Chain of Thought

Well-Fed Workers Make Production Productive—and Safe

In my last blog we addressed the manufacturing brain drain, a phenomenon which is making it hard for companies to hire talent for their plants. We also talked about an interesting irony—the fact that even those employed in manufacturing are suffering from a form of intellectual malnutrition in that the upper ranks are being stingy in the quantity and quality of information they feed their workers to help them do their jobs.

Apparently they feel some of the production numbers they collect are too sensitive for those in the lower ranks to digest. What good could they do with it anyway?

Lots.

According to "Pursuit of Performance Excellence: Business Success through Effective Plant Operations Metrics," a study of more than 300 manufacturers done by Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association (MESA) International, the extent to which a company provides operational metrics to its workers separates “Business Movers” (leaders) from “Others” (otherwise known as laggards).

The metrics process rests on collecting data from processes being measured, and a far greater portion of Business Movers than Others collects data automatically to assess efficiency and quality.

According to this study, when staff members see performance within their shift, they have a much better ability to act in ways that improve performance. Whether the data shows a trend toward a problem that can be corrected, the impact of a new approach, or a problem caused by conditions on equipment or issues with a specific batch of materials, employees can be proactive and create better outcomes when they know what is happening during their workday.

There's also a link between informed workers and safe workers. The researchers asked the “Business Movers” who equipped their operations with dashboards displaying production metrics how much they improved on health and safety incidents on average over the last couple years. The top level of improvement was over 10 percent per year.

“The people in that Business Mover group that had improved their financials significantly were more than twice as likely to have improved their reportable health and safety incidents by 10% or more,” Julie Fraser told me. She's principal industry analyst with Cambashi, one of the study partners. “They tend to use information more effectively and consistently, where it matters. Their employees can take action on a line if they're delivered useful information on what they're doing. Reportable health and safety is a pretty straightforward metric. It has an impact on the cost of manufacturing operations overall—and therefore the profitability of the company.”

So why aren't more companies feeding their people on the production line with brain food like this? Fraser says many still collect data by hand so it has to be cleansed by performing some complex calculations. According to this study, even among the Business Movers, only a quarter of them can say that they always provide line level metrics for operators and technicians. That sounds like a pretty small number, but it's still a lot better than everybody else surveyed—of whom only 12% said they provide line level metrics.

In MH&L's upcoming March issue we'll have a feature on conveyors used in manufacturing. It will cite some of MH&L's own research on buying plans in the coming year. Of those planning to purchase conveyor equipment this year, safety and product quality were identified as “extremely important” factors by 62% and 52% of the respondents respectively. As for the types of investments planned for 2012, most indicated “service existing equipment” and “conveyor controls,” both of which say “improvement” and “enhancement” are on the menu for many companies this year. I just hope the people working with this equipment share in the feast.

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