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The Future of Lean Manufacturing through the World of Warcraft

October 5, 2011 3 comments

Any seasoned Lean manufacturing expert will tell you that implementing lean is not about JIT, Heijunka or any sort of tools. It is about implementing a lean culture of continuous improvement. In fact in Toyota, they consider their ultimate competitive advantage is the “intoxication of improvement” by every employee from shopfloor to top floor. Thousands of improvement ideas are created every day even for the smallest mundane tasks. This is in big contrast to “don’t fix what is not broken” mindset prevails in most other organizations. Well, what they believe is one thing. Have any of these been scientifically proven? Can we simulate this kind of organizational behavior and measure its output? And if we can, what can we learn from such about managing thousands of ideas and distill them to actions every day?

In this video, Dr. John Seely Brown, one of my favorite business writer talks about the innovation dynamics within the World of Warcraft (WoW), which also happens to be my favorite on-line video game. At the end, Brown said “This may be for the first time that we are able to prove exponential learning … and figure out how you can radically accelerate on what you’re learning”. Indeed, I have found this game could interestingly cast light on the social dynamics of lean culture and how it will evolve in the future.
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Guild structure and QC circles

“There is too much information changing too fast…The only way to get anything done seriously is to join a guild” said Brown. These guilds in WoW are groups of 20-200 people helping each other to process ideas. This greatly resembles the Quality Circle movement, in which employees are not just hired to perform a task but rather to form part of small groups that constantly seeking ways to self-improve. The differences of QC circles to these guilds could be the technology that they are using as indicated below.

Everything is measured; everyone is critiqued by everyone else

In the WoW, it is easy to record every action and measure performance. There are after-action reviews on every high-end raid and everyone is critiqued by everyone. This resembles the typical PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) process used by QC circles. The challenges however in the manufacturing world are that too much information is still recorded on paper or if recorded electronically, on multiple segregated systems. This inhibits the sharing, retrieval and analysis of information that enabled the rapid group self-improvement dynamics of WoW.

Personal dashboard are not pre-made, they are mashups

Another key learning from the WoW is that you need to craft your own dashboard to measure your own performance. Brown even said that the Obama administration is stealing the idea from WoW and trying to do the same. So much for the software companies who are trying to sell pre-packaged KPIs to measure corporate performance.  Imagine a new manufacturing world that every operator and supervisor has real-time feedback on his/her own performance. Seeing how minute by minute idle time or over-production is affecting bottom-line and return on capital. The future of performance measurement technology is detail, real-time and personalized.

Exponential learning

The last slide in the video shows learning speed exponentially increases as one goes up the level in WoW. The high performance guilds need to distill what they have learnt from their own guild and share with other guilds throughout the network. Those who can do that effectively tend to move up level faster. In the manufacturing world, there are many companies trying to share best-practices across and within organizations. However, manufacturing executives may not realize that effective continuous improvement and best-practice sharing can lead to a state of exponential learning that constitutes an ultimate competitive advantage.

In a sense, the computer world of WoW is able to simulate the social dynamics of how individuals could form groups to process and create ideas, how groups could measure and improve within themselves and how groups could interact with each other in order to accelerate learning that results in high performance. Such social dynamic also resembles that of the lean culture, long promoted within companies like Toyota. Looking forward, the promises of manufacturing 2.0 are technologies to enable almost everything to be measured, allow information from individuals to interact freely as groups and also empower groups to effectively share best-practices. Such multi-tier collaboration from shopfloor to topfloor will bring about a new form of highly competitive organization that harnesses the power of exponential learning. On that note, the future evolution of lean culture may not be that much different from the present World of Warcraft.

The Dice Game of “Velocity” – Part 1

November 22, 2010 54 comments

I have just finished reading “Velocity: Combining Lean, Six Sigma and the Theory of Constraints to Achieve Breakthrough Performance – A Business Novel” with my Kindle. The author Jeff Cox is the co-author of  “The Goal“. This time the story is about Amy, the newly named president of Hi-T Composites Company could not get any bottom line improvement after implementing Lean Six Sigma for a year. In the end, she convinced her team to combine TOC with LSS approach in order to achieve and exceed the bottom line goal.

A critical piece of the story is a dice game. It is this dice game that has finally got everyone on the same page, including the stubborn LSS guy Wayne to change his approach. A key insight is to abandon the balanced line approach at which Wayne has been working. The team finally has agreed on changing to an unbalanced production with everything synchronized to the bottleneck.

