This is a great contemporary film from 1938 describing the complete overhaul of a mainline 4-6-0 steam locomotive in the U.K.
What is interesting (to me) is:
- The overhaul involves stripping the locomotive down to individual parts. Each of the parts, in turn, flows through a process of inspection / repair or replacement, with a strict timing to ensure it is delivered back to re-assembly when required.
- There are 6 positions with a takt time of 10 hours 44 minutes. Everything is timed to this cadence.
- I can only speculate, but with that degree of rigor in the timing, they are going to be able to see a delay or problem very quickly, and get out in front of it before it causes a delay in the main-line work.
- The parts that come off are not necessarily the exact once that are put back on. Everything is flowing – there are multiple locomotives in overhaul.
More thoughts below the video.
(Here is a direct YouTube link for those who don’t get the embed in the email subscription: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktHw1wR9XOU)
Flow in Overhaul and Repair
This is a great working example of a process flow that proves difficult for some organizations: Overhaul and repair. “We don’t know what we will find, so there is no way we can sequence and index it on a timetable.”
I’ve seen a similar operation overhauling helicopters. The intended flow was exactly the same.
- Like the locomotive flow, they stripped everything down to the airframe. The various components had different flow paths for sheet metal, hydraulic components, power-train (engine / transmission), rotor components, electrical, avionics, and composite parts.
- The objective was to deliver “good as new” items on time back to the re-assembly process.
Here is where they ran into problems:
- If an item needed repair, then the repairs were done, and the item flowed back.
- But if an item could not be repaired (needed to be scrapped and replaced) it was tagged, and returned to the “customer” – the parts bin in main assembly. It arrived just like any other part except this one was tagged as unusable. It was up to the assembly supervisor to notice, and initiate ordering a new one.
Who is your customer? What do they need?
The breakdown was that the repair line(s) saw themselves as providing a repair service. If it couldn’t be repaired, sorry.
What their customer needed was a good part to install on the helicopter. If they can create a good part by repairing the old one, great. But if it isn’t repairable, their customer still needs a good one and they need it on time.
The Importance of Timing and Sequencing
In the locomotive video, they emphasize the precise timing and sequencing to make sure each part arrives in the proper sequence, when it is needed, where it is needed.
Even if it actually worked like they describe, I can be sure it didn’t work like that when they first started.
The timing and sequencing is a hypothesis. Each time they overhaul a locomotive, in fact each individual part flow, is an experiment to test that hypothesis. Over time, it is possible to dial things in very precisely.
Why? So you can quickly identify those truly anomalous conditions that demand your intervention.
Normal vs Abnormal
Just because there are frequent issues does not negate the fact that most of the time things can probably flow pretty well. What we tend to do, however, is focus on the problem cases and give up on all of them. “What about this? What about that?” bringing up the legitimate issues and problems, causes us to lose sight of the fact that underneath it all there is a baseline pattern.
What is important is to define the point at which we need to intervene, and set up the process to detect that point. When we can clearly distinguish between routine work and true exceptions, and not try to treat everything as a special case.