April 2016
Volume 7, Issue 4

Plan for Downtime and Keep Production on Schedule

Preparations can limit the negative impact of employee absences and other issues

By Bob Yenkner

Joe the ceramist is going on vacation? School vacation is when? The main milling machine is offline for upgrades? No problem — just shut the laboratory down for the week!

All too often, we are short a critical resource (man, material, machine) and we have a frantic scramble to cover our production shortfalls. Planning ahead for both random and known downtime will make your lives easier and keep your customers happy. Most laboratories have a good idea of where the constraints or bottlenecks are in the process. However, they usually don’t have a plan in place in the event that critical resources, either human or machine, are not available. It is a good idea to have a pre-arranged execution plan in place such as outsourcing that step, overtime, rental equipment, and/or a “hotline” to machine technical support from the supplier.

Planning for downtime starts with looking at a calendar. What federal holidays are there and what other days may or may not be impacted? Identify state holidays such as Patriots Day in Massachusetts or Arbor Day in Nebraska. All of this non-working time directly impacts your production hours available (at non-overtime rates) and has a direct impact on your planned lead-times. Holidays occur every year at the same time, so those dates should not surprise anyone, customers and laboratories alike. Remember that dentists are faced with the same holiday “black holes” where days available become an issue for their patients. A simple, low-cost idea is to install an erasable white board to visually display “choke-points” where overtime may be required to make up the shorter hours.

Not all employees possess the same number of skills. Having a basic knowledge of something is not the same as being efficient at a specific task. If only one employee can perform a job well, then the laboratory productivity is at risk when that person is on vacation, decides to leave, or becomes incapacitated. The answer is to clearly identify what skills are available from which people and implement a cross-training program that builds increased skills in the “at-risk” areas. A typical laboratory will have many people who can build models, but only a couple who can use the CAD equipment to scan and design or stain, so that is an example of an at-risk area.

Communication is critical when planning for downtime. Customers become unhappy because laboratoriess don’t like to call clinicians with bad news about a late shipment, and when the clinician discovers that the case will not be delivered on time, the patient has to be rescheduled.

Two actions can be taken to help with communication:

1. Make the call. As unpleasant as it may be, the old saying “the sooner, the better” applies here. If you know you are going to be behind schedule due to lower than expected capacity (vacations, machine maintenance, weather), make the call.

2. Call daily production meetings on the laboratory floor in each department to review upcoming issues/workload and develop immediate corrective actions. This allows the team to address any reduced capacity in real time and hopefully keep on or close to committed delivery dates.

Employees can and should take vacation. Numerous studies show that time away from work benefits the employee as well as the company itself. Knowing the amount of vacation days each employee will take is important, but figuring out when they will take the time off is just a critical. A good idea is to post vacation dates for each employee in a prominent place (near the time-clock is always good) so that everyone knows who is not available and when. The daily production meeting mentioned above is a great time to discuss the potential impacts of employee absences. Don’t forget to find out when school breaks occur, as many people take time to be with their families that week.

Equipment Maintenance

One lean strategy that reduces downtime and is often overlooked is Total Productive Maintenance (TPM). This strategy focuses on performing routine maintenance on equipment to prevent machine failure and the resulting loss of productivity. As the “new” machines begin to age, unplanned downtime due to failure will become more of a reality; planning to avoid such failure is critical to maintaining productivity. John Kravontka, President of the consulting company TPM Unlimited, advises, “80% of all breakdowns are the result of two reasons: contamination and improper lubrication (not enough/wrong kind/too much). Routine inspection of key systems/parts will turn up many potential problems in their infancy, before the major failure. A basic TPM plan will return 25% or more of lost capacity for little or no cost.” Also, a good TPM plan should have critical, long-lead-time repair parts available in your warehouse for speedy repairs.

Materials in Stock

All laboratories, at one time or another, have run out of material. Reasons include poor inventory practices, supplier mistakes, unexpected demand above normal, or defective materials. Whatever the reason, material planning to avoid downtime starts with understanding your demand patterns and the related consumption rates. Once that is understood, lead-times from suppliers will dictate just how much material has to be on-hand at any given time. Good inventory management practices (weekly inventory counts, reliable suppliers, production planning meetings, forecasted consumption rates based on mix/volume) will help, along with a creative mind to utilize materials on-hand when an issue occurs.

Laboratories are busy. Downtime, in whatever form, is an everyday reality. Although it may not be eliminated, its impact can certainly be minimized. A little planning and forethought can go a long way keeping your laboratory on schedule.

About the Author

Bob Yenkner is the owner of Practical Process Improvements in Higganum, Connecticut, and partners with Business Development Associates in Glastonbury, Connecticut.

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