Industry Forum

If your business works in low batch volumes but with a high degree of product variety, or if other aspects of your work are characterised by uncertainty and change, it can be tricky to respond with the speed and agility your customers need. Understanding how to improve efficiency and reduce lead times can make you far more productive and competitive. An approach called Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM) can help.

QRM is a dynamic formula that focuses on reducing queues and bottlenecks to optimise flow in manufacturing processes characterised by lots of product variation. It can be used in conjunction with other methodologies such as Lean, Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) and Six Sigma.

Like lean, QRM aims to eliminate waste while promoting team empowerment and continuous improvement. However, it uses a less standardised, more flexible approach and a different mapping methodology to identify inefficient processes, both on the shop floor and in the office.

Alcon’s QRM transformation

It was these agile qualities that first attracted Alistair Fergusson, Managing Director of high-performance brake and clutch manufacturer Alcon, to QRM. After expanding from motorsports to supporting small automotive suppliers, the company needed to scale up its production capabilities to accelerate into the performance OEM sector. Fergusson felt QRM could provide the answer and requested Industry Forum’s assistance through the LTASC funding scheme. The results have been impressive.

“Lean doesn’t really do everything we want to do because we are a low volume batch, high variance manufacturer,” he explains. “Although QRM has similarities to lean, it is quite different. Lean is quite prescriptive, while with QRM, you have to be more adaptive to the specific business. The special magic that Industry Forum brought was the constant recalibration of what they were doing with us to ensure it met what we needed. They were flexible and adaptable to our requirements and it worked really well.”

QRM and Lean also dovetail well together, with QRM providing additional flexibility and adaptability suitable for high-variance environments. QRM helps organisations pinpoint and diagnose specifically where in their operations lead times become extended, for example, due to poor process, unreliable equipment or quality issues. Both QRM and lean can then be used to laser focus in on these areas to resolve the problems – with numerous knock-on benefits for all parts of the business. As Rajan Suri, who developed the methodology in the 1980s, put it, QRM is “a relentless emphasis on lead time reduction that has a long-term impact on every aspect of your company”.

QRM comprises of four core concepts:

  1. The power of time – every stage in the fabrication process is viewed through the lens of the value of time. A measuring system known as Manufacturing Critical-path Time (MCT) is used to understand and visualise where bottlenecks such as design decisions and customer approvals occur.
  1. Organisation structure – teams are formed around production goals and have ownership of the process from start to finish. Known as ‘cells’, they are cross functional and autonomous, incorporating all the required skills to complete their task, as well as in-built redundancy. Cells are assembled and dissolved according to changing requirements and members are cross-trained and adaptable.
  2. System dynamics – spare capacity and optimised batch sizes help to absorb variability in demand and protect lead-times.
  3. Enterprise-wide application – these approaches are applied to all parts of the organisation, on and off the factory floor.

Bespoke approach

Working with QRM Denmark, Industry Forum put together a bespoke programme for Alcon based around these principles. “QRM is all about the value of time and getting things through the entire process – design, development, production engineering, production and out the door – more quickly,” says Fergusson. “It’s a process of exploring and understanding your own business.” Group sessions and interactive exercises helped his team members to develop a baseline understanding of the QRM approach, before diving into deep analysis of different functions.

“We took a specific area of activity and worked out what the MCT was,” recalls Fergusson. “If something takes three weeks, you may find that for 2.5 weeks, you’re waiting for the next operation to happen.” As a result of this analysis, Alcon took a decision to combine its 5-axis machining and motorsport design functions.

Next, Industry Forum and Alcon looked at organisational structure, in order to dismantle functional silos. Fergusson explains, “A QRM cell is a business unit that has the full breadth of skills, empowerment and competence you need to get from the starting point to the end. This breaks down communications barriers. There’s no chucking of half-finished things from one person to the other. It resulted in better co-working between design and production, and we have now rolled out this approach across the whole business, regardless of other QRM activities. The sorts of wins we’re now seeing are 50% reduction in programming time and actual run time on certain products and at least a 30% uplift in productivity.”

Because products are now shipping far more quickly, cash flow has speeded up considerably too. Says Fergusson, “It’s no longer about utilisation of capital assets. Our finance people have remodelled their KPIs.”

Cultural change

Eighteen months into the QRM programme, the culture of the organisation has shifted. “We are now in a state of quite constant change and, I’m pleased to say, people are getting used to that. There’s no sense of stagnation anywhere. Everyone knows we are going to be doing things differently tomorrow from the way we did them yesterday, and that’s really powerful.”

This sense of positive change is manifested for employees in visible ways through developments such as new equipment, larger buildings and a better office environment. According to Fergusson, these improvements are creating a virtuous circle whereby people are inspired to create yet more positive impacts.

Double digit growth

The company’s growth certainly reflects these internal improvements, with turnover already up by 26%. Around 50 jobs have been safeguarded and a further 50 new ones created. According to Fergusson, however, this is just the start. “We think there will be bigger wins still, and that sort of quantum will be expanded out across the business. We expect to double in size within five years.”

Is QRM right for your business?

QRM is not only applicable to manufacturing environments with a high degree of product customisation. Because it is designed to help companies flourish when dealing with lots of disparate customer requirements, and because it is applied across the entire enterprise, it can also help other types of organisation cope with all kinds of complex, unpredictable and frequently changing circumstances. This includes Covid or Brexit, as well as business functions such as R&D, customer service and marketing that are more nebulous and less predictable than the production elements.

Industry Forum offers a variety of services to help you improve your company’s competitiveness through QRM, including, introduction days; training leading to formal accreditation; and consultancy to take you through the steps of organisation-wide rollout, dovetailing with other approaches, according to the needs of your business.