Thursday, January 13, 2011

How iPods in cars is like process improvement

I have a 15-year-old son who is also a talented musician. Whenever he's in the minivan he assumes he's in charge of the sound system and grabs the long cord we have plugged into our auxiliary port, plugs it into his ever-present iPod, and begins blaring Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd (fortunately he has good taste!). Now I like loud music from time-to-time, but not ALL the time like he does. So we play this little game where he slowly cranks up the volume on his iPod and I slowly notch it down via the volume controls on the steering wheel.

Process improvement is a lot like that.

It used to puzzle me to no end how I could go into a given functional area, reduce the required man-hours to process a given widget from dozens or hundreds down to a handful, and then watch as no discernable impacts made it to the bottom line--or even downstream! Then I discovered the Theory of Constraints (TOC). Now I know it's all about the iPod example.

TOC teaches us to think systemically and see the organization as a whole. It then gives you the lens to see that the parts that make up the whole come in two flavors: those that have a capacity equal to or greater than the demands placed upon them, and those with a capacity less than their respective demands. Then, you're able to look at the latter group and find the bottleneck, the constraint.

If you improve the throughput of a resource upstream or downstream of a bottleneck it's like you've just turned the volume up on the iPod but then the bottleneck turns it back down on the radio dial; it cancels out the benefit. In fact, improving the throughput upstream could actually be making things worse--you're just building the pile of work in front of the constraint higher faster.

The Integrated TOC/Lean/Six Sigma (iTLS) approach most notably outlined by Robert Fox in his new book (as well as by others such as the book Velocity) uses TOC as a focusing mechanism to first see where should we focus our improvement efforts. Then we can bring in Lean to reduce waste, Six Sigma to reduce variability, and technology to automate and streamline (maybe that should be changed to iPIT for Integrated Process Improvements and Technology? Or maybe TiP for Technology integrated with Processes?) . Taking this approach gives you the comfort of knowing anything you do will have an immediate systemic effect and that someone else doesn't have their hand on the volume control downstream.

1 comment:

carsguide said...

It is process improvement