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Should Tracking Manufacturing Processes be Manual or Automatic?

Daily production meetings are vital in manufacturing. Not only do they provide a way of engaging with employees, but they ensure goals are met, problems are fixed, and continuous improvement projects continue to move forward.

During these meetings, there are typically two paths in identifying to-dos:

  1. Typically, team members look at the previous day’s data through dashboards, reports, and Pareto charts. Problems or things to work on will be identified.
  2. An operator or supervisor has an idea of how a process can be improved. They either suggest an idea during the daily production meeting, put a suggestion into the system, or email someone about their idea.

Tracking suggestions made and problems to be fixed can be difficult. How should you be tracking manufacturing processes?

Manual Process Tracking

Most companies track plans of action and improvement suggestions manually. They have whiteboards or communication boards out on the floor where metrics are posted and use that information in their daily production meetings. Then, in a little corner of the whiteboard is typically a to-do list. This list includes:

• What the issue is
• When it was reported
• Who’s responsible
• An estimated completion date

Or, there is a paper ticketing system in place to track manufacturing processes and improvements to be made. But, typically, the paper ticket is attached to the whiteboard so really, this process is centered on the use of the whiteboard. Regardless, it is all very manual.

You’ll find that this is common in most manufacturing environments. Either a whiteboard or a paper ticketing system is the main improvement tracking process.

A Tracking System Enables a Problem-Solving Environment

Most manufacturers track manufacturing processes manually because it doesn’t require any sophisticated software systems or the need for people to interact with systems to be able to do it.

We’ve even asked customers before if this is something they’d want to digitize via Mingo, and they all responded with a resounding “No.” Why? Because a lot of people involved in these kinds of tasks and projects don’t sit at computers. It wouldn’t be helpful to them, and it really wouldn’t provide any additional benefit. The system they have in place now via paper tickets and a whiteboard is truly the best way to manage these processes.

We agree, actually.

When the process is manual, you don’t have to train someone on how to use a paper ticket or whiteboard. They can look at it right now and know what they need to do without any additional training, resources, or complications.

However, there is a caveat. What makes this type of tracking efficient is the ability to know when a task should be tracked via paper and whiteboards, or if it actually needs to be a part of a larger project and tracked via a software system. There is a difference between a small task tracked on a whiteboard versus a Kaizen event.

How do you determine that difference in tracking manufacturing processes? We’ll talk more about prioritization in the next section.

But, for now, understand that when there is a tracking process in place, any process really, improvements are made much easier, and quicker, than without one, even if it is a manual system.

The goal of the organization, according to Mike Rother, author of Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results, is to “develop the capability of the organization to keep improving, adapting, and satisfying dynamic customer requirements.”

An improvement tracking system, whether manual or digitized, helps manufacturers accomplish these capabilities. “The point is we create an environment where it’s an agile, problem-solving environment,” Jesse DePriest, Zen and the Art of Manufacturing Podcast guest recently said.

Set a Target Condition to Measure and Track Success

However, there can be significant drawbacks to the whiteboard method, if not done correctly. One of the biggest concerns is that if too many problems are attempting to be solved at once, the to-do list becomes too jumbled and too large to see any real change. Organization and clarity are key.

Think about this question posed by Paul Dunlop, Founder of Dunlop Consultants, world-renowned Lean expert, and another recent podcast guest: “How long should these be up there before you realize it isn’t going to get done and isn’t important? The list just grows forever.”

In fact, to-do lists aren’t the most effective way to manage projects like this in the first place.

Rother explains the downside of a to-do list approach, “The underlying thinking with the list approach appears to be that the more action items we have, the more the process will be improved. The longer the lists of action items and the more improvement projects are underway, the more we feel like something positive is happening. In many cases, however, the opposite is true. There may appear to be a lot of motion, but there is little progress…. It is actually a scattershot approach: multiple action items are initiated in the hope of hitting something.”

“Not only is the list-oriented improvement approach not very effective, it also makes improvement too complicated and difficult,” Rother adds.

So, what we’re really saying is that, to fix problems and find improvements, “single-factor” experiments are recommended. Yes, of course, you should still use your paper tickets and whiteboard, but tracking manufacturing processes with one target condition is the goal.

The things you’re trying to improve need to have priorities and have to move you towards the target condition.

The other thing you have to figure out is if this problem is a one-time thing or an ongoing issue. This goes back to the idea of a one-time problem versus a Kaizen event that we promised to talk more about.

When Do You Need to Conduct a Kaizen Event?

When is the right time to conduct a Kaizen event or continuous improvement project where you get a lot of people together to work on something versus something small that’s easily tracked with a paper ticket? This is our focus for the rest of this section.

Paul Dunlop talked about moving a chair that was in the way at a plant. If you constantly have to walk around a chair to get something, you should just move the chair. This isn’t a task that needs to go up on a whiteboard, we don’t need to track it, and it doesn’t require a Kaizen event. Just move the chair. It’s that simple.

The converse of that is when you have a larger problem that requires a team effort to solve, whether that’s the operations team or also requires input from maintenance and engineering. An example would be if tools are wearing out too fast, scrap is really high on a machine, or an operator has an idea to update the program to make improvements. All three of these would likely warrant a Kaizen event because of the need to track the changes and monitor for improvements. They’re simply larger, more time-intensive problems to solve.

In the case of high scrap, this is likely a problem that has persisted for a period of time. The operator can’t figure out why. Engineers have tried to solve the problem and can’t. At the end of the day, the problem still persists. A Kaizen event is needed. A complete team of folks are put together, tasked with solving the problem, one initiative at a time. This is the Kaizen level of problem-solving and tracking.

This is where software can help you and provides greater benefit than relying on a paper ticketing system. Especially if it’s a downtime problem or you’re running slow or there’s too much variability in a process or you’re having a quality issue. You can get the data to help you figure out when this started, how big of a problem it really is, and how long has it been occurring.

“Define the process. Decide how to measure that. State that challenge in measurable terms for what excellence would be. Now we can go about the business of framing the problem and target setting and obstacles for that. But if the team doesn’t have an idea of excellence then we have training and coaching to do because I want everyone striving for that next level,” Jesse DePriest says.

In fact, H&T is a great example of using Mingo to tackle a problem of this magnitude. The company knew they were experiencing high downtime, resulting in lots of unplanned overtime to ensure the product was delivered on time. After implementing Mingo, they found short stoppages were causing 18 hours of unplanned downtime. They put a team together and conducted a Kaizen event to get to the root cause, determine a fix, and ensure the problem stay fixed, with the help of Mingo.

You Should Be Tracking Manufacturing Processes

So, in conclusion, tracking manufacturing processes and improvements are important in continuous improvement. This is a key part of the improvement mindset, understanding and tracking “What do we need to do?” to make improvements.

Manufacturers should focus on the “context of striving to achieve a target condition by working step by step through obstacles,” Rother states. Whether manual or automatic, a tracking system in place will help you do this.

Bryan Sapot
Bryan Sapot
Bryan Sapot is a lifelong entrepreneur, speaker, CEO, and founder of Mingo. With more than 24 years of experience in manufacturing technology, Bryan is known for his deep manufacturing industry insights. Throughout his career, he’s built products and started companies that leveraged technology to solve problems to make the lives of manufacturers easier. Follow Bryan on LinkedIn here.