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The Power of Standardization

Posted by admin on December 15, 2013

A recent article in Industry Week on equipment excellence discussed how Southwest Airlines purchases only Boeing 737s in one of three configurations. This approach lets the company easily switch planes when necessary, simplifies troubleshooting on equipment problems and allows the company to keep a supply of spare parts on hand so repairs can be made quickly.

The beauty of equipment standardization is that maintenance, engineering and line workers can thoroughly understand the equipment they work with so they know when something isn’t quite right.  Also, when a problem is fixed correctly, all machines can be inspected to see if they have the same issue.  This ability to extend the problem resolution can avoid costly problems from occurring.

While it may be attractive to buy a new piece of equipment from a different manufacturer because of a lower price, those savings can come with a downside.  The time and expense for employees to learn how to operate equipment from a different manufacturer, and the extra time troubleshooting and fixing problems can wipe out those savings very quickly.

An in-depth knowledge of the equipment is one of the key reasons for taking a car to the dealer for a problem.  Because of its focus on a few models, the dealer’s service staff has tremendous knowledge about likely causes of problems on a given model produced in a certain year. This saves time trying to identify cause and the best fix for a problem.  While we have nothing against the mechanics in the local garage, they see a wide variety of vehicles, which can limit their ability to be expert on a specific vehicle.

But why stop with equipment when it comes to standardization?  Here are two other areas where standardization will help improve troubleshooting effectiveness and efficiency.

Processes – A problem is a deviation from what should be happening.  But it is hard to know what should be happening if each production line has different processes, maintenance teams apply different processes or each shut-down/start-up follows a different process.  Standardizing processes as much as possible across production lines, maintenance groups and plants provides a baseline to identify when a problem is occurring and to narrow in on likely causes.  Without standardization, you can be left with a very wide scope to investigate.

Skill Sets – Each group of employees in a certain job should have a standard set of skills to do their jobs.  This includes the technical skills required, but also skills to contribute to problem solving.  One of our clients has done an excellent job defining the skills plant employees need based on their roles in problem solving.  Engineering and maintenance staffs need the skills to define a problem, narrow likely causes, test the most likely cause, and identify and implement the fix.   Line workers need the skills to know when something is not right and to record information about what they observed.  This data is often invaluable to the staff that will be working on finding cause and implementing the fix.  Standardizing skill sets allows anyone in a job group to substitute for any other team member and facilitates employees working together to resolve issues.

In the end, standardization sets the benchmark for how things should operate.  Standardizing across areas of the operation as much as possible aids problem solving and extending corrections to prevent problems in the future.