What You Are Saying—Feedback On Competing Ideas

I have been writing the Competing Ideas column for Modern Machine Shop magazine for five years now and have had a lot of fun doing it. Periodically, I receive feedback about a column I have written.

I have been writing the Competing Ideas column for Modern Machine Shop magazine for five years now and have had a lot of fun doing it. Periodically, I receive feedback about a column I have written. I thought that on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of this column, I would share some of this feedback with you.

If you have read previous columns, you realize that one of my recurring themes is that, typically, service and quality are more meaningful than price, as long as the price is in the ballpark. One reader took exception to this and wrote, "I disagree with you on your thoughts that price is not a primary consideration in selecting a supplier. From what I have found, it seems price is the only factor and customers will always try to beat you up to save a few bucks."

It is tough to argue with this if indeed your particular customers value price above everything else. But I still believe these types of customers are in the minority. If you are faced with a customer base that is highly price sensitive, then either you must streamline your processes to assure your costs are the absolute minimum, or you must search for new customers who put a higher value on service.

I received a number of comments regarding my series of columns on cellular manufacturing. One reader inquired, "I work in a factory that produces nearly 700 different parts. How could a factory like this ever initiate a cellular operation?"

Certainly the more products a company manufactures, the more difficult it is to establish a total cellular operation, however, there are ways to get the ball rolling. Start by looking for logical groupings, or "families of parts," that undergo the same manufacturing operations. Next, try to isolate the top 10-20 percent of these part families, in terms of sales volume, and focus your efforts on these parts. Review the required resources and determine if any existing equipment can be freed up to be located in the cell. If not, you may have to consider buying used equipment or using existing equipment on a part-time basis. Remember, a manufacturing cell need not have the most technologically advanced equipment, as actual machining time is typically a small percentage of overall time a part spends in a factory. What is needed is a close grouping of all the machines required to make parts. This will lead to improved quality and reduced queue and handling time, all of which will translate to bottom-line cost savings.

Another reader wrote, "We are a metal service center. In the past few years, we have shifted to a make-to-order environment, but are experiencing a real problem with production planning. Any thoughts?"

You cannot simply change from a make-to-stock to a make-to-order supplier without making significant changes in your production process. A cellular manufacturing layout will streamline your process and support the make-to-order concept. A manufacturing cell actually simplifies production planning because everything becomes very visible. You know what you have to work on next, because it is right in front of you. Due to the fact that smaller, make-to-order quantities are routed to the cell, your orders should be completed faster and shipped sooner. In response to my column on self-directed work teams, one reader offered guidance from mistakes his company made in trying to implement this concept. "We attempted to install self-directed teams in our assembly lines. Our efforts were not successful for a number of reasons:

  • We made a number of errors in the team structures. For example, we did not set boundaries for team activities beforehand. In essence, we made up the rules as we went.
  • Our product lines were not stable so team members were not able to stay together as cohesive units for any length of time.
  • Our training of the members of each team in the "soft skills" was not nearly complete enough.
  • Our managers had their own management styles, and some of them openly resisted self-managed teams. This resulted in contradicting signals in the shop."

Finally, another reader wrote, "I liked your article in the November Modern Machine Shop about Better, Faster, Cheaper. To be competitive in industry you have to achieve all three if at all possible. But it reminded me of something I was told a long time ago—you can only pick two."

Today's successful companies are succeeding in all three areas.