Friday, November 25, 2011

Space, Time and Effort Management (STEM): A Paradigm for Resource and Performance Optimization

Maximization of performance is a goal avidly pursued by administrators, leaders and managers. Eventually, they discover that maximization tends to bring in other costs that erode the apparent benefits of resource utilization and performance maximization. For example, addictive workaholic behavior without any life balance dimineshes a person's energy levels eventually. All-night studies sap the energy and creativity of aspiring students. Pursuit of revenue maximization per se at any cost has landed many corporations suffer in terms of profitability and even quality. Clearly, unidirectional pursuit of singular objectives in today's multidimensional world leads to suboptimal results.

The world has occasionally discovered, but also has consistently sought to ignore, from time to time, that the earth's resources are finite. Building high for more dwelling accommodation per unit area has been as unhelpful as drilling deep for more massive fuels per unit of industrial and social activity. While concepts such as carbon credits and green building have helped focus attention on newer avenues of conservation, the world continues to splurge money and exploit resources. As a result, several campaigns have been launched by several corporations to confirm their sustainability standing. However, we need to incorporate the essentials of meaningful conservation and true optimization, both as bottom-up and top-down approaches.

Base, apex

The base of conservation lies in an understanding of the principle of finiteness. Expansion of wants and desires from the very young age characterizes a madly consumption society. While consumption is necessary to expand economic activity and drive growth, extravagance and waste are wholly deleterious to the society, diverting scarce resources to redundant production and consumption. The principle of "one need-one item" was the basis of a frugal society of the past. While it would be anachronistic to expect a slip-back to caveman days, there is clearly a need to avoid "buffet spread" culture that seems to dominate all activities and across all sections of the society. Potentially, it would commence from the very early schooling days with lean backpacks but with weighty knowledge.

The leadership pendulum swings between enviable and unenviable positions. In good times, the leadership has the luxury of high living to attract talent while in bad times it squeezes itself and the organization dry. In some cases, leadership focuses on visible cost reductions but ignores the relevance of strategic value additions and plays down the impact of invisible time and effort losses. Responsible leadership views space, time and energy in a stable fashion, in good times as well as difficult times. Large airlines like Kingfisher would not have faced the current crisis had the leadership been appreciative of the fundamental drivers of competitiveness in the volatile airlines industry.

Pull to optimize

The success of the famous Toyota Production System in particular, and the Japanese National System in general, is based on conservation. Compact buildings, single column flyovers, underground cities, over-the-ground bullet trains, avoidance of car transportation in weekdays characterize the national space management ethos. Night time construction, upgrade of machinery, pull-type demand and production planning, just-in-time deliveries and stocking, low inter-machine spacing, multi-level layouts typify wise use of space, time and effort. Interestingly, the Japanese system teaches us that if we plan our space prudently, we will automatically be enabling an optimal use of our time and effort.

To be able to effectively utilize the pull system, several hackneyed concepts such as large shells for future growth, build to inventory, stock to saturate, produce to drive share, and high work-in-process need to be jettisoned. The financial cost of profligacy in industrial infrastructure strikes at the very roots of industrial competitiveness. There may not be one-glove-fits-all solution though. In some cases, vertical planning of space would be ideal while in other cases horizontal expansion could be the solution. To be able to achieve optimal results, however, optimal planning of space, time and effort would need to be the foundation of all industrial and service design.

Conserve more, utilize more

There are essentially two options of space conservation; either compress the space to match optimal utility or expand the space available to generate optimal value. The tablet computer is a great example of the note book computer real estate being cut by half without affecting the functionality. As an extension, if the note book computer has to be better utilized in the space department, at the minimum three displays can be incorporated; the frontal large screening and the base key pad could have two small screens on either side of the touch pad. Or, the bottom base can also be converted into a touch display cum querty screen. Even automobile makers are now rethinking their design paradigms, combining compactness with luxury features. The latest advertisement of Audi, famous for its large, luxury cars, extols the virtues of smallness stating that small spaces need big thinking!

At the core of conservation lies the strategic thinking on the needs. Apple has demonstrated how few models with minimalist designs could achieve market dominance which multiple models with extravagant designs were not able to achieve. This is not to suggest that we need to return to the days of Henry Ford's single automobile or that every product can be multi-functional like an Apple product. Beneath all the extravagance, however, lies the fallibility of chief product designers that attempts overlaying buffers and modules in a please-all effort.

