Do You Know What You Are Meant to Be Improving?

Many years ago when I was on a summer placement from university I was fortunate enough to gain experience in a prestigious manufacturing business. The most interesting part of that experience was that I spent over seventy percent of my time working on the ‘wrong’ project. This article is going to re-live part of that placement and share with you my thoughts on how to make sure that your improvement project has the best chance of generating the results you are looking to achieve.

When I started the project it was not something new that I was dealing with. According to the engineers on the team the problem had existed in some shape or form for the past fifteen years. This time period had allowed for a number of theories to become agreed within the team as to why the problem was occurring, but still the elusive goal had not been attained. The downside for me, upon reflection, was that a distinct direction had been set and I was about to follow it.

I used a range of approaches to try and better understand the problem and try to resolve it. SPC, or Statistical Process Control, was the primary technique and, although it was useful to learn how to use this tool and to apply it in the real world away from the limitations of text book learning, I was no closer to figuring out what was going wrong. Apart from being very little process control to speak of there was also no correlation with the end results.

After spending quite some time with the manufacturing team, investigating process control, a small observation about the selection of tooling started to concern me. After some investigation into the tooling issue it turned out that the whole problem was due to a tooling selection problem, not a process control issue. After a little bit of verification and some colour coding we removed the problem overnight. As I said at the start, this project was sent down one route of enquiry and the problem was actually something else.

Looking back there was a clear case of not challenging the assumptions laid out before me as the project started. I was a different (younger) person back then and my thinking has matured, but I can see how I readily took advice from the sage like elders in the team without evaluation. Being familiar with the idea of cause and effect and broadening my options at the start of the project may have allowed me to complete the entire project in only one week by ruling out potential causes for the effect I was trying to eliminate. And that is the point of this article. If you are struggling to solve a chronic business issue then revisiting the cause and effect relationships in a broad way could show you an entirely different route to take and ultimately help you get the results you need.

Giles Johnston
Author, Consultant and Chartered Engineer