In the book, Amy was betting her career on this dice game to convince her staffs as well as to generate the same results in actual production. It worked out that way in the novel. But in practice, would you bet your career on a dice game? I cannot held to ask the following questions:

  • How repeatable are the results of the dice game  described in the novel? How sound is the statistics behind it?
  • How close is the game in resemblance to the reality of a production line? What are the limitations? Under what conditions would the TOC approach (Drum-Buffer-Rope) work better or worse?
  • Under what conditions does a balanced line with takt time work better or worse than an unbalanced line? How to quantify the variability in order to determine which approach to use?

The book has left these questions unanswered. That means these theories may or may not work at your reality. In order to better understand these questions, I intend to use simulation and analytic techniques to explore further. Stay tuned.

In Scenario 1, a balanced line is simulated with everyone starts with a single dice (same capacity) and the same 4 pennies (Initial buffer size).


In this simulation, WIP has increased from 20 to 26 by the 20th round and the total output is 62 pennies. This “throughput” number can be compared to the 70 pennies, which is the average dice point (3.5) times 20 rounds. 62 is in general less than 70 because of throughout lost as a result of variability.

In order to improve the performance of throughput, it was suggested to unbalance the line and create a constraint. Murphy is given only 1 dice while everyone else is then given 2 dices. The results look like the following:


This time WIP has increased from the initial 20 to 42 by te 20th round and total output is 81 pennies. This is significant throughput improvement but with a high WIP, especially around the bottleneck in front of Murphy.

In order to further improve the performance, a DBR (Drum-Buffer-Rope) method is introduced. In this case, Amy’s dices are being taken and she only releases pennies to the line according to the signal given by Murphy on what he rolls. In addition, Murphy is given a higher initial inventory buffer of 12 pennies.


This time WIP has actually decreased from 28 to 23 by the 20th round and the total output is at 91.

In the final case, the team discussed about improving the yield of at the bottleneck through Lean and Six Sigma. In order to simulate this, the dice roll of Murphy is mapped to number betweens 4 to 6.


The results indicated that WIP stayed low at 21 after 20 rounds, the throughput has been further improved 110.

It is shown that the simulation described in the book is generally repeatable. The logic behind these calculations can be nicely summarized with a G/G/1 queue and solved with Markov Chain analysis. We will discussed how practical are these results in application to real production line next time.

Golf Lessons from Lean, Six-Sigma and TOC

November 14, 2010 2 comments

After taking lessons from several coaches, I noticed some very fundamental differences between their approaches. My current coach is very good at giving a one point advice based on my swing. Although one day I would like to swing like Ernie Els, right now I am settled with my ugly swing and  happy to experience the notable score improvement after every lesson. That is quite different from the lessons that my friend took. His coach basically asked him to forget all he had learnt and tried to revolutionize his swing in order to take him to the next level. He is scared to go to the course now because he is stuck with a setback before he can get any better. He however believes that he is taking the necessary steps towards his goal of turning professional someday.

What are your long and short term goals and which approach is more suitable for you?

Lean:

You should focus on eliminating muda in your swing. Do not try to “push” the club head towards the ball but rather let a synchronized body turn to naturally “pull” the club head in order to achieve a smooth flow of your swing. The game of golf is a process of relentless continuous improvement. We do not generally recommend you to invest too much energy to your tools because dependence on such frequently undermines the development of the correct mindset. If you focus on improving every little piece, your efforts will eventually show up in your score and hence your handicap, which should not be your ends but means to the way of golf.

Six-sigma:

Golf is a game of consistency. You should hence focus on reducing variability of your swing. We have a set of statistical tools to measure the defects of your swing as well as scientific instruments to monitor and track your progress. You need to certify your skills from green to black belts. Through leveraging the right tools with scientific measurement and objective feedback, you will ultimately reduce your swing variability to under 6-sigma.

TOC (Theory of Constraint):

You can maximize the return of your practice time by focusing on identifying and improving the bottleneck. At every stage of your skill development, there is a constraint that determines the throughput of your entire game. At one point it may be the grip or the address or the swing plane or approach shot or putt … but the point is that the bottleneck moves. By identifying the bottleneck and concentrate on it, you will be able to get notable handicap reduction within the shortest time. While lean and six-sigma can get you closer to the “perfect” swing, TOC focused on optimizing what you have already got to quickly improve your score.

