November 18

How to Improve Factory Productivity. Essential Steps to get you Started


We all know that trying to improve factory productivity can be a tough task. You’ve tried lots of things, but they just don’t seem to work.

This leads to frustration and resignation that perhaps what you’ve got now is the best it can be?

There are lots of powerful things you can do to make a big step change in your factory’s productivity. 

I’m talking sometimes as much as 2-3 times productivity. This guide will show you some of those golden nuggets.

How to improve factory productivity? Your processes are filled with wasteful tasks like, excessive time in setting machines up, waiting for work, not producing information and product right first time, producing in batches, searching and finding things, lack of standard processes, etc. In order to improve productivity, eliminate or reduce the time spent on these wasteful activities. By doing this, you can increase productivity by as much as 2-3 times.

But first, you we need to identify what is waste…


“Waste is Often Disguised as Useful Work”

The reality is that your employees are busy.

In fact, they’re more than likely rushed off their feet and don’t have any more capacity.

Although this may be true, it doesn’t mean that your employees are being productive. 

Stop to watch them for ten minutes. What are they doing? My bet is they’re doing some or all of the following:

  • Walking back and forwards between work areas
  • Checking paperwork
  • Discussing problems and issues
  • Setting the next job up
  • Reworking what was done previously
  • Working slower than usual, to get around a current problem
  • Moving items between processes
  • Sharing tools and searching for the right equipment for the next job
  • Querying jobs and drawings
  • Getting the next job
  • Moving work around to get to the next job
  • Lining everything up before they process the work
  • Dealing with breakdowns
  • Losing paperwork
  • Forgetting to process something
  • Forgetting to order a part
  • Stopping the job through parts shortages
  • Working around excessive work in progress and with no space to move

I can go on and on!

The above examples are all waste. But every one will make people feel that they’re busy and don’t have enough time for anything else. Yet they’re not busy on the right things.

What if you could strip most of these activities away? Would their productivity improve?

Of course it would!

But for your business, how much would it improve by?

Wasteful Activities – The Silent Killer

Elaborating from my previous point, waste is everywhere. It’s the majority of what happens in a process.

To put it another way, as much as 95% of process activities performed, are wasteful. This is classed as Non Value Add.

How Can Business Processes be Improved?: Attack the majority Wasteful Steps

The only steps that are productive and add value are the bits that the customer is willing to pay for.

In your factory, they are typically the following:

  • Tightening a bolt
  • Screwing and locking a fixing
  • Connect parts together in assembly
  • Spray painting the product
  • Metal finishing – transforming the product into chrome, for example
  • The actual CNC cuts on a machine
  • Cutting a product to it’s required length

Drilling Down to Find Waste

If we take the activity of tightening a bolt, there may be a number of steps in order to do this, like:

  • Waiting for the entire batch of work to arrive
  • Finding the tool
  • Preparing the right torque setting
  • Getting the fixings
  • Lining the entire batch on the bench before working
  • Checking the paperwork and drawings

Then we get to actually torquing the bolts up!

And this tightening of the bolt quite literally takes 5 seconds per unit… BUT the entire process to get to this point could be minutes and even hours! I demonstrated something very similar in this article.

So What do we Do About It?

Firstly, we need to just observe. 

  1. Stand in your factory for 15 minutes… and watch
  2. Take a pen and paper and observe the wastes. Every time you see something that’s going on and which doesn’t add value…no matter how small, take a note and count the number of wasteful actions that you can see. To help you see this waste, here’s a guide to show you the process wastes.
  3. Now estimate the total value add time that was being performed during your observation. It will be minuscule, trust me….
  4. Use this to see the overall wasted time through current inefficient processes.
  5. Start to identify ideas to improve productivity by removing the most common waste.

I used this exact process with a client, to show him where his factory’s productivity leaks were. We found no value added work at all for the ten minutes we watched. It convinced him to sign up to the project i was proposing. We then ended up doubling output without adding any extra heads.

Challenge Existing Beliefs

Now you’ve highlighted many inefficiencies, it’s time to improve your productivity.  There are a number of tools and techniques to do this. The following 3 actions are things that you should implement, which normally fly in the face of current working practices:

  1. Reduce the batch size of work going through your factory. This may sound counter intuitive, but the larger your batches that you work on, the slower the whole system performs. I’ve seen factories come to a grinding halt, as they try to produce a large job in one go. The lean way is to process little and often, by releasing work in chunks of time, not per order.
  2. Only make to order. Sometimes, we like to process a little more than the customer wants, so we can keep it as stock, and sell next time they order. The problem is two fold:
    • If we over produce, we literally put work that’s needed now, behind work that’s not needed and currently being made. Multiply this by the many jobs being overproduced for stock and you have a large backlog of work queued, for no reason.
    • This isn’t a controlled way of managing your stock. And with an uncontrolled process, you’re at risk of spending way too much time on the wrong things.

A printing company a few years ago, spent most of the month overproducing on orders, in view of adding the excess to stock. At the end of the month, the Manager was perplexed, as to why they didn’t break even. The reason: They spent too much time and resource producing stuff that wasn’t needed to add as stock, pushing work that was needed, back in the queue. 

      3. Easy Access of items and information. Ensure that items and information needed every day are within arms reach of each person. It’s easy to miss this. But it’s an important productivity improver. Each employee may lose more than 20 minutes per day, finding tools, information and equipment. By giving them everything they need, so they don’t have to search, it will save a lot of time that can be used to produce more work.

Provide Time-Bound Targets

Does your factory measure hourly output to plan? 

