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Discipline of real cells

Article in Journal of Operations Management · August 1999

DOI: 10.1016/S0272-6963(99)00003-0


54 230

2 authors:

Nancy Lea Hyer Karen A. Brown

Vanderbilt University Thunderbird School of Global Manage…


All in-text references underlined in blue are linked to publications on ResearchGate, Available from: Nancy Lea Hyer
letting you access and read them immediately. Retrieved on: 09 November 2016
Journal of Operations Management 17 Ž1999. 557–574

The discipline of real cells

a,) b,1
Nancy Lea Hyer , Karen A. Brown
Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt UniÕersity, 401 21st AÕenue South, NashÕille, TN 37203 USA
Albers School of Business and Economics, Seattle UniÕersity, 900 Broadway, Seattle, WA 98122 USA
Received 24 February 1997; accepted 16 January 1999


Cellular manufacturing ŽCM. has received strong endorsement as an innovation that enhances quality, throughput time,
inventory turnover, workflow, space utilization, and flexibility wNyman, L. ŽEd.., 1992. Making Manufacturing Cells Work.
Society of Manufacturing Engineers, Dearborn, MI.x. However, definitions of what truly is meant by the term ‘manufactur-
ing cell’ vary somewhat among academics and to a large extent among practitioners wShafer S.M., Meredith, J.M., Marsh,
R.F., 1995. Omega 23Ž4., 361–376.x. These discrepancies can make it difficult to compare the results of studies focused on
measuring the effectiveness of cells. It is our position that some of the confusion in the field derives from an assumption that
a cell is simply a layout—nothing more—leaving room for numerous approaches to cell design and operation. Our goal in
writing this paper is to suggest a more comprehensive perspective. Based on our ongoing field research and an exploration of
the literature, we propose an underlying theory to describe the discipline necessary for effective cell operation. We
differentiate real cells from other types of cells based on the presence of key linkages. In a real cell, work tasks and those
who perform them are connected in terms of time, space and information. Of these linking mechanisms, which represent the
core of the cell discipline, information appears to be the most significant determinant of effectiveness. Additionally, we
emphasize that cell operators are central to the discipline, underscoring our position that a cell is more than an arrangement
of equipment. Factors such as multi-skilling, reduced set-up times, small transfer batch size, and the presence of visual
controls serve as enablers that strengthen the discipline, but are not fundamental to our theoretical definition. Configurations
not adhering to the discipline of time, space, and information may be classified as latent or virtual cells, and may be
expected to perform at levels less than those of real cells. Although our theory of cell discipline is grounded in observational
study, its potential robustness will be confirmed most appropriately through carefully designed and executed field
experiments. q 1999 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Discipline; Real cell; Cellular manufacturing

1. Introduction A discipline in this sense refers to a set of rules or

methods that produces a state of order. With respect
The purpose of this paper is to establish a theoret- to cells, discipline means the adherence to a well-
ical framework for describing the discipline of man- articulated set of criteria. Such a discipline is missing
ufacturing cells and the elements that comprise them. from earlier work on cells, which, in our view, has
not been well grounded in theory. It is therefore our
Corresponding author. Tel.: q1-615-322-2530; E-mail:
purpose here to present the kind of conceptual analy- sis that is long overdue in the field. The need for
Tel.: q1-206-296-5712; E-mail: theoretical structure is not unique to the study of

0272-6963r99r$ - see front matter q 1999 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
PII: S 0 2 7 2 - 6 9 6 3 Ž 9 9 . 0 0 0 0 3 - 0
558 N.L. Hyer, K.A. Brownr Journal of Operations Management 17 (1999) 557–574

