2/15/2000 | 6 MINUTE READ

Get in the Game

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Can playing a board game make your facility more productive? (Hint: Honda thinks the answer is affirmative)


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Life, Risk, Sorry, Monopoly. Adored by child and grown up alike, these board games have shaped generations, teaching skills for success in the real world. Grappling with ponderous decisions. Plotting cunning strategies. Facing dire consequences. Asserting adversarial domination. There are plenty of good lessons and fun to be had by playing games, no doubt. Except that in the real world you can’t just move all the pieces back to "Go" and start over when things go horribly wrong.

Consider your closest manufacturing facility. Machines break down. Suppliers ship unacceptable product. People make mistakes. Parts go on back order. Money doesn’t grow on trees. Demand shifts. There are only too many paths to mediocrity, or worse, failure. And even if you’re "winning" now, there’s no guarantee that you won’t be the loser tomorrow, next week, next month or next year.

In the face of all this pressure, how can there be time for playing games? Improvements can come only from state-of-the-art management techniques backed by statistical analysis and Japanese production methods . . . Discipline is what’s needed in the plant . . . Games are for marketing and human resources! Who in their right mind is playing games?

Guys in White Shirts

Meet John Lightcap and Gary Pelini, staff engineers with the Equipment Management Group at Honda of America Manufacturing’s Anna Engine Plant in Ohio. These two brought a plant simulation board game called "The Manufacturing Game" to Anna to train operations, maintenance and business staff1. Although the training program has only been running for a short time, Lightcap and Pelini are already sold on its potential success. Why? Because after playing the game, almost everyone has a similar reaction: paradigm shift. Yes, that term gets thrown around these days more than a Frisbee. However, Lightcap and Pelini both swear that this is the real deal. Lightcap’s eyes light up with enthusiasm as he describes the game as a model of Anna: "It just fits." (More on the Honda guys later…)

It isn't "Chutes and Ladders"

The Manufacturing Game is much like classic board games in that it teaches decision-making and strategy skills. Except that this game is focused on solving manufacturing problems—from equipment breakdowns to market fluctuations. In other words, this is a board game that’s firmly grounded in reality, a way to practice dealing with the everyday disasters of running a real plant.

The game is the brainchild of Winston Ledet, Ph.D., who created it in 1991 at DuPont Chemical. This came after six years of benchmarking maintenance operations at manufacturing facilities all over the globe; the game is based on these observations. (And on Ledet’s observation that maintenance is the key to keeping machines running, also making it the key to production.) The game integrates a number of manufacturing principles (preventive maintenance, process reliability, just-in-time delivery, inventory reduction, total quality, and operational discipline among others) into one simulation that reinforces a systems approach to plant management, called "total productive manufacturing." Players get a complete overview of how these principles interrelate to create a reliable, profitable, and more productive manufacturing operation.

The basic principle of the game is that the only way to achieve this success is to eliminate defects from the manufacturing process. And the only way to eliminate defects is through cooperative planning and training.

Out with the Defects

In the game, as in real life, defects come from bad raw materials, machines breaking down, defective service parts, or human error. In the game, however, the defects are easier to see than they might be in real life. This is one of the great strengths of the game—it translates virtually every aspect of a plant’s maintenance and operations into a visual representation. Poker chips of various colors represent materials, machinery, labor, parts and defects. The game board has clearly defined spaces and paths along which these chips are moved to represent the production cycles in the plant.

Like many board games, players use both dice and play money. But unlike most board games, The Manufacturing Game is administered by a facilitator. This is necessary to help speed up the learning curve (it is a fairly complicated game), as well as to provide answers to the many inevitable questions ("Why can’t I just force them to work overtime?"). Plus, the facilitators interrupt the game for periodic discussions, making the lessons of the game very clear for all the participants.

Players work as a team in each of the three departments: operations, business services and maintenance. Every round, which stands for a week of production time, each department gets to plan its actions and make the tough decisions about running production, planning maintenance, investing in training, working overtime, etc. Ideally, everyone playing the game assumes a role different than his or her real-life one, leading to a greater understanding of the challenges faced by "the other guys."2

Once the game starts, each department quickly realizes that they cannot succeed at the game without communicating and working together. For instance, while each department begins with its own "budget" (a stack of play money), many players finish the game with just one central account for all three departments. The fact that players are quick to give up this crucial representation of autonomy is a fitting example of why this simulation works. In the fantasy world of the game, players are able to put aside the politics of the job and trust each other. For some players, this realization may be the most valuable part of their experience.

In the course of a six-hour Manufacturing Game session, players experience an entire 52-week production schedule. While it would be as ridiculous to try to describe all of this activity as it would be to describe a year of operations at any plant, suffice it to say that by the time a player finishes a session, the basic lesson of defect elimination becomes glaringly clear. No matter how much money is spent on planned preventive maintenance, paying overtime or stocking of spare parts, defects always come back to haunt the team.

Fortunately in the game, eliminating defects is easy—players just spend some of their money on "training." In the real world, however, it’s not quite this easy. Understanding what needs to be done is only the first part of the equation. That’s what playing the game provides—understanding. The second part is applying that understanding and actually eliminating the defects. Manufacturing Game facilitators hold a separate seminar for participants who have finished playing the game to address this issue by forming "action teams." The idea is that a cross-functional group of workers identify defects and implement ways to eliminate them. This is done either outside of normal production time or during production time while someone else is covering their primary responsibilities.

Stopping the See-Saw

Action teams are by no means a new idea. Also called "kaizen teams," they’re one of the basics of lean production. Anna had used action teams for over 10 years when Lightcap and Pelini discovered The Manufacturing Game. What they hadn’t discovered, however, was a way to achieve consistency. Even with operators taking responsibility for routine maintenance and improvements made to specific areas and equipment, Anna’s maintenance performance would go up, stabilize, then go back down. Lightcap and Pelini saw that no matter how good any short-term program or initiative was, things always found their way back to normal. According to the Tompkins Scoreboard for Maintenance Excellence, Anna was just "average." And although average was still good (Anna has become Honda’s largest engine plant in the world; it didn’t grow to produce over 900,000 engines by having poor maintenance operations), it wasn’t keeping with the lean principle of continuous improvement.

So why the see-saw effect? According to Lightcap and Pelini, "the root cause was not a lack of understanding, but rather the lack of a philosophy ‘culture’ of proactive equipment management practices."3 That’s why The Manufacturing Game is so appealing to them. It forms a foundation of shared experience and understanding (a culture) upon which a strategy (defect elimination) can be planned. By training a cross-section of its workforce in the game (a target was set at 300 of 2,750 plant associates), Lightcap and Pelini hope to establish a foundation of "change agents" to bring this new attitude4 into the plant. After all, you can’t be a winner if you don’t play the game.