Many pundits out there think the economy has hit bottom. If the last couple of cycles are any indication, when things start picking up again, it is going to happen fast. As people scramble to retain or gain market share they are going to want more and want it now.
And, if the last couple of times are any indication, many businesses are going to be caught totally flat footed and struggling to increase their output. I would also imagine that the “never again” vows that they made as things were going down will, once again, go out the window.
So, short of building up a lot of inventory and/or investing in excess capacity, what can you do to be more prepared?
Continue to work toward the ideal of one-piece-flow.
This does a few things for you. If you do it right, you will progressively collapse the throughput time of your process. This will make you more responsive to changes and make you less vulnerable to forecast errors.
More importantly, though, is the understanding you gain as you do this work. You want to know the cycle time constraint of each and every process in the value chain. With that information, you can predict what will constrain you from reaching any given level of production, and start to work on those constraints. That does not mean you increase production, nor does it mean that you add capital equipment. It means you know exactly what you are capable of doing, and exactly what you must do to get to the next level. In other words, you have a plan that you can put into motion at any time.
Work to standardize and stabilize your processes.
This effort helps make your work more ready for people. Many operations today are running well below their capacity, and they have lost their performance edge. Problems are going unnoticed and unaddressed because they aren’t really affecting production right now. That will change, and change fast, in a ramp-up situation.
Worse, unstable and poorly understood processes translate to long, error-prone learning cycles for new people, or current people in doing different work.
Re-energize your daily kaizen and problem solving and start seeking out the things that are disrupting the work. That investment will not only develop your ability to respond quickly and robustly to growth, it will develop people’s skills as well.
Develop your people and organization.
This will help your people become more ready for the work.
Things may be slow today, but do you know who you would put into your next leadership positions as they open up? Have you developed those potential leaders? Have you thought through how you will organize and support the work as business expands?
The more preparation you can make now, the easier it will be when you get into a fast-moving dynamic growth period. You will already have a baseline plan, so you will only need to assess the situation, modify as appropriate, and carry it out. The more of this planning you can do now, the more thinking you will be able to put into execution.
Even people who are already in leadership positions can probably use skills development. There are a few easy things you can do that will pay great dividends in a fast-flux environment.
Look into the TWI programs. These address crucial skills that line leaders need to succeed. Ideally, people would demonstrate those skills before being put into leadership positions.
The side benefit is that these programs give people skills they can use today to make the workplace safer, more consistent, and more stable. In a growth situation, Job Instruction gives you a standard method to bring new people on board, or to flex people quickly into different work and get them up to speed.
Free up as much capacity as possible.
The bottom line results of kaizen are seen primarily in the form of additional capacity – you are able to produce more with the same resources. You might not need that additional capacity right now, but if you are living within your means today, you can put that additional capacity in your hip pocket. Then, the first round of sales growth can be met without any additional resources. The better you are at kaizen, the longer you can hold your resource levels the same while growing output. The only way to get better is to practice, and just like learning to play the piano, this means practice every day.
Understand your supply base.
How well do you know your suppliers? How quickly can they respond if your needs change dramatically? Do you know which supplier controls how quickly you can increase output? Do you know at what point that bottleneck shifts to a different supplier?
The other thing to consider here is the length of that supply chain. If you are bringing in things from overseas, there is one fundamental that many people try to wish away:
No matter how hard you try, you can’t change what is on the boat.
That might seem obvious in saying it, but it is amazing how many times that four or five week transportation time ends up negating any “cost savings” in lower prices.
I am not saying this is good or bad. I am saying to look beyond invoice and transportation prices and understand your enterprise value chain as a dynamic, moving thing with a response time to change. That response time becomes critical when things are changing. Know what that response time is, and manage to it. If you don’t like the answers, you have to alter the system somehow.
Bottom line: The time to get good is now.
When you are scrambling to meet demand, “there won’t be time” for kaizen, and there will be even less time to learn how to do it. The time to get good at it is now. Your alternative is growing your cost structure at least as fast as sales are growing. Experience has shown that your cost structure likely grows faster than sales, and additional earnings come only with non-linear growth – relying on volume to make up for ever thinner margins. That might look OK in the short-term, but it is a strategy of becoming ever less efficient.
The better prepared you are for the upside, the stronger you will be the the inevitable next cycle.