If you operate a business in the made-to-order, small batch world then you face a set of challenges that simply comes with the territory. Whether you’re making cookies, candles or custom circuit boards, by relentlessly improving the following important elements, you can significantly distance yourself from your competitors. They sound obvious – but to sustain an ongoing competitive advantage, they must be approached consciously with a fresh, questioning mindset.
1. Highly flexible people and equipment The first time one of your teammates can’t or won’t help move a job forward in your operation, you begin to lose business, money, or both. I’m not saying that everyone must be able to do everything. But cross-training in job shop environments is more of a way-of-life than just the healthy thing to do.
Experts – who are proud of what they already know – must be driven from your midst. Job shops thrive when the work gets done fast, right, the first time, by whoever is around, and without consulting the org chart.
When it comes to buying equipment, finding machinery that tackles a variety of products and batch sizes is ideal. Always be on the lookout for equipment that allows you to do more different things quickly. At least if you have a piece of equipment that does only one thing, you can shut it off – which is something you can’t do with an inflexible person!
2. Fast, hassle-free product changeovers Your competitors want to “save on set-up time” which will lead them to gang their jobs together into longer, more efficient runs. But this is actually the opposite of solving the job shop problem. What you really must do is to make each product changeover as simple and pain-free as possible. This gives you the freedom to do both short and long runs equally economically.
Think of it this way: If you are ganging orders to avoid product changeovers then you are deciding to live with the constraint of time-consuming, costly changeovers!
3. Highly dynamic scheduling systems Does your scheduler get bothered by expedite requests? Do people complain of messing up a perfectly good schedule? These are indications that, once again, constraints abound in your shop. With fewer restrictions, you could reshuffle your deck of jobs/orders easily and often. Stay close to your scheduler. When he says “if only I didn’t have to worry about…”, then make that issue go away. Then do it again. One by one your major shop constraints will disappear.
4. Prevention of residual inventories If there are leftover materials when a custom home is built, the new homeowner gets them… because she paid for them. A half a skid of roofing tiles, extra paint, etc. But many job shops miss this. They hold onto residual inventory in the hopes of selling it later. Usually it ends up underfoot, damaged or spoiled, and eventually written off, thereby overstating the profitability of the initial job. Prevent this residual inventory or charge for it; don’t kid yourself and keep it.
Whether you are building small batches of custom circuit boards or just about anything else, when you continually improve these fundamentals you will gain more control over the naturally hectic world of the make-to-order environment! For more small batch tips, take a look at Part One of my "Partnering with a Small Batch Job Shop" YouTube Series.
Bruce Hendrick has successfully run job shops in the pressure sensitive adhesives, ceramic tile, and custom circuit boards industries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org