Opinels, swiss knives, smart phones, and production machinery

Using Opinel knives while picnicking last summer got me thinking about their differences in design philosophy from Swiss knives, our traditional perception of multifunction tools, and how smart phones and machining centers contradict that perception.

Mostly known for snow-capped mountains, the Savoie region of France is also the birthplace of the Opinel, a pocket knife designed 120 years ago, and very popular there with anybody who hikes or just goes on a picnic. As you can see below, it is a simple knife with a sharp, pointed blade, and a ring to lock it closed or open.

Opinel knife

As a concept, it is diametrically opposed to its cousin, the swiss knife, and its multiple functions:

Swiss knife by Victorinox

The Opinel only has one function, but performs it well; the swiss knife has many but does not excel at any. It will cut, but not as well as the Opinel; it serves as a corkscrew, but provides no leverage to pull out the cork; it will open cans, but slowly and by pulling the sharp edge of the lid outwards towards your hand rather than into the can, etc. It is convenient because you only have to carry one tool around, but, for everything it does, there is a dedicated tool that does it better.

When we think of dedicated versus multifunction tools, we usually think that they are like Opinels and swiss knives and that, when we add more functions to a tool, we necessarily compromise on performance or quality for each function. But is that necessarily true?

Our smartphones let us talk to each other but also contain the contact data of everyone we have met since elementary school. They tell you where we are on precise maps, wake us up in the morning, work as stopwatches and egg timers, play our music, receive our favorite radio station, identify a song from a snippet of a recording, etc.

Dedicated tools do not exist for everything a smartphone does and, when they do, rarely outperform the smartphone apps. For example, I have not seen an alarm clock do more than the clock app on my phone in terms of selecting whether it rings just once or every weekday at the same time, how loud, with what sound, etc.

What is it that makes a smartphone different from other multifunction devices? In what way is it not like a swiss knife?

The short answer is that a smartphone is a computer. We often think of computers as machines like any other, or worse when we are frustrated with confusing interfaces or system crashes, but the reality is that they are qualitatively different, and that programmability allows them to outperform dedicated tools. Their hardware configurations make them smartphones, game systems, laptops, or industrial controllers but, within this context, the range of services they can render well is limited only by the imagination and talent of programmers.

In production, machining centers or computer-controlled fabrication facilities are not swiss knives, in that their flexibility is not bought by a compromise in performance, and this has far-reaching consequences on production engineering and operations.

A factory can always be improved

Based on an NWLEAN post entitled: Laws of Nature – Pareto efficiency and Pareto improvements, from 3/3/2011 

In manufacturing, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto is mostly known for the Pareto diagrams and the 80/20 law, but  in economics, he is also known for the unrelated concept of Pareto efficiency, or Pareto optimality, which is also relevant to Lean. A basic tenet of Lean is that a factory can always be improved, and that, once you have achieved any level of performance, it is just the starting point for the next round of improvement. Perfection is something you never achieve but always pursue and, if you dig deep enough, you always find opportunities. This is the vocabulary you use when discussing the matter with fellow production people. If, however, you are taking college courses on the side, you might score more points with your instructor by saying, as an empirical law of nature, that a business system is never Pareto-efficient. It means the same thing, but our problem is that this way of thinking is taught neither in Engineering nor in Business school, and that few managers practice it.

A system is Pareto-efficient if you cannot improve any aspect of its performance without making something else worse. Managers who believe their factories to be Pareto-efficient think, for example, that you cannot improve quality without lengthening lead times and increasing costs, which is exactly what Lean does. In fact, eliminating waste is synonymous with making improvements in some dimensions of performance without degrading anything else, or taking advantage of the lack of Pareto-efficiency in the plant.

When we say that a factory can always be improved it is a postulate, an assumption you start from when you walk through the gates. The overwhelming empirical evidence is that, if you make that assumption, you find improvement opportunities. Obviously, if you don’t make that assumption, you won’t find any, because you won’t be trying.

This is not a minor issue. Writing in the Harvard Business Review back in 1991 about Activity-Based Costing, Robert Kaplan stated that all the possible shop floor improvements had already been made over the previous 50 years. He was teaching his MBA students that factories were Pareto-efficient and that it was therefore pointless to try and improve them. They would do better to focus on financial engineering and outsource production.

The idea that improving factories is futile and a distraction from more “strategic” pursuits dies hard. It is expressed repeatedly in a variety of ways. The diminishing returns argument is that, as you keep reaching for fruits that hang ever higher, the effort requires starts being excessive with respect to the benefits, but there are two things to consider:

  • As you make improvements, you enhance not only performance but your own skills as well, so that some of what was out of reach before no longer is.
  • Competition is constantly raising the bar. If your competitors keep improving and you don’t, you lose.

Another argument is that the focus on waste elimination discourages activities like R&D that do not have an immediate impact on sales. The improvement effort, however,  isn’t about what we do but how we do it. Nobody in his right mind would call R&D waste, even on projects that fail. Waste in R&D comes in the form of researchers waiting for test equipment, sitting through badly organized meetings, or filling out administrative paperwork.

In manufacturing itself, some see the pursuit of improvement as a deterrent to investment in new technology. While it is clear that the improvement mindset does not lead to solving every problem by buying new machines,  the  practitioners of continuous improvement are in fact better informed, savvier buyers of new technology. On one side of the shop floor, you see a cell with old machines on which incremental improvements over several years have reduced staffing requirements from 5 operators to 1. On the other side of the aisle, you see a brand new, fully automatic line with a design that incorporates the lessons learned on the old one.

Others have argued that a society that pursues improvement will be slower to develop and adopt new, disruptive technology. But does the machinist improving a fixture deter the founder of the next Facebook? There is no connection. If the machinist were not making improvements, his creativity would most likely be untapped. And his improvement work does not siphon off the venture capital needed for disruptive technology.