Redundancy Fuels Proficiency

"For changes to be of any true value, they've got to be lasting and consistent." --Tony Robbins

I’ve probably said it before: I like predictability. Everyone has to deal with change in their lives, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m at my best when I know what’s coming so I can better prepare. I’ve been thrown a few curveballs through the years, but who hasn’t? While some have set me on my side more than others, generally they’ve all taken their toll to some extent. The recovery has always been easier when I had seen the situation before.

When I set out to accomplish any task, regardless of the complexity, I usually have a plan in place. The more involved the task, the more tools I will have at my disposal. And the more familiar I am with those tools and why I may need them, the more easily I can get the job done.

While people can’t always know what’s coming their way, they can take certain steps to prepare for unexpected roadblocks that may arise. While an insurance policy might be an obvious contingency plan for some potential disasters, in many cases, careful planning and foresight may be the most significant preparatory step.

As with any other area of life, the needs on the shop floor can change in an instant as well. New rush orders come in, machines break down, personnel get sick. The shops that are best equipped to adjust to these situations typically find the most success. One way to prepare for such situations is to build in as much redundancy as possible for processes in which a shop has control in order to counterbalance any uncontrollable change that may occur.

For one feature article this month ("A Youthful Approach to Production Machining"), I visited a shop near Chicago that uses a lot of creative strategies to maximize the production time on its equipment (to the tune of as much as 6,300 hours of uptime per year for each machine). Several of the shop’s ideas are covered in the article, but another is the shop owner’s approach to maintaining consistency.

Having had good luck with its first multi-axis turning center, the shop has scaled up its operations by bringing in more of the same make and model (it is now up to eight of these machines). Company Owner JR Lang calls it the Southwest Airlines approach because that airline is known for using the same airplanes throughout its fleet. The pilots, the crews and the maintenance people get to know that plane very well, targeting flawless operation. If a plane has an issue, another aircraft that is exactly the same is ready to take its place. Spare parts are readily available. Personnel become experts.

Using the same approach in his shop, Mr. Lang says all of the programming is interchangeable from one machine to the next, the cutting tools are redundant, and there is no learning curve when a new machine is brought onto the floor. Each time a new machine comes in, the operators are able to hit the ground running with it. And if a job comes in that is ideally suited for one of the machines, there’s no concern that the machine will be booked already because the job is suited for the others as well. Bottlenecks are easily avoided.

That’s not to say the shop would never purchase a different make or model of machine. It actually began the redundancy process again with a different style of machine when it picked up a CNC Swiss-type for a specific project that Mr. Lang knew would run for a long time. Since that purchase, five more of that same machine model have found their way onto the shop floor as well, and the operators have become well versed in the intricacies of maximizing their output.

It takes time to learn how to do something or to gain full knowledge about a product. I’ve read that to become an “expert” at anything, a person should spend 10,000 hours practicing it. This theory falls into line with the idea of redundancy. Structuring the shop floor so that processes are repeatable and operators do the same things over and over allows employees to not only know what to expect, but to be better prepared for unexpected pitfalls along the way.