According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the unemployment rate reached 9.7% as of August 2009 or approximately 14.9 million people here in the United States. There is no doubt of the tremendous negative impact this recession has had on the United States, let alone the world.
The good news is that there have been signs that the economy is improving. With an improving economy, companies historically begin to hire workers to meet increased orders. However, companies are finding ways to do more with less, including delaying or eliminating new hires from the budget to stay competitive.
The February 2009 Current Labor Statistics report shows rapid growth in productivity here and abroad. From 2000 to 2007 (last year available) productivity per hour for American manufacturing workers increased 36%. Also during that period total hours dropped about 16%. Clearly we are being asked to do more in less time and achieving it!
How are companies realizing such productivity gains? One answer is through business process automation solutions and the integration of these solutions. With such solutions successfully in place, productivity can increase as much as 50%, and with an integrated system, to as much as 85%. Software can help companies do more with less and improve compliance with customer, regulatory and quality standard requirements.
Where does one look to increase productivity? A good place to start is to understand the typical productivity “wins” of others. Additionally, understanding where existing technology can be improved will lead to opportunities for gain. To assist in identifying potential productivity gains, one might look to:
Communication. Many companies use e-mail systems as a way of managing tasks, or as reminders of impending tasks. Although this is a common way to manage such information, it is labor intensive, with a meager possibility of information sharing.
There are means to automate the management of impending tasks. A central database, where reminders and supervisor notifications, or escalation messages, are automatically sent to appropriate individuals until the associated tasks are completed can be used. This single database, where information can be updated and shared, eliminates the need to contact others to find out what, if anything, has changed since the last interaction. Most business process automation (BPA) databases have functionality to manage user notifications of predefined events, negating the infamous and manually sent “FYI” e-mails. The benefit is that fewer e-mails are manually sent and fewer will have to be read.
With BPM databases, processes that require multiple individuals to perform tasks in a sequenced order, such as the document change request process or tooling or supplier approval processes can be automated, resulting in productivity gains through the reduction of paper forms and personnel sign-off management. Simultaneously, change logs are automatically updated by the software application and the potential for error is reduced.
Automation solutions can completely remove the need for hard paper copies and replace it with electronic documentation that uses electronic signoffs. Such a solution provides a secure means of record retention and improves overall accessibility. Such a software solution can facilitate the needed communication to do workflow routing, follow-up communication management and contain the audit trail.
Data and Data Management. With business or regulatory standards such as ISO 9001:2008, ISO/TS 16949, 21 CFR Part 11 as well as many others, data management and warehousing is critical to compliance. Situations where a user can go to one interface screen and perform a keyword search and find all applicable documentation and revision history desired vs. manually searching through volumes of files and folders on a network, and then having to ask others to ensure the most up-to-date information was found, proves to be efficient and effective.
There are integrated database systems available where data such as gage calibration schedules, preventive and reactive maintenance work orders, details of project tasks, corrective action responses and action plans, and required employee training, because of a procedure change requests, can be organized and reported. This assists employees to quickly complete required work, as well as assisting in complying with customer and quality standards requirements.
Reporting. Being able to query data using one application, which will ultimately produce reports, can save countless hours. There are many systems, from integrated reporting functions in a software solution to stand-alone data mining tools that can pull information from many sources, including spreadsheets. To be effective and productive, reporting must be in a format that will satisfy management and customer requirements. This means the solution must be flexible enough to write user-defined reports, as well as provide standard templates or preformatted reports.
Reporting must be dynamic so that users can, through a simple interface screen that requires no knowledge of programming, define report parameters such as dates, types of graph and any other relevant information.
Systems. Systems provide enhanced productivity when they can be consolidated. Common systems reduce the need for individualized training and less support from the information technology (IT) staff. Furthermore, common systems provide management and staff fewer places to go to find the most up-to-date information while enabling and enhancing communication.
A Practical Guide
Identifying and acting on specific opportunities for productivity gains can be a daunting task. While each opportunity may improve productivity in some manner, those that are poorly designed, incorrectly applied or implemented can negate any gains. It is imperative to embark on productivity gaining projects with caution. A practical framework can assist in successfully identifying and implementing productivity enhancement opportunities.
Assess the organizational needs and resulting objectives. Consider the current state of automation within the manufacturing plant. Are all of the previously described benchmark tools and processes being used? If not, an organizational need has been discovered.
Consider the company’s needs of improving its compliance to ISO, TS, customer or regulatory requirements. Don’t forget about seemingly minor issues of using too many individual spreadsheets to collect, analyze and report critical data, which may not only conflict, but from which important decisions are to be made. Each of these areas, as well as a manufacturer’s past corrective actions and other audit findings, may signal significant opportunities for improvement. Any areas of inefficiency or ineffectiveness should be inspected.
Set objectives to address organizational needs. Analyze the resources that could be saved with a new solution and use this information to build a business case supporting the reason for change.
Analyze the gap. Perform a gap analysis study to determine what is necessary for a manufacturer to be successful with each solution. That is, document where the company wants to be vs. where they are. Define what it will take to get the company to where they want to be.
Create the plan. Having defined the manufacturer’s needs, objectives and current state, the gaps that must be filled have been identified. Next, create the plan to fill them. This plan will be critical in getting executive approval and funding.
Carefully describe the entire long-term plan. Ideas for topics that should be in the plan include:
- Prioritize the gaps that were identified.
- Define a specific timeline and assign responsibility for each gap identified.
- Define solutions that are available to fill the gaps.
- Build the business case for the solution.
- Obtain management approval.
- Define how success will be measured by management and by the users.
- Define the baseline measures and goals.
- Define the criteria and weighting to be used to evaluate the options.
- Determine how the new solution will be marketed and communicated to future users.
- Determine how users will be trained.
Execute the plan and measure performance. If sufficient detail is put in the plan and there is commitment from the players, including management, the execution of the plan will go smoothly. One of the best ways to hold an individual accountable is to schedule and execute on recurring status meetings to discuss tasks that are not getting done by set due dates and assess the timeline. Keeping a close eye on schedules and timelines helps instill the staff that changes are being implemented and that they can be a part of the change.
The growth to reach all of the objectives should start slow and then build rapidly. A poorly executed launch is difficult to overcome in the eyes of both management and the users. It is important to remember that new tools and new processes should not be forced on the company but, desired by them. With this, success is ensured.