Do you want to make changes in your, or your supplier’s, factory? The question is, where to start?
There are countless process improvement tools. Some lean purists say, draw a value stream map and strategize about what needs to be done first. Others will say, pick a really bad area and do a kaizen event, to show everyone that quick improvement is possible. And so on.
If I had to choose one tool, it would be the process flow chart. It is usually the first tool we use when we have to make changes to production processes in a factory.
I showed an example based on our template below.
Why do I think it is so useful?
- It goes much more into the details than a value stream map, which focuses mostly on material flows and information exchanges.
- It is easy to read and understand. No need for training.
- It can be filled out ‘on the go’, at the same time as an engineer familiarizes him/herself with the processes.
Ideally, when should it be developed?
It should be part of the NPI (New Product Development) process.
Note: if you are in the supply chain of an auto factory, the manufacturer will call it APQP and the buyer will call it PPAP. It is simply a more advanced version of the NPI process used in other industries.
It is a basis for the development of other key documents such as the control plan and a FMEA. In other words, it makes sense to first map the processes and then think of how to control them, what issues might come up, etc.
Unfortunately, in 99% of cases, Chinese manufacturers don’t fill out this document on their own initiative. It often has to come from the buyer.
How to use it for process improvement?
It depends on the objective to reach.
If there are quality issues on the finished products, one of the first steps is understand where in the processes those issues appear. If the ‘point of cause’ is the grinder process, go and observe it in great detail in order to find root cause(s). Observe the steps, the tools, read the corresponding documents (if any), and so on.
If the labor productivity needs to increase, you can look at the flow chart and wonder where the bottleneck is. You can add a few columns about the cycle time of each process step, and think of ways to accelerate some processes. You can look at all the substeps and wonder what can be semi-automated. (Obviously this might not be sufficient… You might have to change the layout, change the way materials are supplied to operators, etc.)
If the whole lead time needs to be reduced, you can add a few columns about the time of each process step and also the time materials wait before the downstream process. This is an easy way to spot the major losses of time. I would also suggest to include office/transactional activities in the flow chart — for example processing a customer order, checking inventory, issuing a purchase request, issuing purchase orders to suppliers, etc. all the way to shipment.
Does this make sense? What other process improvement tools do you use most often?