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Lean and Six Sigma Create Valuable Synergies for RFID Adopters

Here's how to achieve the greatest return from your company's RFID investment, and facilitate continuous improvement.
By Kurt Hozak
In another example of how RFID can benefit workers, the Alta ski resort installed RFID technology in 2007 that ultimately allowed staff members to focus on the more fulfilling role of helping guests rather than being "the bad guys" checking tickets and looking for fraud (see Alta Opts for RFID Lift Tickets). Workers will be more motivated to trust their employer, and thus support RFID, if they can see that the continuous improvement process is not just an endless grind to perform tasks at an ever-faster pace for that employer's sole benefit.

Just as NUMMI benefited from having the entire organization identifying process improvements on an ongoing basis, companies that have more staff members creatively considering ways in which to apply RFID and take advantage of its data are more likely to be successful than those relying on fewer staff members offering input. This is especially true as RFID moves from use in isolated projects to applications in widespread infrastructure that can more easily provide system-spanning data for lean and Six Sigma tools. As was the case at NUMMI, trust, training and empowerment are necessary to achieve effective company-wide participation.

While additional data can lead to more and better insights, the "fire hose" of data that can be collected from RFID systems may cause operations and IT analysts to experience information overload, and they may lack the context to fully take advantage of it. A key tenet of the lean philosophy is that frontline workers are in the best position to see where processes might be improved. Such workers can provide valuable perspectives regarding where to locate the needles that drive process improvements in the haystack of RFID data, or which processes might benefit from applying the technology. Companies with an organization-wide process-improvement culture will see greater opportunities for applying RFID, simply because there are more people actively engaged who personally understand current process shortcomings and the practical realities described by collected data.

Adler noted that "...worker empowerment degenerates into abandonment if work teams fail to get the right tools, training in their use, and support in their implementation," and that committed management leadership was required to make the necessary investment possible. Although most assembly workers at the NUMMI plant had only a high-school education, training helped them to produce world-class vehicles. Employees today can benefit not only from training in how to use RFID applications, but also in continuous improvement principles and techniques.

For example, thinking about RFID in a lean context may help employees see additional opportunities while experimenting with the technology (see RFID Research Supports Real-World Experimentation for related discussion). In an article titled RFID Opportunity Analysis for Leaner Manufacturing, Alexandra Brintrup and her colleagues described how simple lean diagramming tools can help to identify processes that can be improved by using RFID.

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