Whatever the approach you pick to improve your golf game or to help transform your manufacturing operations, you can benefit from applying technology that automatically records your current swing (or process) to then give you instant feedback on what to improve. In my opinion, there is no better example than golf to illustrate how your actual execution can be deceptive to the best intended plan.

Why Shortage vs Stock is NOT a Tradeoff?

October 16, 2010 2 comments

I have frequently come across factories that keep a lot of on-hand stocks and at the same time material shortage is among the top reasons of unexpected production downtime. Same goes for retail operations that have kept safety stock level arbitrarily high. More often than not, shortage is not reduced by keeping more stocks.

At first glance, this seems to be counter-intuitive. After all, textbook stock management models always indicate that safety stock level and the probability of shortage, which directly affects service level, has an inverse relationship. You reduce stock and you end up increasing the chance of shortage, which leads directly to loss of sales opportunity. On the other hand, more stock means more working capital, more product obsolescence, more warehouse cost …etc and hence serving customers is a financial tradeoff between shortage and stock levels.

In practice, this is not necessary true. In fact, I argue that in order to reduce shortage, you need to reduce your stock level first.

The reason is that excess stock level has many side effects that are not accounted by the textbook model. Most notable ones are the followings:

Inefficient use of procurement budget

Typically a fixed budget is allocated for procurement. High stock level reduces the flexibility of allocating budget to purchase what is really needed. This is very commonly seen not only in retail but also for large manufacturers’ raw material procurement and sales company operations.

Loose inventory management practice

Excess stock level tends to create an inappropriate peace of mind for managers. When less attention is given to keep stock level low, larger variability of turnover among SKUs is resulted. Replenishment of the SKUs that are really needed by operation is hence more likely to be forgotten.

Lack of continuous improvement incentives

This is the classical lean wisdom that when stock level is excessively high, problems are hidden behind the stocks. There is no pressure to improve supply chain responsiveness by reducing manufacturing lead time or improving overall material flow synchronization. Eventually, demand and competition will catch up with the limitation of the supply chain responsiveness. For example, studies have shown that US automobile manufacturers tend to keep higher dealer stock than their Japanese counterparts. This has been one of the major differences in competitiveness between US and Japan automotive companies.

Classical inventory model assumes that inventory decouples supply and demand functions. In practice, supply chain is complex and you cannot simply decouple supply and demand with stock. The key success factor to reduce shortage by reducing stock is to actively manage the complex relationship by better synchronization of manufacturing with customer demand.

Better synchronization can be achieved in 2 ways: more accurate forecasting and higher flexibility of execution. In today’s market of increasing demand volatility, there is a limit on how accurate you can predict the future by improving forecasting. However, lean methodology has taught us that there is almost no practical limit in improving execution.

Take the example of a manufacturing plant that I visited recently. They make products that are distributed across US through a franchise network. 5 years ago, their plant inventory alone was at 90 days and they only met 70% of customer orders. Today, their plant and downstream distribution center total inventory is less than 80 days while they are now meeting more than 96% of orders. The key to this change is that the manufacturing plant now is accountable for not only the plant inventory but also downstream DC and soon warehouse inventory. In this case, the overall stock reduction target has put manufacturing operation under pressure to reduce lead time and improve flexibility. Any such improvement has an impact to downstream supply chain stock level as well as customer satisfaction level. Such improvement cannot be achieved when manufacturing and supply chain stock are managed separately as silos. In order to achieve the next level of operational performance, they are evaluating a unified IT platform across manufacturing and supply chain.

By the same token, manufacturers are now using the latest information technology to synchronize better with their suppliers. An industrial equipment manufacturing plant that I visited has implemented an IT platform that allows them to see in real time the progress of WIP at its suppliers’ production lines. Such visibility allows them to control material synchronization between key supplying parts and the in-house final assembly operations, resulting in overall inventory and shortage reduction.

Are you wondering why your operation is keeping high stock level but still cannot reduce shortage? Do you see your manufacturing operation driving supply chain stock management? What is keeping your manufacturing operation from better synchronization with supplier operations as well as market demand?

Toyota’s IT Investment in Global Kaizen

September 8, 2009 Leave a comment

Little has been published about Toyota’s IT investment. This may be one of the reasons why many consultants who practise Lean or TPS have mistaken that Toyota does not need IT. In fact Toyota has spent close to 10 billion USD in IT since the dawn of this century. Although Toyota tends to be secretive about its investment plan, more information can be found in Japanese.

