How the Skill Matrix Enables Downstream Pull

Downstream pull, one piece at a time, works not only for inventory control by signaling production or material movement, but also for maintaining smooth balance and flow of work done by people. This can be manual factory work such as assembly and shipping, transactional or administrative work, healthcare-related processes, or even creative knowledge work.
This requires people to be multi-skilled, capable of doing processes both upstream and downstream, but upstream first and foremost. The skill matrix is an effective visual management tool for organizing cross training efforts.
The key thing is to have a “hand-off zone”. Think a relay race and the hand-off zone between runners. They can pass the baton from one runner to the next in a specified zone, not before or after. In terms of downstream pull, this hand-off zone is where the cross-training is required.
A good place to start with cross-training is any process with chronic variation in cycle times, such as mixed model lines, healthcare processes or other knowledge work. These are easy to spot if you just observe the process and see where the work piles up, or if you time it to see where work tends to become imbalanced.
This is simple for quick processes but within a long process, it is best to identify several points at which the hand-off could be accomplished, incrementally. This will allow the downstream person to take on 10%, 20%, 30%, 40%, etc. of the work of the upstream process, as needed. In either case, highlight the “hand-off zones” on the skill matrix to visualize where these processes are.
In the example below, if the final process is a potential source of variability and bottlenecking, the skill matrix can be used to identify people who have been cross-trained to step in and pull work downstream, adding a person to speed up the whole line. This is very effective when you are trying to meet a deadline, or save someone’s life.
Since this will create a chain reaction of the next process downstream needing to also “pull” work from the middle person, you need to design the work such that it is a combination of discrete work elements that can be broken down, cross-trained, and handed off, from beginning to end of a series of steps.
Where you absolutely can’t do this yet, you buffer. Most of us already great at buffering (take a look at your desk or your e-main inbox), but this is a temporary solution. The cost of hidden information, reduced communication, and slower feedback loops can be very high. At the very least, make the buffer visible so it is easy for others to pull from you.
The main considerations for identifying hand-off zones safety, quality and then time balance. If the hand-off point is in the middle of an operation that requires no interruptions in order to perform the key points of the process safely and with good quality, it is best not to hand this off. Safety and quality points being considered, define the hand-off zones based on the best balance of time between upstream and downstream processes.
That’s how the skill matrix enables downstream pull. Don’t forget to kaizen the variation out of the process through standardization, better design of services / products, and better rules for how and when orders are entered. That’s taking the pull all the way to the front end of the business.