INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.—When it came to designing his steel mills, Andrew Carnegie focused on speed and efficient materials handling. His lieutenants ran the mills at a steady, high speed and at full capacity. After Carnegie was bought out, management at the new U.S. Steel Corporation abandoned “swift, even flow” in favor of maintaining high prices, even if that meant running well below capacity. The company’s market share plummeted as competitors cut in on U.S. Steel. This is just one example of the effectiveness of a “swift, even flow” productivity concept detailed in the recent book by Roger Schmenner, professor emeritus of operations management at the Kelley School of Business Indianapolis.
“While the concept of swift, even flow grew, in fits and starts, out of my research over the past 30 years, the urge to apply it has grown out of my teaching and my years as a dean and an academic administrator,” Schmenner writes in the preface of Getting and Staying Productive: Applying Swift, Even Flow to Practice, a book published by Cambridge University Press. A Kelley Indianapolis professor since 1987, Schmenner recently taught at Cambridge as a visiting professor of operations management.
One of the case studies in Schmenner’s book was recently featured in an article in Financial Times . This case explains how orthopedic surgeons at the Franciscan Center for Hip and Knee Surgery in Mooresville, Indiana found a way to reduce costs amid a tight margin.
“You’re not going to reduce the cost of a surgery,” explained Schmenner. “What you can do is to become more productive. That means more operations in a given period time. And that’s what they did.”
The surgeons, Schmenner writes, began treating patients in an assembly-line fashion; doctors moved from one prepared operating room to another, briskly repeating the same procedure over and over. The same pre-op and post-op teams met the patients on the bookends of their procedures, also copying their routines.
“An operation that took upwards of two hours now takes 45 minutes,” said Schmenner. “If you look at swift, even flow, you’re trying to drive out waste and variation. You’re trying to get the start-to-finish time as quickly as possible. So in the operation itself, the team is ready and choreographed and so you’re going from one value-added step to another, driving out all the variation. There’s no idle time.”
Schmenner underwent the knee surgery himself. Though some may criticize swift, even flow method in the operating room as assembly line health care, Schmenner found it appropriate.
“My argument is that’s exactly where I wanted to be when I had my operation,” he said. “I wanted to be on an assembly line because I know they create great, quality products consistently.”
Throughout his book Schmenner stresses the importance of focusing on the productivity of a process, not factors like automation or economies of scale. He uses compelling examples of the ways in which swift, even flow has changed the course of manufacturing: medieval Venetian shipyards, clock making in the Middle Ages, Arkwright’s water frame for textiles, the Industrial Revolution.
“Those who embraced swift, even flow changed history,” Schmenner writes. “Their understanding of the concept, however conscious or unconscious it may have been, led them to take grand and strategic actions that altered the landscape of business.”
A former associate dean of Indianapolis operations for the Kelley School and chief of staff for IUPUI’s chancellor, Schmenner retired at the end of 2010. The following January, he and his wife, Barbie, travelled to Cambridge, England where Schmenner taught for 18 months.
“The atmosphere of Cambridge is wonderful,” he remembered. “It’s a lovely place. The traditions are everywhere, and the history is unbeatable. Cambridge is where Newton studied, where DNA was discovered, and where Darwin developed the theory of evolution. The number of things in which Cambridge was the first is unbelievable.”
Schmenner’s book is available online.