Gains in productivity call for look at manufacturing process.

How should a manager proceed to improve productivity in his plant?

How does one recognize whether productivity is at, above or below par? And after one knows what areas need improvement, what steps must be taken to induce the desired results?

To determine a plant's current position on a relative productivity scale, follow these three steps:

* Step one: Without calling in a large team of researchers, compare the value added today by your process with that of five and 10 years ago. If there is no measurable percentage of improvement, no progress has been made in productivity.

* Step two: Compare the percentage of labor cost in the company's product currently with that of five and 10 years ago. If the labor cost percentage has stayed the same or increased, no gain in productivity has been made. Most likely, there has been a loss. The second step toward improving productivity is to identify the factors in a given plant that contribute to low productivity.

* Examine the product and its design. Have product design improvements permitted increased productivity by the workers? Or, have changes created a deterioration? For example, any product that is extremely difficult to produce properly will lower productivity - not only in time consumption but also in worker exasperation. Such a job can lower morale and spread to other workers, lowering output.

* Examine the product manufacturing processes. If the processes have remained the same for five, 10 or more years, this may indicate that productivity improvements have been overlooked. Have alternatives been tried or even considered? Automation, a good way to increase productivity, usually requires processing methods be modified from manually oriented or labor-intensive methods.

* Examine manufacturing equipment. If your competitors have more modern, faster, or automated facilities, obviously your productivity is on the low side. Even if your equipment isn't physically obsolete, it may be economically obsolete.

* Examine maintenance activity. Evidence of a heavy schedule for repairs is a bona fide sign of low productivity. Preventive maintenance and low unanticipated downtime are necessary to maintain high output. It's good practice to have key production workers involved in maintenance training courses.

* Examine personnel and supervision practices. Low productivity can frequently result from deteriorated employee morale that is directly influenced by management attitudes. Some managers consider automation a means for eliminating problems with employees. This attitude is an unsound basis for automating. Automation is mainly effective in the production process when human abilities are ineffective. Critical skills and judgments of people can seldom be replaced.

* Examine the worker's environment. Poor safety conditions, poor lighting, noise, etc., all can affect productivity adversely. Automation offers a better work environment and maximum safety by reducing involvement in the process. Many OSHA requirements virtually dictate automation.

* Step three: Determine where and how new equipment and/or techniques should be utilized. I favor a phased approach comprising the following activities:

* A feasibility, engineering and production system study - analyze particular problems and study the applicable state-of-the-art automation technology.

* A concept development and system design study - mock-up and test elements to determine system economics.

* Design and build programs - develop, design and specify the equipment. Build and debug the equipment. Plan the installation.

* Installation and start-up program - install and cycle the equipment. Train the personnel, including production and maintenance.

* System refinement study - post-audit the performance. Design, build and install system additions and improvements for added productive capacity and quality control as required.

Arthur G. Davis is principal of A. G. Davis & Associates, a management consultancy in Chicago, IL., specializing in quality and productivity intervention.

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