24Flow - From a Lean and QRM inspired shop floor to an Operations Platform
24Flow is a secure operations platform, inspired and built on #lean and #qrm principles. It enables manufacturers to evolve, at their own pace, towards a scalable and future-proof company and is based on following pillars:
- Paperless factory ~ increase efficiency and shorten feedback loops.
- Connected factory ~ connect -, and give insights to teams, accounts and suppliers
- Smart factory ~ improve throughput time and delivery reliability via ‘smart’ flow controls.
- Future proof factory ~ leverage low code technology to quickly extend a secure platform with low hassle.
This article tells my journey in manufacturing operations and describes what led me to build the 24Flow solution and company together with Stijn Wijndaele. My biggest wish is that it brings you inspiration to improve your shop floor and go beyond.
The Paradox of planning
No MRP on the shop floor and certainly no APS.
This statement was made by the Plant Manager of a complex Make-To-Order factory on the eve of an SAP-implementation. At that time, I could not understand the statement and I was puzzled by the fact that the company was able to attain a good delivery reliability. As a die-hard ERP/MRP believer, I was so intrigued that I decided to apply for the job of Operations Manager in that factory and got it (actually, it was the idea of the VP Operations, he set the whole thing up).
Soon, in this new role, I learned the first and most important insight:
You cannot achieve a planning goal by rigorously following a plan consisting of sequential to-do lists. It is better to focus on adapting and reacting to events or changes in a fast, accurate and qualitative way by closely monitoring the production priorities.
A successful implementation of complex operational planning tools in a Make-To-Order environment is almost always a fata-morgana. As complexity and utilisation rise, planning becomes increasingly difficult. As a result, planning tools fail to achieve the long awaited and desired results everyone was hoping for. (interesting read here is The paradox of planning by Pascal Pollet of Sirris | Innovation forward)
Rigorous micro-planning appears to be the only solution, but it does not work for every production system. It is especially not well suited for High Mix, Low Volume production environments which are characterised by high variability. But what is suited? The answer is many-fold and the problem is not solved by software only.
As time flew by, I realised that to achieve a better delivery reliability, creating visibility on the shop floor is a crucial element.
Visibility on the shop floor
Smaller batch sizes, supermarkets, KANBAN, POLCA, CONWIP … are some of the ‘physical’ solutions available in the Lean – & QRM toolboxes. In many cases you can only assess and understand the impact of these techniques once you see them in action. The reality of the shop floor can tell you 1000 times more about the actual status of a production order than the ERP ‘truth’. It is incredible what can be achieved by applying such ‘physical’ innovative’ measures.
Despite the fact that the company had undergone a positive evolution based on the above solutions, people kept on complaining about problems with timely internal delivery of sub-assemblies and the fact that hands-on guidance and supervision of the production workflow was still required. These were indicators that physical innovations had reached their limits, But also, and more important, that throughput times and delivery reliability could further be boosted by enhancing the visibility on the shop floor. There is always room for improvement.
As a result, we envisioned that digital technology could bring this additional visibility to the shop floor and enable faster and better decisions by a people empowered shop floor, without management intervention or escalation.
Decisions on the shop floor
What a fool …
Many times, people frowned when I communicated the production planning to them and most certainly thought ‘What a fool’. The frustration was legitimate as operational planning was still largely based on the ERP system while production teams relied on their experience and their visibility on the shop floor reality. The only thing these teams lacked was an accurate view on promised delivery dates and future workloads. This got us thinking about what the effect could be on throughput times if these teams have access to these parameters, were able to take decisions independently, assess the impact and take action while only informing ‘the management’ in case of exceptions?
We decided to change the way of working: Responsibilities were assigned as low as possible in the organisation, replacing top-down planning by management. The combination of physical improvements and digital tools created a powerful mechanism to achieve this goal. Three fundamental steps were taken:
- First, the release list of sub-assemblies was made available to the teams. As an immediate effect, cooperation between teams improved and we achieved a better mutual understanding when priorities changed.
- A second aspect was the introduction of digital work orders. This significantly shortened the feedback loops and provided real-time information to take more conscious preventive and corrective actions.
- These digital work orders were the foundation of our third and final step: give teams the insights into the impact of decisions. We introduced a three color system (green/orange/red indicators on a calendar) that indicated when we potentially got off track. Consider this as an order pool management system where instead of enforcing decisions, the system informs about the current situation and the potential impact of decisions.
These three fundamental steps improved the peace-of-mind on the shop floor and led to improved throughput times. We already envisioned the next ambitious step, a self-steering system, but still lacked an important component: a culture of continuous improvement. We gained this insight as an unexpected side aspect of the digitisation process.
A Self-steering ‘open-connected’ shop floor
Happy and ready for every change
The fast feedback loops and the visibility on (future) work created some unexpected, but positive effects. People started to plan overwork proactively. As a consequence, they could better align their work with their personal lives, which in turn motivated them to embrace other improvements as well. People started to proactively suggest changes, something that previously was the exclusive responsibility of management. This was proven by an outspoken operator who made the statement above in a newspaper article. We were blown away by this, it made us very proud.
The teams were motivated more than ever before but we lacked a framework that empowered people to make a positive contribution to the organisation. Again lean- and QRM techniques came to the rescue.
- As a first step, we introduced an improvement management system to track problems/ideas and most important: block time to work on improvements.
- As a second step, we expanded the digital work order with flexible, context-based process registrations. By measuring time spent, the problems/ideas were now supported by data.
- The third step was crucial: we opened the shop floor to the complete value chain. Internally, we kicked off with sales administration and subsequently onboarded sales, then procurement and last but not least product development. Later on, we also extended the scope towards suppliers and customers.
The fast feedback loops and visibility on the work ahead were conceived as true added value to these non-production teams. Sales administration saved time because it could avoid calls to the production manager, account managers (and eventually customers) could track the status of orders in the Salesforce CRM system and engineering had a better view on prototypes and NPI’s (new product introductions).
The shop floor was now ‘open’ and on its way to become self-steering. Is that eventually achievable? I truly don’t know; what I do know is that the path we have taken was very fruitful and most interesting. Our efforts also created external visibility and were awarded with the label ‘Factory of the future’ by Agoria. This was quite an honour and also helped to show (management) that Manufacturing activities in high-wage countries can be competitive.
24Flow – Future proof operations platform for the shop floor
Affordable, Scalable, upgradeable and secure.
The digital methods and tools described previously may be considered as too expensive when seen as one monolithic big project. While such a trajectory can also fail due to inflexibility, inadequate security and foremost – lack of scalability of IT systems (and the wrong conception that the ERP system can play the role of a shop floor operations platform).
The disinformation, the slow progress within the manufacturing industry and the lack of flexible software solutions led me to the idea to start 24Flow as a software company.
Mid-sized companies often have the same needs as multi-nationals, but not the same financial means. Imagine what you could achieve if you can support your production system in a responsive, affordable, scalable, controlled and secure fashion with digital tools and open up the visibility on the shop floor within the company and towards the outside world. Sounds costly and impossible but 24Flow is an operations platform created to exactly meet those needs.
24Flow has its origins and will evolve along the insights that were discussed previously: As a result, its DNA will always have following principles:
- No detailed MRP on the shop floor.
- Enable increased visibility on the shop floor.
- Empower people, teams and organisations to make decisions on the shop floor.
- Towards a self-steering ‘open’ and connected shop floor.
We are proud that 24Flow is a secure, enterprise grade operations platform, inspired by Lean and QRM best practices. It strengthens production systems, makes them more resilient and future proof.
Don’t hesitate to contact me to learn more or visit 24Flow.eu.