Diving into Data: A Lean Six Sigma Journey

Tags: Green Logistics, Supply Chain Management, Manufacturing, Logistics

Six Sigma helps electronic products company Jabil run like a lean, green manufacturing machine.

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Supply chain has welcomed big data with open arms. Collecting information and crunching numbers have always been cornerstones of transportation and logistics optimization. Greater emphasis on data creates a constant stream of inquiries, which feeds the continuous improvement churn.

Consider how today's smartphones gather information, assess and validate importance, then alert users with a beep—all in at moment's notice. The way people and businesses share and communicate information is revolutionizing the supply chain, from manufacturer to consumer. It's creating new platforms for deep dive analysis.

The big data revolution is breathing new life into Lean principles and Six Sigma standards. In effect, it provides back-door entry into a data-rich realm of reasoning that can unlock infinite efficiencies and savings when approached in the right way.

But the sheer scope and breadth of data management across global supply chains also presents some obvious hurdles. Gathering and harmonizing information is one thing. Taking this data and using it to develop, test, validate, and share best practices across 90 different facilities in 23 countries is no small task.

Such is the challenge that Jabil faces. The St. Petersburg, Fla.-based electronic products company provides comprehensive services from electronics design and manufacturing to supply chain. It serves a host of industries including automotive, aerospace and defense, telecommunications, healthcare, and consumer lifestyle.

The company has been on a Lean journey for the past five years. Recently, Jabil initiated a manufacturing process optimization program at its Shanghai, China, facility to showcase how lean manufacturing can reduce costs, save time, and improve worker efficiency and morale.

Walter Garvin, vice president, Lean Six Sigma at Jabil's Shanghai plant, and some of the facility's team members (see sidebar below) offer a behind-the-scenes perspective on the company's Lean transformation, diving into the differences between Lean and Six Sigma, and illuminating the importance of human engagement in continuous improvement strategies.

Kaizen, or continuous improvement, is at the core of any lean manufacturing transformation. Although traditionally targeted at manufacturing processes, it can also extend to other areas of the enterprise including supply chain and even administrative offices.

Jabil's 16-month manufacturing optimization project included 700 individual employees working across nine different departments, providing exposure to a wide range of tasks and procedures—often through direct observation of other work processes. This cross-functional approach showed employees what their peers do every day, creating a richer understanding of their social work environment.

Lean and Six Sigma are often used interchangeably—or paired together. How do you differentiate between these two standards?

It's interesting because many companies say they are Lean, but start talking Six Sigma language. It makes me wonder how much they understand it.

About five years ago, Jabil made a conscious decision that it wanted to be a lean company and focus on opportunities that stretched across the entire enterprise. Lean is the best way to do that because it's about removing waste, and viewing value through the eyes of the customer. Therefore, it improves flow and provides greater opportunity to get closer to the customer.

Six Sigma can help facilitate that as well. It can solve extraordinarily complex problems and issues. But it may or may not be focused on things that add value to the customer. In other words, it may not improve process flow.

That's what differentiates Lean from Six Sigma. The textbook difference is Lean is about improving flow and eliminating waste. Six Sigma is about reducing variation. They're both valuable.

Six Sigma should be applied to support the Lean program. Sometimes that detail is lost on people. If you view everything in terms of value stream management, you'll work on Six Sigma-type projects that inhibit flow.

What role does big data play in pushing Lean Six Sigma initiatives?

in today's environment, we are data rich, but we don't do a great job with those analytics. I'm excited about the focus around big data and analytics at the academic level, and its progression within the industry. The information collected, and evolution of technology over the past few decades, presents a huge opportunity. It can help us home in on probing questions that can be easily analyzed.

Does Jabil have a structure for taking this project to another level? Not just observing, but being able to execute beyond the Shanghai plant?

We've been studying this for some time. How do you take a project or best practice—not every project is a best practice—and disseminate it across the enterprise? We've seen studies that say only five percent of organizations are successful at replicating and sharing best practices. It's not comforting to know you're in the majority for that metric.

It generally takes 27 months to share best practices across the enterprise. Invariably, roadblocks come up that inhibit this. We're trying to find the secret sauce to overcome these roadblocks.

Jabil has strived to share these projects since the inception of our Lean program. One way is through hosting an annual best practice sharing competition that generates a great deal of excitement and enthusiasm across the company. Last year, we had 952 submissions.

We also developed an in-house eKaizen project database. More than 92,000 projects were entered into the database in 2013. It's similar to big data. We have all these projects, but how do you find what you need?

As part of the eKaizen project, we're developing search functionality that can filter by customer, metric, or process. We're hoping this more simplified search function will help searchers find the projects they want.

We also have site-specific best practice sharing programs, competitions, and visual communications.

Employees access the eKaizen project database via Jabil's corporate intra web?

That's right. It's additive. We don't want this database to become a graveyard of good ideas that never see the light of day again. We want to make these projects accessible so people can move forward with these best practices.

Traditionally, the project database has been used on a pull basis. If someone has a need or a problem, they can search the database for available solutions that have already been tested. We need to do more of a push on this, and get it into the sunshine. We can't do it for everyone, but we try.

What else is Jabil doing to "shine the light" on best practices across its global network?

On the horizon for 2015 is the rollout of our revised Lean maturity assessments. We go to sites and provide an assessment of where they are in their lean maturity on a number of levels. Part of that is to find, create, and share best practices that can help the site move faster toward greater maturity. This program is in its infancy, but we hope it will enhance best practice sharing.

We're also looking to create a best practice community featuring cross-functional contributors and replication champions. We're not adding staff. This is just a network of people who can help facilitate getting better projects in front of decision-makers at the plant.

This dovetails with a best practice feature added to our eKaizen internal database, which connects problem solvers with best solutions from around the world. Let's say you go into the database and find a project you find particularly effective. Much like social media, a user can rate it by providing a thumbs-up. After a certain number of thumbs-up, the project is raised to a higher level of visibility within our eKaizen database.

These are opportunities that will help us with the eKaizen effort. It has been a learning experience, and we'll keep chipping away at it.

Are there any examples where you have successfully shared best practices across the enterprise?

Yes. Just because we are trying to improve our best practice sharing doesn't mean we're devoid of them. It happens and we're excited when it does. Often the most successful examples are shepherded through because the impact is great.

Some supply chain projects that have gone well are those where we looked at adopting inventory reduction tactics. These have been replicated across multiple sites. Another example is how we've been able to develop and share different ways to improve the longevity and re-use of tools in Jabil's plastic injection molding facilities.

It's exciting when a plant discovers one of its projects is being replicated elsewhere. They've put in some sweat equity to come up with a solution. Finding out another plant has reached out, found the project or best practice, and is now applying it is highly motivating. Workers get excited their labor and effort has gone beyond their own facility and is being recognized elsewhere.

Beyond the manufacturing optimization project at the Shanghai plant, are you proactively cross-training employees in different areas of the business?

We don't have a specific cross-training program in place right now, but we certainly encourage cross-training. We don't currently have a structure in place to uproot people and move them around in jobs.

Lean events, whether in supply chain or on the manufacturing floor, facilitate cross-functional teams coming together to solve a problem. Lean generally touches many different groups. As a consequence, employees get exposure to the entire breadth of that value stream.n

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