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Benchmarking for Changes

The starting point for improving productivity is, well, knowing where you are. If you are going to implement a new method, a new piece of software or a new piece of equipment you should plan from the beginning how you will measure the benefit brought about by the change. The term for this is "benchmarking".

In some areas it is easy to measure the current condition and determine the impact of the change.  When I was a kid, I could time how long it took to weed a row in my father's three acre garden using a new hoe (the benchmark situation) and then time a row using an old, worn down one. The worn one was quicker because it's small, sharp blade slipped through the soil.  Its the same for comparing before and after for simple operations like heat transfer. Apples and apples.

One of the hardest areas for benchmarking is in the screen print and embroidery production departments because the work itself is constantly changing with every order.  One order has a logo with 820 stitches and the next has 12,500. Or, the month of March, while using the old technique averaged 4,500 stitches per order and in April, with a new technique, averaged 6,200.  Apples and oranges. 

We run into this situation when attempting to evaluate the impact of moving from a manual, seat of the pants scheduling approach to using the EmbTrak Visual Scheduler. Several years ago, a couple of Process Engineers at a 700 head shop determined that Visual Scheduler would increase their throughput by almost 19% over their current scheduler, simply by virtue of optimizing machine assignment and order sequence. Same labor, same rates, same machines but 19% more because of scheduling. They were aided in their study by a fairly constant order mix and a lot of high quality, high priced time.  Few shops of any size have process engineers, so it is very difficult to quantify in detail the impact of such a change. 

I was looking for some way around this problem and finally called one of the men I most respect in this business.  He is an Industrial Engineer by training and runs an 800 head shop.  Years ago he taught me about embroidery production, manhour rates and all the rest. I thought if anyone can solve this riddle, it would be him.  I posed the question and he immediately gave the answer: "Stitches per day per machine."  He pointed out that average order characteristics may change from the benchmark period to the new period, but probably not by much, especially in larger shops and over longer periods of time. This principle would apply equally to screen printing or any complex process. Here's the lesson he gave:  If the data shifts or varies, then aggregate it and compare the aggregates.  If the after is not clearly better than the benchmarked before, then the change may not be worth the trouble or the cost.

Thank goodness for that 19%.                              

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