7 tips how to meet scheduling targets in a high-mix low-volume shop

    Elmar Karlowitsch
    July 29, 2019
    Read the ultimate guide to job shop scheduling >>

    The vast majority of all manufacturing companies worldwide are small and medium-sized businesses (SMB). E.g. according to NAM, more than 98% of all American manufacturers have less than 500 employees. As a lot of these small companies master its technical challenges pretty well they steadily grow, or they even become "hidden champions".

    At tipping point to grow most job shop manufacturers, by experience, come to the conclusion that scheduling with Excel (or any other homegrown system) does not make any sense anymore. They see the need to take scheduling to the next level. When they do not act fast on this insight and when their customers continue to request more and more deliveries, improper scheduling even prevents these companies from further growth. Reason is: they fully lose their insight of what is going on at the shop-floor, they fully drain off their scheduling targets and lose the ability to make reliable deliver time commitments.

    Reaching this point – and many SMBs out there do – running an appropriate scheduling tool becomes crucial. Concerning the scheduling targets there is pretty much unity as more than 95% state: "reliable delivery commitments", "maximization of throughput", and "optimization of capacity utilization".

    Searching Direction_AdobeStock_87366413-minAs outlined in our ultimate guide to visual job shop scheduling, so many job shops start to evaluate the market of scheduling tools and make the mistake to only look for – what in their eyes – has a 100% "optimizing" fit with the long list of all their requirements. Mostly these requirements are fully feature-driven and not target-driven. This often leads to the doubtful decision against certain software solutions when one feature is missing.

    In this evaluation process the core target gets out of sight. In this regard, I learned that the approach of looking for an appropriate fit and not insisting on optimizing the fit is the right path to follow. What does appropriate mean in this sense? Appropriate means the ability to match the scheduling situation and to deal with the circumstances of a high mix low volume business. This can be boiled down to following findings for the phase of software selection.

    Phase of selection: "appropriate but not optimizing fit"

    #1 Dealing with high volatility

    Job shops are determined by high volatility. This is expressed by ongoing and unforeseeable incidents that steadily impact the schedule. Hence in such an environment planning data never is exact. Even though some scheduling software vendors might not want to hear it: but the schedule NEVER is (totally) correct; at any time!

    Hence, any "optimized" schedule just leads to the believe that you will reach an optimum. But be sure, you won't in such a "chaotic" environment. So a schedule that is the result of a complex and long running optimizing procedure is not worth the time that you wait for it. Hence appropriate means in this regard: quick, practically to maintain and easy to handle in integrating new information and reschedule on the flyFurthermore, appropriate means to consciously accept not to strive for an "optimized" schedule as a consequence of the high volatility.

    #2 Effective

    Effective_AdobeStock_192359955-compressor-minEven though a complex optimizing algorithm is not bringing benefit you need an effective automatic planning logic that helps you to productively operate your schedule. As most job shops face more than 1,000 tasks to schedule at a time, a project-centric planning board that provides some drag and drop logic only won't be appropriate.

    Hence you need an easy-to-understand scheduling logic that always considers your finite manufacturing resources and automatically avoids any capacity conflicts. Not cleverly seized planning logic will force you to "play Tetris for experts" with every need to reschedule, which is and will be the daily challenge.

    Hence: effective is an automatic logic that results in adequately accuracy. When you are able to give reliable delivery commitments on a daily base in a high mix low volume business you are definitely on the winning side!

    #3 Visual

    To meet your scheduling targets it is essential that you understand what is happening on the shop-floor. So the key is transparency. Transparency is guaranteed when your schedule is visualized in a Gantt chart resource centric planning board that also allows interactive reactions and fine tuning (but backed by the finite capacity scheduling engine).

