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Reduced Cycle Time = Increased Speed, Growth and Profit

What happened to speed?
The concept of speed is largely ignored when it comes to manufacturing. Speed is typically emphasized only in expediting a shipment when a crisis occurs. However, when management takes a broader view of the use of speed, amazing things can happen to both the bottom line and top line. I'd like to illustrate this point with a true story from my younger days.

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When I was 16 years old, I got a job as a cart boy at a local country club. I would bring down golf carts for the cart barn, load golf bags onto them, then later put the cart away and recharge the batteries. During quiet times, I would do minor maintenance work -- fix flat tires, fill the batteries with distilled water, etc. It wasn't a difficult job, but it kept me busy. We had >100 golf carts and there were days when all of them went out. 

The golf cart cycle-time reduction challenge
After working at the club for about a year, my boss, Lew, called me one day and told me that he had just got the golf cart contract at my course renewed for three more years. A condition of the new contract was that we had to put canopies on all the carts. However, Lew had no idea how long it would take to put one on. “Do you think you could give it a go?“ he asked. “Just put one on and maybe time yourself, then I'll know how much help you'll need to do all of them.“

“Sure,“ I said. I'd never done anything like that before but how hard could it be?

Two weeks later a small truck rolled up to the cart barn with 100 golf cart canopies -- each one boxed in cardboard. It took the driver and me almost two hours to unload the truck. It was a slow day at the golf course, so I grabbed one of the caddies to help me. I started a stopwatch and opened the first box.

The need for continuous improvement
The first canopy took the two of us four hours to install, that's eight man-hours total. The caddy did the math, and calculated that at eight hours x 100 carts we'd need 800 man-hours to put canopies on all the carts. “Maybe,“ I replied, “but it took us a while to figure out the instructions and get the tools we needed. I think we can do the next one faster. Let's try again tomorrow.“ The next day it took us two hours to install canopy number 2. Again, the caddy did the math and concluded that we would now need only 400 man-hours to put canopies on all the carts. At 40 hours a week, that would be ten weeks of labor. “That still seems like a lot,“ I told him, “I still think we can be faster. Let's try to cut the time in half again.“

The concept of speed is sometimes more important to teenagers than adults. We had a simple metric, which was time. We had the freedom to try different things and a clear goal: dramatically reduce the time it takes to install a canopy on a golf cart. 

Success is motivational 
Our success made this fun and our clear enjoyment in our task attracted others who wanted to get involved and help. Before long we had people observing us and they added their ideas to ours. One idea was to change how we timed the canopy installation. The overall 'start to finish' metric was, of course, important. Even more important was timing the individual installation steps. So, we started timing how long it took to open the box and unwrap the parts. We timed how long it took to assemble the frame and how long it took to stretch the canvas and we wrote all the times on a big chalkboard borrowed from the pro shop.

Ideas came flying in from anywhere and everywhere, “Put weights on alligator clips to stretch out the canvas top.“ “Use an air wrench to tighten the bolts.“ “Unbox and unwrap all the parts and get this out of critical path.“ “Put the top frame on top of two ladders, then bolt the supports on.“ With all these ideas and more, by the time we'd completed ten carts, we got the time down to just 20 minutes!

The caddy was delighted, “We've done ten carts, and we have the time down to 20 minutes. That's 40 man-minutes x 90 carts is 3,600 man-minutes or 60 man-hours! We can call Lew and tell him we need to hire one person for less than two weeks.“

Moving from good to great

I still thought we could go faster. We were wasting lots of time fumbling for bolts and washers and there were times when we were waiting for each other to do something. “If we work together a little better, I bet we can cut the time in half again.“ I told him.

What happened next was simply choreography. We mapped precisely where we would stand at each point of the construction process; we defined which hand would hold each part and the exact sequence of the assembly. After another ten carts were completed, we knew exactly where the other person was at each and every stage of the process and we always used a stopwatch to measure our performance.

The result

We took a process that started out taking eight hours, and shrunk that time to four minutes. Oh, and we never hired anyone. Lew called me a week after we finished all 100 carts and asked me when we were going to try putting a canopy on a cart. I told him it was all finished. Lew thanked me and hung up. 

Are your operations great?

At this point you are probably wondering what assembling golf cart canopies has to do with anything so I'll tell you...

What would happen if you could dramatically shrink your manufacturing time? Many times I hear, “That's not possible.“ Well, I submit that if a 16 year old cart boy and a caddy can shrink cycle time down by >99.7%, you can speed up your production line by at least 10%. If you could do that, wouldn't your labor costs and inventories also go down by 10% and wouldn't you get your product to the customer 10% faster to capture more market share? What if you could do 20% or even 30% faster?

Of course, you could choose to do nothing. Doing nothing is safe and easy. Doing nothing keeps the status quo. Doing nothing is what most companies do when it comes to cycle time reduction. Doing nothing won't make money, but the potential consequences are even more serious than that. What happens if and when your competitors decide to accelerate their operations? When that happens, doing nothing is actually dangerous.

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