According to magazine “Nikkei Information Strategy”[1], Toyota has spent 2 billion USD on IT by 2003 on what was called “Global Kaizen”. This investment was only the first step in the “10 billion dollar Kaikaku” effort that spanned across the global operation of 27 countries and more than 60 facilities. The following areas were identified by industrial expects as Toyota’s targets to leverage IT.

  1. Rolling out supplier Kanban for global purcruement
    At 2003, Toyota’s regional profit margins are Japan 9.2%, NA 4.6% and Europe 0.2%. Obviously, best-practices in Japan had not been able to rollout to other parts of the world. A key bottleneck was regional supplier relationship, which was especially important for high margin luxury vehicles that are made in small lots. Even with the same product, part numbers are created uniquely at each facility as a result of local Kaizen activities. Factory IT systems and CAD were largely in-house developed for each facility.  Therefore from a global enterprise perspective, there was no easy way to identify what parts are used at each facility or hence to substitute supply of parts from one facility to another. As a result, the rollout of Kanban system across regions was extremely difficult.
  2. Improving new product introduction
    During the product planning phase, it is important to be able to simulate weight, space occupied, cost and even level of safety based on combination of parts from the suppliers. For that purpose, Toyota has developed “V-Comm” (Virtual Communication) to simulate design and facilitate concurrent engineering for many years. Although the new product launch and prototyping lead time has been shortened, cost estimation has remained largely manual. During the course of 2004, Toyota has informed suppliers to submit CAD data of either CATIA or Pro/Engineer during parts delivery. Standardization on packaged instead of in-house built software was a drastic step for Toyota.
  3. Incorporating BTO (Dell model)
    Toyota has been trying to shorten order-to-deliver lead time to 1-2 weeks. This requires the capability to search in real time what are the work-in-progress vehicles in the assembly line and hence to assign customer specific options to be added in the down stream process. Toyota was trying to lay down the foundation for BTO capability especially at developing countries such as China where the sales network still have been under construction.
  4. Enhancing after-sales service
    After-sales service was identified to become a major growing revenue stream. A bottleneck to enhance after-sales service was the lack of traceability. For example, the capability to identify which lot of parts has gone to which vehicle and hence using that information for problem containment or recall had not been fully developed. Hence a huge amount of manual work was required to identify the affected vehicles in the event of recall. The plan was to extend traceability to after-sales running and maintenance record. As increasing weight being given to sustainability, there was also increasing need to extend traceability to the end of the vehicle’s service life.

Toyota’s 10 billion IT investment in operation

R&D Purchasing Production Logistics / Sales After-Sales
  • Packaged CAD
  • BOM standardization and PDM
  • Product planning DB
  • Production simulation /3D data

 

 

  • Electronic Kanban
  •  

  • Traceability
  • BTO production
  •  

  • Traceability
  • Order-taking system for BTO
  • Global purchasing for BTO
  •  

  • Embedded system
  • traceability
  • System built for 2 billion USD

    Other events that gave a glimpse of  Toyota’s IT activities include:

    1. Toyota was elected as the no. 2 in “IT power” by Nikkei BP Magazine in 2007. Toyota is the no.1 in “IT power” among all Japanese automaker. (way above second Honda and then Nissan).
    2. Toyota global CIO Amano-san was elected as CIO of the year by “Nikkei information strategy” at 2004. He mentioned that there was a time that Toyota believed IT is not of much value but that position has significantly changed due to globalization
    3. During an appearance at the CIO forum 2009, Toyota President Watanabe-san said that he firmly believes IT will save his company, the enterprise and the nation from the recent recession, which represents one in a hundred years opportunity to change and thrive.

    Some other useful source of information:

    http://www.shmula.com/205/information-technology-at-toyota

    http://www.gembapantarei.com/2006/10/lessons_from_toyotas_it_strategy.html

    http://www.gembapantarei.com/2006/06/how_toyota_uses_information_technology_it_for_kaizen.html

    http://www.gembapantarei.com/2006/07/how_toyota_used_it_to_cut_new_product_development_time_in_half.html
     


    [1] Nikkei Information Strategy, Oct issue 2003

    How Japan’s enterprise IT has failed to learn from its most competitive industry–manufacturing

    August 28, 2009 Leave a comment

    The Samurai Sword for Lean Transformation

    August 28, 2009 1 comment

    The missing opportunity of western manufacturers

    In this economy, it is hard to imagine that many manufacturing companies are still missing out the opportunities of pull. This is the simple concept of triggering execution of business process by an actual event rather than by a plan (push). There seems to be a notion that pull processes cannot be applied without going through a long journey of lean transformation. As for those keen lean practitioners who have embarked on cultural change efforts, many have underestimated the power of pull and its synergy effect with technology.