By this, I mean something that clearly shows how many units or jobs should have been completed each hour. Similar to the following:

how to improve factory productivity: hour by hour board

The board is slightly cut off from view, but here’s what’s going on:

  • On the left column, you can see hours over the shift (1-8)
  • The second column represents the job being worked on
  • The third column shows the target output versus actual output for each hour for that machine
  • The fourth column is a simple red / green status (showing whether they hit the hourly target or not)
  • The last column shows comments during the shift as to why targets weren’t met and if there are any issues during the day

The Problem with No Targets

When we ask our employees to work to a production list, which has no start and finish targets, you can’t establish production pace.

…And if this list isn’t completed, then, “it’s ok, it’ll get finished tomorrow.”

What if they all need to be completed today, but no one really knows exactly? Things will get done when they get done.

The problem is, there’s no goal and standard to show what SHOULD be completed by when. 

By adding (achievable) targets, your teams can see what needs to be done today and when; therefore keeping to plan and maintaining pace. 

If you add these targets to a visual board, it’s clear to see at any point where things are to plan.

Adding target completion times to your production can provide a big step change in productivity. You’ll find teams will try to keep pace and work out how to maintain targets.

It’s not uncommon to see as much as a 20% improvement in productivity just by creating visual hourly output boards for operators to see clearly what’s needed to be produced by when.

Other Targets to Include

The following list provides more areas to optimise, based on the concept of adding targets. By measuring and making what’s important visual, we can act quickly and take action to keep on track, when problems arise.

  • Current stock levels – how many stock turns does your business turn? How many should it turn? Where are the areas of excessive stock?Where do you often run out? How is your current stock management policy contributing to poor productivity?
  • Wasted product and materials – Do you measure what gets thrown away? Do you put a value to this? Do you have targets for waste? Can you do something with this waste? For example sell it as scrap metal…
  • Repeatable processes – What are your highly repetitious processes? How much could you save or make if you processed them faster?
  • Lost time – Are there times when employees are waiting and can’t process anything? How much time is lost to this? Can you divert resource to something else, so they’re more productive?

Create Systems

“If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.”W. Edwards Deming

The crux of a poorly functioning business essentially stems from lack of systems and standards.

When I say systems, I don’t mean IT systems or something bureaucratic.

I mean simple standards that ensure that the way things are done are optimised, and adopted by everyone.

The truth is, if you want to improve your productivity, there must be standard ways of working.

If you watch a surgeon performing a hernia operation, you’d probably marvel at their skill, amazing knowledge and years of training. 

If you watched them over again, you’d notice a clear sequence of steps that they repeat again and again. 

Every single action is part of a definitive production sequence every time.

From the time taken to prepare the area, to creating the correct insertion point and the standard equipment needed, as well as the time it takes. 

A system is a predetermined sequence that will predictably achieve a result.

The problem is that many people value themselves as being highly skilled people. Why would they need a system?

A few years ago, there was media attention drawn to check-lists in hospitals, and here’s what they found….

8 hospitals used a standard check-list to improve operation success rates. This resulted in 40% reduction in surgery related deaths. The surgeons followed simple check-lists to keep them organised and in control, so they could consistently repeat to a high standard.

Create Check-lists

How much can check-lists help your business? 

The right check-list can eliminate most of the problems you face with when passing poor quality on to the next step in the process… Or missing vital steps in production or assembly.

These activities can be critical-to-quality tasks. In other words, where it’s essential to make right first time, create a simple check list to cover all the steps that need to be taken, to ensure the quality is consistently high.

Check-lists will ensure people avoid the dreaded, “I forgot…” answers.

Examples of Check-list & Feedback Loops

There are a number of checklist-style forms you can use to help eliminate root causes to your problems. Here are some examples:

  • Visual triggers – Showing people what to do at exactly the right moment. For example, a line against an inventory level to tell the operator when to order more.
  • Forms with areas to add important information. For example, fields to capture a lead quickly and consistently, or to record key measurements of parts in production. If any field is empty, then it can’t be passed on until all information is obtained.
  • Whiteboards in the office and in the factory to show team rotas, charts and metric performance on key processes, as well as team check-lists.

Agree and Optimise Standards

The trick is to create standard processes that are agreed by the team and optimised for productivity.

When it comes to critical production processes, you should ensure they are documented and agreed by the team. These should be clear to see, complete with:

  • A couple of sentences detailing the task
  • An image of the task, so people can identify what they have to do clearly
  • Where applicable, how long it should take (to maintain pace of production)
Standard work example with time

By including the standard process steps AND the time, you’ll optimise your productivity for that process and build rate.

Standard work without targeted time is nothing more than a diagram. We want consistency linked to production pace.

Identify the Biggest and Most Expensive Problems

If you’re looking to improve your factory’s productivity, then you’re probably already experiencing many different problems, which are compounding matters.

Here’s how to get to grips and make a productivity jump, too.

  1. Write down all the issues you’re facing, currently.
  2. Start to group these issues into categories. For instance, you may have several different issues around design. You may also have several others around machine breakdown and so on.
  3. Highlight the top occurring category. This will be your focus for now.
  4. Now conduct some root cause analysis to identify the root causes and get to work to eliminate them.
  5. Repeat this over and over again. You’ll start to get some stability in your processes.

The above ideas will give you quick wins in productivity. For long term fixes, its worth looking deeper into lean, and developing your lean system to continuously improve and change the culture along the way.


You may also like

How to Begin Your Lean Journey: 5 Steps to Making an Impact

5 Reasons Why Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing Is Important

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