With the right mix of parts, processes, people and planning, cells can produce exciting results. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

Should you organize your plant into cells? Maybe; maybe not. There are real success stories. There are also comedies and tragedies. You need to know why cells succeed—and why they fail—before launching a program to install them. A cell is a group of machine tools and manufacturing processes, usually set up in close proximity and in the sequence of use, that produces a specific product or group of similar products. Companies usually organize cells as self-contained, self-governing units. The operators schedule the work and make staffing decisions, with full responsibility for production and operating economics. The company typically leaves the operators to form their own organization and hierarchy, and the cell operates with minimal outside influence. With the right mix of parts, processes, people and planning, cells can produce some exciting results. The reasons why they work are usually more human than technological, and are sometimes difficult to quantify. The people operating a cell see it as their personal responsibility. They take ownership of the cell, so they are self-motivated and very attentive to the work. People tend to work together better in a cell than in other arrangements because they have a group responsibility rather than an individual one. They are a goal-oriented team rather than task-oriented individuals. Cells enrich jobs. Most people need more challenge than a single tedious task can offer. Cells offer employees the opportunity to trade jobs and develop a variety of skills. Companies also justify going to cells because they are easier to schedule and control than a typical factory. Rather than trying to schedule each process in the cell, management sets target outputs and the employees in the cell take responsibility for a achieving the goals. But it doesn’t always work that way. Whether cells work better than traditional plant organizations hinges on parts, processes, people and planning. The potential for success is inversely related to the number and complexity of parts or products assigned to the cell. The potential for success is also inversely related to the number and complexity of processes in the cell. The operators cannot become experts at all of the process technologies, and "jacks of all trades" are usually not very efficient. The people running the cell must be committed to its success, or it will certainly fail. The most important factor is how much influence the operators had in designing the cell. Operators who played significant roles in designing the cell will take ownership and will be committed to making the cell successful. When cells fail it is usually because planning was inadequate, incomplete and unrealistic. If a cell fails because the application was wrong for a cell, the planners did not go into enough detail in the planning. Management must candidly address some basic questions before making the move to cells. Why install a cell? If the only goal is to reduce scheduling complexity, the cell will likely fail. If the goal is to reduce operating cost, plan to achieve that goal. Can a cell realistically achieve the goal? Simulating cell dynamics is necessary to answer this question. How much training will the cell operators need, and which people are suitable candidates? A cell environment does not suit every personality. Will management let the cell operate independently? Micromanaging will lead to frustrated and defensive operators. Is there a better answer? Would it be better to automate the processes independently? Or would it be better to outsource the work? Cells can produce exciting results, but they aren’t a panacea. What's your opinion? Whether you agree or disagree, Don Ewaldz will welcome your comments. You can contact him via the Bourton Group’s Web site. Just point your browser to www.bourtongroup.com and click on Contact Us.