Data collection is the foundation that underpins great business improvement decisions. While there are many ways to collect data, tool time studies, also called time and motion studies, is one of the most popular and trusted methods.

Tool time studies are unique as they help you understand what’s really going on in the field by getting close to the work as it’s happening. Tool time studies provide you with a way to look closely at how things are done, examine disruptions, and identify frustrations experienced by the team. Tool time studies also create the space to identify opportunities, look for new ways to perform work, and measure changes made.

Let’s look at a workplace example to bring tool time and its data collection to life. Imagine you need to reduce plant maintenance times by 15 per cent, but you’re not sure how to leverage your existing resources and meet this target. While you could survey your maintenance team members or seek feedback via focus groups, a much more effective starting point is timed workplace observations. Tool time analysis helps you diagnose areas of waste, and make timely, safe, and sustainable business decisions based on data and evidence rather than assumptions and guesswork.

When to use tool time data collection over other methods

Tool time is the ‘go to’ data collection strategy for many asset-intensive organisations. You should consider tool time data capture if you want to:

  1. Build a baseline and better understand your current performance or as an input into a holistic assessment.
  2. Validate improvements already implemented to demonstrate before and after results.
  3. Deeply understand the problem you are trying to solve and develop a strategy to tackle the issue.

All three options stand-alone and are important. Your final decision rests on what you are trying to achieve.

Please remember that like all data collection methods, tool time requires commitment, and an investment of time and resources, to be successful.

I’ve spent decades performing tool time observations and coaching others to use data to improve their business performance. It’s quite common for organisations and business improvement professionals to use tool time data collection to establish a baseline and validate improvement benefits. However, option three, using tool time observations to develop the best strategy to tackle the problem, is the least practised but potentially the most powerful if done correctly.

Tool time helps you understand and solve real (rather than perceived) problems  

A client engaged Minset to streamline their conveyor belt replacement processes. Based on the client brief, we planned to safely speed up the team’s efforts by introducing quick change over methods, amongst other strategies. As part of the client’s engagement process, the business organised a team workshop. It assembled engineers, belt coordinators, and supervisors to meet and review the procedures, looking for areas of improvement and waste.

Before we facilitated the team workshop, we scheduled some tool time data capture to better understand what was happening in the field. While observing the conveyor belt team in action, we found that many team members weren’t using the procedure, and some didn’t know the document existed. So, the problem wasn’t in the documentation or the technical process to replace the conveyor belt. The problem was the team’s ability to execute the task in a standard and repeatable way as described in the documentation.

With our newfound knowledge, we were able to test the existing process, then evaluate the results before embarking on a redesign project. This clarity was only made possible by analysing what was happening in the field, saving valuable time and money.

Challenge your method

I know tool time studies are a powerful tool that offers valuable insights into what is really happening in the workplace. However, that doesn’t mean I use it for everything. Tool time is only one method of collecting data. Before heading out to observe work, make sure it’s the best data collection method for the job at hand.

It’s essential to challenge your thinking. Could you analyse data out of your ERP or other business systems? Would a survey or focus group be more manageable? What data collection method gives you the quality information you need quickly and cost-effectively? What approach will provide you with the most confidence and improve your decision-making capabilities?

Tool time data collection and implementing change

Change management is always part of any good business improvement project. And believe it or not, tool time data collection provides a wonderful opportunity to begin managing change right from the beginning. This ‘hidden benefit’ is hard to explain unless you’ve seen it in action. It can be invaluable in providing you with early data, insights, engagement, and buy-in.

Tool time allows you to spend time with the people you observe to understand more about their perspectives, experiences, cross-team interactions, working world, and frustrations. It also helps you build relationships and credibility which are vital elements to support the upcoming change. Experiencing a 12-hour night shift over the weekend enables you to connect with people. You then have access to different types of conversations when it comes time to solve problems, design better ways of working and drive future workplace and cultural changes.

Manual or digital data collection?

Manual tool time data collection, using pen and paper, is a tried-and-true process. Today, digital tools make in-field data collection quicker, easier, and more accurate than ever before. As just one example, we recently used a digital tool for a number of consecutive 12-hour shifts. The project team consistently recorded almost 1,000 pieces of quality, standardised data per shift. It’s virtually impossible to get that level of data capture using the traditional methods.

The new technology also helps avoid the dreaded transfer of handwritten notes into a digital format for analysis. This typically takes hours, can be prone to error, and is a frustrating way to end a long day of workplace observations. Using a digital solution, you can collect more valuable client data to analyse for the same investment of time and effort.

Want to know more about tool time and its benefits?

To find out more go to our article Time and motion study – benefits beyond the numbers.