Imperfect Process leads to Sub-optimum Results

Automotive Plant Layout and Planning has been a challenging problem with diverse and often conflicting goals. OEMs seek to achieve space optimization, minimum no. of equipments (for lower cost), optimal Robots’ utilization and higher production rate, all at the same time.  Their engineering teams rely on domain experts who come up with and initial hypothetical solution (may be this is based on a previous similar existing solution or a completely new idea) which is then evaluated against the program metrics and if they are not met, the solution is optimised and thus the initial solution keeps on getting optimised until a workable solution is reached. Once an acceptable solution is found, no further attempt may be made to see if a better solution exists.

Further complexity is added when the product development team changes the panel data, the joining definition and often, also, the build process. This entire process gets really time consuming and wasteful in situations where this plant engineering activity is outsourced to an outside engineering company. Since this supplier is not integrated with the OEM’s design environment the data is generally pushed in only one direction from OEM to the engineering company. This data tends to become the master for the planning activity at the engineering company. Of course, there is always a feedback mechanism during this Simultaneous Engineering phase, but factors like disconnected databases, location of the teams etc. act as hindrance in bi-directional discussions to find the optimum solution.

Quick Summary

General characteristics of Plant layout and planning process:

1.Objective is to optimise for various constraints, e.g. space, capex, cycle time, equipment utilization etc.

2.A highly iterative process

3.Starts with an initial hypothetical solution

4.Dependent on few domain experts/existing best practices

 Challenges that act as natural barriers   against Optimization:

1.The input conditions keep on changing as the product data matures

2.Disconnected PD & ME teams

3.Disconnected databases (when the engineering is outsourced)


After a workable solution is achieved, no conscious effort is made to have a fresh look at the solution. There is a chance that a better solution exists

There are solutions available in the market, e.g. Process Designer, Manufacturing Planner, etc. which assist the planner to measure the efficiency, utilization and other performance parameters. But there is no solution existing that gives out an initial optimised solution to the planner to start with and, more importantly, one that quickly re-optimizes when the input conditions have changed. And hence the planner is still required to synthesise the solution on his own and then go through the subsequent steps in an inefficient iterative process, often leading to sub-optimal results.

Quick Summary

Existing planning solutions are insufficient because they only measure the performance of the given input.

We need a solution that gives an initial optimised solution and also which quickly re-optimizes when the input conditions have changed.

Walk through the Sequence of Steps

In order to better understand these issues, let us take a look at the steps involved in a typical Plant Layout and Planning process for the manufacture of a car hood.

The process is characterised by the following:

  • Relies heavily on the expertise of the planner, and is highly subjective.
  • Many options have to be explored, often using hand calculations early on in the design cycle.
  • Even when there are no input changes, the process is highly iterative.
  • Upstream input changes simply add another dimension to the complexity.
  • Difficult to incorporate changes when the layout design has matured.
  • Difficult to explore the design space systematically.
  • Better alternatives might still exist, but no effort is put to relook from the begining.

Exhibit 1: Plant Layout Planning Process

Exhibit 2: Panel data of a typical Hood Assembly

Typically the starting input is the Panel data. Many a times, the surfaces, especially the joining surfaces are not well defined. Also the joining information is often incomplete or not well defined at this early stage.

Exhibit 3: Overall Process Flow

The planner decides on a build sequence and forms a process flow.

In this case, the Inner and Outer Sub-Assemblies are built separately and brought to the marriage station, from where there will be sealing applied and then later, they are hemmed. A suitable Hemming Methodology is decided based on cycle time and available equipment.

CCT Decision Matrix

“I have so many tasks and I think, all are very important and all are high priority. What should I do? Which one I should do first?”

In our growing career, often we have this situation that we have many tasks on a daily basis. Some tasks are from one area and some are from different areas. Our doing these tasks in an efficient manner often becomes more crucial when one has to take different decisions every day, every moment and many people’s time and effort depends on that decision.

To do these in the most efficient manner, is the biggest challenge a young manager faces. One has to decide which task to do first or which task has more priority over others. Sometimes, this decision making itself becomes so complicated that this itself becomes another task in the list. Laughs.

This is a problem all of us know because sometime in our career, each one of us has faced this. Especially this problem is very common with young managers, more so when we are in the middle management level.

On one hand we think we are working hard and we are putting so much effort to complete all our tasks, our boss thinks we are not efficient enough. This top down pressure further aggravates the problem.

I believe it’s not at all easy to decide which task to do first when everything seems priority. It’s like deciding priority out of priorities. So, how to decide which task to take on first and then which one and then which one ???

