At the time of this writing, Knapheide is investing heavily in improving our operational efficiency by aggressively attacking waste in our processes and devoting significant resources to the implementation of automation. Ahead, I’ll focus on the reduction of waste in manufacturing processes.

Chris Russell Headshot

Guest Contributor
Vice President of Operations

Running an efficient operation is always a top goal of operations leaders, however with labor shortages, supply chain constraints, and other unique challenges coming out of a pandemic, now more than ever, it is absolutely necessary to focus on improving your operations productivity to meet your customer’s needs.

The benefits of improving operational productivity are as follows:

    • Lower lead times
    • Improved, on-time delivery to customers
    • Better results in your financial statement
    • Perhaps most important in today’s world: less hours worked on the shop floor to deliver the same results

With all of these benefits, many manufacturers put a heavy emphasis on improving efficiency. There are countless books on waste elimination and lean implementation. Google “improve operational efficiency” and hundreds of results come up, most of them having very good points and simple outlines.

If it’s that’s simple, why doesn’t every manufacturer simply follow these templates and reap the many benefits of improved productivity? Oftentimes, the problem lies in focusing on what is urgent versus what is important. Leaders must push improvement initiatives and relentlessly challenge their teams to put actions in place to improve processes that support these initiatives.

// What is the right way to go about starting to make improvements?

These initiatives must have support from those doing the work. There are different methods to get alignment from teams on the initiatives, whether it’s a workshop, offsite meeting, or retreat. The most important point is getting a commitment to improve these areas of focus from the leaders on the manufacturing and support teams. As a leader, getting buy in and support can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. The critical portion is that your team and the other support teams agree that they will focus on the improvement efforts necessary to improve operational efficiency.

Marshall Goldsmith explains this process quite well in his book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” He describes how every successful project goes through seven phases. The first phase is assessing the situation, the second is isolating the problem, and the third is formulating. But there are three more phases before you get to the seventh, which is implementation.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t pay close attention to phases four, five, and six, which encompass the vital period in which you approach your coworkers to secure the all-important political buy in to your plans. In each phase, you must target a different constituency.

In phase four, you “woo up” to get your superiors to approve. In phase five, you “woo laterally” to get your peers to agree.  In phase six, you “woo down” to get your direct reports to accept. These three phases are the most important part of getting things done. You cannot skip or skim over them.

From there, you will need to ensure the team comes up with a plan of attack for the initiatives identified and agree on a method to report progress. Leaders must ensure their teams have the necessary resources to accomplish the given task.

// Where do things go sideways?

Manufacturing has a lot of variables and opportunities for things to go wrong. Leaders must recognize whether the issue that comes up requires their attention and involvement or whether to let their team handle it. Often, senior leaders jump in and challenge their teams to solve every single problem that arises. However, this can remove focus from the previously defined improvement initiatives. If this happens, all improvement activities come to a halt and everyone stays in “firefighting mode,” fixing small problems that have less of an impact on operational efficiency.

It can be extremely difficult for leaders to stay focused on improvement projects instead of challenging their teams to improve every incident that results in a “firefight.” However, by doing so, their teams will understand that making improvements is just as important as keeping the operation running.

// What areas should be focused on?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. If your operation has bottlenecks, that’s a great place to start. The key point is to get as many people in your operation to recognize waste and empower them to make changes to reduce the waste in processes.

The first projects tackled should be kept simple and quick. It’s much easier to make many small improvements than it is to take on a large project that may or may not be successful. Additionally, if multiple improvement activities fail, the organization will have an uphill battle in making improvements. Quick wins equal better buy in for future activities. Once the organizational culture starts to accept these changes and the improvements that come with them, you can move onto more impactful activities.

// Put forth the effort and reap the reward

The activities listed above are simple in practice but can be difficult to implement while still keeping employees safe, building good quality, and delivering product at a fair cost and on time. Utilizing key steps such as gathering buy in up front and starting small are a great way for any manufacturing company to begin their journey to improving operational efficiency.