Since the publishing of early books on Theory of Constraints, the world grew more complex and the system’s constraint got more and more elusive. Globalization and extended supply chains give a constraint opportunity to settle literally anywhere in the world and extend its nature. It can be a physical transformation process in a supplier’s facility, it can be the way cargo is shipped from distant suppliers to the company, it can be the custom clearance process somewhere along the supply chain.
Walking a factory door to door may not suffice anymore to find the system’s constraint. The examples given in the part 1, 2 and 3 of this series of posts are simplified with regard to the reality of most companies.
Another complexity is brought by the growing number of requirements of standards and regulations. A company wanting to count among the aeronautical industry makers has to comply to the AS 9100 (USA) / EN 9100 (Europe) / JISQ 9100 (Asia) standard. For the automotive industry the standard to comply to is ISO/TS 16949 (now IATF 16949). And those two examples are only standards for the quality management system.
Pharmaceutical industry, as some others, require a license to operate. In order to be awarded such a license and to keep it, the company must comply to all requirements, undergo periodic audits and keep record of anything happening along the manufacturing process. This industry is under constant scrutiny of government agencies, regulators, etc.
Therefore, the paperwork associated with products is impressive and requires a lot of resources in the dedicated processes, and as we will see, likely to host a system’s constraint!
Over time, layers of requirements accumulated. And what is a requirement if not a limitation of the way to execute, a constraint?
Quality assurance (QA), according to wikipedia, comprises administrative and procedural activities implemented in a quality system so that requirements and goals for a product, service or activity will be fulfilled. It is the systematic measurement, comparison with a standard, monitoring of processes and an associated feedback loop that confers error prevention. This can be contrasted with quality control, which is focused on process output.
Anyone working with a Quality Assurance department soon realises that this department is more acting as a defense attorney for the company against regulatory or standardization agencies, and a watchdog internally than a support for improving quality by problem solving.
For obvious reasons, QA and Production must have a clear divide, as it would not be acceptable for the maker to assess and certify the quality of his own production. Their staff are also distinct. QA usually has a huge influence on decisions and can be very powerful, to the point that top executives have to accept QA decisions, especially when QA has to sign off the release of a batch or clear the allowance to ship.
QA activities are mainly administrative, with some lab testing. QA staff is “white collar”, working a typical 9 to 5, 5 days a week regardless of production. Some QA authorizations are mandatory for the physical batch to move to the next step in the process. Many productions run more than one shift, up to 24/7, while QA works 1 shift 5 days a week. As a result, the paperwork relative to production batches accumulate during the QA off-period and is later flushed during QA working time.
Now here comes the first problem. The difference of working time patterns send waves of workload through the system. It is not uncommon for some production batches to wait for QA clearance in front of a process or in a warehouse. This could give the impression that the bottleneck is in the next manufacturing processing step, but it is not.
In reality the bottleneck is in QA. It can be the plain process of reviewing of paperwork or some testing, measurement, analyses, etc. A trivial yet common bottleneck is the “qualified person”, the one or few ones entitled to sign off the documents. Those people, usually managers, are busy in meetings and other work and let the paperwork wait for them.
Note that QA activities are not always extensively described in the production task lists, do not always have allocated time and if they have, QA department is seldom challenged about the staff adhering to standard time neither to possibly reduce the duration by some improvements. This can lead to underestimate the impact of QA’s activities on the production lead time and “forget” to investigate this subject when searching for the bottleneck.
Dependence on third parties
With an ever growing number of requirements to fulfill and proofs, certificates and log files to keep ready in case of inspection, many specialized tests and measurements are farmed out to third parties. It makes sense, in particular if those activities are sporadic, the test equipment expensive and maintenance of skills and qualification for personnel mandatory.
Now this type of subcontracting bears the same risks than any other subcontracting: supplier’s reliability, capability, capacity, responsiveness, etc. and the relative loss of control of the flow as it is now dependent on a distinct organization. The system’s constraint may well be located then outside of the organization, and even beyond its sphere of influence!
Beware of the feeling of being in control when the third party operates in-house. I remember such a case where a specialized agency was doing penetrant inspection and magnetic crack detection in the company. While everything seemed under control, the external experts often failed to come as scheduled because they still were busy elsewhere or had sick leave. When they were in-house, they frequently lost a fair amount of their precious time moving parts around, a kind of activity not requiring their qualification but significantly reducing their availability for high-value added tasks. It turned out that this spot in the factory often was a bottleneck due to the lack of management’s attention.
Where Value Stream Mapping can help finding the constraint
These examples above show that the information flow or paperwork associated to the physical flow can have a significant influence on lead time and can even decide if the flow has to stop.
In such cases Value Stream Mapping (VSM) can help finding the constraint as it describes both physical and information flows on a single map. Note that some companies including Toyota refer to VSM as MIFA, the acronym of Material and Information Flow Analysis.
Without such a map to guide the investigations, people on shop floor may forget to mention (or are not even aware of) analyses, tests, approvals, paperwork review, etc. during interviews of gemba walks. Experienced practitioners will ask about these possibilities when inquiring in strong standard or regulation-constraint environments.
Where the Logical Thinking Process can help
When the system’s constraint remains elusive despite all the search with previously mentioned means, Theory of Constraints’ Thinking Processes or the Logical Thinking Process variant can help finding the culprit by analyzing the Undesirable Effects at system level.
This later approach is best suited for “complex problems” when the constraint is a managerial matter, conflicting objectives, inadequate policies, outdated rules or false assumptions, myths and beliefs.
To learn more about the Logical Thinking Process and the logic tools, see my dedicated pages, series and posts on this blog.
Proceed to part 5 and conclusion of this series: How to identify the constraint of a system? Part 5: how to make sure the constraint is found