    Pull does not come as natural for many non-Japanese organizations. On the other hand, Japanese culture does have a strong element of pull, which may be explained by the tendency to leverage natural flow rather than to apply external force to push for drastic changes. This tendency is manifested physically in terms of saws, swords, even knife in the kitchen are mostly designed for a pulling action whereas their counterparts in the western world are more likely designed for a pushing action.

    A Japanese Pulling Saw

    A Japanese saw that is pulled backward to cut

    A pushing saw that is common in the west

    A common saw that is pushed forward to cut

    Japanese Samurai Sword Charaterized by a curved blade

    Japanese Samurai Sword Characterized by a curved blade

    That is also the reason why a Japanese sword is curved whereas swords from other parts of the world tend to be straight. A blade curved backward, away from its cutting edge, promotes a smooth, slicing cut, and distributes impact more evenly along the whole of the weapon than a straight blade, reducing the shock transmitted back to the wielder when applying a pulling action. It also allows for draw and cut in a single action, resulting in better speed and flexibility in combat.

    Taiichi Ohno invented BPM

    Some may find it surprising that Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, invented pull-based BPM application to factory floor back in the 60s. Whether he based his ideas on a samurai sword is not referencable but he described in his book[1] on what he called the concept of “The Toyota-Style Information System”, which was neither cost-effective nor reliable to implement with computer technology at that time. That is not the case anymore. Today’s BPM technology if applied effectively can not only boost lean methodology to a new level at the factory floor but also drive to cut waste across multiple entities along the supply chain.

    In fact, the 2 fundamental pillars of the Toyota Production System, namely, autonomation and JIT are both based on pull-based business process.

    Autonomation calls for the business process of stopping machine and correcting problem to be triggered by the unplanned event of machine malfunction. The process can prevent production of defective parts, eliminate overproduction and avoid delays. Automation of such process relieves the workers from the need to continuously judge whether the operation of the machine is normal.  The workers are then only engaged when there is an alert for a problem and hence can simultaneously supervise several machines to achieve better cost-effectiveness.

    JIT demands production activities to be carried out at just the right time in order to minimize inventory, which is considered as waste. Kanban cards are signals triggered by an actual event, such as the completion of a product downstream or the consumption of inventory below a predefined level. These signals are then sent to another operation to trigger an action, such as the start of an upstream assembly operation or the transport of parts from a supplier.

    Both autonomation and JIT are business processes triggered by an actual event, instead of a plan. The execution of such pull-based business processes are core to the Toyota Production System. In the era when available computer technologies were no more than mainframe batch-processing and rudimentary means for actual event sensing, Taiichi Ohno sought to implement such processes without the use of computer. Today’s BPM tools together with the advances in sensing technologies such as barcode, machine sensors, RFID and location-sensing technologies, are taking lean methodology to a level beyond the reach of its inventor.

    Such applications are best explained by examples.

    Case 1  – Applying advanced lean at a steel production mill

    Company A is a 50 million USD company that produces steel coils from recycled metal scraps that are shipped from all over US and Mexico. The price of the end steel product has gone down from 1200 USD per ton to 500 USD per ton during the short several months when the financial crisis hit in 2008. Like many other manufacturers, Company A was under immense pressure to cut cost and release cash for survival. Contrary to common belief that the benefits of lean methodologies require extensive cultural transformation over long period of time and are less applicable to a continuous process like steel-making, they have reaped significant savings in the following areas through relatively simple and fast implementation by leveraging a BPM tool.

    Firstly, by applying BPM to synchronize the purchase and delivery of expensive alloys and additives to the actual pace of production, an estimation of 2.5 million cash can be released from inventory. This is implemented by tracking the receipt and consumption of the selected alloy materials in real-time. Purchases and deliveries are triggered by referencing the safety stock level. This safety stock level is automatically adjusted daily based on the statistics of the recent variations and trends of consumption and purchase lead time.

