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Managing Complex Production Processes

Understanding technical complexity is intrinsic to developing effective strategies for managing factory operations. The practices that the author observed during a three-year study of ten color picture tube factories highlight two contrasting forms of managing processes -- the control method (suitable when most contingencies are anticipated and the organization can be structured clearly) and the learning method (suitable when problem recognition, definition, and solution are likely to differ for every situation). Detailed survey data from fifty-four of sixty-three existing color picture tube plants also augment the author's in-depth case studies.

Factors relevant to effectively managing production in a factory are logistical complexity (a high volume of transactions or tasks) and technological complexity (the inherent intricacy of the system and its technologies). This paper focuses on the special dictates of technological and process complexity that strain traditional information and process-control systems.

A hybrid of flow/assembly and continuous processes, color picture tube manufacturing consists of 200 key production steps, involving more than two dozen process technologies -- chemical, electrical, optical, and mechanical. At the best-performing factories, appropriate problem-solving techniques, experiment-based learning methods, and organizational procedures for routine tasks aid in managing this complexity.

Complex processes need "generalist engineers" who are knowledgeable about engineering functions and processes beyond their usual domains. Emphasis shifts from "local" process control to "process-wide" management -- managing process interactions and sharing and coordinating information from different processes. Company policies and incentives to develop problem-solving capabilities, acquire detailed engineering knowledge, and hone the analytical skills of workers are critical to the effective functioning of these complex operations.

Adopting learning-based methods of process management promotes an organization's ability to create, acquire, process, and retain new knowledge in an era of increasing complexity and uncertainty.

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