There are countless self-help books out there, that try to teach us, how to efficiently plan our tasks and try to tackle them in which order and so on. Honestly, I believe none of them are very helpful. As no one can teach anyone how to decide priority out of priorities, because it is something which is, in the end, an individual’s own judgment. But what we can certainly do is we can try to understand the three big factors which are inherent characteristics of any task. If we can understand these three key factors, then may be we can also eventually teach ourselves, how to decide our own priorities.

So, let’s check what these factors are. Hold on, there is a disclaimer before we go any further. We have to always remember, we are trying to understand to decide priority out of priorities, means everything in the list is important, it’s just that which one we have to take on first.

Complexity: Try to understand which task is complex and which task is simple.  We often tend to leave a task un-attended due to its complexity. If a task is complex, you cannot estimate exactly how much time is needed to complete it. But if other tasks are simple it might be a good idea to estimate time for them.

Rule No. 1:  If simple tasks are many but less time consuming, finish them first and then come back to complex one, so that you can have better concentration. Because the list has been reduced drastically, it becomes a physiological motivation to complete complex task and increases productivity.

Thomas is a Project Manager in a software development firm. He has techno-commercial responsibilities and has below list of tasks on a particular day:

Explainer Example:

  1. Reply to HR to confirm one of associates probation completion
  2. Reply to Training head to confirm list of trainees
  3. To attend one of Engineer’s request to help solve a technical issue in an upcoming software delivery
  4. To check the weekly status of 2 ongoing projects
  5. Write to Admin to confirm travel date for Dan

In above example it would be best to take up tasks, 1, 2 & 5 first, because these tasks we can complete relatively quickly. Once we have done that, our list is a much smaller list only of 2 tasks; task 3 and 4. Now we should take up task 3 because, this is little time consuming but lesser complex than the task 4 where we surely need to put lot of attention and might have to spend unplanned amount of time.

Rule No. 2:  If simple tasks are many but more time consuming, it will be a good idea to first take on the complex one so that there is no pressure of complexity. Let us modify Thomas’ task list a bit to understand this,

Explainer Example:

  1. Conduct probation completion interview for an associate
  2. Make a list of recommended candidates for training
  3. To attend one of Engineer’s request to help solve a technical issue in an upcoming software delivery
  4. To check the weekly status of 2 ongoing projects
  5. Review with Dan, his travel plans and then confirm to Admin

Now here we have 4 tasks (Tasks 1, 2, 4 & 5)  that are relatively simple, but each will need considerable amount of time. So it would be better to tackle complex task first (task no. 3). Once it is out of the way, then we are more relaxed in the mind and then can come back to simpler tasks, where we have fairly good idea, how it will get completed.

Summary: Prioritze your complex  tasks looking at the time needed to do the simpler tasks.

Criticality: It is a common misconception that each complex task is also a critical task. Somehow by way of habit, we keep treating each complex task as critical.

Rule No. 3:  Not every complex task is critical.

We can check the criticality of a task by checking it against our timeline. It would be easy for us to decide priority of a task if its deadline is known. And then we can easily work backwards to know when to start it.

But what if,  the timeline is not clear or not known. How can we then prioritize it?

Rule No. 4:  Try to check a tasks criticality by asking the below 2 simple questions,

  • Does it impact anyone else’s work?
  • Is any other task dependent on this task?

Explainer Example:

Once again let us modify Thomas’ list to understand this.

  1. Reply to HR to confirm one of associates probation completion
  2. Meeting/ Discussion with Training head to finalize training topics, so that potential candidates can be selected
  3. Delivery is today and the Engineer has requested to help solve a technical issue
  4. To check the weekly status of 2 ongoing projects
  5. Approve travel budget to Admin for Dan’s business trip, so that Admin can go ahead and book the tickets

In above example notice that task no. 3 has a delivery which is due day and it is a complex one, so this automatically becomes top Critical and also the top most priority and should be handled 1st.

Task no. 5 has no clear timeline but it is evident that if it is delayed, ticket prices will rise and also Admin person’s next action is dependent on it, so Task no. 5 becomes the 2nd priority in the list.

Task no. 2 will be 3rd in the priority list, as it is a predecessor for the Recruitment task.

Tasks 1 & 4 can be taken last as they doesn’t seem critical, since there is no timeline attached to it.

Summary: Determine criticality of tasks based on timeline and dependence on other tasks.

Of course, I personally use these simple 4 rules, on a a daily basis. I hope you too can decide and prioritze your tasks using these rules. Just in case, you get stuck or feel these rules are not giving you a clear set of priorities, please do not hesitate to contact me. I can help you work through these.