cells. Within the field of operations management, machines. By 1965, there were reportedly over 750
others have noted the dearth of theory available to Soviet firms which had implemented Mitrofanov’s
describe constructs and phenomena ŽMeredith et al., ideas ŽGrayson, 1971.. According to CM’s Russian
1989; Sakakibara et al., 1992.. progenitors, a cell is defined as a set of dissimilar
Cellular manufacturing ŽCM. has received wide- machines that is grouped physically together and
scale attention in the literature; researchers have committed, through tooling and scheduling, to the
examined it through methods ranging from mathe- production of a set of similar parts, each of which is
matical modeling to empirical field research. produced in small to medium lots ŽHyde, 1981a,b..
Throughout most of this work, there appears to be at Burbidge, prior to his death in 1995, wrote most
least a modicum of agreement about the definition of extensively in this area and shunned the term ‘cells’
the term ‘manufacturing cell.’ However, these defini- for its prison connotations ŽBurbidge, 1975.. He
tions suffer from two inherent weaknesses. First, contended that these machine groups ‘‘complete all
some reflect a commonly held assumption that a cell the products or parts they make and are equipped
is nothing more than a layout. We take issue with with all the processing facilities they need to do so’’
this perspective; it is our position that cells involve ŽBurbidge, 1991, p. 5.. It was Burbidge’s preference
an integrative discipline that goes beyond physical to use the term, group technology ŽGT., to refer to
configuration. Second, at the other extreme, some manufacturing cells.
writers include an array of design elements, operat- More contemporary writers often describe CM as
ing characteristics and enabling factors in describing an application of GT or, in many cases, omit the
cells. These contributions do not identify fundamen- reference to GT all together. Garza and Smunt Ž1991.,
tal cell building blocks; moreover, they create con- e.g., define CM as ‘‘an application of GT in which
founding conditions for the predictor variables tested similar parts are grouped into part families and are
in field research and simulation studies. separately processed in manufacturing subsystems
Given the significance of CM as a research topic, called cells’’ Žp. 93.. Steudel and Desruelle Ž1992.
it seems ripe for systematic analysis. This paper has assert that ‘‘in a manufacturing work cell, machines
been written to fill a perceived void, engage in of dissimilar functional type are grouped together
critical thinking about an important operations con- and dedicated to processing a family of similar parts’’
struct, and stimulate our colleagues to examine the Žp. 118.. Wemmerlov ¨ and Hyer Ž1989. observe that
ideas set forth here. ‘‘a manufacturing cell is a cluster of dissimilar ma-
chines or processes located in close proximity and
dedicated to the manufacture of a family of parts Ža
2. Literature review
cell family.. The parts are similar in their processing
The earliest work on CM originated in research requirements Žrequired operations, tolerances, ma-
conducted in the former USSR by Sokolovsky in the chine tool capacities, etc..’’ Žp. 1151.. Vakharia
1930’s. He proposed that ‘‘parts of similar configu- Ž1986. holds that ‘‘ . . . a production cell is a group of
ration and features should be manufactured in the machines or processes of functionally dissimilar types
same way by a standard technological process’’ that are placed together and dedicated to the manu-
ŽHyde, 1981b, p. 153.. This early work spawned facture of a specific range of part families’’ Žp. 250..
numerous applications in a variety of industries, Taking another perspective, Shafer et al. Ž1995. ac-
including metal working, machine tool production, knowledge that, based on practitioner definitions, a
electrical machinery, aircraft equipment, and foundry cell can be any grouping of machines, including
operations. Following the growth in successful CM those based solely on function. We have made a
implementations, further Russian research and writ- similar observation, once hearing a shop floor super-
ing refined CM definitions. For example, the book of visor comment: ‘this is our drill press cell,’ when
Mitrofanov Ž1966., The Scientific Principles of Group referring to a cluster composed entirely of machines
Technology Žwhich won the Lenin Prize and was of the same type.
translated into English in 1966., proposed to manu- With the exception of Shafer et al. Ž1995., this
facture a family of parts using a line or cell of sample of definitions seems reasonably consistent.
N.L. Hyer, K.A. Brownr Journal of Operations Management 17 (1999) 557–574 559

They all imply that cells Ž1. produce part or product cell design and performance. Typical company visits
families, Ž2. involve physically co-locating equip- involved extensive plant tours, interviews with plant
ment to produce these families, and Ž3. commit the managers, interviews with cell supervisors and oper-
equipment to family production. However, these def- ators, and reviews of performance data. Industries
initions reveal an underlying assumption that cells represented in these company visits included elec-
may be described as layouts, alone. tronics, automotive, footwear, apparel, textiles, ma-
Another limitation of existing definitions is that chine tools, and aerospace. Both researchers kept
they do not necessarily provide a theoretical founda- field notes and gathered performance data in the
tion that would allow the cell concept to be applied companies with which they had joint or individual
across industries and sectors. If our definitional foun- contact. We exchanged field notes, regularly dis-
dations are broad enough, we should be able to apply cussing our observations.
them in the service sector. 2 One might also argue During the past 2 years, we have visited over 15
that existing definitions are too general; they are not firms with the express purpose of exploring what
specific enough to permit us to discriminate among works and what does not work in manufacturing
various constructs. For example, most single product cells. Using a standard set of questions, we asked
or mixed model assembly lines meet the three crite- operations managers to relate stories about cells they
ria described above. Are these configurations truly have implemented and to highlight the outcomes that
cells? As we shall describe in Section 3, we believe have resulted from the changes they made. From this
that the answer depends on the presence or absence very rich set of stories, we uncovered consistent
of key linkages that constitute the integrative disci- patterns that ultimately led us to reformulate our
pline of real cells. We argue in this paper that cells thinking about cells. Throughout the process, our
are much more than layouts, and that there is an definitions and their underpinnings evolved with each
underlying discipline that distinguishes cells from new or return plant visit, serving to reinforce or
other operations constructs. reshape our emerging theory. Our approach was
consistent with the prescriptions for case study re-
search of Eisenhart Ž1989. in that we intentionally
3. Field methods selected theoretically useful cases, used multiple
Žtwo. investigators, considered qualitative and quan-
We drew our ideas for theory development from titative data, and allowed the study to change course
insights we gained while conducting exploratory field as themes emerged.
and library research. The nature of our literature As we reviewed field data and reflected on our
search is evident in our citations, but the field work notes, we came to realize that with respect to manu-
deserves further explanation. Both authors have sus- facturing cells, there were distinct patterns consistent
tained ongoing interests in CM and frequently visit across industries. We discovered that numerous ap-
manufacturing companies in order to gain a better proaches to manufacturing are called ‘cellular’ in
understanding of implementation, operation, and ef- industry, but only those meeting certain criteria actu-
fectiveness issues related to cells. The ideas ex- ally functioned as cells. In Section 4, we present
pressed here were deductive outcomes of this open- these findings and elaborate upon the logic support-
ended exploration, which has taken place in more ing them.
than 50 companies during the past 12 years. Some of
these visits were associated with a variety of re-
search projects, some of them were related to stu- 4. Real cells: essential building blocks
dent-centered benchmarking exercises, and some of
them were part of a more recent quest to understand 4.1. The cell discipline
Based on a deductive analysis of our field experi-
Although cell concepts have very real and practical applica-
ences and the foundational work of our academic
tions in services, for the sake of consistency, our focus in this colleagues, we have developed a theory describing
paper will be restricted to manufacturing examples. the elements of the CM discipline. Our goal in
560 N.L. Hyer, K.A. Brownr Journal of Operations Management 17 (1999) 557–574

