Process Improvement!

Most days we think of process improvement as incremental improvement.  Then, occasionally, we see something that reminds us of the major improvements we have made in some industries.  A few months back, I was impressed by a video from a car manufacturing plant which showed the degree that the assembly process was automated.

Yesterday, my friend Bassam AlKharashi, the Director of Business Innovation Services at ES Consulting, in Saudi Arabia, sent me a pointer to a youtube video that shows the refueling of a race car, first in 1950 and then today.  As an aside I grew up in Indianapolis, and some of my relatives used to work for pit crews at the Indianapolis 500 Racetrack, so this brings back memories.  Take a moment to watch this…

In 1950 there were about 5 people in the pit waiting to service the car.  One guy changed first the right and the the left front tires while someone filled the gas tank. Someone provided the driver with a drink and another guy stood by with a fire extinguisher, just in case.

In the 2013 pit stop in Melbourne, I counted 21 people.  In this case they changed all four tires and filled the car with gas.

Now, obviously, going from 5 to 21 people hasn’t reduced the cost of maintenance.  Nor has the preventative maintenance decision — to change all four tires — necessarily saved money. But then the idea behind improving this process wasn’t to save money, its to save time and to reduce the chance of any errors on the track.   (It’s something to keep in mind, that we change processes for different reasons in different situations.)

Looking at the seconds involved, I estimate that the pit crew has  reduced the time this process takes by 25 times — an improvement of about 2500%   But a strict comparison is probably unfair.  As with so many process improvement efforts, we have shifted our emphasis from the actual work time to the planning and management time.  First, there has been a change in policy and rules:  They obviously allow more people in the pit.  There has also been a change in equipment and layout:  There are four high pressure gas hoses in the Melbourne pit. The 21 person team in Melbourne obviously needs a lot of practice and a clear management plan to assure they don’t get in each others way.  More important, someone has thought about the process very carefully and made some decisions, like deciding to change all four tires at once.  There have also been changes in the car to assure the pit stop can be faster.  In the first pit stop fuel was put in one tank, rather like it is in the cars we drive.   In Melbourne they put fuel in from four different points.  Moreover, the tires have been changed a bit — they are no longer locking the tires in place with a hammer.

The video is impressive.  It shows what we can do to improve a process, if we set clear goals and then think very systematically about the tasks involved.  It also underlines some key process redesign themes: like subdividing tasks, designing for improvement, planning the work to be done, and managing process teams.   And, too, its just fun to watch an be amazed in a gee wiz kind of way.



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