A few weeks ago we had a post on 100th anniversary of Ford’s moving assembly line. Now the New York Times has an article on how the assembly line has evolved at Ford and other automakers (100 Years Down the Line, Oct 29). What stands out is how Ford and others are seeking to manage variety.
Flash forward to today, inside Ford’s five-million-square-foot, ultramodern Michigan Assembly Plant in the city of Wayne. Nearly 5,000 hourly workers staff the plant in three shifts. The assembly line is three miles long and features more than 900 robots. In the last four years, Ford has spent more than $500 million to refurbish the plant, which dates from 1957.
What makes the plant unusual is the variety of vehicles it makes. Its primary product is the Focus, one of the best-selling cars in the world. But the factory does not just build Focuses with traditional gasoline engines. It can also build them in electric and plug-in hybrid versions.
And the company recently added production of the new C-Max Hybrid — a smallish wagon that shares many parts with the Focus but has an entirely different shape and style.
Recently, as Focuses and C-Maxes hummed smoothly along the line behind him, Mr. Fleming, the Ford executive, said that the company was intent on making all its plants as flexible as Michigan Assembly.
“Within the next five years, our plants globally will be able to produce an average of four different models or derivatives of a model,” he said.
It is late October and on my to-do list is wading through Open Enrollment options. That inevitably brings up the question of how much money to put into our Flexible Spending Account (FSA). Given that a lot of people face that question at this time of year, I thought I would recycle a post (from Dec 2011) on how to think of funding an FSA as an inventory problem:
FSAs allow US tax payers to set aside pre-tax dollars to pay for authorized expenses. One can have separate accounts for healthcare related expenses (think office-visit co-pays or dental work beyond what your insurance covers) and dependent care. Let’s focus on the medical one. Here is how a Forbes blog explained the pros and cons of the program (A Tax Break For Driving To Wal-Mart!, Dec 2).
The way you save with an FSA is this: If you divert $5,000 from taxable salary to pay for braces and your combined federal/state income tax rate is 40%, you save $2,000. You can use the money you stash in the account for medical, dental and vision expenses for yourself, your spouse or your kids. …
If you don’t spend your FSA money within the plan year (or a 2.5 month grace period in some cases), you lose it. The fear of forfeiture leads folks to underfund these accounts. Not paying attention to how expansive the list of eligible expenses is leads folks into forfeiting money. The average amount employees set aside into a healthcare flexible spending account is $1,500, and about half of participants lose an average of $75 at year-end, according to WageWorks. But even these employees who forfeit $75 are still better off with the FSA, says Dietel. Since the average election is just under $1,500, the employee has saved 25% to 40% of that, or $375 to $600, so they are still $300 to $525 ahead of where they would have been without a healthcare FSA.
It’s only a two-hour wait. An ordinary Thursday afternoon at Apple’s flagship UK store in Regent Street, London and a long line of customers snakes across the first floor. The hip technology brand is used to queues for the launch of its latest must-have product, but these people have come carrying faulty iPhones and malfunctioning laptops, desperate for help from one of Apple’s increasingly hard to reach “Genius” experts.
When it opened in Virginia in 2001, the first Apple store was hailed as a retail revolution, allowing shoppers to play with expensive technology without any sales pressure. The emphasis on service, with blue-shirted Geniuses on hand to answer queries and fix broken products, has become almost as important to the Apple brand as the aesthetic appeal of its products. But the whole experience is under pressure as a relatively small number of shops struggle to cope with rapidly growing customer numbers. …
The Regent Street outlet, for example, employs at least 120 Geniuses. Each sees up to 30 customers a day but it is impossible to book an appointment less than a week in advance. If the problem is urgent you can turn up and queue, but it could be a very long wait. This week, a gaggle of well-trained, polite and friendly staff worked their way along the line trying to answer simple queries and advise people on alternatives to queueing. But it is hard to redirect people when every nearby shop has its Geniuses fully booked for days on end.
The article goes on to note that this is not just an issue in London. It certainly can be an issue here in Chicagoland. While a quick check of my nearest Apple store shows that they currently have a number of appointments open for tomorrow, Friday morning already has no availability. There are even reports of scalpers hawking Genius Bar reservations in China.
So is there an easy fix to this problem? It seems like there are two issues here. First, to what extent should Apple accommodate walk-in customers? Second, is there any easy fix to expanding Genius capacity? These are related. If capacity is expanded then the ease of getting a reservation should take care of the walk-in issue. On the other hand, if capacity cannot be easily expanded, then there is a question of how to allocate it between walk-ins and appointments.
We’ve had a bunch of quick-service restaurant stories lately but this one on Panera is too nice to pass up. The Wall Street Journal reports that Panera has lowered its growth forecast in part because of poor customers service — long lines and messed up orders is costing them business (Panera Says It Can’t Handle Crush, Oct 23). So what are they looking to do about it?
Panera plans to modestly pare its menu, which will reduce preparation time. The company also plans to migrate phone orders to the Internet to save time for workers who have to “drop everything” to handle phone orders, Mr. Shaich said.
The company also plans to create dedicated catering hubs in existing restaurants to handle catering for a few restaurants in order to free up the cafes from handling catering orders.
Next year the chain plans to introduce a new menu structure that will group items by price so that people who are looking to save money can easily find lower-cost options.
It takes car companies about three years to design a sedan, and handset makers can churn out a new smartphone in six months. But an IKEA kitchen takes half a decade to create. …
“It’s five years of work into finding ways to engineer cost out of the system, to improve the functionality,” Mr. Agnefjäll said of the company’s “Metod” kitchen, a new model, during an interview at a store in his hometown of Malmo, located on Sweden’s southwest coast.
The Metod kitchen (translated as “Method” in English), is the brainchild of a clutch of designers sitting near IKEA’s headquarters here. The goal is to achieve “democratic design,” products that will work in homes whether they are located in Beijing, Madrid or Topeka.
IKEA—known for minimalist design—packs enormous complexity into a kitchen. Metod consists of 1,100 different components, and distilling them all into a cheap, green and easily shippable package has proved arduous.
As the Swedes tell it, they go through a lot of steps to get the design just right.
In the basement of the Kellogg School, there is a cafe. It’s a busy cafe, which says more about the available alternatives than about its absolute quality. Because it gets busy and because a good number of its customers are polite enough to walk out of class five minutes early to beat the crowd, I and my colleagues have learned that it is a much better to plan to go down for a sandwich a little before noon than a little after noon. According to CNBC, Goldman Sachs faces similar issues with queuing in its cafeteria and it actively tries to manage the system (The creepy capital efficiency of Goldman’s cafeteria, Oct 17).
The most crowded time of the day to eat lunch is, naturally, during lunch time. For most people, this falls around noon. This creates the phenomenon of the lunchtime rush hour. You know this all too well if you’ve ever tried to stop in your local chopped salad place at, say, 12:30 in the afternoon.
Goldman didn’t like the idea of its people waiting on long lines to get their lunch. People are capital to Goldman. It wants to use its capital efficiently. Standing on line waiting for dumplings or salad or a burger is not an efficient use of Goldman’s capital. …
The cafeteria has a set of timed discounts. If you show up in the cafeteria before 11:30 or after 1:30, you get a 25 percent discount on your food. Goldman incentivizes employees to avoid the rush hour.