American manufacturers need pit-stop training. As executives struggle to gain advantage over foreign competitors, they must recognize that the prize goes to the swiftest -- just as in auto racing. And it is from the race track that vital lessons of time-based competition can be learned.
On the NASCAR circuit in a 500-mile race, the typical stock car will make three pit stops to take on fuel, change tires and make adjustments to the car's handling. The time needed to make these pit stops has been shrinking dramatically. In the 1950s, according to NASCAR statistics, the average pit stop took four minutes; in the '60s, the average time dropped to less than a minute; today's pit crews can accomplish these activities in about 22 seconds.
Every move of today's crew is well rehearsed: tires are ready, tools are handy, the fast-flow gas tank is ready and awaiting the car. No searching for tools or materials occurs when the car roars into the pit. The entire sequence is orchestrated flawlessly.
What does this have to do with the race to dominate global manufacturing? There is remarkable similarity between the actions of the fastest pit crews and the crews that make rapid die changes for transfer presses on the factory floor. Speed and teamwork are critical for both activities. In the factory, the die press is in a race to produce parts; when it is shut down for a changeover from one part to the next, the press is in a pit-stop mode. Output drops to zero.
Rapid die changeovers are the critical first step in transforming a plant from conventional manufacturing to ''just-in-time'' manufacturing. Firms can afford to produce a variety of parts in small batches only if the cost (or time) to change from production of one part to another is small. Many companies fail to recognize that these machine ''pit stops'' must be achieved before the ''just-in-time'' process can go forward.
The leading Japanese and American firms recognize the importance of machine changeovers. At the GM-Toyota Nummi plant in Fremont, California, there are large photographs on the factory walls above the giant transfer presses. The photographs don't feature Japanese rock gardens or landscapes, but rather NASCAR and Indy pit crews in action. A visual model for the Nummi die-change crews is right up on the wall.
How do we develop changeover teams with world-class speed? Like pit crews, the teams are videotaped, charted and studied to take out all wasted operations, wasted motions, wasted time. Crews practice as a team so that the entire operation can be orchestrated. The response among workers has been positive.
Over time, the leading die-change teams have reduced changeover times in greater chunks than their auto-racing counterparts. Die changes that once took hours can now be accomplished in under a minute. Firms with this capability can offer greater variety to the customer and can respond more quickly to market demands. They are the time-based competitors that are winning the race to dominate global manufacturing. Today, from the furniture industry to auto manufacturing, American companies must employ time-based strategies.
Joseph Blackburn is associate dean for academic affairs at the Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University. He is author of the book, ''Time-Based Competition: The Next Battleground in American Manufacturing.'' He wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.