80 minutes to 30 minutes per customer processing time.

We have spent considerable energy in teaching our vendors SMED (Single Minute Exchange of Die). This set-up reduction methodology is essential if we are to receive smaller lot sizes that provide us better quality, lower inventories and faster throughput. It results in faster throughput for our suppliers as well, and, therefore has value to them.

We undertook a program to reduce the time involved in our sheet metal operation in the UK so that it might become a better internal supplier to the operations in Europe. Similar successes were made there and they were documented in terms of cost and lead time reductions that facilitated the use of those materials into sold products in a shorter period of time. This had excellent financial impact as well as better customer service.

Another area where we have made significant strides is in operations for certain processes that were in some instances eliminated and in some instances modified significantly. This was accomplished by utilizing the individuals working in the area and organizing them into teams that were trained and understood their role.

Of significant impact is the introduction of new products and the use of teams to shorten significantly that process so products can move from development through prototype, pilot and production phases in the shortest amount of time. A focus on the future identifies this area as high priority in order to continue to be a leader in the production of medical electronics.


This paper has taken on the tone of a discussion of teams and team application to problem solving rather than just the specifics of a given throughput reduction program. I do not feel apologetic for that twist in this paper simply because I believe wholeheartedly that the elements associated with a true team environment is the key ingredient. Throughput time is critical to our success in today's market place. The Pacific Rim is now able to compete favorably with 7,000 miles of ocean to negotiate. Our domestic suppliers as well as ourselves have only a few miles of highways. We must continue to shrink the amount of time that it takes to accomplish any given task. We must undertake waste removal programs in every element of our business.


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