Erase the notions of what's possible

Paul V. Arnold, Noria Corporation

Too often, we get caught up in our own beliefs of what's possible and not possible. Too frequently, we focus on what we feel cannot be performed or accomplished. Preconceived notions of boundaries and limitations work to stunt our growth and the growth of our organizations, employers, employees and co-workers.

Attendees at Noria's 2007 "Lean, Reliable and Lubed" conference, held May 14-17 in Louisville, Ky., were given multiple opportunities to re-examine their belief systems and stretch their perceptions of what is possible.

This is dynamic, game-changing stuff, for it is only through pushing the envelope - and tearing our way through to the other side - that we in the manufacturing community move from individuals and companies in pursuit of excellence or best practices and evolve into individuals and companies bent on redefining the way that the world manufactures, thinks, meets customer demand, exceeds customer satisfaction and melds product to end-user.

Losing your taste for low-hanging fruit? Fly to the top of the tree and pluck the sweetest fruit. Impossible? Who says so? Stretch the perception.

Follow the lead of Steve Squyres, the top scientist for NASA's Mars Rover project and the opening keynote at the Noria conference. Faced with budget and time constraints, the project that he helped oversee:

  • sent two spacecraft on a 40-million-mile journey to Mars in the summer of 2003;

  • landed each craft safely (6.5 months later) at predestined locations on the planet;

  • and, rolled each craft's Rover vehicle (one dubbed Spirit, the other Opportunity) onto the Martian surface to study soil and rock composition, transmit pictures, and explore the possible existence and habitability of liquid water on Mars.

Not too many years ago, all of that may have seemed impossible to you, me and a lot of highly technical people. NASA was confident in mission success, but even it has learned lessons from this project.

Squyres explained to the Louisville audience that the space agency believed the Rovers would last only 90 days on the cold, dry and windy planet. It said the vehicles could most likely drive 600 meters before imminent, irreversible breakdown occurred.

Squyres and a team of more than 4,000 people has since altered NASA's thinking as to what is possible. Designed, built and tested for reliability by this team, each Rover has explored the Martian surface for more than 1,200 days. As of May 15, Opportunity had traversed 11 kilometers, and Spirit seven.

In the Lean Manufacturing track of the Noria conference, Larry Fast, the senior vice president of North American operations for General Cable Corporation, also showed that performance perceptions can be surpassed. In this case, the jaw-dropper occurred in the company's stock price.

In 2002, General Cable sold for $2.83 per share. However, the implementation of lean and Six Sigma techniques worked to reduce scrap, rejections, indirect labor, inventory and debt, and improve overall equipment effectiveness, fill rates and customer service. Cost reductions exceeded $25 million per year. Investors have rewarded GCC for those results. The stock surpassed $53 per share in 2007, and on May 24 reached $66.

Finally, lean keynoter Kevin Caldwell, a VP for the Juran Institute, gave his spin on surpassing what others see as possible and not possible. He explained that his boss is busy writing a new book. Joseph Juran, the developer of the Pareto Principle, is 103 years old. Incredible? Yes. Impossible? No.

What will you do today to erase perceptions, boundaries and limitations?

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