Plastics manufacturer focuses on keeping data lean

As vice-president of operations at Columbia Plastics Ltd., a custom injection moulding firm in Surrey, B.C., Brian Holmes attended the lean manufacturing Measure UP for Success conference in Toronto last October. The five-day, 140-event conference was presented jointly by Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) and Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME) in collaboration with Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME). Also a member of the SME international executive committee, Holmes shares his thoughts on attending such events and the contribution of IT to his company’s lean endeavours.

IT Focus: I notice the program for the Measure UP for Success conference lists events as being of interest to one of three groups: preparing for the “lean journey,” early adopters with one to two years’ experience, well along the path and looking for tools. Where would you rank Columbia Plastics in that?

Brian Holmes: We’re along the path. Probably we’ve been at it for four years now. We were looking for more tools and better ways to do it. We got involved with the B.C. Consortium for Manufacturing Excellence (CME). As we went through, we were looking at ways to focus people on that which needed to be done and ignore that which wasn’t required. So, working through the programs that the CME as a group put on, we found it was a good venue for training people and for having everyone in the company gain an understanding that we certainly aren’t alone on this journey.

IT Focus: Looking at the IT side of the lean journey here, what lean challenges are presented in the context of information technology?

Holmes: We follow the motto of trying to keep it simple. If you can’t get a manual system up and running, then automating it is probably foolhardy. That goes with the information as well. Right now, our information flow isn’t as fast as we’d like it, but we’re working at trying to get real-time visual in front of the people who need the information. We tried about 10 years ago to use off-the-shelf systems that were custom-designed for our industry but not for our business model so they ended up failing. At the moment we’re working on some of our own software with our IT providers. They’re developing the customizing so that we keep it to only the information that is really required.

IT Focus: What do you mean by that?

Holmes: We’re trying to provide information for people to make decisions at the time and place they need to make the decisions, rather than [provide] a bunch of historical data. That’s all going to be available, but worrying about what happened yesterday doesn’t get product to the customer tomorrow. A lot of the systems that are built, and I even see it with the systems we have, are that people get into thinking – ‘oh good, I can find out what happened about this and what happened about that.’ If it is something that is severe and could repeat, then we need to go back and find out what happened, but I don’t want to pay people to review reports of what happened yesterday. I want them to look at what has to happen later today and enable that to happen. So what we’re looking for is current future status, not what was. We want to know what is and what will be, not what was, in terms of the actual manufacturing information. Obviously we have to know what was for the accounting.

IT Focus: How are you going about achieving that?

Holmes: Training and custom software.

IT Focus: And that’s because your situation is somewhat unique?

Holmes: I wouldn’t say it is unique. We think we can get the bang for our dollar by doing it. We can keep the interfaces to history to an absolute minimum number of people in the organization where they can track it down if they really need to.

The information isn’t the product for us; it’s a tool. You see a lot of places where the information becomes the product for maybe 30 or 40 per cent of the workforce and it’s not value-added from the customers’ perspective. If we can come up with parts of it that are value-added for the customer, then God bless and we’ll put a lot more energy into it. Other than that, what I’m looking at is what impacts adding value.

IT Focus: That adding-value information would be orders, material supplies, for example?

Holmes: Yes and: how are things functioning right now? Where am I at on this? Is my production rate accurate? Are my first-pass yields at a tolerable level?

It’s the issue of stopping a line that’s not functioning properly – getting information to people right away that there’s a problem here that needs attention. So rather than have someone on the manufacturing floor looking up to see status of an order, I have an output that tells someone that this order is nearly finished and is going to need a changeover. I have something saying ‘too many of these parts aren’t good; I need attention; I need to be stopped and fixed.’

We’re a relatively simple one-step process for the most part. We use value-added at source and we want to make sure that things are flowing. Basically we want to know right now if there’s a trend where things are starting to deteriorate so we can put the proper technical resource on to solve it before we get a part that’s no good.

IT Focus: Getting back to the October conference in Toronto, what impressed you or seemed most helpful or relevant?

Holmes: I would say the focus on knowing what we needed to do; kind of a reinforcement that it is real easy to lose the game if you start changing for change’s sake. You have to understand what your changes are and how to document those and make sure you can hold the improvements that you made. In certain technology areas you have to be careful how you sell what you’re doing because it will get misunderstood and resisted in some groups – particularly in the Six Sigma/lean interaction. I found the conference clarified that for me dramatically.

IT Focus: Can you clarify it for others in a nutshell?

Holmes: Six Sigma is almost a component of lean. When they talk about the seven major wastes they try to eliminate with lean, there is a lot of emphasis put on things like travel and some other things. I think it comes back to knowing your business. The waste of poor quality is the thing that Six Sigma can really capture. Because it is a process issue, discipline in the Six Sigma can help you in the change management. It can help you ensure that you plan what you’re going to do rather than just do it so you get real meaningful gains and you can sustain them easier.

Six Sigma without lean will get you some gains but you probably aren’t going to take advantage of your extra capacity very well. Lean without Six Sigma is probably like running in a circle – part of the time you’re going forward and part of the time you’re going backward.

IT Focus: What are some of the challenges at Columbia Plastics?

Holmes: During the last two sets of owners [since 1954], the thought processes were very lean anyhow so the implementation hasn’t been that difficult. It has been more dealing with some of the customer expectations from some of the larger companies and trying to deliver the services without adding the overhead. It was dramatically easier in the 70s because when customers’ engineers came in they ooh’d and aw’d at what they saw. By the early 90s, they were coming in and telling me that ‘you should be doing your business differently.’

What I want to try to do is make sure I understand clearly what the customer wants and try to deliver it. Most of the confusion these days is because there isn’t necessarily a clear expectation of the customer’s desires. Either there’s way too much detail being dealt with that’s not important or there’s not enough to make sure that the expectations are being met. Those are what I find are the biggest challenges.

IT Focus: So does IT get in the way or help out with any of that?

Holmes: It depends on the customer and supplier. I would say on the overall it helps. Where IT hinders is that it is too easy to over-specify umpteen things. For a while I think a lot of manufacturers had too much information that was too easy to spread to too many people and they didn’t really get it. It was a waste of over-processing. I think that has settled a lot. The tools are better and the experience is better.

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