Magazine article Management Today

Variable Factor

Magazine article Management Today

Variable Factor

Article excerpt

VARIABLE FACTOR

The present revolution in combat fighter design revolves around designing planes that are actually aerodynamically `out of control', requiring constant control corrections to fly straight and level as opposed to the vicious in-built twisting corkscrews that they would otherwise do. The frequency with which these constant corrections have to be made, and the speed with which the plane would otherwise become totally uncontrollable, are such that only computers are fast enough for the task. Despite the dangers, however, unstable aircraft hold the key to future success in aerial warfare. Only through inherent instability is such extreme combat performance possible.

It is a long way from the skies of California to the rather murkier skies over Britain's industrial heartlands, but an analogous revolution is taking place in the thousands of British factories employing just in time manufacturing techniques. For, as Ford of Europe found out to its cost when the UK part of its integrated materials flow went on strike, while just in time systems are capable of delivering enormous improvements in performance, their

inherent latent instability can result in output nose-diving when links in the manufacturing chain go completely out of control.

Originally emanating from Japan, just in time (JIT) is a series of manufacturing and supply chain techniques that aim to slash inventory levels and improve customer service by manufacturing not only at the exact time the customer requires, but also in the exact quantity he actually needs.

Far from `batching up', JIT manufacturers aim for smaller and smaller batch sizes (and hence shorter and shorter lead times) in order to become even more reactive to customer demands.

To the traditional British manufacturing manager, this sounds like a recipe for disaster, as it takes away the slack in the system that allows things to go wrong without causing immediate disruption. After all, he argues, it is the lengthy lead times and large batch sizes that cushion him (and his customer) from the well-known tendency in manufacturing for things to work out other than the way they were planned. Only now are such managers beginning to realise that it is often because of these lead times and batch sizes that things go wrong in the first place.

JIT works so well precisely because all of the conflicts, confusions and soft options that these various safety nets raise have been removed, leaving lean and hungry factories that outperform traditionally managed shop floors to the same extent as a futuristic combat fighter like, NASA's X-29 outperforms a World War I vintage Sopwith.

To illustrate this, let's look at manufacturing performance in the way that air forces have been looking at the performance of fighters such as the X-29 - by specifying the performance that we really want, rather than that which we think is possible from today's starting point.

Ideally, a factory shop floor should:

* have a short manufacturing cycle time, to

minimise work-in-progress inventory and

maximise customer service;

* have manufacturing batch sizes identical to

customer order quantities, to minimise

finished goods inventory and maximise customer

responsiveness;

* be flexible enough to make products in the

same order as the customer wants them, again

in order to minimise finished goods inventory

and maximise responsiveness;

* rapidly trap and cure deviations from quality

standards in order to maximise customer service

and minimise scrap and rework; and

* call in raw materials as late as possible in

order to minimise raw material inventory.

It is easy to see why the traditional production manager would feel uncomfortable with such a specification: it sounds wonderful, but would it ever work? …

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