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The Art of Direct Process Observation – A Proven Technique for Improving Manufacturing Performance

25/09/2015


​One of the most proven and effective tools for understanding manufacturing process issues is rarely utilized within manufacturing operations. Process observation is a method of confirming exactly what is occurring during any particular process. It allows for gathering useful information about the process, activities and human behaviours that can help improve a process. It also uncovers issues that can compromise the effectiveness of the process.

Think of a high performance athlete and the way in which video and ultimately observation is engrained as an important tool in improving their performance. Why should a manufacturing facility be any different? 

In an era when manufacturing in North America is being challenged by low cost countries, why is it then that so few manufacturers utilize this tool to their benefit? Why would they not want to learn what in their processes isn't adding value? Are they not concerned about improving cycle times and reducing waste? The answer to these questions if of course yes, however, it is interesting to view why so many do not embrace this tool as a part of their improvement efforts. 

But what exactly is observation? From The Art of Scientific Investigation by Cambridge University, animal pathology professor W. I. B. Beveridge provides a timeless meditation on the art of observation, which he insists "is not passively watching, but is an active mental process," and the importance of distinguishing it from what we call intuition.

Beveridge explains that observation is the fundamental science process skill. The ability to make good observations is essential to the development of findings. Good, productive observations are detailed and accurately written and if required, drawn descriptions and observers need to be prompted to produce these types of descriptions. The reason for this detail is that only then can the observer increase their level of understanding. 

In almost all of the manufacturing facilities in which MNP conducts operational improvement analysis and ultimately improvement projects, there are minimal to no documented time observations of the manufacturing processes. 

Our experience uncovers the following reasons:

  • The first and foremost is that we are too busy to do this activity. The perception among the manufacturers we work with is that it is time-consuming and as such, competes with other priorities.  It is thus given a lower priority. 
  • The second largest reason we see and hear is the perception that it requires a certain skillset that the organization does not currently have. It is seen as a process engineering role.
  • The last and most likely primary reason is that it is not a popular activity and as such easy to avoid performing.

Regardless of the reasons why efforts aren't being made to develop a systematic approach for adopting the tool as a regular occurrence, those who do master process observation will have the ability to continuously adapt and improve as the industry and markets demand.    

When observations are conducted within a manufacturing environment, one usually finds that observation of the job location, examination of the equipment and procedures and discussions with any operators or managers is an invaluable technique of gaining information on the job or process. By observing the actual job / operation the following can be uncovered:

  • The extent to which each task is actually performed;
  • The frequency with which it is performed; and
  • The percentage of a worker's time devoted to it.

Benefits of an observation program can include:

  • Decrease in cycle times;
  • Improved quality;
  • Improved safety and ergonomics;
  • Improved layout and workstation design;
  • Engaged workforce; and
  • Improved productivity.

We help guide observers and increase their observation skills by employing various feedback techniques, learning approaches and the appropriate level of coaching.

For more information on how to develop a systematic program for observation contact your local MNP advisor.