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Peter Bigelow

As veteran engineers know, sometimes less is more, and a lot faster.

Our industry is noted for spectacular new technology that eclipses everything around it at breathtaking speed. As exciting and noteworthy as those technologies may seem, however, success more often moves in ways and at speeds akin to the proverbial turtle. Patience pays.

The virtue of patience struck me while attending a regional industry event. The afternoon included technical presentations and a tour of an advanced manufacturing facility. The tour was conducted by energetic, sharp, intelligent young engineers who were excited and proud to show off the fruits of their labors. The facility did not have the latest equipment, but these innovative young bucks set up the equipment to take full advantage of the latest in holistic ergonomic advances, lean material logistics, and had a connected digital ecosystem that would make any Industry 4.0 proponent proud.

The tour was topped off by a strategic Star Wars-inspired planning room where stakeholders from all over the company connect via a real-time, 360° media area to look at problems, products, opportunities, and perform the necessary planning to ensure the highest level of quality in the quickest turn time. This collaborative media war room was designed to maximize communication to expedite decision-making. Someone asked how much time this protocol saved. Perhaps the vague reply should have been a warning: “Our productivity has increased significantly by having all stakeholders actively involved … .”

The tour was engaging, the technology deployments state-of-the-art, and the manufacturing challenges and goals awe-inspiring. We visitors were truly wowed. Well, up until one of the more seasoned spectators asked one of the beaming tour-guides this: “What is your single biggest obstacle to success?” The answer came back: “It takes too long to get things done. We need to get more done faster to meet our demand,” which led to the following: “So, what are you doing about it?”

The response was what you might expect from an eager engineer.

We heard about how they get everyone together – globally – on a regular basis to review any given problem or opportunity. Then, tasks are assigned, and staffers report back at the next global meeting, sometimes with PowerPoint presentations or perhaps video showing the situation, so the group can look, talk, and determine the best course of action. And let there be no mistake, the key word was ACTION! These young engineers spent as much of their time planning, scheduling and reporting about meetings to increase speed, throughput and “productivity” as they did on the shop floor dealing with speed, throughput and “productivity.”

The tours wound down, and the afternoon was topped off by technical presentations. Each presentation was made by a seasoned industry veteran and focused on finding new solutions to problems the young engineers had encountered. This company was blessed to have a cadre of senior-level talent available to tackle the exciting new challenges brought forth by the engaging young engineers.

Each presentation began the same way: identifying a problem in the manufacturing process that was gumming up the works, then citing the protocol followed and the ultimate solution. One problem was chronic poor quality when running a particular material that reduced throughput. Another was assembly equipment stopping mid-cycle because of some sort of failure, which reduced speed and negatively impacted “productivity.” How the veterans’ responses differ from those of the young engineers made an interesting contrast.

The process followed by each presenter was similar. Look at samples and/or equipment, collect suspect materials, talk to shop-floor operators, then retreat into the lab to develop and conduct a battery of experiments. The presentations outlined the findings, recommended a solution, and course of action to implement the solution, and reported the improvement achieved to date.

Someone asked if the veterans used the futuristic planning room during their analysis. The answer was consistently “no.” Their tone indicated the problems were isolated, and adding people to the conversation can lead a team off track, swelling a project into something that takes forever to complete. As one of the presenters noted, “Sometimes less is more, and a lot faster.”

Which gets back to patience. Technological advances stretch everyone. In a strong economy, the stretch may be how to crank up production when hiring competent workers is so difficult. When the economy is down, the stretch may be how to develop something with minimal investment dollars available. Meeting those and myriad other challenges, often seems to set everyone sprinting off toward a quick solution. Patience! It takes patience to stay focused on the challenge, rather than allowing the response to escalate out of reasonable control. It takes patience to follow a methodical approach, rather than involving many unnecessary colleagues who may inadvertently put the brakes on a fast-track need.

There’s a place for youthful enthusiasm. Just be sure they stay on the right track.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI Inc.; pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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