First-hour productivity is very critical and sets the pace for the whole day, yet more often than not it is considered as a dampener for the healthiest of the factories across the world. On a conservative 8-hour shift pattern, the first hour on the floor is equivalent to 12.5 per cent of the total time available, which is quite a huge fraction, yet it contributes very little to the total productivity. On the surface, it appears to be an HR issue and employee engagement is lauded as the appropriate solution. Team StitchWorld, in a discussion with apparel production professionals, and consultants having apparel manufacturing experience in India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, explores what lies beneath the surface and presents a holistic perspective of how the issue at hand could be viewed and tackled.
Going by the estimates of the industry experts, only 30 per cent (40 per cent in best case scenarios) of the planned target for the first hour is achieved. The performance is not exactly encouraging since the importance of a commendable first-hour productivity cannot be emphasized enough. “As acknowledged by physics, it is a simple concept of ‘inertia’. Every minute lost in the first hour would mean the operators have to stay back beyond their shift timings to meet targets pending from the first hour, which, apart from being unethical, promotes lethargy and callousness in the manufacturing environment,” avers Surender Jain, Business Director, Wazir Advisors.
Experts however advocate that factories can easily clock anywhere between 80-90 per cent efficiency in the very first hour. The 100 per cent ideal is not promoted because it takes time to synchronize the hand and its motions, besides the momentum for the day is still being built up. “Even if you are driving a car, to go from 0 to any speed requires certain seconds,” analogizes Surender. Echoing Surender’s view, Kiran Kashyap, Associate VP, Technopak Advisors and Anand Deshpande, CEO, Aadma Consulting share that it is a myth that first-hour productivity has to be low. Factories can very well clock 95 per cent of the planned efficiency. “The best first-hour performance in my experience has been close to 85 per cent,” affirms Anand.
What makes it difficult for apparel manufacturers to clock high efficiency in the first hour?
Every manufacturing process in apparel manufacturing is influenced by man, machine, material, and process. First-hour productivity on the other hand is popularly perceived to be largely affected by ‘man’ for reasons such as late arrivals of operators, and absenteeism. While manning the line to accommodate the absenteeism takes 15-20 minutes due to lack of proactive absenteeism planning, 33 per cent of the hour is lost. Yet, this should leave scope for hitting the 66 per cent efficiency mark, which most factories admittedly don’t. It goes on to indicate that there is more depth to the first-hour productivity concerns than mere man-management issues.
Explicating on the poor performance, Anand shares “If there is some inventory between parts assembly and final assembly when the shift begins, even with absenteeism the final assembly can still start as it is not starved of pieces.” However, often the lines are emptied in the last leg of the assembly on the previous day to declare more production. As a result, it takes time (usually 30 minutes) to fill-up the line in the morning. So the first piece effectively exits the line 30 minutes after the shift starts. If the pieces from the line are not removed mindlessly, situations such as lack of buffer pieces at critical to delivery production points will not arise. Incidentally, first hour is also the time when early morning maintenance issues like steam leakages, and machine breakdowns occur.
Other factors that lead to low first-hour productivity include unplanned absenteeism, lack of sense of urgency on the part of supervisors, lack of discipline, and lack of multi-skilling, and thereby causing improper line balancing.
Solutions: The carrot or the stick…?
The most frequently doled out advice is ensuring that operators report to the factory at least five minutes earlier than the commencement of shift. This should be coupled with sensitising the operators about the fact that low first-hour productivity hurts the money made by the company. “The operators today are cultured and understand that the loss to the company is equivalent to them not empowering the company enough to give them increments,” inputs Surender. In the same strain, it has been noticed that penalising the operators does not resolve the situation. There are some humorous solutions as well to contain the situation. Surender shares an anecdote, “At one of our client’s factories, we along with the top management of the factory shook hands with the late-coming operators and even congratulated them!” Various factories have also managed to control the damage done by late arrivals by providing ‘pick and drop’ services to operators.
Top tips for first-hour productivity improvement
‘Man’ the production line within 5 minutes of the start of the shift.
Consider unplanned absenteeism and plan for it on the previous day with due diligence with the team leaders.
Do not empty the last leg of assembly line on the previous day.
Maintenance personnel must be present in the line at the start of shift to immediately respond to breakdowns.
The supervisor must demonstrate a sense of urgency and observe critical to quality processes by confirming the process in the very first hour.
The issue of absenteeism can be segregated into two distinct types – planned absenteeism and unplanned absenteeism. Promoting planned absenteeism emphasizes the need to engage with the employees to educate them about informing the organisation prior to taking a leave. This is already in practice at the Bangalore-based Laguna Clothing. Sarabjit Ghose, MD at the factory exemplifies the benefits of the propagation of planned leaves system, “We are ready with the line balancing plan for the next morning in advance. This single measure has helped us achieve 70-80 per cent of the planned output for the first hour.” It is also recommended that factories study seasonal absenteeism trends to proactively hire additional skilled labour during chronic absenteeism months.
Contrasting the situation between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Hemantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan apparel industry expat now based in Bangladesh as the GM – Technical at UTAH Group shares, “In Sri Lankan factories, the first hour is treated crucially – not just by the management but by the operators themselves as they enter the factory before the shift time begins and some even begin sewing before the shift starts.” Hemantha has tried replicating the Sri Lankan sense of discipline, but progress is awaited. The lack lustre disciplinary record is augmented with buyer’s COCs that state an operator’s unplanned leaves must be sanctioned after return even if it is for periods as long as a week and no disciplinary action can be taken against defaulting operators. “Rights are of course important and non-negotiable, but this provision has made it difficult for us to develop a healthy and professional culture,” he laments. For such unplanned leaves, a factory must be ready with a pool of cross-trained and multi-skilled operators.
“Absenteeism and late coming are almost chronic to all industries across the world. We must therefore factor in this variable and respond accordingly,” advises Anand on aggressively addressing the operations aspect by tactical production management, understanding wandering bottlenecks and obvious bottlenecks, multi-skilling, and identifying critical to quality/delivery workstations for process stability. Caution must be exercised to not leave the line dry at the end of the day so that the next day bottlenecks are not starved in the first hour. Some consultants even advise giving overtime on previous days to prepare for these buffers. A sense of urgency must always be demonstrated and operators must be deployed within first 5 minutes on the production line. “This will help stabilize the quality and delivery in the first 15 minutes,” assures Anand. For managing the early morning breakdowns, the maintenance department personnel must be present on the shopfloor at the start of shift till the time it stabilizes. Moreover, an escalation policy must be devised – if any breakdown or line balance is not resolved in 15 minutes, the plant manager’s intervention must be sought.