Single-Piece Flow in Engineering
By Andy Wagner:
Monday afternoon, I have the honor of being part of a meeting to discuss “Project Executio.” The bosses complain that engineers in our department aren’t getting our cost reduction effort closed out fast enough. It’s true. We aren’t making fast enough progress toward our goals and it’s a good sign, in my view, that we’re taking some time out to focus on the process itself, rather than having another typical “status” session.
Looking through a Lean lens, I see the problem in very simplistic terms. Essentially, we’re applying batch and queue to engineering tasks. We spent January and February “building a pipeline” of projects for the entire year. Brainstorming took all of our time. Execution wasn’t on our radar screen. Now, instead of a handful of projects to work in a focused effort, we have dozens. We pick away, and finish nothing.
It’s a paradoxical truth, in lean manufacturing as well as a lean office, that you finish more projects faster by working on as few projects as possible. Multi-tasking reduces effectiveness and therefore results. Indeed, studies have shown that engineers, much like production machinery, lose efficiency when loaded to greater than 85% capacity. Y et the same studies show product development staffs typically face workloads around 200-300% of their capacity. That’s certainly true in my company.
While production machines can be budgeted, ordered, and purchased within a year to ramp up manufacturing throughput, skilled engineers (and skilled production workers), cannot simply be ordered and paid for. They must be developed over several years. This process doesn’t meet our mad dash schedule for cost reductions. With capacity limited in this way, our only choice for improving throughput is improving productivity. We can tinker on the fringes of productivity with better software, improved coordination between departments, and process improvements, but I believe the best productivity gain we can hope for comes from a shift to single-piece or near single-piece workflow, focusing our limited personnel resources on the projects with with greatest impact and stepping up the takt time on each individual piece.
The challenge that we face in the engineering department is the same as that on the factory floor. Our culture and reward system cater to batch and queue operations. How do you convince management that it’s more effective to work otherwise?