Get out of trouble - Plan a way out
I was once asked to describe the main reasons for interim managers being engaged to run manufacturing operations. Looking back over my own career a recurring theme was businesses in which an arrears situation had developed. I'm pleased to say that I have always so far been successful in addressing this situation – perhaps not always completely eliminating overdues, but having the recovery programme well in place in time to hand over to a long-term appointment.
There are in fact a number of potential causes:
We could consider arrears arising as a result of the order book exceeding the capability of the business - sometimes our own internal capacity and sometimes material / component availability - as a 'positive' reason; after all, growth is better than business decline. In fact it is still a problem. Arrears means late deliveries and letting customers down, which can very quickly lead to a reduction in new orders being taken.
And of course, taking orders in excess of capacity is a basic failing in itself. Our planning process should highlight where we don't have capacity or material supply for a particular date. Not having this fundamental discipline in place is evidence of mismanagement and committing to a date we can't achieve does several things:
Avoiding arrears caused by growth requires some formalised mechanism for assessing capacity - this may be the classic textbook Master Production Scheduling (MPS) / Available to Promise (ATP) approach or a simple wall chart with weekly / daily capacity and current production plan. What we all need as a bare minimum is some form of alarm system that highlights where the customer requirement needs increased capacity or special action to procure components.
In some cases we can meet a requirement in excess of current capacity. Products sold on lengthy lead times may allow sufficient visibility for extra shifts to be planned or a sub-contract resource to be identified. If this is the case then the commitment can be made. If we clearly can't meet the requirement then this has to be recognised up front.
In fact promising a date later than customers are seeking may not be a problem. Wouldn't they perhaps prefer a ten-week promise and delivery in ten weeks than a seven-week promise and delivery in nine? After all, they may use our promise to make their own plans and commitments to their own customers.
This, of course, can happen to all of us. In some cases the plant that falls over is a resource that we can replace relatively easily - simple drilling or component turning where there are plenty of sub-contractors around that can step in to help us over a crisis. Production supervisors and planners can, hopefully, react to this quickly and such problems can be overcome relatively easily. In any case, such plant is rarely the constraining resource within the business - expensive, dedicated equipment is more likely not to have spare capacity. When plant of this nature breaks down, then recovery is much more difficult. Dr Goldratt's lesson from 'The Goal' remains - if any resource is working flat out then we can't work it any faster. Bottlenecks determine our true capacity.
(In fact, we may be able to increase output in the future if the plant in question only runs one or two shifts each day because we don't have operators with the skills for running additional hours on a permanent basis. We may be able to increase working hours in the short term; for example if the plant is currently manned 6 to 2 and 2 to 10 we can perhaps we could perhaps introduce 12-hour shifts - but not for long of course because operators can't be effective for long while working such hours. During that time we could train additional workers and move to three-shift working.)
So, how do we avoid such problems? Well, the first step of course is looking after the plant. We've all been hearing about Total Productive Maintenance for a number of years and most of us have learned and applied the lessons. (Sadly this remains 'most' rather than 'all'. My colleagues and I still discover companies where people have been on courses on the subject but nothing has happened. Operators still undertake minimal maintenance or even plant inspection activities, schedules are noticeable by their absence and people accept that standard times are missed because plant is worn and cannot be run at the speed on which the standards are based.)
What else can we do? One thing is arrange alternative processes. I have engaged in debates with corporate management who always want old equipment thrown away when new plant is installed - for example when conventional borers, lathes and so on are replaced by the latest technology in machining centres. If we have the space, why not keep the old machines? Of course we should find an area outside the main flow of components so that we don't have to keep walking around it or lengthening the distance travelled by components (one of Ohno's seven wastes) but if the area for the old plant doesn't need a great deal of preparation then why not? This gives us an alternative, though of course the lead times for the alternative method will be longer since a one-stop shop at the new plant will be replaced by visits to several machines with all the associated movement and queuing.
The most glaring example I have seen in recent times was a business that sourced many castings from one foundry in the UK. When this foundry went into administration they supplied no product for over a month. When the financial recovery programme was agreed they returned to production, but with lower volumes. They also suffered significant quality problems resulting from reduced resources in the front end process, that of order-handling and pattern selection, and in the final inspection area.
What should we do in this situation? Obviously the first step in avoiding such problems has to be keeping close to key suppliers so such circumstances do not come as surprise. In this case there was some warning, but not as much as would have been needed to secure capacity in an alternative foundry, move patterns and bring the new supplier up to speed - that is, if such capacity existed in any other UK supplier. Local resources have diminished in recent years as component manufacturing has moved to the East.
