Sunday, November 9, 2008

Production Bottlenecks

78. Production Bottlenecks

Whether you’re still a student or out working full time in your own studio there are factors in your life which place arbitrary limits on your productivity. Everybody’s got them and it doesn’t take an outrageous amount of pencil and paper to figure them out. In this case, I’m referring just to the physical limitations of time and equipment. The limits placed on you by emotion, psychology and lifestyle are a different matter.
At one point in my evolution as a self-employed potter, I was feeling pretty badly about not getting enough pots made. (I often feel this way, actually). I correctly understood that without sufficient inventory I simply could not earn enough money to keep things going. Luckily I had the thought to speculate about my maximum output capacity. If I were a better organized and more competent potter and never let my kiln get cold except for days I had to be away selling pots, how many pots per year could I produce?
It’s a relatively simple problem. The kiln holds x number of average sized pots, each pot gets fired twice (bisque and glaze), say 250 firing days per year. And the final number was… way too low. Given my average price per piece the very best I could possibly hope for was still poverty.
I thought of three solutions immediately. One, switch to single firing, thus doubling the number of glaze firings per year. Intriguing, but as yet impractical. My return customers and I were too loyal to my existing palette of clays and glazes. I have, since that time, once-fired several clay armchairs in wood fueled kilns and in a very large electric kiln (borrowed) with a computer controller. Results have been excellent.
Two, I could replace my current kiln with a larger one. Impractical at that time, because I was renting and couldn’t really add the additional electrical service I would have needed for a larger, higher amp kiln. Switching to a large gas kiln was likewise impossible for very similar reasons.
And three, buy a second kiln so that while one was cooling the other could be heating up. This I did, and I also built a little shed in the backyard to house them and that eliminated the need for a vent system.
Four, increasing prices on the current inventory did not seem practical at the time. Since then, however, I have raised my prices twice and sales have remained strong after some initial drop-off.
Keep in mind, this solution still only doubled the previously calculated maximum annual capacity. I might someday improve my studio practices to the point where I was again being held back by the lack of kiln space but that would not be for quite a while.
In the meantime, I had discovered another bottleneck in my production. You see, I was driving a heroic little Toyota Tercel two door hatchback at the time. I needed a van. Later the van needed a trailer, and so on. Now I have an even bigger van, without a trailer.
Every business must periodically evaluate itself in this way. What goals do you set for yourself? What’s on your shopping list that will help to improve your productivity and profitability? You will love doing better. But first you must figure out what it is that is holding you back.

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