    #4 Affordable

    Fitness is also expressed in terms of pricing. SMBs just don't come along with a huge budget. This means: forget about any customizing. You won't be able to afford it. Hence focusing on a standard software with a good valued pricing is prerequisite. In this regard it is advantageous if the application provides a modular structure so that you can "tailor" the scope of functionality to what you really need and productively keep your price level as low as possible (just pay what you use - as is supported by state-of-the-art cloud-based applications).

    If you heed this finding during your evaluation phase you will be well equipped to find an appropriate software application that can help you to achieve the scheduling goals successfully. But don't assume that you will reach your targets "automatically" with mastering this phase of selection. Be aware: the real challenge is still pending! And this challenge is to be mastered constantly!

    The challenge I am speaking about is keeping the scheduling software operated with actual data. By experience a lot of companies invest an enormous amount of time into the evaluation process and afterwards they just fall back into their "normal" business life. This is definitely a mistake. It is a MUST that you integrate the scheduling software into your organization and into your processes. The experience I made during the phase of usage can also be boiled down to following findings:

    Phase of usage: "top management backing, clear responsibilities and routines, routines, routines"

    #5 Support of top management

    A successful integration of any software cannot be made without the support of the top management. Best is, if the management is directly involved into the revolving scheduling process. In many successful examples this is the case in the smaller sized job shops. If this is not possible then - at least – there needs to be a convinced backing and actively communicated support of the management. This implies not only the monetary costs of running a scheduling software and to budget the time of productively operating it. This also means to reward good practices and to finally intervene if any employee denies his or hers responsibilities.

    #6 Responsibilities

    Based on the support from top level there must be clearly defined responsibilities. This includes the definition of roles for all users of the scheduling software. In best case the application allows to create different roles with different user rights. Experience has shown that companies are more probable to be successful when they – at least – fore hold two core user roles:

    • 1 Chief Scheduler: This person is the person that is fully in charge in terms of scheduling. It needs to be "officially" appointed from the management and is the first contact for the management for all scheduling questions. This person needs to have a good standing within the organization and a sufficient budget to successfully operate his scheduling tasks.
    • 1 Chief Operator: This person is the person that is fully in charge in terms of providing shop-floor progress data. This person is the first contact for the chief scheduler in terms of everything that is happening on the shop-floor. The chief operator needs to have a good standing within the shop-floor organization. As the shop-floor progress data has sustained impact on the current schedule it is very important that the teamwork of chief scheduler and chief operator is running smoothly.


    #7 Routines

    When you found an appropriate software and when you mastered to define responsibilities backed by the top management then you finally have to run this in routines. That sounds trivial. But this is – by far – the most crucial factor of success.

    To clarify this in a metaphor.

    It seems that job shop owners think that they get kind of a "pill" with buying a license or paying a subscription fee for a scheduling software. They seem to expect that "the active ingredient will become effective overnight".

    Unfortunately this does not coincide with reality.

    Scheduling software is a tool that needs to be maintained permanently.

    To keep the metaphorical language:

    It is rather a dishwasher. The machine will help you to achieve your target much more productive then the manual option. But you rely on routines to operate it. There must be someone responsible to gather the dirty dishes. Another one is responsible to fill the machine. Then there must be one to select the program and to start it. Finally the clean dishes need to be put to its origin. Then the same procedure starts again and again.

    In the world of SMB manufacturers this means that the responsibilities need a clearly defined timing of what to do until when. E.g. it is the chief operator’s task to take care of providing the shop-floor progress information by end of the last shift of each day. Then it is the chief scheduler’s task to update the schedule every morning with beginning of the first shift.

    When you manage to establish the responsibilities to be permanently lived and to become a "natural" part of the daily business then you will meet your scheduling targets using any appropriate scheduling tool.

    In a nutshell, I can encourage all job shop runners that have come to the conviction that they need to bring their scheduling to the next level:

    • Stay modest within the phase of evaluation! An appropriate fit is what you need.
    • Hold on in the phase of usage! Bring scheduling into your organization and processes permanently and ongoing back it from top management level.

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