Today we had a visit with a group of students from the EF International School of Brighton. Since it is a true international school, the class has students from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Italy, France, Switzerland, Netherlands, Kazakhstan, and Portugal. It sounds like a really interesting school.
This group is in an operations management class. Part of their schooling is to work on their English. They decided to take a challenge by visiting Seven Cycles to understand our Operations Management Strategy. Even for those fluent in English, Seven’s Ops strategy is pretty near impossible to understand—I certainly don’t. However, the teacher visited a year ago with a different group of students. She asked to return so I guess it wasn't a complete waste of their time.
So, on Friday afternoon, about 25 students arrived. Because the class is operations management studies, they were interested in nearly every aspect of our production systems. Of course, we only had a short amount of time for the visit so we had to choose only a few areas on which to focus. The three areas that seemed most interesting to the group were:
Kanbans are essentially visual signals for action. The word kanban is Japanese for ‘visual card’; it was coined by Toyota. Most times, in a production setting, kanban are cards that help manage inventory and the flow of materials. At Seven Cycles we have well over 200 kanban in more than 2-dozen styles or configurations, depending on the inventory they signal. Throughout the tour we looked at a lot of kanban; we have them all over the factory, and of course, they are conspicuously placed. They seemed to really appreciate our visual kanban method and the fact that we apply them in such intuitive ways.
They hadn’t yet studied poke yoke so I showed them a couple examples. Poka-yoke is another Japanese word introduced by—you guessed it—Toyota. The word, loosely translated, means ‘error-proofing’. They were interested to understand Poka-yoke because they were, understandably, learning about quality control and systems for eliminating errors in their class at EF. So, throughout the tour, I showed them a few examples of Seven’s poka-yokes. Most of our poka-yokes are of the ‘contact method’ category—essentially this means the poka-yoke helps you determine whether a part is to specification or not. And, if not, the part cannot move onto the next step in the process.
Poka-yoke at Seven is a very interesting challenge because these tools, by definition, ensure that every single part is exactly the same—that whatever dimension of tolerance you measure, is always the same from one part to the next. Of course, every frame that Seven builds is custom designed. And therefore, by definition, no two frames are the same. The students immediately understood that it is nearly impossible to design poka-yoke systems for parts where no two dimensions are supposed to be the same from one frame to the next! Regardless, Seven invests a lot of time on poka—yoke systems because quality assurance is so critical.
Okay, here’s a very English word. It was clear that one of their class directives was to look for bottlenecks during the tour—and they found some. Darn it!
Production is essentially a series of bottlenecks; anytime material is not being processed, modified, and somehow having value added to it, resources are not being allocated optimally. Therefore, the material is in a bottleneck. So, most of the time, material is in the midst of a bottleneck—and usually with the bottle cap screwed on.
I opened up and discussed Seven’s two biggest bottlenecks with the group, which not entirely coincidentally, kind of bookend Seven’s entire frame building process. I also chose these two examples in order to help them think about the breadth of bottlenecks. The two are:
1. Frame design confirmation. This is the time from when we send the Frame Specification Confirmation Form to the retailer and the time when we receive the signed Confirmation Form back. We actually don’t discuss this as a bottleneck at Seven Cycles because it centers on customer needs. However, it is now the longest single step in the entire process so I understand how an outsider would certainly see this as a rate determining step. Here is a host or good reasons—and a shorter list of bad reasons—for why this step is longest, and why we resist the label ‘bottleneck’. The primary good reason is that we work at the pace of the customer. They determine the speed at which the process moves. We facilitate; we do not dictate.
This bottle neck has moved up the Pareto chart to become the longest step; a year ago the longest step was our preliminary design process. However, we’ve invested heavily in the past year. We’ve increased our Performance Design team to three people—up from one-and-a-half people. We’ve invested heavily in database improvements, spreadsheet design, and process flow streamlining. So we’ve reduced this step by over 80% to less than 2-business days, on average.
2. Paint system. This is another area in which we’ve made significant improvements in lead-time; regardless, it remains the single longest step in production. A year ago, the average time from frame arriving to Seven’s paint team, to the frame ready for shipping, to about 3.5 weeks—about 18 business days. We are now at about 8 business days—and this includes the more complex and challenging paint methods we employ for our carbon frames, so the improvement is even better than the math shows.
These two steps—design confirmation and painting—account for nearly 50% of the average lead-time for a Seven. So, for these students, it’s good source for bottleneck elimination study.
I could tell that some of the content and language of our production system—not to mention my tenuous grasp on proper English—were difficult for some of the students. Regardless, I was really impressed with their intuitive understanding of how we work and their genuine interest in how we approach the challenge of manufacturing in a single-piece-flow method. I am hopeful that they took away some good fodder for their class work.