Small changes for big wins – marginal gains in manufacturing

If manufacturers want advice on making small change for big wins, MESTEC’s Jeremy Harford believes they could do a lot worse than looking to Great Britain’s Olympic cycling team, who really know how to sweat the small stuff.

“You cannot improve one thing by 1,000% but you can improve 1,000 little things by 1%.”

 Jan Carlzon, Swedish businessman

Team GB’s cyclists’ ‘marginal gains’ policy has seen British cyclists’ triumph again and again, perhaps most famously at the 2012 Olympic games, much to the disbelief and fury of the French who accused them of having ‘magic wheels’.

There’s nothing supernatural about marginal gains though; our British cyclists simply focus on making multiple small changes (such as improving recovery times between races) in order to reduce overall time on the whole.

‘Marginal gains’ for the uninitiated

The term ‘marginal gains’ refers to the small changes that, added together, can have a significant impact. The basic principle behind it is that it’s very difficult to improve a process by 1000%, but much easier to change 1000 processes by 1%, as famously posited by Swedish businessman Jan Carlzon.

Can manufacturers apply the principles of marginal gains? The idea of marginal gains in manufacturing isn’t a new one; many companies subscribe to the Six Sigma methodology in their quest for leaner manufacturing, a practice designed to eliminate defects in every process. In the past, the main barrier to finding incremental improvements in factory productivity is accurate measurement – especially where the processes involve people.

Overcoming barriers

In seeking to improve their processes, many manufacturers that we talk to struggle to overcome the following challenges:

  • Once a company has established processes in place and has improved the easy-to-do things (or harvested the ‘low hanging fruit’), it’s much harder to make substantial improvements. This makes it particularly attractive to seek out multiple incremental gains.
  • Many companies don’t have accurate measurement techniques in place to find out if changes have been effective.
  • Measuring labour hours accurately is notoriously difficult. It’s common to use standard measures of labour rather than actual measures.
  • Even with comparatively simple factory-floor processes there are a lot of variables to track, which makes pinpointing real issues and improvements quite difficult without implementing digital analytics.

How manufacturers can exploit marginal gains – without an Olympic effort

Once manufacturers have the main ‘productivity boxes’ ticked such as workforce training, accurate timesheet systems, quality of machinery etc, the temptation is to sit back and ignore both measuring labour performance and addressing small opportunities for improvement. However, as Sir Dave Brailsford has shown, it’s in the margins where you can achieve incremental successes – with no herculean effort required.

The key to achieving marginal gains is in the measurement – any continuous improvement methodology involves making change and measuring impact. Increasing visibility over your processes will enable you to spot the small areas for improvement that, when added up to a whole, can result in significant progression.

Effective use of IT on the factory floor is one of the easiest and most effective ways to gain visibility and accurately measure manufacturing processes. Indeed, UK manufacturing firms with high ICT maturity have seen productivity growth of just over 11% per annum.

MESTEC’s interactive touch-screens log multiple variables including labour productivity and production times, and our technology measures the effect of incremental changes over time to calculate their impact. MESTEC’s dashboard measures and analyses several different cross-sections of your plant processes, for example, benchmarking your operator productivity against the best practice process, enabling you to get detailed insight into areas of high and low performance.

By creating matrices of analytics, we enable Production Managers and supervisors to gain a unique insight into the impact that small changes can have, revealing more and more issues over time, enabling you to target both large and small areas for improvement. A process change resulting in 30 seconds saved in one step of the process could reduce overall production time and cost of production significantly, especially when teamed with multiple other incremental changes.

If you’d like to gain complete control of your manufacturing processes and emulate the GB cycling team in making those marginal gains, contact us today – we’d love to help.