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A better way: Dwight Barnhard, Superior Aluminum Castings Inc., Independence, Missouri.

"The competitor to be feared is one who never bothers about you at all, but goes on making his own business better all the time.--Henry Ford

While shoveling snow during one of this year's late winter storms, my mind drifted back many years to one of the first assignments of my metalcasting career. In today's terms, the job description might have been titled material handling specialist. The job required an understanding of moving material from point A to point B as well as the ability to operate a one-wheeled vehicle and a large scoop shovel. It didn't take long to realize there must be a better, more effective way to improve this stage of the process.

As these thoughts were mulling around in my head, my neighbor opened his garage door, started his snow blower and demonstrated a better way to move 10 inches of snow from point A to point B. Just as my neighbor became my benchmark for effective snow removal, technology changed the benchmark for how material was =sported in the metalcasting process. The material handling specialist's job description changed from repairing flat tires on wheelbarrows to understanding servo technology and programming controllers for automated material handling systems. Metalcasting took another step forward in the continuous improvement process.

I recently reread the book "Benchmarking; the Search for Industry Best Practices That Lead to Superior Performances," which I received during a quality seminar 20 years ago. As I reviewed the book, I thought about how the author's insights shaped the foundation of my understanding on this subject and how they continue to be relevant today. Mr. Camp used the Webster's dictionary definition of benchmark: "A surveyor's mark ... of previously determined position ... and used as a reference point ... standard by which something can be measured or judged." From shovels to conveyors or hand ramming to automatic molding, benchmarks of continuous improvement are everywhere we look in metalcasting.

The word "dantotsu" is used in the book, and its meaning has stayed fresh in my memory over the years. It's a Japanese word that means "striving to be the best of the best." The author states dantotsu "is the very essence of benchmarking." He goes on to say, "Benchmarking is a positive, proactive process to change operations in a structured fashion to achieve superior performance." It seems like common sense to look for a better way, but unfortunately human nature can get stuck in that "always doing what we've always done" rut. Could we avoid these ruts by surveying external benchmarks as part of our business strategy?

Opportunities to benchmark better ways are all around us, limited only by the ability to relate the innovation of one process, or business practice, to another. Resources for benchmarking are obvious: trade shows, industry conferences, and technical and business journals, including those serving your industry and your customer's markets. The object is to step outside your everyday environment and get a fresh perspective.

I benchmark best practices of businesses in fields completely unrelated to mine. Human factors, soft skills, leadership and teamwork can be benchmarked by comparing an external view.

About 100 years ago, the Ford Motor Company was looking for "a better idea" for automobile assembly. After a visit to the Swift & Company meat packing plant and plenty of creative thought, the Ford assembly line was born. The meat packing perspective planted a seed of innovation that reduced the price of a model T from about $825 to $575. That's process improvement that changed the market.

A current example is Southwest Airlines. Studying the Southwest business model is a great learning experience for any organization looking for a better way. An article in the 40th anniversary edition of Southwest Spirit magazine lists 40 key factors that have led to its success. One of those factors is "Simplicity has value." Southwest buys only Boeing 737 aircraft. As the article states, "One kind of plane makes maintenance more cost effective and allows more efficient training for flight crews and ground crews." Could standardization of equipment improve your production and become a marketable positive for your organization? This article also gives insight into leadership, teamwork and soft skills--all qualities that are evident to Southwest customers. Making work fun is one of Southwest's core values. What might we learn from that?

Simple physics indicates a closed system tends to deteriorate. Proactively observing external best practices assists individuals and organizations in staying open and growing creatively. If your goal is finding a better way to excel, your organization can be a benchmark for others. Sounds like a great business strategy.

As we search for better ways to bring people and processes together to effectively serve our customers, it might be well to commit this thought from St. Jerome to memory, "Good, better, best. Never let it rest, 'til your good is better and your better is best." By the way, it just started snowing again and I see my neighbor starting his snow blower.

Dwight Barnhard is co-owner of Superior Aluminum Castings Inc., Independence, MO.
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Author:Barnhard, Dwight
Publication:Modern Casting
Date:May 1, 2013
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