Lets Make a Sandwich
I recently heard an example used to explain the complexities of outsourced manufacturing that has resonated members of our team that spend a great deal of their time in China.
We sometimes take for granted that our years of experience in this industry give us insight in the right and wrong ways to undertake so many of the tasks related to the manufacture of our products (or as we often say, we always know which end is up). Our outsourcing partners, on the other hand, lack the advantage of this contextual knowledge, and we pay the price in issues as small as upside-down stickers and as large as whole mis-manufactured runs of product.
Imagine for a moment something simple, making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. For your average American, who has likely made many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in their lifetime, making a sandwich is a simple, almost automatic procedure. But imagine for a moment that you’re trying to put together the procedure for making this sandwich to a factory that has never made sandwiches before. They know nothing of the raw materials, the tools, or the end product, and so giving them the very imprecise directions of “put peanut butter and jelly on bread, then put the bread together” can result of all manner of undesirable results.
Where do we even begin?
Grab the peanut butter jar. Remove the lid.
Ok, now put the lid down. Grab the knife.
Nope, nope, from the handle end.
Now stick the knife into the peanut butter jar.
No, not straight in, approach at an angle, just pull out some peanut butter on the edge of the knife. Nope, that’s too much. Ok, that’s about right. Now spread the peanut butter on the bread. Ack! Only one side please.
You can see how quickly the need for documentation can grow when the team performing the work has no experience or context in the type of manufacturing that they are undertaking.
Furthermore, it is worth talking about what happens when things don’t go according to plan; it’s only in handling past issues that we gain experience in how to handle future issues elegantly. What happens when you apply the peanut butter too aggressively and tear the bread? Can the bread be repaired or do we start again? What do we do with the previously used peanut butter?
What about all of the other error handling that we need to prepare for?
There are two ways to manage this lack of familiarity and context, either through documentation or placement of experienced staff at the point of manufacture. More often than not, we rely on a mixture of both.
Documentation, design for manufacture and manufacturing process engineering costs a lot (I wrote about it here), and so smaller firms or firms that build a lot of project-based manufactured goods, will find that the best outcomes are achieved by sending product experts to the production line. In this way, those that know the product, the customer, and the expected outcome the best can work with the manufacturer to build the first articles (that is, the units that are built for reference by the production team), and then those same experts can be on site to give regular feedback as manufacturing progresses.
When thinking about the best way to manage your documentation and manufacturing processes, you need to consider what type of activity you are undertaking, products or projects. If you are make products, whereby you will be making tens or hundred of thousands of the same product either over the course of a long period of time or through a diverse manufacturing network, then the investment in documentation is likely worthwhile. This is similar to the franchise model, whereby the head office makes the plans, and the franchisees execute on those plans. All you need to do to ensure continuous quality is to make sure that the plans and procedures are being followed; normally via regular inspections or factory audits. The way in which McDonalds can turn out the same hamburger in each of their thirty-five thousand retail locations is not that they have 35,000 chefs but rather they have invested in making simple, easy to follow procedures to enable unskilled employees to turn out a consistent product. Assembly line manufacturing has quite a lot in common with modern franchise restaurants.
If, on the other hand, you primary build projects, whereby the items that you build, and the activities that you undertake are different every time (we sometimes call this “engineered to order”), then the investment in production process engineering is not likely to pay dividends; by the time you get good at something you’re likely to have finished making that product and may never make it again. In addition, the lower production volumes of project-centric businesses fail to justify the investment cost required to create highly detailed process and procedures. In the absence of precise plans and well documented process, project based industries rely on high-skilled employees present at the point of manufacture. This, in contrast to McDonalds, is more analogous to a high-end restaurant, employing an high skilled chef who is responsible for a diverse menu of food items that changes on a regular basis.
As with anything, knowing who you are and what you are aiming to do informs the decisions that you need to make in both people and process.
Now, who’s ready for lunch?