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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: continuous flow is the key to improving quality

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

I find that creating continuous flow cells is still 1) as powerful as ever and 2) as difficult as ever. Lean tools, in my experience, have been used to improve the productivity of existing lines or cells, but people balk at creating cells wherever it’s not obvious. Sadly, they miss the opportunity to radically diminish lead-time.

In one high-tech company, after several years of doing lean, the CEO finally rolled-up his sleeves and tackled the issue of making parts in one continuous flow, from pressed parts to finished, polished products. This involves many technical challenges, such as precision machining (oil in the air) next to laser engraving, but the result is spectacular, both in terms of lead-time reduction (something silly like 90%) and quality improvement as much to the rework that was hidden in the cell now appears. Yet, if the CEO had not girded his loins and pushed very, very hard, the shift would not have happened.

Similarly, in the software department of a major bank, creating a flow cell to format databases on a sequence of servers reduced the lead-time from 26 days to 1 day, and productivity improve fourfold. They learned that physically connecting work was radically different from posting work tasks in a workflow system – and this immediately surfaced many quality issues, which had to be dealt with. In this case, this also meant moving people’s desks from one floor to another, which gave the organization ample grounds to resist (you can’t do that). In the end, the customer response was so positive that they’re now looking for a second opportunity to do the same.

In another unexpected case, an engineering and building company finds its lead-time increase with a late in-flow of problems. They had already radically reduced their answer time to bids by creating a daily cell to respond immediately to request rather than have the engineers look at every bid as well as do their work. As they looked at the whole process, they realized engineering would design the products and then pass the design to the shop floor. The idea came up that each engineer could work with a small team of operators and, as such, create a full cell. First attempts at doing one such cells show that lead-time could come down from 45 days to as little as three.

There is still a lot of mileage in the idea of creating continuous flow – the issue is that we now have to learn to do so in situation where it doesn’t apply at first glance. Flow is an opportunity for kaizen as the equipment modifications and the quality improvements involved in going to flow open unlooked for opportunities for real innovation.

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