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IT Lessons from a Manufacturing Shop Floor

When there’s too much work to do, most people try to multitask and get it all done simultaneously. But the reality is that multitasking often hurts your productivity, and it drastically increases your stress level. Let me tell you about a parallel situation in manufacturing that illustrates my point.

I once worked with a manufacturing organization that specialized in making custom products using a variety of machine tools. Their shop floor consisted of a large number of “stations,” with each station corresponding to a particular tool: everything from lathes to punch presses to grinders to cutting machines. Each station had one or more workers, as well as a rack that contained a “queue” of work to be performed. Most custom products required more than one operation at more than one station, so when each product was scheduled, a “routing” was created that showed the route that the component material would take from station to station until the work was completed.

This kind of manufacturing organization used to be pretty commonplace, and you’ll still see a lot of small businesses run this way. Work is initiated when a customer places an order, and when the order is scheduled to begin, the raw material is taken from inventory and issued to the first work station listed in the routing. Then as each operation is completed, the work-in-process material is moved to the next work station where it sits in queue until the next operation begins. When the last operation is completed, the finished product is moved to an area where it is packaged for shipping to the customer.

This all sounds fairly straightforward, and in fact most manufacturing operations like this operate very well as long as they’re operating below full capacity. But as orders grow, it becomes more and more difficult to avoid scheduling problems. Workers at each station have a choice on what job to do next, and they often choose the easiest job even though it might not be the one that’s most important to the business.

When manufacturing capacity gets scarce and the queues build up, a lot of game playing begins. First there is an attempt to label jobs by their priority. This is confusing, however, because a job’s priority may change from hour to hour based on how much time is left before the finished product due date. So shops begin to get more creative, attaching red flags to the jobs that are in danger of being late. But in an overcapacity situation there will be a sea of red flags, and the poor workers don’t have a good idea which job to work on next. Some shops get even more creative at this point; I heard about one manufacturing company that attached red helium balloons to important jobs.

When flags and balloons fail, a typical manufacturing shop will hire expediters whose job it is to follow certain jobs through the shop floor and make sure that they’re given higher priority. But when there’s not enough capacity there are always some jobs that will be late, and so multiple expediters are hired. Of course the workers get caught in the middle: which expediter do they listen to when there are conflicting views? In some companies there have been fist fights between expediters, each of whom has been tasked with ensuring the on-time delivery of his assigned orders.

Does any of this sound familiar? In an IT environment we have the same sort of problems. We have multiple project priorities with limited capacity. We have people with different skill sets (analysts, programmers, database designers, QA, infrastructure, etc.) and our projects often require routing work from person to person and skill set to skill set. Most of the people have a queue of work to do, and they often get confused about what work to do first. When in doubt they tend to do the work that’s the most fun or the easiest, even though that particular task may not be the most important overall.

In IT we have project managers who, like expediters, are responsible for moving a particular project along. And resources are often shared among projects, so the project managers have to fight each other (at least figuratively) on a day-to-day basis to ensure that their own project keeps moving.

You can see the parallels between the manufacturing shop and the IT organization, but why am I telling you this? Because most manufacturing shops have solved the capacity problem, and I think we can learn from their solutions. A lot of time and research has been spent on creating various techniques, algorithms and software to help manufacturing shops optimize their use of capacity. This area of Production Activity Control has been studied extensively by various professors and consultants because there’s obvious money to be made in optimizing the use of high-priced machinery.

There are a number of ways in which the manufacturing experience can be applied to IT, but let me tell you the most important. And it doesn’t require you to buy software or invest in high-priced consultants.

The most important thing found in manufacturing to optimize the shop floor is to keep work off the shop floor until it’s really ready to be started. That sounds very simplistic and even counter-intuitive, but you would be surprised how effective it is. If the amount of work sitting in queue in front of a workstation is limited to the things that are supposed to be done in the near future, then the workers have little choice but to do that work. All of the confusion goes away. The need for expediters goes away. All of the red flags and balloons go away. The simple rule is that if it’s on the shop floor then it’s important. The workers do the important stuff first, then go back to the scheduler to get the next piece of work assigned.

Japanese manufacturers have gone so far as to formalize the process used in higher-volume manufacturing by implementing something they call “kanban.” In the kanban process the work is pulled through manufacturing instead of being pushed. The IT equivalent would be to assign new work to an individual only when the individual has completed his or her previous assigned work.

Think about it. A lot of the multitasking that we claim to do isn’t really multitasking at all. We’re not actively working on many of the tasks that we’re assigned; we’re just juggling them until we have time to actually put some effort into them. Until a task is actually started, it’s just occupying our thoughts and giving us stress. That’s fine if you’re an executive or manager (no, it isn’t really fine, but that’s a subject for another day), but it’s not something we want to pass on to our employees. Shop floors that are overwhelmed by partially finished work are drowning for lack of clarity and proper prioritization. Does that sound like your IT employees? Or are you focusing their efforts by giving them only the work they have time to do? By giving them the important work and holding back the rest, you’ll be implementing the most important principle that has been discovered in manufacturing shop floor research: people do what’s important if they know what’s important and if they’re not distracted by unimportant demands.

It seems like a long way from a manufacturing shop floor to IT, but the management processes are remarkably similar. The key to getting work done productively is to focus effort on doing the important things one at a time. Don’t distract your employees by assigning them more work than they can possibly do. It makes life more stressful for the employees, and you’re abdicating your responsibility as a manager because your employees are setting the priorities – not you.

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