Improving productivity is critical everywhere today. Having successful strategies that increase productivity is like printing money if you can figure out how to do it.
For the last 20 years I have been sharing a story that’s become a metaphor and model for improving productivity in almost any setting. It’s been applied to manufacturing, government, service operations, IT, engineering, sales and more with remarkable results by people and organizations around the world.
What makes it so effective is that it takes people out of their usual patterns of thinking about productivity and let’s them see things from a different perspective. And as usual when we can gain a fresh view on something, new ideas and solutions emerge.
So if finding new strategies for improving productivity is important to you and your business, I suggest you read on. And if you want to receive more posts like this one full of good stuff you can use in your business, sign up to receive our posts free by email, and you won’t miss a single one.
Now, on with the story.
The Bumper Plant
Back when I was just starting as a consultant, one of my first clients was a company that made bumpers for trucks. You know, big hunks of metal that get pounded and shaped by large manufacturing presses and wielded by big burly men before being bolted onto 18-wheelers that haul freight.
The company had a bottleneck in production that they couldn’t seem to break quickly enough. Orders were backed-up and customers were getting very restless about late deliveries and unreliable shipments. They were missing out on revenues, running high overtime, and at risk of losing customers.
The bottleneck was in a welding department and it looked like they would have to expand the plant to fit in more welding areas and welders. It was going to cost a good bit of money but worse, it was going to take time. Time for permits, time for construction and time to hire and time to train new welders. It was going to be months to implement this fix and they were hoping there might be a faster way to solve the problem.
The plant manager had at least 35 years experience and was very kind but was more than a little skeptical our meeting would lead to anything. He presented their efficiency data showing from a thick report, that they better than 93% in the welding department, informed me that they were at the top of the firms they benchmarked against. It’s pretty impressive, and also pretty clear that he didn’t see much opportunity.
Well, back then I thought I was pretty “smart” and I wasn’t shy about sharing what I thought I knew. So, undeterred by his data, I proceeded to share that in my experience (I have to laugh now imagining what he thought of my “vast experience”), there was at least 25% more capacity that could be exposed. It was quite a statement, and though it was actually true in my experience, it did little to endear me to my host. And rather than butting heads over opinions, he suggested we go and watch the welding department in action.
If you haven’t been on a manufacturing floor you’ve probably seen what they are like–lots of activity, loud noises, machines spinning and banging, forklifts scurrying about with materials, people lifting, moving, checking, measuring. With so much going on, it’s easy to lose sight of what really matters. Fortunately I had good teachers, Bob Fox, and Eli Goldratt, the creators of TOC. They had taught me to start with a clear image of what should be happening so you don’t get distracted by or lost in the “noise.”
I call it defining “what ‘good’ looks like.” So as we headed into the plant I was picturing what that would look like for the welding department. I am not an Engineer, and have never welded anything in my life, so this wasn’t going to be some sophisticated mindmap of welding excellence. What good looked like in my mind was “blue light,” that eerie light a welding torch emits when it is fired up. I was pretty certain the torch had to be on for welding to take place. But it could have been any number of other similar images, this one worked for me.
Seeing ways to Improve Productivity
A minute later we are standing in front of 3 welding booths, each manned by a welder hard at work. All around the area are pallets of bumpers, waiting their turn in the welding shop–the bottleneck was pretty clear in this business! The Plant Manager is telling me about the process, as I watch what is going on:
- Welder 1 finishes his bumper, turns off his torch and goes to get welder 2 in the next booth, who also turns off his torch
- The two of them proceed to lift several of the bumpers off the work table and onto the pallet of finished parts, and then place several more bumpers up onto the work table.
- While welder 2 returns to his booth, welder 1 proceeds to pick at the bumper for a couple of minutes with his fingers. (The plant manager notices that my puzzled look and tells me that there is a plastic coating that must be removed at the weld point.)
- After removing the plastic the welder uses a jig to set the parts he is welding to the bumper.
- Then after gearing up, he lights his torch and welds…for about 30 seconds
- He turns off his torch and repeats the part clamping with the jig on the next bumper.
- Welder 3 disappears and returns with a lift that he uses to move the finished bumpers out of the way
- He then consults his schedule and starts to look for the right parts among the pallets of bumpers.
It went on and on like this–its a shame I didn’t take video of it! There was very little “blue light” at all. And all I could think of was—“Man did I sandbag this guy, there’s not just 25% more capacity here, I missed it by one or two…zeroes!”
One of the Greatest Lessons I ever Learned
But, fortunately, before I can say anything the Plant Manager turns to me and gives me one of the most important lessons I have ever learned. He said, “you see, they’re busy all of the time,” referring to the welders who were indeed working their butts off.
It stopped me in my tracks, and made me think. How can two people look at exactly the same thing, at the same time with the same objective, and reach almost opposite conclusions. The plant manager saw that the operation was maxed out, and to me there was a bounty of possible solutions to increase their output right away.
What his comment made me realize though was just how important and powerful perspective is. How we look at something literally determines what we see. He looked at the activity of the welders, the people, and so he saw that, he saw them hustling and working to the maximum. When we get in the habit of doing or looking at things in a certain way, we don’t even think about it, or question it. And very often that makes all the difference in the world.
I certainly wasn’t smarter or more knowledgeable about manufacturing or welding–but I had trained myself to look differently. I knew then that I couldn’t just hand him a list of things they could do to open up the bottleneck, they’d never take them seriously. No, they had to see it differently for themselves. But once they did the solutions would be better than mine and would get implemented right away.
And that’s pretty much what happened. Within a month they had cut the pile of buffers in welding in half, the next month it was gone. They had record shipping months and record profits for the year. And I learned an amazing lesson that’s helped hundreds of companies in the last 20 years.
So if some part of your business is not productive enough, think about what your blue light is and go looking for it. I’d be surprised if you don’t find at least a few simple ways to make it better.
And then do me a favor, come back and tell us about your experience, what was your blue light, and what did you see that you hadn’t seen before. We’d love to hear it. And if you want to get more stories like Blue Light, sign up below to receive free posts in your email. Have a great day.