Five Product Changeover Best Practices to drive performance results

Lean Manufacturing October 26, 2021
Best practices and tools to drive product changeovers for factory floor workers, management and everyone in between, in manufacturing plants.
Product Changeover small

An American football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” But the way work is done in most factories today is no match for the dynamically changing workforce (especially in the pandemic era), the supply chain landscape or the strive for excellence. Traditional training, communication and problem-solving strategies have serious shortcomings that become more evident at critical moments such as product changeovers, leading to machine downtime, waste and decreased output in the factory.


Born out of these ever-changing needs, Connected Worker platforms have rapidly risen from supporting the frontline workers’ day-to-day tasks (a la safe working environments) to a foundational platform for manufacturing excellence. Building performance efficiency into routine tasks has become a must-have to drive key performance indicators and results. There has never been a better time to shed old processes and embrace improved ways of conducting standard procedures such as product changeovers.

Improving product changeovers is a priority for many as it can drive greater efficiency in

production, minimize downtime and increase output. However, many challenges are standing in the way, including:

  1. Absence of documented standards leading to variances across shifts and plants
  2. Elusive knowledge and ‘tribal’ best practices 
  3. A lack of base KPIs - time to complete changeovers, cost of downtime, and the amount of waste from sub-optimal setup 
  4. Outdated processes and tools 

But as Henry Ford once said, “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” So let’s look at best practices you should consider to optimize this critical process.  


I know what a Product Changeover entails, or do I?

Product changeovers refer to the process of changing a production line from one product to another. To understand ways to optimize this process through a Connected Worker application, let’s take a peek at what is involved in a product changeover.

If you’ve run the process for years, you may find the steps pretty obvious, but it’s fascinating to see how this differs from industry to industry, 

where rich tribal knowledge is accumulated and passed on. Take, for example, the different sanitation requirements across industries, all the way from food products (I’ll take food safety over efficiency any day) to mobile phones. 

Despite these differences, you can see the basic steps in any product changeover include: 

  1. Removal: This involves removing the raw materials for the current product from the production line. It can even include the removal of machine components and sanitizing workstations. It creates a clean cut between the existing and new products coming on the line. This step is crucial in food production when there's a move from producing a product with an allergen to one without an allergen.
  2. Replacement: The next step in the process is switching, removing and adding elements to the production line. You can ensure that the new product will be supported and built according to specifications. 
  3. Setup: Your final step in the process is ensuring that the newly changed items are checked.  With this done, it's time to pat yourself on the back. You are ready to drive maximum quality and output of your new product! 

As with anything, the time taken to complete these steps will vary depending on the specifics of each line and product. Usually, it takes between a few minutes to several hours to complete. If you’re reading this, you probably know that every minute wasted is expensive to the business. This brings us to the best practices to adopt in order to optimize product changeovers. 


Best Practice #1 – Establish Standards 

Reducing changeover time and tightening up steps without sacrificing quality and safety is an oh-so-challenging balancing act, but is important as it has a direct impact on cost reduction. Manufacturers often find that investments in tools and equipment to speed up the product changeover task are well worth it. Efficiencies are gained, productivity goes up, resulting in customers having a more reliable supply of quality goods in the longer run1. Can I hear a win-win-&-win? Unfortunately, too many factory floors suffer from variability in how this critical process is performed - variability between plants, between shifts, and even from one worker to the next. That’s why your starting point should be to go back to basics and establish the best practice, the standard way of doing things.

How to do it?

You’ll want to start by tracking the time it takes between the first product to leave the production line and the new product to meet quality standards, running at full speed. The best way to think of this is to emulate what a pit crew does on the Formula 1 track2. Time from when the car comes into the pit to when it leaves with the proper tune-up determines success in the race. The thrill comes down to nano-seconds. Some factories even use digital boards on the floor to track time during the process, giving real-time visibility and understanding of the baseline to work form. Now all you have to do is “drive” down that number on the board for a checkered finish (see what I did there?).

Lean manufacturing practitioners have come up with a cool acronym for speeding up this process – SMED (Single-Minute Exchange of Dies) or Quick changeover2. It identifies and converts internal activities (activities performed when the line is stopped) to external activities (activities performed when the line is running) and optimizes both activities to minimize time spent on them. 

Say, for example, you notice a machine setting differs between products. You may be able to find a centerline across both products. Exciting. Why? We found a way of eliminating a change during changeovers, just like that. 

Like all production best practices, SMED starts by documenting standards and training workers across shifts and lines. It improves quality and speed, removes variability in the process, AND reduces your reliability on tribal knowledge - a treasure trove lost with worker turnover. 

Clear, documented standards are the foundation of a good product changeover process and offer a clear path to improvement by making it easy to identify deviations.


Best Practice #2 – Documentation, as my lawyer says, document everything! Identifying the standard for product changeover is one thing. Capturing that standard in the form of a Standard Operating Procedure (SoP) and making it accessible for all to reference is just as, maybe more, critical. The sad truth, however, is that many SoPs are seldom accessed or referenced by workers.

Recording and centralizing information on changeovers, including product recipes or drawings, machine settings, cleaning steps, provide everyone with a single source of truth and increase the likelihood that standards will uniformly apply across shifts, workers and plants - scaling the effort of discovery and optimization for maximum impact.

