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The New World of Data

As I was watching a documentary on the Christopher Columbus expedition to the New World, it occurred to me just how audacious he and other early explorers really were. Imagine setting off into the unknown with only your experience and wits about you . . . and, perhaps, some technology.

In fact, whether it was Columbus sailing for the East Indies and landing in the Americas, Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigating the globe, Sir Edmund Hillary scaling Mount Everest, or even Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, they all relied on the technology of the day to aid in their quests to be the first to achieve their own unique and daring goals. Incredibly and against sizeable odds, each were able to make discoveries still celebrated today, and technology played a significant role in every journey.

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From Guessing to Measuring: Relating Physics to Your Factory

Recently, I came across a best-selling book on the history of physics and was intrigued by the many stories of discovery over the centuries, but equally interested in the challenges of what we have yet to understand. In the 4 th century B.C., ancient Greek philosopher Democritus postulated that the world is made up of atoms, particles too small to be seen, which are the building blocks of all matter. The next 2,300 years were filled with competing ideas about the nature of the universe, but it wasn’t until the 20 th century that this “Atomic Theory” was finally confirmed.

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Next Player Up

Another NFL season football has come and gone, and the big game did not disappoint. It was a game for the ages, among the most entertaining in our modern football era. However, I considered turning the game off after halftime as Atlanta appeared to be coasting to victory. Fortunately, I was steadfast and told myself to just watch one more series after another, hoping it would get better, until it became not only interesting, but captivating.

As I reflect back on the game and season, I am struck by several observations that are relevant to all of us who are focused on operating our businesses and positively affecting our areas of responsibility. Like in football where you strive to outscore your opponent, we are all laser focused on improving our bottom lines. How do we transform raw ingredients into the highest quality finished goods with less overhead, optimal material, and labor costs all the while maximizing the usage of our assets in the process? We not only have to compete with others in the open market, we have to continuously improve relative to our historical performance in order to position ourselves to be successful.

When I consider the reasons why the New England Patriots have been so dominant over the last decade, I am left with one conclusion. While the easiest assumption would be to attribute their success to having arguably the best quarterback to have ever played the game, I prefer to think it is more fundamental than simply one player. Like any organization, football is a team sport. While you need quality players, perhaps even a few stars, you need everyone working together as a unit, towards one goal: winning championships.

Legendary Green Bay Packers Coach, Vince Lombardi once said, “The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual.” Today’s successful teams preach a message of next player up, focusing on the philosophy that success is not solely about an individual, that it is really the team that is fundamental to winning. Players get injured, others are lost to free agency; however, the winning teams seem to doggedly focus on the process of developing, training, and maximizing the talents of each of their individual players to perform as a team. When unfavorable personnel events happen, these teams are positioned to continue winning in spite of the personnel challenges.

As in football, we often lose our “players” for one reason or another, and we must guard against losing the momentum we have worked so hard to achieve. Each successful organization has a goal and vision of where they want to be at the end of each quarter, each year, or even five years. A team approach is critical in meeting the challenges along the way. When an organization faces the inevitable turnover of seasoned workers, it must guard against losing its ability to compete and win. It really is next man up.

As you focus on equipping your team on driving the results that define wining for your organization, please keep in mind that you have a partner in Aptean. Factory MES is a powerful tool, providing the essential real time metrics needed to make intelligent decisions to improve your operational activities; however, due to turnover, your team may be faced with a gap in proficiency with the system. We want to work together with you to help you achieve your goals, and be best prepared when it becomes time to rely on the next man up, we want to help with any training needs you may have. Please reach out to us and we will work together to develop and deliver training that is specific and tailored to your needs. 

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Fun with Flags

In a recent interview, famed fantasy writer George R.R. Martin discussed how flags were a large part of developing such a creative mind at such an early age. Martin tells the story of growing up in New Jersey overlooking Manhattan and watching ships sail in and out of the harbor from all across the globe. He would look at the flags flying high atop these ships and craft stories about the peoples and lands from where they came. The author marveled at how something as simple as flags can convey so much information and create such a level of curiosity.

In our post today, we will draw comparisons between flags and a means of succinctly conveying information in our businesses today. What does a flag really do? What is its purpose? I would argue that flags are used to communicate information about nations and organizations in as simple a way as possible while remaining easily identifiable. Flags primarily use colors and shapes and, at their very best, are immediately recognizable. Take the flags of the USA, UK or Germany as examples. These would likely be recognized by the majority of the world’s population, and all done with just the use of colors and shapes.