developing the theory was to seek common denomi- According to our definition, a real manufacturing
nators that distinguish cells from other manufactur- cell has two general categories of characteristics, or
ing constructs, and to do so in a way that meets the definitional elements. The first one matches previ-
requirements of good theory. As introduced by Pfef- ously written accounts in the literature cited above.
fer Ž1992. and reinforced by Eisenhart Ž1989., good The second one extends the definition beyond issues
theory should be both parsimonious and testable. As of layout. A real manufacturing cell involves:
we shall demonstrate, this theory meets the parsi- Definitional element 1: the dedication of equip-
mony criterion through its simple structure. The ment to a family of parts or products which have
simplicity of the theory lends itself to tests in labora- similar processing requirements; and
tory and field settings—elements of our proposed Definitional element 2: the creation of a work
cell discipline may be assessed for their influence on flow where required tasks and those who perform
cell outcomes such as cost, quality and delivery. The them are closely connected in terms of time,
results are likely to be of interest to plant managers, space and information Žsee Dean and Snell, 1992,
thereby encouraging cooperative research efforts. for a discussion of these linkages in the broader
Given the previously published recognition that context of integrated manufacturing..
different kinds of cells exist Že.g., Vakharia, 1986; Our first definitional element reinforces the com-
Shafer et al., 1995., we shall establish the ideal, fully monalties among the definitions that have appeared
functioning cell as our baseline, referring to this as a in the operations literature. Although it represents
real cell. A real cell, in our framework, is one that generally accepted thought, we provide some elabo-
has reached its full potential, i.e., it has achieved the ration in the next few paragraphs to set the stage for
desired benefits Žshort lead time, high quality and so our discussion of the second definitional element.
forth. which motivated design and implementation.
We consider a real cell to represent more than just a 4.1.1. Definitional element 1: dedication to process
layout—it must adhere to a simple Žand therefore, families
parsimonious. discipline, as described below. Further The term, dedication, as it appears in our defini-
on, we will open the door to other cell types within tion, implies that there are no competing flows from
the framework established for real cells. Our charac- non-family items. A cell cannot function truly as a
terization of the discipline of manufacturing cells is cell if it is required to process parts from multiple,
summarized in Fig. 1. Greater detail is presented unrelated families. Under such competing circum-
below. stances, the layout would be characterized more as a
job shop than a cell.
A part or product family is defined by similar
processing requirements. However, what constitutes
‘similar’ is highly contextual. An example from our
fieldwork illustrates the range of groupings that may
be considered ‘similar.’ At one West Coast electron-
ics manufacturer, the ‘package cell’ consists of a
single high-speed, multi-spindle, automated milling
machine capable of producing an almost infinite
variety of ‘packages’—machined components which
will house microcircuits. In contrast, the ‘connector
cell,’ located in the same plant, fabricates and then
assembles only three components of a single part. In
both of these examples, and in all real cells, the
family must possess a sufficient level of process
commonality to allow operations to follow a similar
sequence through the cell and to minimize the need
Fig. 1. Real manufacturing cells: three critical elements. to spend time on set-up changes between family
N.L. Hyer, K.A. Brownr Journal of Operations Management 17 (1999) 557–574 561

