The Hidden Laboratory

by Lynne B. Hare

Ralph is a research scientist with 20 years’ experience. The products he has developed have done well in the marketplace for the most part. Some are still on store shelves, but most have gone by the wayside, eclipsed by competition or eroded in sales and market share.

That doesn’t frustrate Ralph, though, because there are plenty of new ideas for products to take their places. What frustrates him is the increased pressure to churn out new products in record time.

One Friday afternoon, Ralph was sitting at his desk. The phone rang. It was Charley in marketing.

“Ralph! How are ya, buddy?” said Charley, an affable rising star and a highly charged particle. “Say, I was just talking to Mr. Big, and he’s hot on this new idea. We need it right away. There’s competitor encroachment in the stores, and we just can’t let that happen.

“Here’s the concept, yadda, yadda, yadda. We’re going warp speed on this one, and we need to see your best shot in three days. Don’t let us down, buddy. Nice weekend. Bye.”

Ralph never uttered a word, but in a few short sentences, his weekend plans were demolished—along with his morale. “What can be done in three days?” Ralph thought. “Nada! We should ban phone answering on Fridays.”

The Ride Home

That afternoon, Ralph carpooled home with Ben in manufacturing. Ben, who just earned his Six Sigma Green Belt (GB), listened to Ralph’s sad tale and expressed sympathy, but Ben had no solutions to Ralph’s problem.

Ralph decided to stop crying in his beer—in part because he didn’t have one—and asked Ben how he earned his GB. Ben explained his project for reducing scrap and rework on the production line.

Ben: “It’s all about getting rid of the hidden plant. The hidden plant is that part of manufacturing that wouldn’t exist if we did everything right the first time. We put a lot of teamwork and energy into learning how we can get better control of our processes and conform their capabilities so we don’t produce product we have to trash or rework.

“The upfront work is exhausting but worth it in the end. This year, we’ve saved $410,000 on line 7 alone. When we banked that money, I got my GB. I hope to be chosen for Black Belt (BB) training next.”

Ralph: “Wow. You guys really have it together. How did you learn to drag in $410,000 so fast? Last time we talked about your job, you were scampering around the production lines tearing out what’s left of your hair.”

Ben: “It’s not nice to pick on the hair challenged. But to answer your question, I went through a lot of training and got some excellent coaching from my BB mentor. My team learned to use a set of statistical tools focused on variation reduction.

“Did you know, for example, that all processes have an inherent capability? We have to find out what that capability is and then, by eliminating or reducing all other sources of variation, get our manufacturing processes to conform as close to capability as possible.”

Ralph: “OK, but how does that get rid of the hidden plant? And where do they hide it, anyway? I thought the whole place was right out back.”

Ben: “You must have had a rough day. If we reduce variability as close to process capability as we can, the lines run more smoothly and we don’t have as much scrap and rework. The hidden plant disappears.”

Ralph: “How can something that is hidden disappear? And who would know?”

Ben just smiled and shook his head.

Zero Variation Not Feasible

Ralph: “OK, Ben, I’m pulling your leg, but tell me this. Why not cut the variation all the way down to zero and save even more money?”

Ben: “Well, you can’t make the process perform with less variation than its inherent capability. That’s why they call it capability. My BB says some studies have shown if you try to make a process conform to limits tighter than capability you will actually increase the variation. He mentioned a guy named Dr. (W. Edwards) Deming and some demonstrations with funnels, but I didn’t follow it all the way through.”

Ralph: “Man, I wish they’d stop trying to push me beyond my capability. I have to show samples on Tuesday so I’ll be in the lab the whole weekend.”

Ben: “That’s why you’re in such a bad mood. I thought you guys in research followed a product development process. You know: project scoping, timelines, brainstorming, screen-
ing designs, optimizing designs and all that. What happened?”

Ralph: “All that’s great on paper, Ben, but in the real world, we don’t have time for it anymore. We have a launch plan to meet, and if we don’t meet it we get the blame, capability or no capability. And if we tell them it is not possible, we’re perceived as being uncooperative. That doesn’t go over too well, especially at performance review time.”

Now or Later?

Ben: “But the samples you’re going to show on Tuesday can’t represent your best effort, can they?”

Ralph: “Not a chance.”

Ben: “And don’t you have to go through some sort of consumer test?”

Ralph: “Yup.”

Ben: “But you’ll flunk, won’t you?”

Ralph: “Yup.”

Ben: “What happens when you flunk?”

Ralph: “They give us more time.”

Ben: “I’ve heard of that before: ‘Never time enough to do it right, but always time enough to do it twice.’ Seems to me the development process would take less time, all told, if you just did it right to begin with.”

Ralph: “Me, too. You know? I think you might have something there with that hidden plant you talk about.

“I wonder if we don’t have a ‘hidden laboratory.’ We give something a lick and a promise because we don’t have time to do it right. We flunk the consumer test, then we’re given more time but still not enough time to do it right. We flunk the next test and round and round we go.

“We’re stuck in the hidden laboratory like someone stuck in a swamp. We get mired in a sea of incriminating e-mail messages with frustration and blame in abundance for all. The only way out, it seems, is to insist on doing it right and not pushing the product development resource beyond its capability. If we’d do it right and follow our product development strategy, we’d have greater speed to successful product launch. Ben, you’re a genius!”

Ralph stayed home that weekend.

LYNNE B. HARE is director of applied statistics at Kraft Foods Research in East Hanover, NJ. He received a doctorate in statistics from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ. Hare is a past chair of ASQ’s Statistics Division and a fellow of both ASQ and the American Statistical Assn.

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