People, not working in manufacturing, often tell me they don’t think this Lean “stuff” is applicable to their service context. Particularly not when their service involves servicing a physically present customer that is, therefore, an intrinsic part of the process. Still, I see them struggling (as a consultant or customer) with reducing their service lead times or turnaround times. I am thinking of vessel turnaround times in a port, truck turnaround times at a warehouse, airplane turnaround at an airport, a visit to the outpatient department, performing scheduled maintenance, or the duration and length of roadworks resulting in traffic jams, just to name a few. To me, they all share the same challenge. Namely, to ensure the shortest, reliable time span in order not to waste any of the (internal) client’s valuable time. So why not use quick changeover principles in reducing these turnaround times?
When service lead times are long (and unpredictable), customers suffer. The service provider wastes their valuable time, even irritates their clients. Afterward, customers speak negatively of the organization towards others. Chances are that customers walk out on their service provider, or potential customers are turned off by what they hear.
But not only customers feel the impact. Long turnaround times also affect the organization itself. Then long lead times imply a high occupation of service personnel and means. Think of cranes, docks, forklifts, counters, ticket windows, tools, waiting areas and so on. Ultimately, this means you need more of them. So, long lead times typically imply higher cost compared to organizations that have shorter service times. And as the service experience also suffers as indicated, both the top and bottom line quickly deteriorate.
Observing Service Provision
To service a client, service personnel typically require certain information. They ask clients to provide all kinds of basic data when already at the counter and before the actual service can be provided. Service personnel then start searching for more data or requesting data while the client waits. Also, and very annoying, colleagues or phone calls regularly interrupt service personnel amidst the provision of a service.
Comparably, in more industrial or logistical situations, information gathering still takes place even after the truck or vessel arrived. Or after the machine stopped for maintenance. Truck drivers hand over documents and receiving personnel enters data into a system, all after the truck arrived. Teams first assess the vessel or machine condition after arrival on-site and before work can commence. Service personnel starts looking for the proper tools and parts before servicing a piece of equipment. And goods go through quality checks before they finally are available for use.
In other environments, I witness order pickers still picking while the truck is already waiting at the loading dock, or even in the parking lot. Just like at receiving, truck drivers also often wait for the paperwork that shipping personnel prepares before they can leave. Or warehouse personnel picks goods by type of pick or area: first, they pick and stage full pallets after which they prepare box and piece picks. In the meantime, skids congest the loading areas, while trucks wait for completion.
In yet another context, I drive by long roadworks without seeing any actual work, but for maybe 5% of the stretch. Road construction companies typically work in a phased way on the road renewal project, one phase at the time on the full section, until they finally release the whole section again for car traffic.
To me, it seems service providers still waste a lot of my (and their own) time by doing a lot of stuff that they could have done well before or after my visit.
In these situations, the approach to quick changeover (QCO) in manufacturing can very well help service providers to significantly reduce their turnaround times. This approach is commonly referred to as SMED, Single Minute Exchange of Die, referring to its origin as it focused on quick die change or QDC.
Shigeo Shingo’s SMED method basically consists of analyzing the changeover process of a machine (while changing from one product type to another). It calls for separating so-called internal from external operations, convert internal operations to external, and to then improve each changeover operation to reduce its time. Internal activities can only be performed when a machine is stopped. External ones can be done while the machine is still running.
In a service environment, this changeover method very well translates to operations. There are activities that need to be done with the customer present (“internal” operations). And there are operations that can be done without the customer truly being required (“external” operations). Typical external operations in a product changeover are machine settings, tool and parts preparation and staging, data and document collection and preparation, reporting, transport, and checks. Organizations can perform these either before the actual vessel, truck, car or client arrives on-site or after it or he/she leaves.
Speeding Up Service Using Quick Changeover
In service environments, applying quick changeover or QCO techniques implies providing data before actual service provision, instead of including data collection during the service provision. Advanced Shipping Notice (ASN) or Dispatch Advice (DESADV) messages through EDI do exactly so, providing the receiving warehouse with shipment data well in advance of the actual delivery. Capturing required client data from patient files or via secured web portals before the actual hospital visit is another.
Stop multi-tasking is another important element in speeding up service. When starting with a client, finish it before starting work on another client. As the saying goes: “stop starting and start finishing”. Multi-tasking lengthens the lead time of all individual clients. So, focus and finish.
It implies performing quality checks at the supplier to eliminate the need for checks during receiving or discharging. Or assessing the status of required equipment before the actual work commences. Separating diagnosis from repair activities, to enable improved “off-line” preparation of the actual maintenance job, is yet another example. Companies that pre-stage skids in truck images, ready for loading when the truck arrives, greatly reduce their truck turnaround times. And there is a reason why you pre-board before the arrival of the plane at EasyJet. It allows EasyJet to quickly turnaround the plane.
Road construction provides ever-better examples (accompanied by impressive time-lapse videos). Road construction companies pre-cast elements and transport these to the construction or road work areas or even produce these elements on-site. And they move these into position during the night or weekend. This significantly reduces the nuisance to traffic.
Lessons From Formula One Racing
Formula One racing provides the best example of short and consistent service times. The pit stop perfectly illustrates quick changeover and SMED techniques.
A Formula One pit stop involves an incredible amount of preparation. The whole pit crew is ready before arrival and roles and responsibilities and exact positions are very clear to all. They also wear special, fire-resistant suits, helmets and gloves for safety reasons. Visual center lines and markers help the driver to stop perfectly aligned with the pit crew.
To lift and drop the car, teams use special quick release jacks with a pivot. The front wing attaches to the car with a quick connect system. The crew employs special power tools on the wheels. And the wheels make use of a round, multi-slot system, with an easy centering V-shaped nut instead of hexagonal wheel nuts. This way, it is hardly sensitive to the exact positioning of the gun. Of course, the replacement tire is already close by.
And a traffic light is in place to signal the driver he can release the clutch and leave the pit box. Two supervisors control this light: one monitors the progress of the pit stop, the other keeps an eye on what’s happening in the pit lane.
Pit Stop Record
It is interesting to hear what Rob Smedley, Head of Performance Engineering of Williams Martini Racing, has to say about what it takes to achieve their world record pit stop of 1.92 seconds only!
He speaks of a very well-defined process, described as a “synchronized” and “choreographed harmony” of all team members’ actions. Teamwork and dedication are paramount, according to Smedley. Many hours of practice have gone in to make the process into routine work and even second nature to all team members. The team keeps striving for perfection in precision. They continually evaluate and improve the equipment involved, as well as the process. As what is best now, will not be best in a few years’ time.
Adopting QCO in Service Industries
Despite these techniques finding their way into various service industries, there still is a world to be won. And it starts with stressing the commonalities instead of the differences between manufacturing and service industries. And it requires the ability to abstract methods and techniques from a concrete application, and to translate these back into a new field of application. But when done, I am convinced that you will find ample opportunity to improve.