May 28, 2014 / agility, best practices, bottlenecks, continuous improvement, customer delivery, LIT, quality, ROI, strategic planning, value-added services
What does it take to keep your customers satisfied? In today’s demanding market, most industrial metal-cutting companies would say high quality, competitive costs, and on-time delivery. However, those have always been the hallmarks of any good manufacturer, and some might argue that the last few years weeded out any companies that even remotely lagged in these key areas.
So, what does it really take to keep your customers satisfied? Or, as this Inc. article points out, perhaps the better question is whether or not customer satisfaction is what you should be trying to achieve. According to the Inc. author, customer satisfaction is “tepid and minimal”, has “no bearing on future buying decisions,” and can be “safely ignored.”
Instead, manufacturers should be spending their efforts building some level of customer loyalty, the article argues, as well as what the Inc. author calls “product evangelism.” In short, the author maintains that companies need to focus less on simply satisfying customers and, instead, focus more on: 1. bringing value that goes above and beyond, and 2. a strong brand message that is unique and relevant. As the article title suggests, that is how you develop a customer relationship that “trumps all the rest.”
The Inc. author isn’t the only one buying into this mentality. In recent years, many leading companies have endeavored to take their customer service to the next level, creating what consultant Lisa Anderson refers to as the “Amazon Effect.” From no-hassle refunds to 24-hour availability, Anderson believes that manufacturers and distributors have something to learn from the exceptional service standards set by Amazon. “It has become apparent that those businesses that leverage the Amazon Effect will thrive while the rest are left in the dust,” Anderson said in a recent article from Industrial Distribution.
How you “amp up” your customer service game will largely depend on what you already have in place, but the following are a few strategies to get you thinking:
- Revaluate Outsourced Services. Sometimes enhancing customer service may be as simple as bringing an outsourced service in-house. While this strategy may not always be cost-effective, for D&J Technologies, it was worth it in the long run. The machine shop, featured in this white paper from the LENOX Institute of Technology, discovered that sending out parts for nickel-plating was causing a bottleneck and making it difficult to guarantee on-time delivery of finished parts. By bringing plating in-house, D&J was able to provide its customers with an additional service, remove a production bottleneck, and speed up the delivery process.
- Engage Customers. As many leading companies are discovering, the voice of the customer can be a valuable tool. According to a recent research report from consulting firm Aberdeen Group: “The customer has become much more than a product delivery channel and instead has morphed into an integral stakeholder with the clout to determine the viability of the organization, and their voice can no longer be taken for granted.” Of course, customer feedback requires some form of measurement, which can mean anything from tracking every call to your service center to having your sales team proactively reach out to customers for input. The goal is to both gather and leverage customer feedback to identify problem areas and reveal new service opportunities.
- Get Savvy. While Twitter hasn’t exactly changed the face of industrial manufacturing, many companies are finding ways to use the digital revolution to gain an edge. For example, Sapa, an aluminum extrusion manufacturer recently featured in a Modern Metals, has added its design manual to Apple’s App Store. According the company, the app provides a new channel to reach customers as well as any other professionals that are eager to learn about aluminum and aluminum profiles. The manual is also available on the company’s website and has more than 4,500 registered users, Modern Metals reports.
- Develop a Story. As the Inc. article states, building a compelling company message can attract customers on an emotional level that goes beyond cost. What is unique about your company and its values? How do your services translate those values? Most importantly, how are you communicating this message to your customers? This article from Fabricating & Metalworking provides more than 20 tools to help you build your organization’s brand story.
March 25, 2014 / benchmark study, bottlenecks, continuous improvement, preventative maintenance, productivity
In most cases, one of leading causes of lost productivity is breakdowns. Equipment and tooling failures create bottlenecks that throw off delivery schedules, reduce efficiency, and increase costs. And in today’s competitive market, forges just can’t afford downtime.
While some breakdowns are inevitable, more and more companies are realizing that proper maintenance and proactive care of equipment and tooling can, in fact, reduce their occurrence. When equipment is well maintained, it is more reliable, more predictable, and more productive.
Really, the case for preventative maintenance (PM) program isn’t a hard one to argue, especially when so many manufacturers are seeing the positive impact it can have on the bottom-line. For example, according a recent benchmark study from the LENOX Institute of Technology, 70% of industrial metal-cutting organizations that report their scrap and rework costs are less than 5% also say they “always” break in their band saw blades. This provides strong economic validation for the proactive care of equipment such as saws and blades. By breaking in blades properly, organizations are able to reduce “soft” failure that leads to waste and scrap and that eats into their bottom line. It also keeps operators productive and reduces unnecessary tooling costs.
