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December 02, 2010

Taguchi DOE, and how I wish it wasn't used.

The day spent learning about Taguchi methods for experimenting (DOE) was very interesting. I’ve often wondered how practical it is to try and isolate problems by changing only one factor at a time, especially in complex situations, where there are so many possible variables, that there are a hundred or more possible permutations. This approach allows you to identify what is important in an incredibly efficient way I feel.

The BAE session the next day was useful in putting it into true manufacturing context. But, I found it hard to get through the session. I intensely dislike so-called ‘defence’ companies. Really, is there a more abhorrent use of intelligence than for the creation of materials designed solely for the purpose of ‘keeping order’? Or killing people, as I see it. I spent a lot of time wincing, particularly when listening to Roger’s description of developing warheads the size of dustbins! I do not ever want to work in the arms/defence industry, or towards anything else that is deliberately (or even not) designed to harm people – it is just contrary to my world view.

I did like that he was quite aware of all this – some people who work on these kinds of projects have no appreciation for the effects of what they are doing. Roger seemed to have a remorseful tone, and said that it was something you had to think about. His view was that what BAE Systems and others do is a necessary evil, as if we are asking people to risk their lives on our behalf, we have to provide them with the tools that give them the best possible chance of coming back alive. While I’m not sure if I can agree with the necessity of going into unjustifiable wars, I can understand his outlook. I don’t really mean to preach or offend anyone affected by the issue, I just couldn’t live with myself if it were me.

Back to Taguchi. I asked if DOE was used more as a problem solver in industry (the main context I had seen so far), or if it was ever used during the design and development stage to make better products. I was informed that some companies (Ford, Xerox) do use it the latter way, but at BAE, it had never really become embedded. A lot of the time, what happened, is that when it was applied, it brought success to those who had used it, and they moved up the chain of command or out of the company.

In my opinion, good! I don’t really want them to figure out how to murder people more effectively...

November 30, 2010

You cannot get away from them!

Everything is a process. It seems obvious, and I think for me it was a little already. You have a process for grooming and dressing yourself in the morning, several for cooking dinner, one looong, drawn-out process for creating a PMA that you don't want to throw away immediately (;-)). Having Jan Gillett spell it out quite useful though, especially when applying it to the service sector. The five questions we were challenged to use were:

  1. What's the process?
  2. What's the purpose of it?
  3. Who is the customer?
  4. How can you measure the result?
  5. Is there a way you measure it within the process, to predict the outcome?

These help you to define what you are doing, which as we know from Six Sigma's DMAIC, is the first step to improving anything. It can be hard to work out some of these, in certain situations, but I feel that sometimes, simply having an appreciation of their existence can be enough.

I also really enjoyed the rest of Jan's time with us. Learning more about Kano, and how you can try to work out what will appeal to people's excitement needs was really interesting. Tokai Rika was a fantastic example of a company where workers get to engage their brains, with their involvement in control charts. I feel like I really get how useful they can be now, when it comes to using them to prevent problems, and collect knowledge about a process, or even to work out how to fix it if something isn't right (step-by-step, find and eliminate the special causes). Then you can work on reducing the variation further by targeting common causes.

November 28, 2010

Learning By Doing – The Meccano Exercise

The Meccano exercise was a great demonstrator of the characteristics of a production line. I really enjoyed it too, and I feel like I learned a lot. For me, one of the best parts was that it was drawn out over three days. Often with something like this, you get three hours and you’re done – this felt more like a real project in the way that we had time to try things, reflect on and learn from the experiences, and improve based on them. It was amazing to me, how much room for improvement there was, on a process that originally seemed quite standard, and typical of what you might find on most assembly lines.

We were using DMAIC, guided by our black belt (!), but it never really felt like we were approaching things in a particularly structured way when working in our groups. This made getting started quite hard, and showed me the value of having a step-by-step way of doing things, at least at first. 

