Let’s reach for the higher-hanging fruit

Whenever we talk about solutions to our manufacturing problems – productivity gains, energy savings, process improvements and equipment reliability – the phrase that often gets used to describe quick returns on those solutions is “low-hanging fruit.” And it seems like such a good idea in theory.
By Bob Vavra, Editor August 1, 2009

Whenever we talk about solutions to our manufacturing problems %%MDASSML%% productivity gains, energy savings, process improvements and equipment reliability %%MDASSML%% the phrase that often gets used to describe quick returns on those solutions is “low-hanging fruit.”

And it seems like such a good idea in theory. We take the easiest return on our time and investment, and presumably that helps us both make quick gains to the bottom line and proves the case that such efforts are worth further investigation.

Orchard workers and owners, however, know the truth about low-hanging fruit. It’s easier to get to, of course, but the fruit higher in the tree is usually riper and more mature. It is better fruit, not just easier fruit to get to. And if you’re serving fruit to your family, don’t you want the better fruit?

As we take a look at ways to save money and improve processes in our annual Tips & Tricks edition, let’s take a step back from the whole concept of “low-hanging fruit” and start to take a look at the whole tree for a change. After personnel, what is the part of your organization on which you spend the most money?

If it’s materials, then your first goal ought to be to reduce materials cost. If it’s energy, then the first goal ought to be to reduce energy costs. If it is equipment maintenance, then you need to look at ways to reduce maintenance costs.

It sounds simple enough, but we are caught in a struggle today to get even minimal investment in our plants for process and equipment upgrades. Perhaps that is the reason we need to go after the big payoffs first. Maybe we need to reach a little higher into the tree.

Some things are simple to accomplish, of course. If you don’t have a regular maintenance program, the simple act of committing to some kind of scheduled, orderly process is a great start. Looking throughout your plant for obvious energy savings is one good plan; a full-blown energy audit is another.

We chase low-cost, quick-return programs that provide little risk of failure and measurable return on investment at a time when both of those goals are desirable. If we see the chance for a bigger return with significant improvements in process, though, do we leave those ideas aside, waiting for a better day?

Perhaps the better question is, do we have the time to wait for that better day?

While there are many positive signs that manufacturing is working its way back up, no one expects that return to be rapid, and fewer expect a return to pre-recession production levels any time soon.

So the metaphorically low-hanging fruit is a great place to start to engender enthusiasm and build support. It’s also a great place to begin when there are too many places to tackle all at once.

Perhaps here’s another way to look at all of this: Each improvement effort you undertake has a beginning and end. It has a cost associated with it, and an expected return on the investment you make. If you devote time, money and effort to that project, and succeed, it will yield the expected return.

But if there are 10 low-risk projects that will yield $20,000 in cost savings and one high-risk project that will yield $200,000 in cost savings, which one should you tackle first? The risk-averse among us might take the quick money, bank it and go on to the next one. That ultimately saves just as much money if you complete all 10, but will take more time. And time is a commodity we don’t measure enough or value enough.

Is it worth the effort? That’s why you have the job you do. You are asked to make those calls every day. You are tasked to improve your productivity, to enhance your bottom line, to preserve capital, jobs and product. The low risk of reaching first for that low-hanging fruit is tempting.

But here’s a pitch for reaching a little higher.