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Win the survival of the ‘fitter’

While their competitors are getting fit, great manufacturers are getting fitter.

By Bob Vavra November 30, 2015

Bob Vavra, content manager, Plant EngineeringAt the same time I was in London last month for Bentley Systems’ annual conference and awards event, two major sporting events also were taking place in the shadow of Big Ben. On Oct. 31, New Zealand beat Australia 34-17 in the final of the Rugby World Cup. The next day, the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Detroit Lions 45-10 in the last of four regularly scheduled NFL games played in England this season.

There are similarities and differences between rugby and American football. The most striking similarities are the highly physical nature of both games and the emphasis on running and kicking. Perhaps the two biggest differences are the level of padding (very little in rugby, quite a lot in football) and in the physical condition of the players.

I would not suggest to anyone that NFL players aren’t physically fit. I certainly would not suggest such a thing within range of any NFL player. And I’m certainly no one to talk. But based on observing those two games in London, I would argue that every single rugby player is physically fit at a higher level than every single NFL player.

When you are extending yourself at such a high level, fitness is important. It allows you to perform better for longer periods of time without stopping for rest. Fitness also allows you to return more quickly if you do get injured or need downtime.

Improving your fitness level is critical to continuous improvement. Being fit isn’t enough. You need to strive to be "fitter."

The best manufacturers I come across embrace continuous improvement. I think they realize that continuing to challenge employees to get better individually and as a team is good for everyone. It makes the company more productive. It keeps the workers more engaged. It also keeps the company ahead of competitors who aren’t as far down the road to plant fitness as they could be. While their competitors are getting fit, great manufacturers are getting fitter.

Here’s the real challenge: If you decide to improve operational efficiency 5% each year, it’s usually pretty easy to find ways to do that in Year 1 and Year 2. By Year 3, you’ve taken care of all the obvious areas for improvement. How do you continue to improve by 5% each year? Is there a limit to fitness?

I don’t think so. Improvement is not a permanent state. As some things improve, other areas may decline. You may need to upgrade equipment, expand product lines, or incorporate new strategic or regulatory initiatives. New competitors may emerge and new markets may beckon.

The other thing rugby and football have in common is an oddly-shaped ball. In both games, the ball doesn’t always bounce true. In manufacturing as in football, once you drop the ball, it can be hard to regain control. Acts of God, acts of Congress, and even bad acts have an impact on our manufacturing operations. We can try to prepare for the things we cannot control, but that’s not always possible.

We can, however, prepare for everything else. We can be lean (and Lean) and fit as an organization. We can hone our talents to get the most out of our fitness level. We can look for ways to continuously improve. We can challenge our organization and our people to find new ways to improve operations.

It’s been my experience that when a manufacturing plant improves from the middle out, rather than simply top-down or bottom-up, the engagement of employees is better and the potential for improvement is greater. Every job on the plant floor is vital to success; making sure everyone understands this simple principle is one way to empower the team to get better.

A teams true strength is that it is strong without exception, in all aspects of the operation, down to the last person. Manufacturing is the same way. A strong maintenance department cannot improve with a weak supply chain. Automation investments are wasted without a vital training program.

In a globally competitive manufacturing environment, everyone has some level of fitness. You will have to be fitter to survive the challenges ahead in 2016.