The Focused Factory

A Seldom-Noticed Part of Lean 

Unfocused Factory sharper Focus

Characteristics of The Focused Factory

A Focused Factory strives for a narrower range of products, customers or processes. The result is a factory that is smaller, and has fewer Key Manufacturing Tasks. It optimizes performance on a few dimensions while sub-optimizing on others.

Aircraft design offers an analogy. Aerospace engineers can design an aircraft that flies at Mach 3.0. They can design an aircraft that  carries 350 people. They can design an aircraft that circles the globe on a few hundred gallons of fuel. They can design an aircraft that lands on a 500 foot runway. They cannot design an aircraft that does all of the above because the available technology has limits. So it is with factories.

Wickham Skinner, in his seminal 1974 article for  The Harvard Business Review, says it best:

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"The focused factory will out-produce, undersell, and quickly gain competitive edge over the complex factory, The focused factory does a better job because repetition and concentration in one area allows its work force and managers to become effective and experienced in the task required for success. The focused factory is manageable and controllable. Its problems are demanding, but limited in scope."

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The Focused Factory rests on three underlying concepts:

Benefits of Focus

At Strategos, we have seen the effects of focus- customer satisfaction, lower cost and less frustration. Several researchers have documented these effects with quantitative studies.

Key Manufacturing Tasks

Skinner's research suggests that a particular factory can excel with no more than one or two overall objectives. These might be quality, delivery reliability, response time, low cost, customization, short life cycle products, or another competitive dimension.

The Key Manufacturing Task(s) is the most important thing the factory must do or achieve for success. Terry Hill, in his book "Manufacturing Strategy" shows how to identify the Key Manufacturing Task(s) and link it to marketing and corporate strategies. 

Why Factories Lose Focus

Some factories are unfocused originally because designers fail to recognize the limits and constraints of technologies and systems.

Other factories are highly focused at first but lose it over time. Several forces and factors diffuse the original focus. Among these are:

A Broader View of Focus

In recent years, we have extended Skinner's concept.  The strategic question is: "by what criteria shall we divide our space, people and machines into manageable work units?" (See article: "Manufacturing Focus--A Comprehensive View")

Wickham Skinner
Wickham Skinner

Wickham Skinner is considered the father of Manufacturing Strategy. His book "Manufacturing In The Corporate Strategy", published in 1978, set out the principles on which most other work has been based. His seminal article "The Focused Factory" was published in The Harvard Business Review in 1974 and is still available from Amazon.com. Dr. Skinner, a graduate of Yale, is an emeritus professor at Harvard University, where he taught and researched in the field of industrial management. Dr. Skinner has published three books, co-authored ten case books, and has written extensively for business magazines and journals.

(The following is from Professor Skinner's Article)

Process Technologies

Typically, unproven and uncertain technologies are limited to one per factory. Proven, mature technologies are limited to what their managers can easily handle, typically two or three. (e.g.,a foundry, metal working and metal finishing.)

Market Demands

These consist of a set of demands including quality, price, lead times, and reliability specifications. A given plant can usually only do a superb job on one or two demands at any given period of time.

Product Volumes

Generally these are of comparable levels, such that tooling, order quantities, materials handling techniques, and job contents can be approached with a consistent philosophy. But what about the inevitable short runs, customer specials, and one-of-a-kind orders that every factory must handle? The answer usually is to segregate them.

Quality Levels

These employ a common attitude and set of approaches so as to neither over-specify or over control quality and specifications. One frame of mind and set of mental assumptions suffice for equipment, tooling, inspection, training , supervision, job content, and materials handling.

Manufacturing Tasks

These are limited to only one (or two at the most) at any given time. The task at which the plant must excel in order to be competitive focuses on one set of internally consistent, doable, non-compromised criteria for success.

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