Identifying the best solution to a problem or the best way forward when several ideas are on the table can be time-consuming and, in itself, wasteful. Roberto Priolo speaks with Liam Hastie, consultant at software developer SIMUL8 Corporation, about the increasingly important role of simulation in every day processes.

Roberto Priolo: Can you introduce SIMUL8 to our readers and tell them what it offers?

Liam Hastie: SIMUL8 is a process improvement simulation soft ware package that lets you quickly test ideas for improvement in a virtual environment helping to reduce costs and improve efficiency.

You can run a simulation of any process in SIMUL8: manufacturing, supply, transportation, even an entire supply chain; testing different conditions and scenarios, and seeing what works best without the risk of changing your real process.

We have users across the world and SIMUL8 has been used to implement change programmes for major organisations including Ford, NASA, Boston Scientific, and the UK NHS.

RP: What are the main advantages of using a simulation software tool and how can it complement the deployment of visual management tools and of a lean programme?

LH: With lean, I’ve found that two things are fundamental: ensuring buy-in of the process and communicating the process. My background is in lean process improvement, and the issue I used to come across was that although I prepared charts and reports, I oft en got the sense that nobody read them! What I like about a simulation is that it’s visual, you run it and you can see people relating to it. It is effective in communicating the process as well as ensuring buy-in.

Simulation also takes the risk out of decision making by essentially having a dry run of your improvement project. If you just do a trial run in real life, you still have to invest time and resources in it, but if you have ten ideas you can quickly simulate all of them and identify the best way forward.

It also adds a bit of freedom to any lean programme by letting you play about with some out-of-the-box ideas that you might not get the chance to try out in real life.

RP: How customisable is the solution?

LH: Very, both from an input and output standpoint. We understand every business is different so have designed the software to handle all sorts of processes and controls on resources. It’s easy to quickly replicate your own process with our drag and drop objects and various options for inputting data or reading directly from a company’s current systems.

As an example, we have an automotive client who doesn’t allow a decision to be made in the organisation without it being simulated first – and this can be in departments as different as the assembly line or the maintenance call centre.

It’s a pretty interesting concept. They get the team in a room, build a small simulation on screen, run it, try out some ideas, and make the decision – it makes a lot of sense and actually speeds up the decision process.

RP: Can you give LMJ readers an example of the work you have done?

LH: A recent project we worked on is with the six sigma team at Gatwick Airport. Gatwick, which is currently expanding and redesigning large parts of the South Terminal, is investing £1 million a day to improve the facilities for passengers travelling to, through and from the airport. Part of this investment has been to create a speedier check-in process for the 34 million passengers that travel through the airport every year.

One of the areas the team looked at was reducing queuing times. By creating a simulation of the check-in area using real flight schedules and airline information the team could experiment with different scenarios for improvement and be sure they’re making the right decisions when making changes.

The team is now using SIMUL8 for other projects at the airport.

RP: IT and virtualisation are often seen with suspicion in the lean community. What do you say to those who think there is no space for IT in lean?

LH: In the stricter sense, we don’t have to use simulation to run a successful lean project. You could also say that you don’t need CAD software to design an airplane, but everybody uses it. In the same way, would you get on an aircraft where the pilot hasn’t simulated a landing?

Everyone has their own way to run lean day to day, and there is logic in the idea to limit the use of IT, but the benefits are evident. Isn’t it a good idea to test a project before running it? Some aspects of the software can speed up lean implementation, for instance SIMUL8 also allows for the quick and efficient drawing of value stream maps.

RP: How do you think the use of IT and, in particular, simulation will change in the next few years?

LH: The recession will have long lasting effects, and assessing risk has never been more important: companies will change processes to achieve growth, and simulation can play a part, by telling them how to achieve more with less and helping them to make objective decisions.

Simulation and IT are going to have a bigger influence in the future. We are all becoming more IT-focused, and the more we go in that direction, the more our staff is becoming IT and computer literate, and the more obvious it becomes that simulating processes is a natural thing to do.

Additionally, younger workers on the shop floor use email, smartphones, Facebook: logging into something is no problem for them. They do that naturally, and it will be increasingly easy to adopt IT tools and simulation in such environments.