variations. Obviously, the flexibility of the equip- decisions pertaining to material handling can also
ment and bandwidth of operator skills determines the facilitate short transfer and waiting times. As one can
range of parts that can be reasonably accommodated see, a large number of design and operating elements
in a given cell. Thus, there is no universal rule for can contribute to a tight time linkage. The specific
the number of items within a family. However, combination of enablers is a secondary concern to
Ingersoll Engineers Ž1991. consultants have found our definitional framework; what defines a real cell
that cell performance declines when this figure ex- is the presence of minimal transfer and waiting
ceeds four or five items if each one requires signifi- times, which may be achieved in a variety of ways.
cant new set-ups or changes in operations sequence We next turn our attention to space—physical
ŽJeske, 1995.. proximity is essential to a real cell. Family-dedicated
equipment must be co-located. Further, it must be
4.1.2. Definitional element 2: time, space and infor- arranged within the cell such that it reflects the
mation linkages among people and tasks dominant flow pattern of cell parts. Beyond this
The second definitional element represents the simple rule, the form of the proximity or how it is
most distinguishing aspect of our framework—a cell enabled is not important. So, as we shall discuss
is characterized by the creation of a workflow where below, physical proximity may be accomplished with
tasks and those who perform them are tightly con- a U-shape, a straight line, or some other arrange-
nected in terms of time, space and information. Our ment. Similarly, certain enablers facilitate physical
reference to those who perform the tasks is espe- proximity. A host of cell design decisions involving
cially important—most cell manufacturing defini- machine assignment and arrangement, machine shar-
tions do not include people as factors in the arrange- ing, and the ‘miniaturization’ of large scale pro-
ment. The significance of the three critical linkages cesses Že.g., heat treat, injection molding, and wave
connecting people and tasks is as follows: solder. facilitates performing cell tasks in close prox-
Time: transfer and waiting times between sequen- imity.
tially dependent tasks are minimized; In the context of cell discipline, the space linkage
Space: all cell tasks are performed in physical must encompass cell operators as well as cell equip-
proximity to one another; and ment. Operators must be close enough to each other
Information: people and machines responsible for to allow them to easily transfer materials, but per-
cell activities have access to complete information haps more importantly, to see each other, converse,
about the disposition of work within the cell. ‘gel’ as a team, and solve problems quickly. The
We elaborate on each of these linkages below, cells Žcalled modules. in one footwear manufacturer
stressing the critical role of enablers—specific pro- that we visited provide a good illustration. Each
cedures, policies, design decisions or other factors operator was assigned to a primary task, but also
that make these linkages possible. Table 1 highlights performed the previous or successor task depending
key enablers and a discussion follows. on the workflow. The pace of work was rapid, and
We begin our discussion of Table 1 with a focus close operator proximity was an absolute necessity.
on time linkages. According to our definitional Operators had to be close enough both to see what
framework, a real cell operates such that there is was happening at adjacent stations and to step in and
very little delay between the completion time at one perform peripheral operations.
station and the start time at the next station. These Because human proximity is important, we must
tight connections in time are achieved through some consider group size. At what point does a group
combination of enablers such as small lot sizes, become too large for visibility, communication,
small transfer batch quantities, reliable part delivery, problem solving, and the like? Some of these ques-
and minimal set-up times. Cross-training and job tions have received attention in the organizational
rotation policies that permit operators to move to behavior literature and researchers seem to agree that
stations where they are needed may also play a role beyond 10 people, task groups begin to break down
in enabling the temporal linkages by diminishing the Že.g., Moreland and Levine, 1992.. Our field re-
delay effects associated with bottlenecks. Cell design search also suggests that these conclusions are appli-
562 N.L. Hyer, K.A. Brownr Journal of Operations Management 17 (1999) 557–574

Table 1
Linkages and example enablers
Enabler Impact Impact on Impact on
on time space information
linkage linkage linkage
Small lot sizes v Ø
Small transfer batch quantities v Ø Ø
Parts delivered on time v
Incoming material conforms to specifications v
Effective material handling equipmentrprocesses v
Short set-up times v Ø
Balanced workstations v Ø
Small cell size v v v
Cross-training and job rotation v v
Juxtaposition of sequentially related equipment v v v
Žequipment in cell arranged to accommodate dominant flow.
Miniaturization of ‘monument’ processes Ø v Ø
Equipment that can be moved as cell needs change Ø v Ø
Preventive maintenance policies v
Operators skilled at preventive maintenance v Ø
Common operator language Ø v
Positive interpersonal relationships between operators Ø v
Operators continually share information Ø v
Operators skilled at teamwork Ø v
Operators have visual access to all cell activities Ø v
Ž‘line-of-sight’ information.
Operators have ‘whole task’ understanding Ø v
Management control systems Ø v
Žvisual, manual auditory, computerized.
that make information quickly
available to operators
Presence of feedback loops among cell stations and between Ø v
cell and customersrsuppliers
Job designs and other policies that permit operators to take Ø v
action in response to signals
Job designs and other policies Že.g., compensation. that hold Ø v
operators jointly accountable for results
Low noise environment v

Time linkage: transfer and waiting times between sequentially dependent task are minimized.
Space linkage: all cell tasks are performed in physical proximity to one another.
Information: people and machines responsible for cell activities have access to complete information about the disposition of work within
the cell.
Žv . Primary enabler—directly and strongly enables the linkage.
Ž Ø . Secondary enabler—indirectly enables and strengthens linkage.

cable to cell environments; we have seen only a few of the difficulty to the unwieldy group size. We will
effective cells with more than 10 operators. For discuss these issues further in a later section contrast-
example, at one Northwest medical equipment manu- ing cells with assembly lines, but we introduce the
facturer, the operations group formed what they idea of group size here to emphasize its relevance to
called a ‘super cell,’ comprised of 18 workstations the space issue. If the cell team becomes too large,
and 18 operators. They quickly discovered that this the geography of the cell becomes too large as well.
cell could not achieve the performance levels of The third critical linkage involves information.
smaller cells in the same plant. They attributed much The information to which the dedicated people and
N.L. Hyer, K.A. Brownr Journal of Operations Management 17 (1999) 557–574 563

