What You Don't Know Holds You Back

As you read about the shops profiled in this issue, try looking at their successes through the prism of one word: consistency. Elite Mold focuses on a specific type of work so that it can serve its chosen niche more effectively.

Columns From: 11/1/2003 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Peter Zelinski

As you read about the shops profiled in this issue, try looking at their successes through the prism of one word: consistency.

Elite Mold focuses on a specific type of work so that it can serve its chosen niche more effectively. MPT achieved more consistent data entry on the shop floor and better control over information, resulting in a process that customers can now check remotely without the shop’s awareness. And the Tech Group has engineered a mold machining process so repeatable it can be reproduced in distant locations to serve customers far away.

In each of these cases, reining in the variability was the key to a breakthrough that now lets the shop deliver a higher level of service.

Everything has an uncertainty value—it’s not just the machined dimensions that come with error margins. Cost estimates, too, may miss the mark by a certain percentage. An anticipated turn-around time might be off by hours or days. Setup time may vary from one run of parts to the next. And in every such example, just the uncertainty by itself robs the shop of opportunities. Energy, attention and resources have to be devoted to adapting on the fly to outcomes that are only known at the last minute.

That is why, if you are looking for the next place to improve your own shop’s process, a good starting point is to isolate some aspect where the range of uncertainty is particularly large. Maybe a tool life varies widely or maybe an operation takes an unpredictable amount of time. Maybe a needed shipment arrives at irregular intervals. Whatever the variable may be, trying to find the uncertainty’s cause will probably lead to an uncertainty farther removed. Factor A may be unpredictable because of factor B, which in turn is unpredictable because of factor C. That’s good; keep on asking why in this way until you find the fundamental cause. This line of inquiry is precisely how complex systems are improved.

To look at uncertainty another way, consider that every large variable in the process is a sign that your shop has a problem. When the variable breaks in your favor—that is, when the tool life is particularly long or when the operation with an uncertain duration goes quickly—then that success reveals what the process can do. Now figure out how to do that again and again. Every time that same process factor performs less favorably than this, your shop has failed to realize its potential.

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