Of course, where we feel vulnerable, we can hold component buffers, or safety stock. In a business of extensive product variety this is never easy. It requires the ability to forecast and carries with it the cost of capital sitting on the shelf when it could be used to minimise the cost of financing the business.
Although the issues outlined above can often be identified as root causes behind arrears situations there are often a number of reasons. A typical situation is one where problems have arisen through another of the reasons but inadequate planning systems have compounded matters.
Is there a recurring theme to companies with arrears? Well these are probably the most common:
The first question we should ask ourselves when we have significant arrears is 'why has this happened?'
We may not set out to immediately address the root cause - I had the experience of a high pressure steam test plant that had been out of action for some time leading to significant queues of items to be processed through this plant and subsequent stages. There was undoubtedly a long-term activity of getting to the root cause of the problem and preventing recurrence but the priority had to be getting on top of the arrears.
On the other hand, the root cause may need immediate action. The example quoted above was a business that had grown substantially. When I was asked to take responsibility for the Operations function the business was still selling on a standard lead time. The factory was broken down into product-based focused units, all of which had several weeks' worth of output due in the past. The worst, producing 85 sophisticated units per week, had over 750 units overdue in the assembly area. The forward load showed that the plant was full for the next 8 weeks even if the arrears could be magically eliminated with immediate effect. In this case the forward planning mechanism (or lack thereof!) was undoubtedly a limiting factor for any corrective action programme and needed immediate action.
As noted earlier, the instinctive short-term reaction is for everybody in Production to revert to progress-chasing. One of my first bosses took me aside after a daily production meeting and asked me what I felt about what we had just witnessed. We had stepped the production plan up by 20% for the last quarter of the financial year and now had overloads in key areas of the plant with massive arrears in the welding shop because the machine shop had been slowest of all to react to the increase.
I said that I didn't think it would work. The planners and superintendents in these areas had all made lists of priorities and had agreed to report status at the next meeting, 8am the following day. Nobody had asked the question about whether the plan was feasible and what needed to be done to make the unachievable elements possible. In fact the office manager for the machine shop had several times tried to draw people's attention to information from the capacity planning system - IBM's CAPOSS, at that time a leading-edge solution - and had, in effect, been shouted down.
My boss smiled and said he was glad I had noticed. He explained that he was sixty two years old, would soon be retiring and couldn't wait. He had seen this all before, he said, and didn't want to see it again.'Production people revert to type. They don't want to stop and think. They are happy to run around waving their arms, telling people to stop that job and start this one, then run back two hours later and do this one instead. It doesn't deliver success but they go home feeling that they've done their best.'
As with most crises, the only way to get out of trouble is to plan our way out.
This doesn't mean go off and invent some sophisticated set of tools, or implement a new computer system (though it might mean making better use of one that is already installed). One key lesson about planning is that simple systems are more likely to deliver than complicated ones, a lesson that is particularly relevant when everybody is under pressure. An arrears situation, with customers continually on the 'phone or visiting to review progress and in-house Sales and Customer Services people trying to manipulate things to prioritise their own business, is nothing if not pressurised!
Increased levels of output are, of course, an essential. How these are achieved depends on what factors have constrained things until now. While better planning undoubtedly helps (everybody running round like a headless chicken isn't the best way to achieve efficiency), there can be a number of areas to be addressed, including:
Does the change process need an outsider? Well, obviously not. There are many good managers around, people who can manage the day-to-day situation and people who can manage change. Not all have chosen to take the career path of interim management.
There are, however, advantages (though an interim manager writing on an interim management web site would say this, wouldn't he?) to the use of interim managers. People who make a living from managing businesses through crises bring particular experience. The pitfalls that wait to catch us all when we first come across a particular situation may be side-stepped by somebody who has been there before. Others in the business may see the fact that an external specialist has been brought in to address matters as evidence that company management is taking the position seriously.
Potential problems - Changes in the way of working must be owned by people in the business, people who must carry on working in the new way if ongoing success is to be achieved. This may suggest that the change programme should be led by the in-house members of the team. On the other hand, if external resources are to be engaged then one of the selection criteria has to be the interim manager's ability to lead the team to the Promised Land, and manage the handover process so that he improved processes, remain when he or she has gone. This is perhaps what distinguishes the professional interim manager from the redundant executive just offering temporary services.
Interim management can help your organisation
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