William Wordsworth once wrote, “How many undervalue the power of simplicity!” In our modern, interconnected world, supply chain professionals should keep in mind these wise words. With the internet of things, the cloud, 3D printing, big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning, autonomous trucks, and countless other advances becoming increasingly prevalent, I often think about the power of simple solutions.
In 1997, my first project as a consultant was in a semiconductor fabrication factory in Taiwan. At this facility, wafers were moved around using automated guided vehicles (AGVs). I quickly noticed two things: First, AGVs were not right for this purpose. They were ungainly, got in the way, slowed production and caused bottlenecks. Second, even in this highly sophisticated environment, deploying the good-old, industrial-engineering techniques of observation and process mapping were the best ways to improve and optimize the work, productivity and profitability.
These are lessons that have continued to serve me well many different times throughout my career. Here are some examples.
A factory where I worked provided a product line of stainless steel cabinetry to a dairy farm. This cabinetry was shipped as part of a larger project. Team members said that they could make the main units quickly, but they were always waiting for the intermediate parts. It was clear that lead times had to be reduced and outputs increased.
We decided to build four custom carts, each holding 16 intermediate units — enough for a midsized project shipment. The process was very simple:
- A maximum of two carts could be empty; if the third was being used, the first two must be filled.
- Filling a cart was a two-hour assembly process.
- If the workload was light, the supervisor could fill empty carts.
- A fold-down shelf was constructed that served as a workstation and a place for boxes of fasteners so the cart could also be the assembly station.
These carts soon became finished product storage, a signal to refill and the workstation for assembly all in one. We never ran out of intermediate parts again, and we expanded this proven process to several other components.
This is a story about roll-off hoists. At my company, once a hoist was built, it would go through a painting process and then either be put on a shelf until it could be mounted on a truck or shipped to a third party, which would either mount it or resell it. When it was time for the mounting or shipping, the hoist had to be brought down from the shelf and put on a cart for transport. There were not many carts available, and they were not intended for this purpose.
We addressed this problem by building a cart that fit the hoist exactly. It was universal and designed for easy, safe transport. Now, the moment a hoist was built, it was placed directly on the cart. And it would never leave that spot until it was put on a truck — either the chassis it was being mounted on or a flatbed for shipping. In the end, this cart eliminated waste, made it possible to transport hoists more safely, and helped avoid damage.
The final example comes from the world of truck wiring. When a truck is being upfitted, there is a fair amount of wiring of the running lights, break lights, indicators and the like. At this business, we were challenged to check all of this wiring without having to actually connect each of the lights — a considerable time-waster.
We discussed this issue with our light supplier and debated some kind of sophisticated tester. But the answer turned out to be much simpler: We built a mock, back-end of a truck and sacrificed one set of lights to put inside it. These lights had a multipoint connector that linked to the end point of the truck being upfitted. Then, all we had to do was test each action and see if the correct light came on — a modest, yet very useful solution.
All of these examples alleviated a very real supply chain issue and did so economically, quickly and in a way that was easy for employees to grasp. Each time, we considered the problem within the context of the particular business, with safety, lead time, efficiency and quality top of mind. We went to the floor where the products would be used, spoke with employees, and listened to their pain points and ideas. Indeed, even in the most sophisticated factories, there should be a place for this type of problem-solving. In fact, it may be one of the next profitability drivers.