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Mind the Gap – Achieving Continuous Improvement

Posted on September 2, 2014 by Helena Finnan

In all manufacturing processes there is a gap; the gap between what was planned and what is actually achieved through operational reality. It is popularly said that ‘best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray’ and in manufacturing processes there is much that can happen to make your plan ‘go astray’ once committed to production.

The gap exists between these disparate functions of what can be called ‘office’ and ‘operations’.  This is readily observable between workflow elements that are static and those which are dynamic; static being the plan, dynamic being operational reality. Wittingly, or even unwittingly, you will be aware of the gap and will have implemented solutions to allow best possible bridging of ‘your’ gap to achieve production efficiency.

As with many things it depends upon where you start as to what you may have implemented, but you will probably be suffering from inefficient workarounds unless each part of the workflow is fully integrated – including for example some notification that real-world issues have kicked in (a machine breakdown?) and the plan is no longer achievable.

Ineffectual workarounds can be, for example, paper based elements in production workflows, a reliance upon a set of highly customised but non-integrated spreadsheets or an assumption that an ERP (Enterprise Requirements Planning) system can truly and usefully extend to the production floor.

Bridging the gap may thus be at the heart of what you need to achieve in the next stage of your continuous improvement initiative. You will need to be acutely aware of plant wide integration, the facility to be warned of out-of-specification trends as they start to appear, and the ability to respond to all operational events – whilst you can still do something about them. The later point is the key; otherwise one has a system that measures failure after the batch rather than keeping an eye on things during the batch.

If you are involved with Continuous Improvement you may be finding that the gap may be at the core of a continuous improvement ‘stall’. You may have experienced a sticking point at which everything that you try to improve such as efficiency, on time completion in full and customer satisfaction seems to grind to a halt. The reason that difficulties have been encountered can in many cases be connected back to the gap – or, in other words, the lack of a truly integrated manufacturing information system.

It’s time to take stock and decide on a vision, a vision of what success could (or should) look like. One has to consider where a particular operational workflow has a weak link, agree what it would be like if that weak link was eliminated (the ‘vision’) and then seek and evaluate appropriate technological solutions.

Solutions to closing the gap (once easy and early day improvements have been made) lay within manufacturing information systems, sometimes referred to as MOM (Manufacturing Operations Management) or MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems). These systems integrate the office world with the real-time operational world.

Everything costs money; therefore closing the gap will have to produce a sustainable and quick return by its benefits. If you are undertaking continuous improvement and you are seeking to improve efficiency, throughput, quality, changeovers, on time completion in full, customer satisfaction – all within a regulated framework – then you will need to stand back and look at your existing operational workflows. You will need to determine where the operational bottlenecks are and place a financial value upon them – a business case for closing the gap.

For more information on MES solutions click here.

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