Our approach, eventually, was to try to reduce the variation in time each process took each operator to do, to streamline our line. We settled on a target of around 2:45 mins, and began to redistribute the amount of work in each individual process, so that five people (plus one supplying parts in a logistical role) could do the work of seven, and in less time overall. We also found that it was possible to break the processes in such a way that the first two operators could work simultaneously. All in all, I think we were quite successful, and given more time to get used to it, I’m almost certain our output variation would have reduced further!

Multiple rounds of trial and error based tests took place to achieve this – PDSA in action. I learned the importance of having the right people in the right roles (playing to their strengths, nimbleness of fingers especially!) and communicating within the line, as well as seeing control charts in practice. One other important thing was getting a feel for how stressful the job of a production line worker can be – I was stressed, felt like I was bad at my job when I was causing a bottleneck, too warm generally, etc, and none of this even mattered! But also, I know how having a positive, enjoyable working environment can make all the difference to productivity and satisfaction. That’s something I would really like to create in the future.

November 27, 2010

Changing processes really means changing people.

When using Six Sigma, or any other improvement methodology, it’s so important to remember that whatever you’re trying to change, it involves people. And people, generally, do not like change. This is because, as Graeme pointed out, it feels like they are ‘losing’ something in the process. This is why the failure of so many projects is attributable to people (95% due to socio-emotional factors according to PMI), and their motivation or lack thereof.

As a manager, or leader of change, you have to figure out how to involve people at all levels of an organisation. One way to begin this is to invite them to challenge the process, which is the first step to making them think how they could improve things themselves.

November 16, 2010

Getting to grips with Six Sigma

Prior to last week's work, all I knew of Six Sigma was that if you were a consultant brought in to apply it, you were probably making a LOT of money. I'm glad to say I have a much greater appreciation for it now, as a useful process improvement and problem fixing tool. I like the logical, methodological, DMAIC approach (the PMI material has been great in demonstrating it to me, though I find a lot of the voices very annoying!), and wouldn't hesitate to use it in the future if I felt the situation was right.

The assignment regarding Deming's System of Profound Knowledge was really important in understanding this, and I found it quite interesting. It became clear that while Six Sigma has scope for improving an organisation, it has very little designed to help true, groundbreaking innovation occur, in my opinion. It lacks that in its inherent philosophy, as it is largely meant to make existing processes better, ie. bringing them up to levels of expectation, rather than taking them to the next level (of excitement, if we are to use Kano's model of customer satisfaction). Also, it is a very slow process from what I can see (at least a few months), and knowing when to use it, and when to just simply employ an obvious solution would be a very useful skill to have as a consultant. I take the point that you shouldn't try to mess with a system until you understand it and can account for it, but in business, it's often the quickest response to a problem that is rewarded.

The variation session was great at helping to understand this. I've always hated statistics with a passion, so seeing standard deviations used in a practical and meaningful way helped me to create knowledge out of a lot of information I knew, but never had a use for.

Generally, I really enjoyed the work of the past week. There were some longer hours involved than I would have liked (or even had time for, considering that there is a PMA, project, PMI e-learning, PIUSS pre-module assignments, and FACS pre-work to juggle, and I'm sure we will end up doing more than the 'required' 60 hrs of pre-work and module time), but the extended group discussions were often fantastic - we really got into it and had some great ideas I think. I'm certain that the amount we put in will be rewarded next week when we do the module.

All in all, it is clear that Six Sigma is an important, though not comprehensive tool, and it is highly regarded by many. I see its uses clearly, but feel that I know enough to know that it is not enough in itself to drive excellence into an organisation. As Graeme said, one thing Jack Welch (former GE CEO) said that is often overlooked by advocates, is that you must cultivate an organisational learning environment.

"An organization's ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage."

Otherwise, in my opinion, you run the DMAIC cycle once, forget that it is based on PDSA which is about going round and round the cycle, and end up with some short-term improvements that soon fade away. Which is what a lot of organisations do, and of course, if they use it badly, it's not going to work is it?!

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