The Benefits of Internal Benchmarking
Looking within the organization can yield unexpected benefits.
Benchmarking is an integral part of any continuous improvement strategy. There are typically three types of benchmarking: cross-industry, competitive and internal. Cross-industry benchmarking looks at similar processes in different industries and often delivers the biggest breakthroughs because it helps companies identify processes and systems not widely used in their industries. One example is Southwest Airlines benchmarking NASCAR pit crews’ performance. Competitive benchmarking looks at data from competitors. The challenge is that direct competitors are not likely to share at the level possible with a cross-industry benchmarking exercise, and given the similarity of processes, the best-case improvement is often just being as good as your best competitor.
Internal benchmarking can take two forms. In the first form, processes and systems are evaluated against Lean manufacturing standards to target areas of improvement. In the second form, different facilities of a company are benchmarked to find improvements based on differences in processes and systems.
SigmaTron is increasing its use of internal benchmarking. Its facilities each focus on the industries and customer requirements that they serve. For example, its Mexico and China operations typically run higher-volume products which often cost-justify specialized equipment, tooling or processes not as well developed in operations running lower volumes. One of the most common benchmarking activities involves equipment acquisition. As facilities consider upgrading equipment options, they look to other facilities to better understand the options and experiences with the equipment they use. This reduces the learning curve associated with new technologies while providing more context on how this equipment operates in real-world environments. For example, when one of SigmaTron’s facilities was adding nitrogen to reflow process, it benchmarked other facilities to determine whether nitrogen tanks or a generation unit made more sense.
Benchmarking can be virtual or onsite. The virtual process examines metrics, and the onsite process enables a team to view the operations they are studying. The increase in internal benchmarking has brought a switch from virtual benchmarking to onsite visits. Virtual benchmarking typically utilized a preplanned questionnaire, and while it saved on travel expenses, the downside was that it just gathered data found in the questionnaire. Improvements that weren’t specifically asked about weren’t mentioned in the response.
This issue was recently illustrated in a benchmarking trip that sent a five-person cross-functional team from the EGV facility in Elk Grove Village, IL, facility to one in Acuna, Mexico. One of the areas being evaluated was selective soldering. The Acuna facility’s high-volume environment has made it an expert in solder pallet design, and its team has been designing EGV’s solder pallets to requirements specified by EGV’s team.
While in the facility, the team realized Acuna’s solder pallets had additional features driven by poka-yoke that weren’t incorporated in their pallet design. The Acuna pallet design poka-yoke incorporated features that made it impossible for an operator to place a component incorrectly, while the EGV facility had been using transparent overlays as a poka-yoke to eliminate this defect opportunity. Additionally, some Acuna pallets had been modified to shield the printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) from flux overspray. EGV had also modified some of its pallets to deal with this issue in conformal coating, but the Acuna shield design represented an improvement they hadn’t considered.
The team included both technical and managerial resources. Teams composed exclusively of technical personnel tend to focus on production processes and equipment. Broadening the team to include managerial resources enables better analysis of non-value-added but necessary processes, such as planning and release of kits from the stockroom for potential improvements. Quality practices were also reviewed. The Acuna facility’s higher volumes make it data-driven and focused on inspection efficiency. Operators check the work of the previous station as part of this process. Additionally, acceptable quality level (AQL) data are utilized to determine sampling plans, and in some cases, specialized short-term inspection operations are set up to address specific issues.
Similarly, a recent all-hands meeting at EGV enabled personnel from other facilities to look at EGV processes. While not designed as a formal benchmarking effort, the tour generated discussions that will likely lead to further internal benchmarking efforts among facilities.
Multi-facility manufacturing operations benefit from focused internal benchmarking efforts. In some cases, this benchmarking may drive improvements in similar processes. In other cases, this benchmarking may create strategic partnerships where a facility deemed expert in an area such as tooling design can supply that expertise in facilities not able to justify developing that capability internally. Onsite benchmarking enables teams to view improvements they may not have been originally looking for. It also breaks down silos that can develop when different facilities have different areas of expertise.
Anita Tucker is the general manager of SigmaTron International’s EGV facility. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.