Champion the cause of success assurance

We can define individual success for our manufacturing plants. We can assure success.
By Bob Vavra, Content Manager, Plant Engineering June 4, 2015

We are by nature a pessimistic lot. I’m not sure why that is, except perhaps that everything is finite. Even by that standard, there are infinite ways to deal with a finite world.

While some view a glass as half empty and others have seen it as half full, I’ve always felt that the view of the glass depends mostly on how thirsty you are. There are other factors that determine whether that’s enough water for your needs, or too much water at this time.

If all this sounds a little too philosophical for a column essentially about maintenance, that’s because I recently had a moment of philosophical clarity. I was at an industry event, and the discussion migrated to the topic of failure avoidance in manufacturing operations. It occurred to me at that moment that we were focused on the wrong topic—that we were looking at a half-empty glass.

“Why,” I asked out loud, “aren’t we talking about success assurance?”

We’ve made great progress in two important areas in manufacturing—safety and productivity. We talk about maintaining a safe plant, because safety is the baseline for success. We discuss productivity as a positive outcome of excellent workplace practices.

We also know that too much of our day is spent putting out fires. Some of those are the result of poor planning, and others are the result of poor execution. It doesn’t much matter what caused the fire; what you’ve got to do first is extinguish it.

But what if there was a mindset that you wouldn’t have to spend resources putting out the fire if you made sure from the start that there was no chance the fire would start? How does that thinking change the way we view everything we do in manufacturing? What if we engineer not just to get a line up and running, but also to ensure that our people are trained, our systems are optimized, and our organization is aligned to deliver nothing but success? If we start with that philosophy, how does that change our operational goals?

Many facilities try to make their operations foolproof—another phrase that perpetuates the negatives about an operation. Broken down to its component parts, to make something foolproof is to engineer it so that even a fool couldn’t break it. Why would we even want to employ such people in our organization?

We need to begin with the idea that success is inevitable. Too often, we begin with the opposite idea in mind. Training eliminates the need to foolproof our plant. System engineering begins with the end goal in mind, so that every component part is aligned with that end goal. The idea that we will succeed when we do all of these things well, is liberating.

It also, incidentally, is profitable. Better engineering and training and maintenance all lead to lower overall costs. More product is produced—notice I didn’t suggest there is less waste. Workers are safe, which should be a constant state. To suggest they are “safer” implies there was a time when they were less safe. That’s not a message that has any value for an organization thirsting to be successful.

Perhaps this all sounds like semantics, but I think they are important distinctions. The approach we take to many things we do begins with the idea that we have to avoid trouble or minimize risk. If success is the model we build toward, it is implicit that problems are avoided and minimized. Success can be measured in several ways, of course, but all of the outcomes are predetermined. They keep our eyes up and focused on moving forward. We’re not looking back. We’re not naive, but we’re not afraid—and we’re better able to add new technology and new solutions because they will continue our success.

We are in a data-driven world today. We can quantify what success looks like. Unlike sports, where no matter how well we might score, someone else can always match it or surpass it, we can define individual success for our manufacturing plants. We can assure success.