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Innovation What North American Manufacturers Can Learn from the Japanese

A few days ago, I was talking with a friend of mine who works at a subsidiary of a well-known Asian car company. My friend’s employer manufacturers components for their vehicles, and sends those parts to Japan to become part of the assembly line. My friend and I have known each other for over thirty years, and since we’ve been in the manufacturing industry just as long, it goes without saying that we always have lots of stories to tell each other. We talk about a lot of things in our industry, but on this particular day, we were talking about downtime. 

The definition of downtime in manufacturing is, of course, when a piece of equipment or an entire factory is not producing items because something has broken down. The topic came up because my friend read my last few posts about maintenance and it prompted him to tell me a story that illustrates how seriously some companies consider downtime, and what they do about it.

My friend began telling me his story. He was at work, having a conversation with a colleague, near the Plant Director’s office in their factory’s open-concept front office. As he and his colleague were talking, he could see the fax machine (yes, this was the 80s) in the Plant Director’s office suddenly spark to life through the large window. Three simple words came out of the fax machine, printed large enough for people all around the glass office to see. It read, “LINE STOP JAPAN.”

The Plant Director’s face instantly went pale. The entire front office went very quiet, and no one said anything for what felt like a very long time. This was bad. The Plant Director sprung into action and within fifteen minutes, had a team together and was heading to the airport on the next flight out to Japan, not even stopping to grab suitcases.

The reason the order was given to stop the line was because one of the assembly line robots grabbed one of my friend’s company’s parts and tried to put it in the car being manufactured. The part didn’t fit. Since it didn’t fit, the line could not continue. These kind of factories are fully automated and finely tuned. Even the smallest hiccup will shut the entire process down. A shutdown can result in thousands of dollars lost per second of downtime. That cost can really add up quickly.

For car assembly lines, “line stops” are not tolerated and can lead to the termination of one’s career, or business partnership, with that car company. The best efforts are made every day to make sure a line stop never happens. This is achieved by performing proper maintenance, proper meaning preventative maintenance that is done on time and done right. There are never any excuses!

In the case of my friend’s story, the company tracked down the issue to one particular shift where an incorrect tool was used to manufacture the parts. The employee on shift had run out of the right one, so substituted another that they thought would work fine. My friend’s employer immediately instituted policies to keep this from happening again.

It’s very unfortunate that many other industries do not take downtime as seriously as car assembly plants do. It seems that instead of a zero tolerance approach, many companies see downtime as acceptable, and even sometimes inevitable.

It really comes down to maintenance. Downtime is the end result of a pattern of improper maintenance. Companies saving small amounts of money by not doing maintenance can count on losing huge amounts later on from downtime – it’s that simple. Downtime doesn’t just add up in lost productivity, it can also negatively impact your customer relationships by causing late deliveries or sub-par components.

It’s time for the manufacturing industry as a whole to start thinking very seriously about preventing downtime. If it’s not acceptable in the car industry, it should not be acceptable in ours.

It’s time to do something now, before your next machine breaks down. 

Do you agree that downtime should be treated with the same severity in our industry as it is in car assembly plants? Should machine shops, mills and other manufacturers make line stops inexcusable and unacceptable?