machines must have access may include production single high-volume part or product and not to a
goals, order status, specifications, procedures, part family. Exceptions can be found, however. At the
availability, equipment function and so forth. The Kenworth Truck plant near Seattle, a mixed model
relative importance of each type of information de- assembly line runs like clockwork producing Class 8
pends on the situation. Information, in and of itself, commercial trucks. The truck at station 1 may be an
is not sufficient—to be effective, information must aerodynamic T-800 with a sleeper compartment, and
be timely, accurate and complete. The various media the truck at station 2 may be a C-500 with extra fuel
for data delivery, as well as interpersonal skills that tanks and featuring a different engine and a different
facilitate operator communication, serve as important transmission from those found on the truck at station
enablers for this core element. For example, we have 1. Thus, we have an example of the sequential
observed in numerous plant visits that employees arrangement and flexibility often associated with a
may garner order status data by visually scanning cell, but as described below, the configuration of the
cell workstations, asking co-workers, or referring to line has some attributes that disqualify it from inclu-
conveniently placed computer screens. However, it is sion in our definition of a manufacturing cell.
not the use of a particular methodology that defines a The Kenworh Truck line, along with many other
real cell—it is simply the accessibility of the infor- assembly lines, does not fully satisfy the second
mation in some form. portion of our definition: all tasks and people must
Taken together, the two definitional elements we be closely connected in terms of time, space and
propose Ž1—dedication of resources to a similarly information. Proximal tasks on an assembly line are
processed family, and 2—the tight connection of closely connected via the three critical linkages, but
tasks and people in terms of time, space and informa- the entire line is not; the first and last stations on the
tion. represent the core of the cell discipline. They line Žas well as many other pairs. are distant tempo-
both define what a cell is and can be used to rally, spatially, and in terms of information ex-
distinguish cells from other production alternatives. change. Operators at the last station know nothing
Further, the three linkages—time, space, and infor- about the disposition of work at the first station and
mation—interact with one another, and with en- vice-versa. There is limited communication, infre-
ablers, to influence cell performance. The discrimi- quent if any feedback, and little joint problem solv-
nating power of our definition, the relationships ing. For a work arrangement to be classified as a
among linkages, and the role of enablers in strength- cell, an entire set of tasks, not just subsequent or
ening the relationships among the linkages, are all adjacent tasks, must be closely affiliated. The Ken-
described in the remainder of this section. worth line cannot meet our criteria primarily because
of its size.
4.2. The discipline as discriminator: assembly lines,
This raises the question: ‘At what point of expan-
job shops and cells
sion does a cell devoted to assembly tasks become
Manufacturing cells have been recognized as hy- an assembly line?’ This is where we must return to
brids that capture the most attractive features of our discussion of group size. As we mentioned previ-
assembly lines and job shops. This raises questions ously, group research suggests that the ideal task
about where cells begin and end on the typological team will number less than 10, with three to seven
continuum. The cell discipline we propose brings held forth as ‘ideal.’ Based on extensive laboratory
increased clarity to this discourse. research, Yetton and Bottger Ž1983. contend that
We have witnessed academic debates as to decision quality deteriorates when group size ex-
whether or not some assembly lines may be classi- ceeds five. Other research has shown that as group
fied as cells. From our perspective, assembly lines size increases, there is likely to be an increase in
satisfy the first definitional element of manufacturing absenteeism and turnover, a decrease in job satisfac-
cells—people, equipment and material are dedicated. tion, and an increase in social loafing ŽMoreland and
However, they do not usually meet all the linkage Levine, 1992.. These are all phenomena that would
requirements set forth in our second definitional be detrimental to cell function, given the overarching
element. Typically, assembly lines are dedicated to a need for cooperation and teamwork in cell environ-
564 N.L. Hyer, K.A. Brownr Journal of Operations Management 17 (1999) 557–574

ments. Thus, it is our position that beyond a certain

size, a work configuration may no longer be classi-
fied as a cell. A work arrangement reaches this
turning point when operators can no longer see, hear
and communicate with each other, and probably
occurs for most cells somewhere between 6 and 11
Some manufacturing organizations use what they
term mixed-model assembly lines to produce moder-
ate volumes of several similar products. These lines
may have small numbers of operators and stations,
with tasks closely linked by time, space, and infor-
mation, thus qualifying them as real cells. Although
the firm may refer to this configuration as an assem-
bly line, the terminology is probably an historical
artifact. This example points to the need for field
researchers to probe beyond the simple question, ‘do
you have manufacturing cells?’ to determine if the Fig. 2. Fundamental building blocks for real cell effectiveness.
dedication and the three linkages essential to the CM
discipline are present. placement in the center of the triangle signifies that
At the other end of the spectrum from assembly the three linking mechanisms Žtime, space, and infor-
lines, job shops do not meet the requirements of our mation. must be in place if we are to optimize
definition. People and equipment are dedicated to a outcome variables. Moving to the outer perimeter of
process type, not a product or part type. And, given a the triangle, we show a set of arrows depicting
flow of work in batches greater than one, even complementary relationships and their directions of
subsequent tasks may be separated by time. More- influence. Not depicted in Fig. 2, but very much a
over, a job shop’s functional layout typically creates part of our total definitional schema, are the enablers
spatial separations among sequentially related work- identified in Table 1. Taken together, Table 1 and
stations, machines and operators. When large lot Fig. 2 represent a definitional framework similar to
sizes are present, and when sequentially linked work that employed by Sakakibara et al. Ž1992. to describe
stations are beyond conversational distance from one JIT; both models differentiate core elements from
another, the flow of information Žabout quality, for peripheral support Ženabler. mechanisms. However,
example. is likely to be impeded. we go beyond the Sakakibara et al. approach in that
we specify the nature and direction of relationships
4.3. Interactions among cell linkages and enablers among core variables within the construct, and we
signify where the power of an enabler is likely to be
The three linking elements of real manufacturing most influential. Helpful perspectives on the role of
cells—time, space, and information—interact with enablers have been drawn from Joyce et al. Ž1997.,
each other, and with enablers, to influence cell per- Galbraith Ž1973, 1994. and Katzenbach and Smith
formance. The nature of these interactions is de- Ž1993a,b..
picted in Fig. 2.
Beginning at the center of the model, we have 4.3.1. Time and information
shown four performance criteria: quality, cost, deliv- Of the interrelationships depicted in Fig. 2, the
ery, and flexibility. Although we mentioned several link between time and information is the most dy-
more specific dimensions for success in Section 1 of namic, as indicated by the double set of arrows on
this paper, these four generally accepted operations the left side of the triangle. We begin with the
metrics Že.g., Hayes and Pisano, 1994. capture the downward arrow focusing on the time advantages
strategic rationale behind the CM discipline. Their associated with information. When operators have
N.L. Hyer, K.A. Brownr Journal of Operations Management 17 (1999) 557–574 565

