Factory physics: What is profoundly basic can’t be ignored

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Rey ElboA BUSINESSMAN-FRIEND is engaged in a neighborhood laundry business with more than 10 outlets in the metropolis. He says business is terrific, especially during this rainy season. In fact, he boasts to say that he now has enough money to last him the rest of his life—as long as he dies by next Monday.

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Truly, life is what happens to you while you’re busy planning for something else. And speaking of planning, I’ll refer to one of history’s well-respected military strategists, aside from Sun Tzu. He was Helmut von Moltke the Elder, a Prussian general, and often regarded as one of the great strategists of the 19th century. For more than 30 years, he was regarded as the creator of a new and modern method of commanding armies in the field. He is referred to as Moltke the Elder to distinguish him from his nephew Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke, a German army commander at the outbreak of World War I.

The Elder General believed in the value of detailed battle plans, but also said something that roughly translates to “no plan ever survived first contact with the battlefield.”He knew that a military strategist had to be ready to change course once the battlefield revealed the weakness of his plan.

In today’s modern world, Moltke the Elder is mirrored by the famous heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson for his memorable line: “Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the face.” I’m sure that Manny Pacquiao can attest to this. In the corporate world, no business plan survives its first contact with the customers, investors, and other stakeholders. Therefore, smart managers must be excessively smart to start assuming that their plans are partly right and partly wrong.

But how do you increase the chances of your business plan to make it 100 percent right? If you’re in the manufacturing industry, my suggestion for you is to go back to the principles of Factory Physics. According to Wallace Hopp and Mark Spearman in their 2008 book “Factory Physics,” managers must fully understand the underlying behavior and natural laws of a manufacturing system before implementing other strategies like Lean, Six Sigma, Kaizen, JIT or a combination of two or more of these, among others.

What I’m saying is—if you’ll ignore the basic things like Factory Physics, then your business operations can be like a flashlight, which is simply a tin can used for carrying only half-dead batteries.

I will admit to a serious prejudice against a heavy metal buzzword like Factory Physics but not if it can give you enough good reasons to dump other buzzwords in the process of reviewing your business plans.

Anyway, the point I want to make is that everybody—people and organizations want to have a rational business plan.

To do this, maybe we could get hold of more engineers than lawyers and politicians. Then we all need to do is to get and use more steel—according to the Japanese ambassador Toshinao Urabe who expressed surprise that not much steel is used in the Philippines compared to other countries in the region, despite the booming construction everywhere.

According to InterAksyon.com, Urabe claims that the “per capita steel consumption in the Philippines is only half of Vietnam’s, a fourth of Thailand’s and a fifth of Malaysia’s.” He said Philippine construction firms and property developers should emulate the Japanese by “investing in quality” as well as regularly maintaining buildings as part of disaster prevention and mitigation.

Are we missing something fundamental here? Are they using bamboo or coconut trees instead of steel frames for building constructions? Or is this a result of widespread smuggling that we can’t really figure out the exact number of steel used in this country?

Of course, these questions may elicit wrong answers too. Rita Gunther McGrath and Ian MacMillan wrote in “Discovery-Driven Growth” (2009) that in order for us to reduce risks, you only have to understand that whatever is your first idea, as quickly as possible, consider them as patently wrong. McGrath and MacMillan are counseling us to always start with an answer and then to work backward to map out assumptions that would need to be true for that answers to be plausible.

For instance, if you have been long doing lean production and has not much achieved dramatic success, be prepared to assess it in accordance with Factory Physics—the natural laws of manufacturing. Adjust your current operational plans according to what you have learned—no matter how painful it may appear to be to the stakeholders, including the CEOs who could be proven wrong.

Go the extra mile to prove your boss wrong. But do it gently. That’s the risk you’ve to take to demonstrate your worth. I’m telling you this because when the boss talks about improving quality and productivity, usually he’s not talking about himself.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook or LinkedIn.

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