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Man and Machine: The Focus on Asset Availability

Posted by admin on October 12, 2012

Early in the industrial revolution, the argument was about man vs. machine.  Which could produce more?  Which could produce better quality?  For the past half century or so the focus has been on man and machine or, more specifically, how humans and machines interact to achieve greater productivity.

For one of our clients, asset availability is a key performance indicator.  By asset availability, the company means having equipment available to make product.  When you look at the three elements needed to create a product (labor, equipment and raw material), it is easy to see why the company puts such emphasis on asset availability.

Asset availability is critical because of the significant increase in productivity over the past 50 years.  Productivity (the amount of labor required to produce a unit of goods) has steadily increased, meaning it has required less labor to produce a unit of goods.  Most of the increased productivity experienced in the U.S. has been due to equipment improvements, specifically the use of computer-controlled manufacturing.  In the paper manufacturing industry, where we have a number of clients, productivity increased more than 50% between 1990 and 2010 (the last year for which information is available), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  For all U.S. manufacturing industries, the productivity increase was 110% in the same period.  So when equipment goes down it obviously has a major impact on output, productivity and profitability. 

This is not to say machines rule the world.  People control the equipment, make sure the equipment is working properly, and fix problems when they occur.  Here are some of the ways our clients have assured maximum asset availability through the human element:

Dedicate resources to the task – Companies that perform well on asset availability metrics often have a person or team focused on this critical area.  Just as we saw with the quality movement in the 1980s, dedicating a team to a critical area, giving them the tools and authority needed to carry out their jobs, and recognizing their performance says to everyone in the company “this is important”.

Develop a highly skilled workforce - There is no doubt that today’s sophisticated equipment takes a high level of skill to operate.  But beyond technical equipment training, companies that focus on asset availability also train line operators and mechanics in root cause analysis skills so they can evaluate and fix a problem as efficiently as possible, without costly delays caused by trial-and-error fixes.

Build use of skills into performance expectations – There is little use of spending the time and money on root cause analysis training if use of those skills is not built into job specs and if performance is not measured against those specs.  Might as well give employees a few extra vacation days if they are not required to use the skills they learn. 

Prevent problems – Everyone knows that a problem avoided keeps asset availability at a high rate and keeps product flowing.  But many companies do not train workers in avoiding problems and sometimes, even when they do provide the training, they unintentionally discourage use of the skills by telling workers to “stop worrying about everything” or “we’ll deal with it (the potential problem) if it happens”.

Provide ongoing support – We have seen many companies provide ongoing support in the form of Process Coaches.  These are workers in the plant who receive more in-depth training in root cause analysis and problem prevention skills.  They also are trained to facilitate use of the processes with their peers to improve application of these critical thinking skills.

Capture information – Effectively capturing information is critical to solving problems and leveraging fixes.  Every root cause analysis requires information about the problem in order to identify the cause and develop the best fix.  Without information, workers are left guessing.  Some leading companies have also made an investment in systems that capture information about fixes so the fix can be applied to similar equipment across the company, often before a problem actually occurs.

For companies focused on asset availability, having a defined approach to avoiding problems, communicating about asset problems when they occur and developing solutions quickly can yield significant payback in terms of productivity.