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See Productivity and Opportunity

By AICC Staff

March 25, 2019

width=350What does a healthy company look like? The answer to this question is complicated by the observer’s level of objectivity. Both familiarity and novelty can interfere. If the company is very dissimilar to those in prior experience, the novelty may distract. By the same token, we may be intimately familiar with the challenges a company faces daily but choose to tolerate them as a cost of doing business.

Every producer of goods and services is unique, and none of us is truly objective. The best I can do is to understand my own bias and try to engage in disciplined observation. It is so easy to be distracted by bells and whistles of interesting technology or by specific challenges that would inhibit my view of the company as a whole. I do not look for a specific methodology, but I do look for systems that control results. The principle I am working from is that effectiveness over time requires great systems that allow good people to use their creativity and smarts to improve the customer experience. Too often, those good people must spend their time shoring up and checking conformance to customer requirements. What we are looking for in an effective plant is evidence of systems that make it easy to do things the right way. We want to see systems through which safe and happy people can produce quality products at the lowest operating cost and with the shortest lead time.

I ask 11 questions when I visit a company. I could have chosen six or 48, but 11 seem to suffice to get the information I need without getting kicked out of the building. These questions are preliminary to forming an opinion about the strengths and needs of the company. They are based on years of experience with R. Eugene Goodson’s Rapid Plant Assessment (RPA; see Harvard Business Review, May 2002, “Read a Plant—Fast”). The RPA is a full plant assessment with many more intrusive questions, but I have used it to follow the same 11 categories with my questions.

  1. Customer service: Do employees know their key customers, and do they understand their requirements?
  2. Safety: Upon arrival, do you receive information about how to behave safely in the facility?
  3. Visual management: Is the environment clean and orderly, and is there a system that helps everyone keep it that way?
  4. Scheduling: Is there a method by which employees can tell whether they are on schedule? That is, keeping up with customer deliveries?
  5. Product flow: Is it easy to identify raw materials, work-in-process, and finished goods in the facility, and can you tell where an in-process order begins and ends?
  6. Inventory: Is it the policy of the company to produce at the speed of customer demand, or do they produce and hold quantities in the warehouse?
  7. Investment in employees: What can you see that shows the company’s commitment to training, teamwork, and other investment in employees?
  8. Equipment health: Is there a preventative maintenance program, and does it track how completely it is deployed?
  9. Complexity: Is there a seasonality or other variability in products or services that challenges the team, and how do they manage it?
  10. Supply chain: Do they buy exclusively on price, or do they partner with suppliers to solve internal problems?
  11. Quality: Is there a system for identifying and solving internal and external problems so that they are less likely to reoccur?

If there is magic to these questions, it is that they push me to look at all aspects of the business. The answers are a guide to deeper exploration. For example, consider the answer to question two, regarding the company commitment to safety that will be compared to the behavior of the people who work there. It has not been too many years since I was greeted with safety-fanatic theater and then asked to follow my PPE-free tour guide as he walked across roller conveyers to observe a wet-end corrugator operator dressing a roll while smoking a cigarette. The questions and their answers set expectations and guide observation of supportive and conflicting practices.

These questions have served me well in the plants where I have managed, consulted, or toured to encourage disciplined observation. I will welcome your questions regarding this and other methods of seeing productivity and waste.

width=150Scott Ellis, Ed.D., provides the brutal facts with a kind and actionable delivery when a leader, a team, or a company needs an objective, data-based assessment of the current state of operations and culture. Training, coaching, and resources develop the ability to eliminate obstacles and sustain more effective and profitable results. Working Well exists to get you unstuck and accelerate effective work. He can be reached at 425-985-8508 or