What are You Doing with all that Data?

by Andrew L. Shakely, PE, LEED AP BD+C

Today manufacturers are swimming in data: inventory, WIP, output from each machine on the line, and of course, rejected parts and products.  But what is being be done with all this data?  Is it being used to identify where continuous improvement practices can be applied?  Are you even collecting the data that will have the greatest impact on your business?  The ability to amass mountains of data is relatively new, but Lean and Six Sigma practices have been around for decades.  So how can the data that is so readily available be used to minimize waste while enhancing the continuous improvement process?

Often, data within a manufacturing organization is compartmentalized within production cells or business units.  This data is typically used to maximize the performance of the individual unit, but the impact on the overall manufacturing process or organization may not be readily understood.  Focusing solely on out-of-compliance or defects alone within discrete units can create an atmosphere of finger-pointing and a defensive work force.  Instead, it can be much more effective to collect the diverse data and analyze it as a whole to look for the hidden interrelationships that are not apparent by simple compliance tracking.

The first step in this process is to develop methods to aggregate the data at single locations, and then dedicate resources to identify the underlying patterns in the information.  Use graphics and histograms to gain a visual understanding of the data.  What are the real moving averages and deviations?  Does the data reveal a pattern of disruption?   Once you understand the patterns within the data, you must look for correlations as well as cause-and-effects within the data.   Are there high correlations between events or is the data widely diverse?   Knowing these relationships can identify unexpected areas to concentrate your attention and help you determine which predictive indicators you really should be tracking.  Knowing the root-cause variables allows you to put controls and trending measures in place to improve output and reduce rejects.

It is important that you apply these analytics throughout your full production process, both upstream and downstream of where you think your “problems” are.   The hidden inefficiencies may actually not be occurring in processes within close proximity to each other, but rather from remote areas in your production.

The challenge to today’s manufacturers isn’t collecting the data, because it is already being collected everywhere. The real challenge is collecting and compiling this data coming from disparate sources, taking a methodical approach to analyze it, and understanding the patterns and correlations within the data.  With this information, you will have the knowledge to identify which production points should be the focus of attention, and where to apply Lean and Six Sigma practices that have will have the biggest impact on your organization.

Interested in discussing more about data? Contact Andy at 717.434.1526 or