So what does this have to do with us as we are busy running our businesses? Isn’t there something that you use daily, or perhaps many times throughout the day that is essential to communicating information in its simplest form? How about Dashboards? Are you getting the most out of yours?

Dashboards exist to provide an organization with a means of conveying data to their audience. But what are the elements of really effective ones? Let’s consider these four essential elements as we consider how to make best use of this tool to better improve our operational performance. Dashboards should be:

  • Aligned to goals
  • Visual in nature
  • Readily accessible
  • Relevant

A good dashboard should be aligned to your organizational goals. Think of what is on your dashboard as prime real estate. Only the essential information should be included here so you don’t risk anyone tuning out due to a busy screen that they have to parse through to understand. This is your means of conveying key metrics that you want to communicate to your teams, so keep it simple and direct. This will also provide you with a means of aligning your team to your objectives as everybody will be looking at the same things and clearly understand what is important to their organization.

Dashboards should also be visual in nature. Consider the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. You want the viewer to immediately understand what is being represented and equipped to take action without having to ponder about the content on the screen. Try to use as many charts and graphs as possible and make sure to use colors to identify important elements of the data. The key here is to make certain the information is understood clearly and immediately.

Another important element of an effective dashboard is that it is highly accessible. You want your team members to always be able to gauge how they are performing without having to seek out the information. By distributing this data effectively, it reinforces that everyone is on the same page. This allows for real time adjustments and a visual means of seeing the effect(s) of teams working together to set and achieve their goals.

The information you are distributing on your dashboards should be relevant. It should be refreshed frequently or be precisely the data that you want to communicate to drive action (last shift, last product run, last week, last month, last quarter, etc.)  Be mindful to continuously review what you are distributing with your dashboards to ensure it is exactly what you want to communicate, or you run the risk of losing employee engagement.

I hope you like my idea of dashboards being flag for your organization. Everyone should immediately understand what it is being communicated and operate as a team under one banner. I strongly believe in their ability to drive excellence in your organizations if utilized effectively.

If you would like to discuss how to improve your dashboard, please reach out to me or your account executive to discuss how Aptean can work with you to make your dashboard a key element in delivering results for your organization. 

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See the Forest Because of the Trees

A woodsman was asked, “What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?” He answered, “I would spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.” The first time I heard this statement, I recall thinking how profound it was. While it effectively communicates the power and importance of preparation, upon reflection I feel like the message is inherently flawed. When viewed through the lens of continuous improvement, I think about all the potential that may exist if he acted differently, if he acted intelligently.

For our purpose, let’s imagine that the woodsman not only has to chop down one tree, but an entire forest. This scenario would apply the message to many of our challenges we face today, as we are tasked with operating efficiently, making decisions, and taking action to improve our bottom line. What if the woodsman arrived at the forest with an already sharpened axe? What if he purchased a technically superior axe that only requires sharpening every 10 trees? Does his axe really require two and a half minutes of sharpening to perform better than just one and a half minutes spent in preparation, or does it really even need sharpening at all to perform adequately to cut down the same tree in the five minutes?

All good questions, but what our woodsman would really benefit from is a means of measuring actual performance to determine what provides the best relative balance of return. If our woodsman was interested in cutting down more trees in less time and doing it more consistently, it would be beneficial to know exactly how long it took him to chop down a sample of trees with his axe in its current unsharpened form as a point of reference. He could then begin sharpening his axe in incremental units and compare against past performance (rate of trees felled) to identify the point of diminishing return and act intelligently to determine and deploy the best course of action (Uptime/Downtime). Isn’t this what any business process owner really wants to know: what is really happening on the shop floor before and after a change is made?

In fact, this is what Factory MES provides. In our example, I would argue that Factory would allow our woodsman to not only see the trees before him, but to actually see the forest because of the trees by providing him a means of collecting data on each individual action. This visibility would give him the competitive advantage he would need to reach, and perhaps even surpass his goals. Armed with this information, now easily at his disposal, he could not only affect change in-shift, based on trending data, he would also know where to focus his energy to improve his performance over time. Equally as important is the visibility he would now have to determine the effectiveness of how his countermeasures are affecting current performance. In effect, using Factory-derived data, he would now act and react intelligently rather than just chopping away.

It’s this uncertainty that we all want to bring to light.  We all want to do what we do more efficiently. With Factory MES, we have a powerful tool to meet the challenge as it is specifically designed to provide reliable and relevant data to give you that competitive advantage. Next week we will take a look at Dashboards, their purpose and best use in driving performance on your shop floor.  