The age-old approach to documenting standards in written format is not optimal. Firstly, lengthy written instructions are difficult to understand, retain and are subject to misinterpretation. Secondly, standards stored in binders stored off the shop floor or accessed on the SharePoint drive are not helpful when they need to be referenced quickly in workflow transparency. Lastly, written standards documentation is a time-consuming process and dependent on team members skilled at writing. These obstacles often result in outdated standards that are rarely accessed and not very useful when they are.

How to do it?

Digital work instructions ensure that standards are easily accessible by the people who need them most, at the right time, in the right place, and in the proper context. Visual work instructions in the form of one-point-lessons are often a great complement to the lengthier written SoPs and allow for easier and more frequent updates.

Work instructions can inform operators of the manual and automated tasks involved in a product changeover. It could be the settings required, the checklists to be followed and even which of the jobs in the checklists are external vs. internal. This level of support, available at the time of need on the factory floor with a quick scan of a QR code, saves valuable time and drives greater efficiency from the worker.  


Best Practice #3 – Effectively train the team: Efficient and practical training for operators on the steps to follow and items to look out for during product changeover is key to optimizing the process. Unfortunately, workflow and communication regarding updates to changeover standards are often done informally during daily meetings, and training relies on in-person shadowing, which perpetuates tribal practices. This creates a broken telephone situation with team members missing critical updates. It also puts an additional burden on supervisors and trainers, especially if your goal is to regularly tweak the process based on new learnings from kaizen events and root-cause analysis around issues. Making sure you can quickly inform, train, and track new product changeover skills is the second best practice.

How to do it?

The most common tools used to track the completion of training in production are spreadsheets. The challenge with this approach is the time and effort to keep these records up to date. Plus, workers themselves rarely have visibility into what training they’ve received or what is outstanding.

Leveraging digital work instructions and a digital skills matrix makes it easy to track who has seen which instruction, and to automatically notify workers when a new standard is published. An individual viewing report helps workers see at a glance what they’ve watched vs what is new. This way, they can watch the short instructional videos as time permits when they have a moment to take their eyes off the line. Moreover, a digital skills matrix can automatically include expiries to ensure workers periodically review critical material. 


Best Practice #4 – Easily Monitor Adherence to Standards 

Standards mean nothing if they are not consistently followed. Unfortunately, it is all too common that senior operators, with years of experience, apply their intuition for optimizing a process, leading to variability and persistent tribal knowledge. 

The good news is that output can be positively impacted if tasks in the changeover process are followed and any deviations are quickly identified and resolved. 

How to do it?

Digital forms and checklists are the right tools for this job. Workers can scan QR codes to easily access the exact checklist needed based on the product and equipment involved.  And to avoid the need to create hundreds of different forms to account for the variation in changeover steps depending on the scenario, digital checklists can keep things easy using advanced forms logic. This super-cool feature dynamically updates the steps and fields in the form based on the data input. Imagine if the checklist could update dynamically when the product being replaced on the line has allergens, or if additional fields could appear when a deviation is detected. These functionalities not only see to it that gaps and mistakes in the activities are covered, but that the first few SKUs of the new product have minimal defects. Now you have your lineup and running with the high-quality output produced right from the get-go. Life is sweet.

Best Practice #5 – Like any good marriage ;), transparency and visibility across the factory throughout the changeover process are crucial to successfully streamlining production events. 

Transparency comes from clear and timely communication of information right from the factory floor to supervisors and managers. They not only provide visibility into issues and statuses but also ensure support is available quickly when needed. Knowing the focus and goals of management and communications from the top-down keeps the factory floor workers knowledgeable and empowered to contribute towards those goals by applying their hands-on experience. 

Being transparent about the target change over time for your plant is a perfect start. Pulling information into dashboards is a great way to showcase the metrics in one view across the organization for easy understanding and analysis. Understanding machines that contribute to gaps in product quality also helps. These steps highlight the opportunity to fix/add tooling in order to speed up changeovers. 

How to do it?

A connected worker solution aims to be a single point of engagement for workers - a platform through which they can gain insight, learn, share and work more autonomously. An important condition for a worker to be autonomous is ensuring they have the data and insight needed to manage (not just operate) their equipment. 

Consolidating KPIs and machine data from multiple systems, and making these accessible to workers at their workstations through data dashboards, can be an easy and immediate benefit to the product changeover process. For example, the dashboarding capability in Poka allows workers to scan a QR code at a workstation or machine, and see the critical data points that will help them identify deviations.

Additionally, the forms and checklists capabilities mentioned above provide an automated and open method of flagging irregularities on the line, leading to optimization and improvement post haste. And the culture of transparency allows teams to work together and collaborate on smarter, faster solutions, in an aligned manner, rather than focusing on shifting blame.

Being an enabler of communication in these instances, workers input deviation information right from tablets at their workstations. Team leads review deviations, offer help and can sign follow-on actions as needed. 

To Wrap it Up

These gains are especially rewarding when compounded across multiple lines and in environments with a high number of product SKUs that depend on an efficient product changeover process... Of course, these best practices are nothing without foundational values enabling them to take effect across the different levels of your plant. 

When you bring all these best practices together, you will no longer have suboptimal changeovers. Applying the learnings back into new standards drives continuous improvement, becoming part of the plant’s DNA. 

Looking at the magnitude of the potential for improvement in the changeover process can seem daunting. But with a digital Connected Worker platform, many of these steps become easy. I’ll leave with this quote from Mark Twain who once said “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection”. 

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