timely, accurate, and complete information, as de- cells. Following the conversion, they attributed a
scribed in our definition, they can use it to reduce good deal of the reduction in processing time to the
operating times. For example, we have observed in availability of this information. Similarly, production
several facilities that when cell team members have control personnel at another plant provided cell oper-
information about part shortages and also have the ators with current data on stock levels, current or-
latitude to adjust schedules, they can make effective ders, forecasted orders, order due dates and raw
decisions about order sequencing. For example, in a material availability—they left to the operators deci-
cell producing electronic components for the aircraft sions about what and when to make parts. Flow
industry, the lead operator proudly related that his times and on-time performance both improved.
throughput times were among the best in his indus- Although these two examples involve the use of
try, allowing the cell to remain competitive in an electronic data sources as enablers that leverage in-
environment of Asian outsourcing. He credited much formation to reduce time, there are many simpler
of his success to the way in which he was able to use tools involving visual signals and interpersonal com-
parts supply and customer demand information to munication that can have similar effects. For exam-
adjust production schedules. Selecting orders based ple, at the Mercedes do Brasil near Sao Paulo,
on the availability of component parts can ensure a mechanics have installed glass windows on access
smoother production flow and avoid costly delays panels of heavy machinery in the trade axle assem-
and ‘work arounds,’ i.e., the creation of ad hoc bly cells. These windows enable operators to see,
work-in-process repositories for partially completed early on, if a machine is starting to go out of
items. adjustment. This visual control provides timely infor-
A number of enablers can help translate informa- mation, and operators are empowered to make ad-
tion into reduced flow times. Many of these enablers justments. This mitigates the time losses often asso-
pertain to management systems, policies and proce- ciated with emergency repairs. At another of our
dures, although others stem from cell design deci- study sites, an electronics manufacturer, incomplete
sions. For example, a cell with balanced worksta- cable assemblies hang from overhead racks adjacent
tions experiences fewer bottlenecks, thus decreasing to each station. An operator who is rotating to an-
time delays and facilitating the timely flow of infor- other station quickly looks around the cell and lo-
mation about defective items. Among ‘management cates the station with the biggest accumulation of
system’ enables, job descriptions, for example, must incomplete cable assemblies. The operator moves to
grant operators the authority and responsibility to act that station and begins work. This cell uses visual
on information. Further, operators must have enough cues to avoid or reduce bottlenecks, thereby speeding
knowledge of the production system to know how to work along.
respond to varied informational signals. Written re- Referring now to the upward pointing arrow from
ports, oral communication, material accumulation at time to information, we note that time reductions, in
a particular workstation, lights, and even music can and of themselves, can improve information flow. If
be used as calls for operator intervention. Informa- parts or products move rapidly through a cell, opera-
tion also may exist because of the design of the cell tors can track their positions easily. In fact, the need
layout Že.g., the arrangement avoids visual obstruc- for complex, computer-based information systems
tions, allowing operators to see materials and each often diminishes when parts move quickly. One of
other.. Some forms of information exchange will our field sites, a medical electronics manufacturer,
require significantly more training than other ap- had just such an experience—they reduced flow
proaches. times substantially Žfrom weeks to hours. and their
Here are two examples that illustrate the role of tracking system became better and much simpler.
information as a means in achieving the minimal They now produce only three possible responses to
lead times that are essential to our definition. In one product status inquiries: waiting, in process, or com-
of our study sites, an electronics manufacturer, oper- plete. Because flow times are now measured in hours
ators were given on-line access to the materials rather than weeks, an ‘in process’ designation is a
management system when the plant converted to sufficient indicator of status. This information is now
566 N.L. Hyer, K.A. Brownr Journal of Operations Management 17 (1999) 557–574

