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Killing Dumbo

By Scott Ellis, Ed.D.

July 7, 2023

Let’s talk about the baby elephant in the room. For 20 years, we have been addressing the Packaging Pachyderm: Independents live or die by the changeover, and most do not optimize setup speed by delivering job-ready materials, tooling, and information. The good news is that many have now taken on Jumbo and reduced changeover time by up to 70%. Their crews don’t look for stuff or fix stuff; they just make boxes and do fast and predictable changeovers.

Those that have dealt with Jumbo are in a continual hunt to solve smaller bottlenecks. Enter Dumbo, the baby elephant. Technological advances in flexography allow many machine print stations to be set up while the press is completing another job, but this capability is ignored in most plants. Why would a plant that averages four-color jobs purchase a seven-color machine? The answer: flexibility. Easy use of alternative anilox rolls and other considerations are included, but the ability to set while running was part of the purchase decision. The reason for so much time and money being wasted must be that the machine technology has outpaced the processes and preparation required to capitalize on this capability.

Having worked on setup reduction and overall equipment effectiveness with thousands of packaging folks, I know we have failed to measure and improve set while running capacity. The metric will include potential time savings versus actual time saved. More to the point, it will expose the reasons we missed that potential. Those reasons will then be explored, and systems will be improved. I hope it will become sufficiently understood to add a reliable algorithm to the enterprise resource planning software, but first it will need to be done close to the process and by hand.

Myriad factors are affecting the outcome. The mix of work, the preferred color sequence, and the average pieces per job are just a few considerations that determine the optimal utilization for a particular machine. However, Dumbo is hiding in the gap where we do not measure. Someone has said, “You cannot change what you are willing to tolerate.” To stop tolerating this loss, priorities will need to be made explicit, the crew will need a scoreboard, savings will need to be quantified, and the whole team will need to focus on improvement.


Gather the team of experts to determine the best use of the machine for the company. This sets a target for a desired future state. This team could include representatives of crew, supervision, prepress, scheduling, design, etc.

Target Machine Potential

The team will then be able to estimate the potential of the optimized machine. Data needed for this calculation will include:

    • Average colors per job.
    • Average time to set up a print station.
    • Number of jobs per shift.
    • Dollars per minute of production (sales or contribution).

Next, use a fishbone diagram to help the group generate common reasons for not optimizing set while running capacity. Once this is complete, the group might focus on the three most common issues. They don’t need to solve the problem yet, but only to estimate the impact, expressed in minutes and dollars saved. Then you will have Dumbo in the crosshairs.

Machine-Side Measures

Equipped with a measurement tool, the crew will compare potential versus actual on each job. Behind the scenes, you may calculate the percentages and potential savings,* but the critical data at this point is why the crew was unable to set while running. Those reasons can be captured on a whiteboard. I use a whiteboard because a list on paper or a screen is less likely to be seen and discussed by crew, shifts, and supervisors. Once a month’s data is collected, assign a cross-functional group to complete root-cause analysis.

Continuous Improvement

The cross-functional group will look at frequent issues that prevent set-while-run optimization. The issues chosen for root-cause analysis will be discussed by the group to the point that the scope and the potential savings are understood. The issue will then be assigned to an individual or team to explore and describe a course of action for improvement.

The potential savings of set-while-running optimization include the obvious decrease in changeover time but extend to reduced overtime, increased employee engagement, and improved productivity. And you will believe that an elephant can fly—away.

Scott Ellis, Ed.D., delivers training, coaching, and resources that develop the ability to eliminate obstacles and sustain more effective and profitable results. He recently published Dammit: Learning Judgment Through Experience. His books and process improvement resources are available at AICC members enjoy a 20% discount with code AICC21.

*Contact me for a spreadsheet and other measurement resources.

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