Manufacturing Challenges Blog Series: Waste Reduction

Welcome back to the Manufacturing Challenges blog series. So far, colleagues Doug Fair (COO), Eric Weisbrod (VP of Product Management), and I have shared info and thoughts about the manufacturing challenges that exist with entries that include reporting, audits, operator engagement, and defects and recalls. Today I’d like to focus on waste reduction.
I think the main reason I would like to talk about waste reduction is because it is such a ubiquitous topic in manufacturing. It is everywhere, and everyone should be concerned with it. It’s one of the first things we focus on when we arrive at a customer’s facility. Allow me to explain.
Manufacturing Processes

A Little Out of the Ordinary

Many times, we quality professionals here at InfinityQS are hired to go into a facility and give our professional opinion as to how to best implement our Quality Intelligence products. We almost always start with data collection because it’s a great way to understand what’s going on with processes.
Over the years, one thing struck me again and again as I performed these duties: how many organizations had a whole bunch of extra steps added to a process that were not documented, not what I call “part of the happy path.” The happy path is the direct course from point A to point B, from resources (supplier) to finished product. This always struck me as a little out of the ordinary. But, as you’ll see, it’s really not. Unfortunately, it’s kind of the norm. 
These missing pieces are work-arounds, things developed through experience by the operators that help them get the job done. But they’re almost never documented. And nobody wants to talk about them.
Manufacturing Operators

A Better Tomorrow

What we’re trying to accomplish, as quality pros, when we’re looking at the nuances of an organization’s process, are ways to improve the current picture—to create a better tomorrow. Creating a process map is how we do it. But if it’s full of little one-off work-arounds, that becomes a very tough job.
Here’s the trick: they don’t really want to talk about the work-arounds. It’s what I’ve been calling the “hidden factory.” It’s the part of manufacturing that is invisible. Until we get there.

A Little Story

I used to work for an airplane manufacturer. One of the big ones. It was where I first started to see the hidden factory. Let’s say you’re making what we called an interior sidewall panel—the plastic piece that’s part of the wall when you sit near a window in a commercial airliner. Well, as you can imagine, a lot of steps go into making something like that: molds, materials, layers, resin, lots of stuff, lots of steps.
Manufacturing Autoclave
Near the end they go into an autoclave, sort of a pressurized oven (like the one pictured above) that’s used to cure these composite materials. With so much going into them, these panels often experience issues: burn spots, rough areas, delaminating, to name a few. And these issues cause rework. Well, none of that gets formally documented. If you look at the process flow, you see that the panel comes out of the autoclave, gets a trimming, and then it’s pretty much done. No mention of what happens if/when there’s an issue. There’s never a mention of the extra steps that occur to ensure that the panel is right. That’s waste.

Who Cares?

Generally speaking, management doesn’t really care about waste; what they care about is profit. Well, to be fair, they do care; but they don’t want to deal with it if they don’t have to. As long as they’re making money, they just don’t have time to devote to worrying about waste. And so, these hidden factories continue to exist.
But in today’s marketplace—highly competitive, dwindling profit margins, and the high price for failure—every organization needs to take a good, hard look at waste. They need to expose the hidden factory and take care of their processes. It’s the low-hanging fruit of manufacturing quality improvement.
Quality Pro

Where’s the Motivation to Change?

So, let’s say a company sends its people to waste reduction training. “Zero defects” is the mantra. Employees come back fired up to make a difference. They start focusing on waste within their organization.
Somewhere up the food chain, somewhere above these folks that go through the training, there exists those who don’t want to expose the hidden factory. They’re afraid that it will expose some bad decisions, or bad judgment, that could make them look bad. So, what’s the end result? The people who went through the training and want to make a difference feel like they have no power to make a change. The factory remains hidden.
These folks continue to do their job; they get out the sander and smooth over the rough edges and do what they can to keep the product moving through the line. They don’t raise the flag—not because they’re scared—but because they think, “Well, that’s what I’m paid to do. I’m paid by the hour.” Or, “It doesn’t happen in my area. I don’t want to get someone upstream or downstream in trouble.” People are essentially motivated to keep it quiet, to keep the factory hidden.
Until the mindset from management changes to something more encouraging, nurturing if you will, and reinforces/empowers people to expose the hidden factory, it will remain unseen.
Reducing Manufacturing Waste

For the Sake of Your Bottom Line

So, here’s another story to highlight how waste reduction can affect your business and directly affect your bottom line. Again, back in my airplane building days, we had a supplier who was building what’s called a “horizontal stabilizer;” that’s the flat piece across the back of the plane that helps—you guessed it—stabilize the plane. Anyway, I was involved in a project dealing with variation reduction of that part.
When the company received the flap from the supplier, which we would then attach to the stabilizer, there were problems with the attachment points. The pins weren’t fitting properly.


So, there's an assembly fixture that it goes in and there are “shims” that get put in certain places to get all the pins to align properly. Those are clearly work-arounds. Some of the cost reduction was to have an automated shim-making machine—that way there would be some direct feedback from what shim size to be made—which could make them quickly. So, they improved cycle time, but yet this was just a work-around, another type of waste.
Because the parts didn't fit when they came in (variation), they had to come up with this shim-making step. But because the orders were coming in so fast at that time, even with the automated shim-making machine, we just weren’t keeping up with production. So, the idea then was to build another jig to keep up with sales. You can see how these work-arounds can add up.
SPC on the Factory Floor

The Fix

So, our team’s job was to identify sources of variation at the supplier—because that’s where the root cause was located. (In this case, the root cause was the variation of the smaller piece attached to the big, flat piece.) We reduced and eliminated a lot of variation being introduced at the source, and the result was, from that point on, one machine could maintain the production rate. That’s a) a big money-saver for the company, and b) a time-saver for the production people. A win-win if I ever saw one.


If we can focus on discovering root causes and eliminate the variation at the source, we can eliminate many of the added costs that creep into our production processes. These variations are usually the result of people trying to fix something quick or make the best of a deteriorating situation.
But, key to all this is that the company was not blind to waste reduction. They recognized the issues and put a quality team on the case. There’s no reason to leave money on the table by ignoring waste. Companies need to recognize what’s there, pursue intelligent fixes, and the bottom line will reflect their efforts.
Please read the other Manufacturing Challenges series blogs:  
And, while you’re at it, feel free to have a look at our Quality Intelligence solutions.
Steve Wise
By Steve Wise
Vice President of Statistical Methods
See Full Bio


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