available on a more timely basis, and is more accu- and other key performance factors if they are near
rate and up-to-date than the information produced by each other. So, the space dimension can enhance the
their old computer system when processing times information dimension. This position is supported by
were longer. the classic work of Allen Ž1977. who demonstrated
Tracking is not the only use of information, how- in an R & D setting that people essentially stopped
ever. Information about quality also improves in the communicating with each other if their workspaces
presence of shortened flow times—feedback is were farther than 10 ft apart. In one of our field sites,
quicker and is more likely to reach the person who a manufacturer of scanning equipment, the Allen
needs the information. Imagine a job shop-style or- phenomenon was quite evident—because of space
ganization with the long lead times typically associ- limitations, a wide aisle split a cell into two clusters.
ated with excessive queuing times. When a quality People on either side of the aisle did not share
problem is discovered, considerable time may have information as much as they did with their more
elapsed since its creation. Additionally, many bad proximal coworkers. As a result, the cell did not
units will have accumulated in long queues. As a achieve the anticipated benefits in terms of delivery
consequence, corrective action will consume more speed. Similar cells in the same plant that were not
time than it does in a real cell environment where bifurcated by an aisle achieved lead times far shorter
defects can be discovered quickly and remedied be- than the split cell.
fore the production of large quantities of defective Several enablers can enhance the relationship be-
output. This was one of the primary cell advantages tween spatial proximity and information. These in-
cited by the people who participated in our field clude small transfer batches, continuous informal
study interviews. communication, visibility of coworkers, a common
Support mechanisms Ženablers. that may serve to language, accessible visual controls, and whole-task
enhance the linkages between time and information understanding. The experience of one cell illustrates
include feedback loops, know- how, and clear expec- the role of these enablers in cell effectiveness. This
tations. In the quality example just cited, the opera- cell, one of several at a large electronics company,
tors had to have some mechanism, some feedback manufactured many different models of a single
loop Ža red light, ‘hey you, there’s a problem here,’ a product. Initially, operators assembled products at
non-conformance tag, a pressed button that stops the serially arranged workstations, each separated from
line, etc.. to signal the upstream station of the defect the next by a partition. Workers had the freedom to
just discovered. Additionally, operators at the up- work on any station for which they were fully trained,
stream station must know how to use this informa- and made their selections based on a centrally lo-
tion and, importantly, should be expected to use it. cated Žwithin the cell. scheduling board that visibly
Quick discovery is meaningless if the work contin- indicated which jobs and tasks were most critical.
ues and more defects are produced. Enablers such as Products were built in batches of 5 to 20 products.
training, team performance goals, and appropriate Designers balanced the cell by assigning multiple
incentives can encourage the communication and stations to bottleneck tasks. As a consequence of
cooperative behavior that make the most of linkages these assignments, at any given time, there were
between time and information. likely to be multiple workers performing the same
4.3.2. Spatial proximity and information On the day we visited the cell, a serious quality
Spatial proximity has an influence on the informa- problem had affected a number of partially built
tion element of the cell discipline. As we move products. An operator had discovered the flaw early
people, tasks, and machines closer together, there is in the day, but he had not told his co-workers of the
increased potential for continuous, natural communi- defect. When queried, he explained that ‘‘they speak
cation among cell team members. Information shar- a different language’’ Ži.e., Chinese. and he ‘‘could
ing will be an outgrowth of this phenomenon and not see what they were working on.’’ The cell
operators are more likely to be aware of inventory manager acknowledged that the partitions kept work-
status, quality problems, bottlenecks, part shortages, ers isolated from one another and discouraged infor-
N.L. Hyer, K.A. Brownr Journal of Operations Management 17 (1999) 557–574 567

mal conversation, even between adjacent worksta- human element is most evident when we contrast
tions. He also acknowledged that among cell em- different cell team assignment strategies. In our
ployees, there were at least eight native languages. fieldwork, we have observed that cells with intact
So, even though the cell stations were close to one teams perform better than those in which people are
another Žspatial proximity., in the absence of certain continuously rotated to and from other cells. We feel
enablers Že.g., continuous informal communication, that the difference lies in information exchange. One
same language, and no visual obstructions. the cell’s manufacturer of air conditioning and heating units,
potential was not fully realized. The cell now oper- for example, maintained a ‘substitution pool’ of five
ates with an ‘English-only’ policy for on-the-job workers. These workers were assigned to fill in for
communication. A revised layout permits cell team absent cell workers in cell locations throughout the
members to see and talk to one another more easily. plant. Cell supervisors complained that while a
These changes have enabled the cell to make the ‘pooler’ was better than no worker, productivity and
most of the spatial proximity and information link- quality were almost always compromised when the
age and its performance has improved. intact team was disrupted. This performance degra-
Other examples illustrate the power of informal dation occurred even though the substitutes were
communication and visual controls as enablers that technically proficient at performing the operations.
can enhance the space–information link. One cell, Information sharing, so critical to cell effectiveness,
which manufactures children’s clothing, was origi- falls off when team members do not have a continu-
nally configured as a U-shape with operators work- ing affiliation, even when workstations are spatially
ing on the ‘inside’ of the U, their backs to one linked. At another plant that manufactures medical
another. Workers quickly discovered that in this equipment, cell teams were so opposed to using
arrangement, they were unable to talk to teammates ‘poolers’ that they often elected to operate under-
or see what was happening at other workstations. staffed instead of filling a short-term vacancy with a
The layout was replaced with one in which worksta- temporary worker.
tions and workers faced each another. A four-station The experience of a cell making specialized sub-
cell for assembling heart-monitoring devices went assemblies for use in electronic equipment further
through a related evolution. The original configura- illustrates how operating policies can enable or dis-
tion was a U-shaped cell with raw material stored in able the space–information linkage. This cell was
the center and employees seated around the outside one of many at a large electronics plant. Despite the
of the cell. The raw material placement prevented fact that cell workstations were co-located, and oper-
operators from seeing and talking with those on the ators were completely cross-trained, cell workers
other side of the U. To facilitate operators seeing and failed to exploit the potential information linkage.
talking to one another, the layout was reconfigured Cell operating procedures permitted the workers to
to a straight line with raw material placed behind the exercise their strong preference to work indepen-
operators. These two examples highlight an impor- dently. Each opened a work order Žtypically for a
tant observation that we have made about cells: the ‘favorite’ product. and completed it start-to-finish by
oft-cited U-shape is not a necessary or defining cell moving with the product from station to station.
characteristic. A primary criterion for a cell layout There was minimal communication among operators;
seems to center around the extent to which it facili- each was working in isolation. Further, they were not
tates interpersonal communication and what we call jointly accountable for cell output; individual opera-
‘line-of-sight’ information—visual access to all cell tors were responsible for the batches they personally
activities. produced. This further eroded their motivation to
As shown throughout our field examples, people communicate about work. Management viewed the
play an important role in supporting a cell’s space cell as a disappointment, and they were reluctant to
and information linkages. Spatial proximity created share this experience with us. ‘‘We haven’t really
by the arrangement of workstations allows people to gotten any benefit from moving this equipment to-
see each other, hear each other, touch each other, gether. All our key metrics are about the same as
and form team relationships. The power of this they were before we created the cell,’’ commented
568 N.L. Hyer, K.A. Brownr Journal of Operations Management 17 (1999) 557–574

