Where is Your "Herbie"?

You have to first identify your process constraints before you can streamline operations and outperform your competitors.


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The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt carries great meaning for those of us promoting continuous organizational improvement. This book introduces numerous ideas for effective manufacturing management, but for me, the most meaningful concept is the “Herbie.” The late Mr. Goldratt used Herbie, a character in the book, to represent a bottleneck or constraint in a process. (Herbie was a member of a scout troop who had difficulty keeping up with the rest of his troop during their weekly hikes.) Companies must find their Herbies if they are to streamline their operations and outperform their competitors.

Identifying our specific Herbies begins with observing our processes and recording what is really happening. There are numerous tools to help us accomplish this, including value stream maps, flow charts and process maps. Any of these can identify areas where we can expect to encounter delays.

Although there may be many types of “Herbies” out there, here are a few to investigate in your company:

The “material delivery Herbie.” Most of us have heard the phrase “Nothing happens until somebody sells something.” This is true, but a good corollary to this is, “Nothing can be made if we don’t have material.” Our plans rely on timely delivery of different types of material, and when that timely delivery does not happen, a Herbie surfaces. We must investigate to determine whether our suppliers are reliable, our lead times are realistic, alternate sources of supply are available or alternate materials can be used. Revealing this material delivery Herbie necessitates taking action to reduce the likelihood of future material shortage delays.

The “I just bought a new machine and need to load it up Herbie.” This is a common cause of delay, yet it is quite avoidable. When we make an investment in new machinery, we want that investment to pay off. Therefore, we tend to overload new machines and then wonder why we have so many jobs in queue. There must be alternative resources capable of handling the work at the Herbie. (Remember, the jobs were being completed somewhere before the new machine arrived.) These resources might not be as efficient as the new machine, but no advantage is realized when greater efficiency is inaccessible. It is important to understand the true capacity of any new machine, which often includes a rather steep learning curve and break-in period. 

The “I don’t have the paperwork Herbie.” Even during these times of electronic data 
interchange, most of us deal with some type of paperwork. Unfortunately, this paperwork is not always well-controlled and available to those who need it. Time spent looking for paperwork can be consuming and is really a result of a lack of discipline in the organization. Procedures must be put in place (and followed) to ensure needed information travels with every job. Most quality management systems dictate this, so if this Herbie is a regular visitor, it may be time to audit that quality system.

The “I don’t have anyone to run the machine Herbie.” This is a Herbie that might be expected to surface once in a while, however, if you find this to be one of your regular Herbies, there is a problem with your management of human resources. Perhaps your crosstraining is lacking, thereby restricting workforce flexibility. If you are fortunate enough to have long-term employees, paid time off needs to be carefully managed through appropriate company-wide policies. Even unplanned time off needs to be reviewed and addressed with repeat offenders. Not having employees trained and available when needed will certainly hurt any company and, ultimately, its employees.

The “I cannot run the job until I get approval Herbie.” Many companies establish wrist-tying policies that hurt output and introduce unwarranted delays. Although there may be rationale for delaying production of a new job until someone approves the first piece made, this must be balanced against the cost of waiting. As a machine operator is ultimately responsible for part quality, and an inspector’s role is to assist the operator in achieving and maintaining that quality, most qualified operators can be given the authority to run parts pending “first-piece approval.” The key here is flexibility and reasonableness in trying to eliminate what may not have to be a Herbie.

The “Machine keeps breaking down Herbie.” There are times when we can justify postponing preventive maintenance and just making Band-Aid repairs. However, if this is the normal state of your machine maintenance program, you are incurring a great deal of risk. Preventive maintenance ignored is a breakdown waiting to happen. There is no perfect time to stop a machine that appears to be running well, but this is necessary to keep that machine running well for the long term. Thinking beyond today is a vital strategy for effective machine maintenance and productivity.

Herbies like these can be obstacles to continuous improvement in any organization. Identify yours, then take the necessary steps to overcome them and reach your company-wide goals.