'Operanomics', beyond ergonomics

Extending the example of automobile industry further, it can be seen that the Japanese simple and lean thinking has achieved massive operational flexibility without affecting production scale or productivity. In the 1970s, the popular Western concept for machining of an automobile engine was the machining centre which performed customized multiple operations on the cylinder block and cylinder head with the help of dedicated jigs and fixtures and tools, rotating the two components around vertical axes of the machining centres. This, however, meant that different machining centres had to be designed for different blocks and heads depending on the number of cylinders, bore and stroke and the external dimensions. Apart from the huge dedicated investments such approach entailed, it also made low volume production unviable.

The Japanese hit upon a simple but ingenuous idea of unit operations to tackle this issue. Under the unit operations concept, the machine tool would only do one operation, for example honing of the cylinder bore. While apparently the unit operations approach may seem to ask for more machine tools, the inherent flexibility to turn out cylinder blocks of multiple dimensions and sizes enhances the investment efficiency and competitive advantage of the unit operations approach enormously. Adopting this Japanese approach, a leading Indian automotive manufacturer could manufacture four different series of diesel engines, having wide dimensional disparity and cubic variation from 4 to 10 litre capacity, in one simple machining line.

The Japanese concepts of optimal space, time and effort usage also led to replacement of long lines of sequential machining with one operator per machine to compact horse shoe lines of unitized balanced operations with one operator manning many machines. The skill in this approach lies in splitting the total cycle into unit operations and also balancing the unitized operations to synchronize movement of the workman from machine to machine within the overall line and individual machine cycle times. Examples of other operational economics involve creation of conveyor lines and work spaces around human ergonomics, use of gravity to move parts, color clustering of parts per model, error proofing of components and assemblies, and rapid changeover of giant press tools and fixtures. In addition, the Japanese system never fights shy of stopping a line if it has problems. Here again, the Japanese have an underlying concept of space; the line problems are not to be solved in distant offices but are actually solved closest to the problem area - on the line itself!

STEM, an optimization paradigm

The fundamental building block of all engineering knowledge is the concept of space. An ability to visualize and dimension in space needs to be a virtual intuitive forte of a good engineer or a designer. Over the years, however, the dimension of space rather than the functionality of space started taking control of engineering perspectives. The Japanese society, cramped as it is for space, has given a new meaning to functionality of space. Along with optimal spatial planning came the benefits of optimizing time and effort as a virtual corollary. A well planned facility, which is compactly designed, will be a natural enabler of good ergonomics.

Spatial planning is not all about squeezing things in. Where required, as in the case of highways, roadways, transit points, ports and certain other infrastructure projects spatial planning is all about expansiveness to accommodate future throughput and sustain productivity. It is also about holistic spatial development of core residential or business districts with all amenities and support services built in. USA is a great example of expansive, futuristic spatial development triggering and sustaining orderly growth for decades. The aim of spatial planning must be to optimize transaction times and costs through accessibility.

In order to give a fillip to such thinking, architecture needs to be incorporated as a core course of all engineering curricula. Ergonomics must be expanded to encompass whole lines and facilities as opposed to limited study of optimized man-machine interfaces at individual man and machine levels. Forecasting techniques must focus not merely on demand outcomes but also on activity and churn levels. For example, malls must be designed to offer choice with contiguity, shelf space with footfall estate and display splendor with spatial optimality. Process design must integrate technical elements with ergonomic optimality and productivity efficiency. Machine tools and accessories must be developed to support versatile manufacture with rapid changeovers. Complexity of whole systems must be addressed with simplicity of unit operations.

Human engineering through STEM

Engineering must go beyond providing brilliant technical solutions. Engineering must merge the machine factor with human form and facility infrastructure with social sustainability. Emerging markets such as India and China have traditionally played on the liberal land factor to attract investments. Land, however, is finite. There are already pressures related to extravagant land allocations to developers and miniscule land utilization by them. Understanding of STEM as a paradigm would enable administrators, managers and leaders seek a balance in land allocation and usage. In a larger perspective, STEM leads to resource conservation as a guiding principle all design and development work.

Toyota Prius hybrid car is a great example of human engineering and environmental sustainability where energy and motion are mutually substitutional and synergistic. The value of such pioneering development is being emulated years later by car manufacturers such as Hyundai who swore only by fuel driven cars and debunked hybrids (see their admission while launching Sonata Hybrid car recently). Space compaction, time compression and effort saving when they happen together go beyond conservation of resources; the phenomenon leads to energy recycling. The first step to spur the thinking of young engineers and wise leaders towards sustainable resource conservation is STEM as outlined in this post.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on November 25, 2011

1 comment:

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