Defining Best Methods and Why Industrial Engineering Could Really Help

by Dan Bursik
Vice President, Best Practice

In my last blog I discussed the importance of defining and adopting best methods as the most important driver of efficiencies and return on investment for industrial engineering work to improve productivity in retail organizations. Simply put, the money is in the methods.

I’ve since had people ask me just how exactly this gets done and, what is the added value that a trained industrial engineer brings to the process. How does an engineer go about defining the “best method” for performing a certain operation? Is that something different than what a good, experienced store operator would do with or without the engineering support? What combination of engineering and operations know-how is needed to really do the best work in this arena?

In my experience, defining best methods requires strong collaboration between experienced retail know-how, an engineer’s objective analysis to identify waste and opportunities for optimization, and then a process of validation and organizational alignment that meets all stakeholder concerns and objectives going forward.

Generally, speaking an industrial engineer (IE) might not know everything an operator would about the products you sell. Domain knowledge is helpful, but engineers can objectively derive that understanding through interaction with your subject matter experts.

What an IE brings to a method analysis is a fresh set of eyes to your process and a willingness to understand or discover what you are doing and how well your current approach gets that job done with a minimum amount of wasted time and effort. It’s also important to know that an IE is not only looking for the fastest way to do the work, quality matters as much as the quantity of time required and the method needs to be repeatable and sustainable. In fact, defining your best method is key to creating a labor standard for any activity and your standard needs to reflect the time it takes to do the work to your quality specifications and service standards by an average trained worker who is working at an all-day pace.

While your “industry typical” SOPs and labor standards really expedite the process, it is important that an IE works with you to customize the fit to any industry typical version of a standard to your particular retail organization. That fit includes the store characteristic variables (facility layout, equipment, travel distances, etc.) that are built into the standards to make them store-specific. It also includes modeling the service and customer interaction expectations that can be unique to each retailer.

Understanding those expressed service expectations and modeling them into your standards is critical in defining work content based expectations for your organization. Once your standards are built and validated with those elements included your organization can make informed decisions about whether those specifications meet your needs.

Once the real costs become clear, not every organization is as committed to pay for their stated service expectations. Successful differentiation of your brand entails a thoughtful review of the services your customers value and want to pay for. More is not always better. In fact, more people standing around never improved a customer’s perception of quality service!

The strength of a fact-based labor model with engineered, store-specific standards is that it becomes easier to make those decisions in an informed manner. Not reconciling service expectations with the way you intend to allocate labor is asking every associate to cut their own corners instead of living up to the service principles of your brand. It’s a proposition that can only frustrate both your customers and your associates. Your organization deserves better.

So, if building an accurate method and standard is a critical task to enable effective labor modeling and planning, just what are the pieces that engineers can find that might not force you to reduce service standards?

Here’s just a quick list of where efficiencies may be found:

  • Excessive or inefficient setup time.
  • Excessive search time due to lack of organization or standardization in your work environment.
  • Excessive or inefficient travel time.
  • Process steps that don’t add value.
  • Redundant touches in the overall process.
  • Steps and body motions that can be eliminated through process improvement.
  • Task interference with multiple employees working at the same time in the work environment.
  • Proper position and posture relative to the work being performed.
  • Using one hand when two are available.
  • Excessive tool search time.
  • Excessive transition time to the next task.
  • Associate training to know and perform the best method consistently.
  • Associate knowledge of what to do next without specific direction.
  • Inefficient equipment for the task.
  • Inefficient layout or design of the work area.
  • Timing of the work if it conflicts with other activities.
  • Task interference with fulfilling service expectations.
  • Bundling or sequencing of related activities to avoid redundant touches.

Good operators will see some of these opportunities too. Some elements become quite apparent whether you are observing grocery stocking, watching a pharmacy fill line, or reviewing apparel staging, but a skilled Industrial Engineer will likely be much more adept at thinking “outside the box” or referencing external know-how to help you build the very best method possible. Building a standard from your best method in MOST an IE can also model your standard including all store characteristics, service expectations, and value added components. That modeling is critical to understanding both the overall time required to perform each operation and to understand which components of the process are most impactful and important for managers to focus on in training and coaching your associates.

If you think through a simple example of stocking Produce as a process for method evaluation and refinement, any or all of these opportunities might be present to optimize a current process. And highly repeated processes hold significant opportunities for optimization. With experience, you will find that the money is in these methods if you can engineer and implement a true best method across your organization.

In the end, a collaborative process between your Subject Matter Experts from Operations and Merchandising, a skilled Industrial Engineer, and your stakeholders for Customer Satisfaction, Safety, Food Safety and Asset Management is important to get your standards right. It’s the only way to set the conditions for success in labor planning, labor scheduling, and delivering your format successfully to your customers, day in and day out.