The Lost Art of Activity Sampling: A Forgotten Tool in Modern Manufacturing

Activity sampling, coupled with time study techniques, has, unfortunately, become a forgotten art within the realm of present-day manufacturing. As was once meticulously drilled into eager minds, everything eventually comes down to time. It is thus essential to scrutinize the best and most efficient utilisation of time for all our undertakings.

While there are myriad tools available, activity sampling stands out as one of those formidable tools to always have in your armory. It’s a phenomenal method that enables economically studying extended activities or a group of such activities, yielding statistically accurate data.


Understanding Activity Sampling?

To delve deeper into the concept of activity sampling, imagine a group of machines, processes, or people observed over an extended period. At regular intervals, the observer records the ongoing activities at random periods of the day/week. Every observation precisely notes what is happening at a given time—eventually building a measure of the percentage of time the activity spans over the hour, day, or any chosen timeline.

This method proves especially useful in estimating the proportion of value-added time to non-value added time within your business processes. Typical observations may cover instances such as machine breakdowns, transportation of material, change-overs, periods of waiting, operating, and paperwork filling, etc. Although these examples tilt more towards manufacturing operations, the method is equally vital in examining back-office processes and identifying potential time-consuming activities to boost personal productivity.


An Example Activity Sampling in Action

Let’s take a practical example to understand these observations. Consider sampling the activity of ‘packing’ involving three people/processes. The activity is conducted over two hours at random times of the day/week, with observations taken every two minutes. The results can be illustrated visually to represent allocated percentages for each task.



This analysis provides an opportunity to identify possible improvements to work smarter (and not necessarily harder). The process can be augmented by a spaghetti diagram to emphasise material and person movements, detailed time study work, and process mapping.

When analysing, one may notice that Packing Process 2 showcases no computer time within the two hours. Upon further inquiry and understanding, one realizes that Packing Process 2 batches their paperwork before processing it in one hit. Activity sampling would help identify this difference wherein the observation percentage compared to the other two processes would have been higher.

The Benefits of Activity Sampling

Activity sampling presents numerous advantages. It offers unbiased results and can be paused at any point without compromising the results. It’s a technique that can be mastered even with limited training. It allows teamwork to be studied and compared. Given its economical nature, it’s also less time-consuming than many other traditional time-study techniques.

A Final Word

Today’s competitive and fast-paced world demands sharp insights and efficiency across the board. The lost art of activity sampling, if recovered and embraced, can play a critical part in maintaining competitiveness and driving consistent improvements in productivity for businesses in any industry.

So, the question beckons. Are we ready to rediscover this lost art to maximise our potential and fulfil our quest for increased productivity and efficiency?

How Good is Your Factory? Are there Opportunities?

It’s easy to feel like a factory tour is something that happens once every couple years, but in reality it’s something that should happen every day.

When you walk your factory floors there are nine items to get an accurate first impression of how lean you are.

1. Work Stations?
Are they clean, organised, free from unnecessary material and equipment?
Are tools organized, identified and easy to find?
(Are 5S’s in place? Visual labeling? Is the factory well lit? Is equipment clean? Supervision and support personnel on shop floor? Metal on metal contact? Safety hazards? Debris on the floors? Check out the bathroom cleanliness.)

2. How many Monuments do you see?
Monuments are massive machines anchored to the deck, not easily moved to which material has to be delivered to, can cause issues with the flow of product (lack of flexibility)
Are they still in use? Not to be confused with age, often older machines are purpose built and give us flexibility in cellular manufacturing. Can machinery, material locations, drop offs be easily rearranged?

3.Work in Process?
Are there piles and piles of Work in Process (WIP)? Has some of it grown roots, celebrated its 1st, 2nd even 3rd birthdays? Does it have any paperwork? Do you have HOT items?
In the ideal factory you should only have the WIP you are working on and its classed as Standard in Process Stock (SIPS) in my eyes as it is controlled.

4. Can everyone see if they are on Target or Behind Schedule?
Hour by hour monitoring, or close to real time as you can get. Can you see the Abnormal from Normal? Use Red and Green to distinguish. Is abnormal recorded for root cause corrective action?

5. What other Metrics do your teams have?
What charts, graphs, objectives, are posted in the area? Are they a Standard Document? (revision controlled, time and date stamped)
Are the Metrics up to date, reviewed, actioned? Again are they on Target? Can you see the Abnormal from Normal easily?

6. Are Materials delivered to or stacked at the Point of Use?
If a worker loses a component (screw, nut, rivet) do they have to go to the stockroom? Ask yourself how are items replenished? Does the replenishment depend on a crane or forklift?

7. Does the Product Flow?
Through a cell, moving line or in large batches or lots? Are associates close together, can they talk to one another, see one another’s WIP, do they help each other out if something goes wrong?

8. Look at the Testing and Inspection?
Where is the Product inspected and tested? Do the associates do most of the inspections or does the product move to another area? Do you have large numbers of inspectors? What is your inspection backlog? Are your defects recorded, reviewed actioned? Are they reducing?

9. Ask! Talk! Communicate! Question!
The biggest and most important. Show dignity and respect at all times, question and challenge, talk to the people on the front line and ask why? Understand? Use your senses.
This list is not definitive and its definitely not just for manufacturing, you apply to all functions, businesses, sectors, industries. Now Go Look See!

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