Why Aren’t There Manufacturing Movies?

Manufacturing. It seems straightforward – come up with an idea and design a product, hand it to a factory to build it, and then ship it to your customers and make money. Easy, right? There should be a story in there that can become a Hollywood blockbuster, but that sadly hasn’t been the case.

In spite of the lack of movies, manufacturing is hard, and it’s great to see this conversation. Society needs more people willing to take on the challenge and knowing is half the battle. To understand why it’s so difficult and movies don’t exist about it though, there are a few things to recognize:

It’s a System – not a function

Making a movie about a lone inventor having a eureka moment is straightforward, because, well, it’s a lone inventor that has a story.

Manufacturing is different. It’s a complex system built and operated by designers, buyers, manufacturing engineers, quality engineers, production controllers, production managers, technicians, material handlers and many others. Those people have to continuously operate in-sync, and all are critical for success. Part didn’t get sourced? The system won’t work. A tool broke? It won’t work. A bolt is missing? You guessed it – the system won’t work.

Aligning those people so they can understand the system, their part in it, and how to make it successful is critically important, but far from easy.

It’s never “Done”

A eureka moment is a discrete event – the product will work! Getting there has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and while afterwards there will be continued progress, the discrete moment is the big success story.

Manufacturing is the opposite. Achieving positive margin for the first time is exciting, but it also doesn’t mean success. That requires continuously maintaining and growing that margin – indefinitely. It’s the result of many coordinated contributions to improve the system day-in and day-out, and there is always more to do. It’s never “done” (unless it fails), and that doesn’t quite fit a typical Hollywood story arc.

It’s constantly changing

Henry Ford’s moving assembly line launched in 1913, and changed manufacturing forever. At the time, he famously said a customer can have “any color they want, as long as it’s black.” Changing color was difficult and slow, and it wouldn’t allow them to meet cost and volume targets. While that made sense at the time, it’s no longer true – and in fact the policy changed after 13 years in 1926.

The reason? Customers aren’t satisfied with limited choice, and you have to scale what customers want – not just what you know how to make. What they want is ever-improving and differentiated products, and that requires change. In the early days of the Model S and X, we would even joke that “we don’t build model years, we build VINs!”

Fortunately, technology and operating practices have progressed to make change much more possible than it’s ever been. It’s still difficult to pull off – see the complex system above – but changes that are both visible to customers (hello more cupholders!), as well as those that aren’t (cost-downs, process improvements, waste elimination, etc.) must constantly be implemented to satisfy customers and stay ahead of the competition.

So how to deal with it?

You can fight the above, but it doesn’t work very well. Much better to acknowledge these characteristics and set yourself up to handle them. A few ways to do so:

  • Foster collaboration, and make sure reviews and updates are cross-functional. The team should be able to focus on the system, not just functions. Manufacturing success can’t be achieved in a silo.
  • Find ways to visualize the system – a shared value stream map is a great tool to do so. As well, “Go and See” is an incredibly powerful principle. Make sure everyone gets to the factory floor, and that those on the factory floor get to see other parts of the system to better understand how everything works together.
  • Don’t fight change, but set up a process to control it. That process should require ownership for design, parts, process, tooling, and people/training readiness (not just approval, readiness!) for every change. This will generally require production trials of each before implementation to confirm production readiness. Changes should be allowed to flow through that process, and also be stopped if any of those components are not yet ready.

At Threaded we’re building a platform to help you do all of the above and more. We’re just getting started, but if you’d like to learn more, sign up for a demo – we’d love to chat!

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