    Inventory reduction as a result of dynamic replenishment

    Inventory reduction as a result of dynamic replenishment

    In this example, purchase is triggered by an actual event which is consumption. The quantity of purchase is calculated by the optimal economic batch size that minimize transportation fee and safety stock is calculated dynamically to reflect historical demand variability. The result is 37% reduction in inventory and is at least 10% more saving than implementation of a traditional fixed quantity Kanban system. This is an example of applying BPM to realize event-driven business process that takes JIT to a new level.

    Secondly, autonomation can be enhanced in the production process through BPM.  Machines and processes are typically designed to automatically stop when a problem such as cobble of coil occurs. Such an event would result in delay of order fulfillment and increase of Inventory Prime, a measurement of finished goods inventory not produced to a customer order specification. However, such risk can be largely reduced by implementing an event-pull process to promptly trigger reapplication of the failed coil to the upstream furnace by taking considerations of real-time data including  on-going process chemistry and status at the furnace, overall production schedule and resources availability. A conservative estimate of 200K USD saving in material alone is hence achieved, not to mention the soft benefits of improving customer satisfaction and labor time saving for more productive activities. Autonomation in this case is being taken beyond problem containment but further into automating the corrective action to minimize waste.

    Case 2  – Synchronizing product supply at a consumer goods appliance assembly plant

    Company B is a major consumer goods appliance company that has a refrigerator plant supplying to 20 distribution centers, which in turn supplying to retail appliance stores all over the country. A major challenge of managing product supply of the white goods category is large seasonal demand variation. The difference in demand variation between high and low seasons is for example at least 3 times higher for refrigerator than for plasma TV. The keys to keep inventory low while meeting customer demand in this case are manufacturing flexibility as well as material synchronization with suppliers and sales.

    A mixed product assembly line

    A mixed product assembly line

    Manufacturing flexibility was achieved by implementing multi-product assembly line. This was especially challenging when increasing the flexibility of the assembly line to not only multiple products but that of multiple colors. The door part for example is fabricated at a different line than the final assembly. The door of the right color has to be delivered to the final assembly line at the right time and sequence. In this case the production of the door part is synchronized to the assembly line through an event-driven process as implemented by a BPM tool. The detail work instruction including the BOM and assembly instruction of the particular door part is exploded and sent electronically to the fabrication line as the refrigerator body is loaded to the final assembly line.

    Another important aspect to achieve the above flexibility is in-line quality. The above mentioned synchronization would not be possible without stable yield from the door fabrication line. The shop floor BPM tool served to speed up the corrective action workflow, enable pokayoke and collect inspection results and defect detail to allow for long term continuous improvement.

    Demand leveling was necessary to enable smooth running of the multi-product assembly line. The production orders were placed according to the replenishment orders from the distribution centers. The demand could be 3 times higher over the weekend due to weekend shopping. The sales department has agreed to consolidate the orders to the plant by weekly buckets on the condition that the plant has to encompass manufacturing of all 50 products every day. This way the sales department is comfortable of meeting customer demand even orders are placed on weekly buckets.

    In order to manufacture all 50 products every day, the plant needs to seek cooperation with its suppliers. Instead of sending delivery instructions to suppliers 2 weeks in advance with 2 deliveries per day, the plant will make last minute changes before the actual delivery date and require 4 deliveries per day. The BPM tool in this case not only publishes the inventory and production schedule to the supplier but also generates detail delivery instruction that synchronize with actual production. Based on sharing of critical information, some of the suppliers have shifted from make-to-stock to make-to-sequence as managed by the pull-based process across multiple sites.

    As a result of enhancing manufacturing flexibility as well as material synchronization with suppliers and sales, this plant was able to reduce plant inventory from 14 days to 1 day over a period of 3 years.

    Case 3  – Enabling flexible supply network at a global electronic equipment company

    Company C is a global electronic equipment company who has recognized the challenge of not only implementing best-practice lean processes in one plant but also rolling out such to multiple internal and external facilities across the globe. Due to the fast pace of technology in this industry, the manufacturing model of each product category evolves rapidly over time. The high volume and low mix products are more effective to be managed by pull processes while the low volume / long lead time product are more effectively managed by plan-pushed processes. While new products are more likely to produced in-house initially, their production may ramp up within less than a year. Out-sourcing part of the operations to sub-contractors in lower cost countries becomes necessary in order to stay competitive to meet market demand as products are commoditized. In order to meet such challenges, Company C adopted enterprise SOA architecture together with BPM in the following ways.