While the theoretical benefits of a PM program are clear, like any continuous improvement initiative, it requires some strategy to be successful in practice. The following are just a few best practices for managers to consider when implementing a formal PM program:
- Define it. Managers need to take the time to define the purpose of their maintenance program and, more importantly, its goals. This article from Reliable Plant dissects the different “levels” of maintenance and the objectives associated with each. For example, the article differentiates between Preventative Maintenance, Predictive Maintenance, and Proactive Maintenance—three terms many people use interchangeably. By understanding the entire spectrum of maintenance possibilities, managers can assess what is realistic within their operation based on available resources.
- Schedule it. As stated in this article by consultant William Worsham, the key to executing a successful PM program is scheduling. According to Worsham, scheduling should be automated to the maximum extent possible. He suggests that managers implement “a very aggressive program to monitor the schedule and ensure that the work is completed according to schedule should be in place.” This means both documentation and accountability are critical.
- Measure it. Metrics are the only way to truly gauge if a maintenance program is producing results, and according to this article IndustryWeek, one or two metrics isn’t going to cut it. Quoting Jeff Shiver, managing principal of maintenance consulting firm People and Processes Inc., the IW article provides ten key metrics managers should use to help determine whether or not their maintenance initiatives are improving reliability. Based on this list, effective measurement goes far beyond PM compliance and should include bigger picture metrics like maintenance cost per unit of production, storeroom inventory value, and first-pass yield.
February 10, 2014 / bottlenecks, lean manufacturing, productivity
When operations gear up for the day, most fabricators have one overarching goal—to move as much metal as possible. Huge volumes, continuous sawing, and quick turnaround are characteristic of most of today’s fabricating operations, and that means there is no time for bottlenecks, errors, or other unexpected events.
To keep saws running, studies suggest that getting ahead of production hiccups is key, either through continuous improvement initiatives or predictive operations management. However, when you are in the midst of the day-to-day grind—sometimes churning out thousands of parts per week—finding the time to identify bottlenecks and assess processes is a very real challenge.
But here’s the good news: Continuous improvement doesn’t have to be complex to have an impact. While you may not have the extra hours or resources to implement an aggressive lean program, there are some simple tactics fabricators can use to improve the efficiency of their metal-cutting operations.
One Day at a Time
According to Leanproduction.com, one of the most powerful ways to reduce down time is to identify and fix one problem each day. By making small, incremental improvements, the article says that companies have seen their overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) improve by 10% or more when managers consistently apply this strategy over a period of three months.
The key, the article points out, is to ask three simple questions that lead to one very specific action or change that can be made on the same day. The first question is based on information you gather from the plant floor that identifies a loss. The second question is designed to get the team to focus on pinpointing the biggest loss or easiest “win.” The final question should push the team to decide on a specific action that will reduce the loss. You can read more about this strategy and see some sample questions here.
Ask Operators for Input
A magical thing happens on the shop floor when an operator or process area becomes committed to their operation and, more importantly, takes pride in hitting productivity and quality goals. This type of employee “buy in” can have a substantial impact on efficiency. As any management expert will confirm, employees tend to support what they help build, which is why more and more manufacturers are actively including operators in improvement initiatives. No one knows your workflow better than your operators, so why not engage them?
What areas slow them down? What changes do they suggest to make processes safer and faster? Then, when appropriate, follow through on some of their suggestions. This tactic not only helps improve operational efficiency, it also shows operators that they are a critical aspect of the company’s success.
Learn from Mistakes
While no one likes to admit their mistakes, ignoring failures or pretending that they didn’t happen only increases the chances of recurrence. As one fabricator states in this white paper from LENOX Institute of Technology, managers need to document mistakes so they can learn from them. When bottlenecks or failures occur, it is worth the time and effort it takes to get to the root cause of the issue so that it never happens again.
In fact, an interesting editorial from Manufacturing.net goes one step further and says that companies may even want to consider trading failure stories with other manufacturers. “Oftentimes, manufacturing feels far too siloed, every company is struggling within its own four walls,” notes Joe Hans, managing editor of Manufacturing.net. “There’s a lot that could be learned if companies began to not only fix downtime, but take advantage of its instructional moments, and then share those with others.”