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Hammers Only See Nails

We have all heard anecdotes of the handyman whose only tool is a hammer and perhaps a roll of duct tape; some have even witnessed his work firsthand. While it may be possible to fix a leaking roof or patch a fence so equipped, I think it is apparent that the handyman will be quite limited in his scope of projects, and the quality of his work is questionable. The reality is that many businesses continue to operate like our handyman, by using the same approach and resources to tackle whatever problem arises.

Noted psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." Now consider how you might approach individual challenges if you had at your disposal the precise tools to handle the task at hand. More importantly, imagine if you had the right tool and the expertise to wield it. Rather than seeing every problem as a nail, you would likely approach each challenge very differently, have increased energy and a renewed attitude to get the job done. Perhaps, you would even take on some of those challenges that were before so big and daunting, that these game changing improvements now become not possibilities, but reality.

In today’s business world, we are challenged to continually improve or be passed by. New methods and different, more precise ways of achieving excellence and eliminating uncertainty are now the norm. In the previous post, we touched on taking small steps and embracing a culture of experimentation as a means of driving your organization towards its targets, but what do you need to breakthrough and consistently outperform the competition?

The simple answer is that you need tools; not just a hammer and tape, but the right tools at the right time, and the knowledge of how and when to use them. What you really need is operational visibility in real-time and a means of analysis to determine the effectiveness of your actions and countermeasures. All businesses have to make real-time decisions to affect operational activity in the moment: in shift, during a product run or while getting a down-time issue resolved. In order to effectively change, set, and realize targets, you also have to reflect and determine the root causes responsible for the challenges you are facing and determine informed courses of action to close the gaps.

Not all businesses have the visibility we mentioned above, or at least not a comprehensive, consistent and immediate source of the invaluable data that Factory MES delivers. Aptean’s purpose built application is chock full of capability out of the box and configurable to fit your specific needs. Upcoming blog posts will dive into the individual tools that are built into Factory MES and those that are complimentary of its capability. Whether it be Metrics, Reporting, QA, Problem Solving, or Coaching, the intent is to help you extract the most out the Factory actionable intelligence application and equip you with the tools to excel.

Over the coming months, let’s build complete tool boxes together and load them up with proven tools made for specific applications. Let’s discuss their functionality, capacity and when they are the best tool for the task at hand. A hammer is indeed a very effective tool, but to be competitive we need the precision that job specific tools offer. So stay tuned as we open our tool boxes, put our tool belts and discuss the best tools available to us.

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Think Small...To Deliver Big

What a strange thing it may seem to encourage someone to think small while one is in the pursuit of excellence. It does seem counterintuitive to actually think small while our culture continually impresses upon us to do the just the opposite. However, I will lay out why it often makes sense to think differently, to think in incremental terms in order to make the right changes that move you closer to your goals.

Recently, I watched an interview with Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, and what struck me was his strong belief and strategic use of experimentation across all of his organizations. He is a staunch believer that an organization must continually change in order to be excellent. Not dramatic, bet the farm types of change, but small steady steps that enable you to monitor whether the change is actually working and, if necessary, be positioned to change tack accordingly and swiftly.

These experiments are the small steady steps that many of today’s most successful companies leverage to effectively drive their change efforts. The challenge is knowing exactly what to experiment with. What are the right questions to ask? What are the correct actions to take? Luckily, there are answers to these questions if you know where to look.

It’s in the data. The Factory MES data that you collect on your operational activities is the key to informing effective real-time actions and driving successful improvement activities. Equipped with this accurate and relevant data, you are now ready to take a step or multiple forward…or simply experiment. Embracing this philosophy of experimentation has the ability to yield significant results. This mindset, coupled with structured problem solving to get to the root cause of issues and to develop, deploy, and analyze countermeasures, equips one with a strong set of tools to achieve the big things they are after.

While the reality is that occasionally these experiments do not yield the desired results, you ultimately gain the knowledge of what doesn’t work, further reducing uncertainty and leaving you one step closer to what actually does. By taking small measured steps, you steadily move forward, even with an occasional setback…indeed a continuous process towards excellence. The idea is to have your eye always on your organizational true north, to keep you aligned with your vision while climbing the ladder upward rung by rung.

In order to achieve your targets, a change from your present state must take place. The competition is changing and industries are evolving in search of more efficient and cost effective ways of getting things done. The choice is to accept the status quo and risk getting passed by, to change using risky uninformed actions based on intuition or emotion, or to take steady measured steps that are based on actual data. Think small and deliver big by using your Factory MES data to inform your actions and create a culture of success. 

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