    An Example of Enterprise SOA

    An Example of Enterprise SOA

    Firstly, a basic logical unit of service is defined for a manufacturing operation, which is part of the entire manufacturing process. Each unit of service has 2 layers of functionalities, namely planning and execution. The planning layer is realized by an ERP package which handles MRP, order taking, purchasing and financial. The execution layer is realized by a manufacturing BPM tool that manages the execution of all the inventory, quality, production and maintenance transactions as well as all the  pull-based processes.

    Secondly, each of the basic unit of service  interacts with each other through the same sales and purchase order mechanism. Internal orders with no financial posting are created when one unit is ordering parts from another unit within the same plant. External orders that post the proper financial journal entries are used when parts are ordered from a supplier or a subcontracted plant.

    By adopting this architecture throughout the enterprise, whether it is a process change from plan-push to event-pull as product lifecycle matures, a rearrangement of operation sequences as a result of continuous improvement or a shift of an operation to a subcontractor as business model evolves can all be handled by rearranging the identical units of service at the ESB without the need for custom programming that requires month-long system upgrade. With such a global flexible platform approach, IT cost is estimated to be reduced from 2.9% to 1.8% of sales in 3 years. This does not include any of the operational benefits attained by implementing best-practice across the global facilities and responding faster to demand in supply network reconfiguration.

    5 keys areas to leverage technology in lean

    The above 3 cases illustrated that pull-based BPM can be applied in the following ways:

    1. Leverage second order information – which is not only the current state but also dynamic data such as the up-to-the-minute or second standard deviation, micro-trends, variability to trigger better actions and control processes (such as dynamic buffer in case 1, dynamic Kanban flow, realtiime TOC). These data can of course used to support 6-sigma improvement effort and reduce DMIAC cycle time for projects as well as to improve accuracy of master data in planning systems (standard leadtime, standard cost.. etc)

    2. Extend in-process visibility / intelligence for operation decision support – which is different from typical batch-based business intelligence/ after-the-fact analysis. In case 1 such realtime in-process visibility enables prompt human decision in reapplication of failed coil.

    3. Enable pull process to supply chain partners and customers – as indicated by case 2 that suppliers and sales synchronization are keys to lean initiatives, even when their sole focus is within the 4 walls of a facility.

    4. Sustain Kaizen – which drives many small steps of changes in the lean journey. Changes of shopfloor layout, work sequence, equipment, methods, people, material all need to be supported by a flexible IT platform not only at the local level but also roll out of changes across the enterprise. Rapid measurement of Kaizen results and benchmarking operational KPIs across multiple facilities to reinforce common goals.

    5. Increase process and supply network flexibility – which requires an enterprise architecture to capture lean best-practice, to enable flexible switching between different types of processes according to business need as well as to roll out to multiple facilities and to ramp up/down suppliers as supply network is reconfigured in case 3.

    In this context, pull-based process and lean techniques have been proven to be applicable to all styles of manufacturing from continuous , batch to complex discrete assembly as illustrated by the above 3 cases. Case 1 is a company that had no previuous experiences of adopting lean while Case 2 and 3 are companies that have adopted lean for many years. In other words, opportunities to apply pull-based processes that result in saving can be identified at whatever stages of the lean journey.

    Isn’t cultural transformation more important?

    Lean practitioners who deny the importance of IT would never able to tackle the above challenges. The kind of cultural transformation requires for taking the lean journey typically takes many years. IT tools, if applied effectively, can reinforce the collective organizational motivation requires for the long journey of lean transformation with quick, concrete and visible benefits on the way. Taking the lean journey is just like a Samurai taking many years to master the skill and spirit of Bushido, along the path he needs to arm himself with the right Katana to win his day-to-day battles. Pull-based BPM is the modern Katana (Samurai sword) to cut through organization barriers, pull together organizational Kaizen persistence, split best-practice to global operation as well as craft out the ultimate goal of cultural transformation that strikes at the heart of competition.

    While it takes years to master the spirit of Bushido, a Samurai's sword can make a difference of win or lose in battle

    Taking the lean journey is just like a Samurai taking many years to master the skill and spirit of Bushido, along the path he needs to arm himself with the right Katana to win his day-to-day battles

    How the right Katana should be cast? That would be a topic for another day.


    [1] “Toyota Production System – Beyond Large-Scale Production” page 48-50, Taiichi Ohno