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Pilot Project

Major changes are often hard to implement all at once. It may be because the technology or idea is not fully proven, or it may be a lack of resources in getting the bugs worked out. There may also be substantial risk if there is a mistake in the planning that shuts down a large operation.

To combat the potential for problems, a pilot can be used. It is a small scale, working implementation of a project.

Pilots should be structured so that the information gathered from it can be processed, packaged, and used for the full scale rollout. This means it requires a data collection plan, and a formal review process. The lessons should be used to make the full-scale implementation better. Pilots tend to be more extensive than simple tests. They are small scale implementations to prove a concept in the real world. In effect, a pilot is a working model.

Suppose a grocery store chain decides to do home delivery. They could come up with a plan, implement it company-wide, and then have to make changes at all their locations. Or, they could launch a pilot program in one store, or in one market to see how the program is received. They would gather data and learn how to make the program better. These lessons would then be used to avoid mistakes on the full scale launch.

In a large production environment, perhaps a new system of changing over machines is figured out using SMED. The team could build the necessary items for all of the machines, or they could do it for just one, and run it for a few weeks to see what ‘shakes out.’

Pilots are not just for the shop floor improvement projects. Perhaps a new checklist for speaking to customers on the phone is developed, and just a few of the customer service reps are trained up on it initially. Their expertise can help revise the document prior to a full launch.

Pilots have a few advantages—low risk is the biggest. It minimizes the cost of a failure, and lessens the impact on customers and production during the initial learning curve. It can also focus skilled resources. Instead of having manufacturing engineers chasing down production problems on 10 machines, they can all swarm one.

Of course, as with any decision, there are some drawbacks. Pilots increase the time something takes to roll out. This may cause interest to wane, or it may allow competitors to copy you, if the program is externally visible. It also allows skeptics to circle the wagons, and point out every problem that arises. It is much easier to rally support to roll back changes on one machine than on a full scale implementation. Support can easily be lost if the fixes significantly elevate the costs of implementation.

Use pilots judiciously. They work best when there are multiples of the same process. It is hard to figure out how to do a pilot when there is only one person or station doing a process. In those cases, the pilot is the full implementation.

The use of a model cell is, in a common implementation of a pilot program in a Lean operation. It lets you test out new ideas in a real production environment. Things like kanban cards, new bench-building materials, and updated production equipment (like bar code scanners, or scales to confirm correct packaging) can all be developed and tested. These ideas can then be rolled out to a broader area.

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