the area’s manager. In fact, other than a re-clustering

of equipment, actual operations in this so-called cell
had not changed much from the ‘craft’ production
they were intended to replace. As we will describe
later in the paper, this cell’s operating practices had
called into question its status as a real cell. Our point
here is that operating policies that govern the way
people work play a critical role in facilitating the
synergistic benefits of tight space and information
linkages. In this case, managers thought they were
creating a cell by moving equipment together, but
because their operating policies hindered information
linkages, the benefits of spatial proximity were com-

4.3.3. Spatial proximity and time

Spatial proximity has a positive effect on through-
put time because it reduces transportation delays Fig. 3. T-layout.
between subsequent tasks. The farther that a part
must travel within a shop, the greater the likelihood
it will be delayed waiting for materials personnel to 4.3.4. Comments on the relationships among link-
move it, get sidetracked in a storage area, be sent to ages and their enablers
the wrong destination, or become damaged en route. A real cell exists only in the presence of a work-
Any one of these space-related failure points can be flow where tasks and those who perform them are
detrimental to the time element of the cell discipline. connected in terms of time, space and information.
Small transfer batches and short set-up times en- All three linkages are important and must be present
able nearby locations to translate into shorter for a real cell to exist. The preceding discussion has
throughput times. In addition, the presence of multi- illustrated how linkages in time, information and
skilled workers who are charged to ‘go to where the space are not independent, but reinforce one another.
work is,’ also can convert spatial proximity into Various enablers Žoperating policies, procedures, de-
reduced throughput time. But, the configuration must sign decisions, and so forth. help in creating this
make it physically possible for operators to go where synergy among the time, space and information link-
they are needed. One cell at a medical instruments ages.
manufacturer vividly illustrates the importance of
this last enabler. The cell was designed on a ‘T’
model Žsee Fig. 3., with a central line feeding a 5. Cell variations
series of parallel test stations. A moving conveyor
separated workstations located on either side of the 5.1. Introduction
conveyor. This design made it cumbersome for oper-
ators to switch from stations on one side of the Thus far, we have been describing the discipline
conveyor to those on the other side of the conveyor. necessary for what we will call a real physical cell
Despite the fact that they were fully cross-trained on to exist. The word ‘physical’ is inserted to contrast
all assembly tasks, workers seldom moved to other these cells from virtual cells, which will be discussed
stations. Work imbalances were frequent, resulting in presently. Real physical cells contribute in an opti-
unnecessarily long throughput times. A solution mal way to the achievement of competitive priorities
might involve positioning operators on the same side such as quality, cost, delivery, and flexibility. This
of the conveyor so that they could shift or leapfrog effectiveness is derived from the presence of time,
to other stations as needed. space, and information linkages, as well as from the
N.L. Hyer, K.A. Brownr Journal of Operations Management 17 (1999) 557–574 569

enabling factors previously discussed in relation to have also been known as logical cells ŽShafer et al.,
Fig. 2. However, it is possible to find some cells that 1995; Schonberger, 1996.. For example, when it is
function reasonably well, even when they do not not possible to relocate pieces of equipment Že.g.,
fully adhere to the real cell discipline. It is also because of size, special flooring, ventilation or other
possible to find configurations that are called cells placement requirements., or when an indivisible or
but which, in fact, do not meet our criteria. Shafer et very expensive resource must be shared by several
al. Ž1995. and Vakharia Ž1986. have described ways cells, virtual cells may make sense ŽShafer et al.,
in which cells may vary—their perspectives are use- 1995; Vakharia, 1986.. Virtual or logical cells may
ful and overlap somewhat with ours. However, our be implemented as an evolutionary precursor to
interpretation adds value to the field in that it as- physical cells. If the cell concept works in virtual
sesses cell types from the perspective of our theory, form, plant officials may then decide to make the
demonstrating its broad applicability to practice. Fig. investment necessary for evolution to the next step.
4 elaborates on these variations, describing five cell One organization we studied had created a cell
alternatives in terms of the time, space, and informa- dedicated to the assembly of a family of electronic
tion framework. These five cell types are: Ž1. —vir- components. The plating step in this process had to
tual cells, Ž2. —latent virtual cells, Ž3. —latent physi- be located outside the cell because of technological
cal cells which are time-deficient, Ž4. —latent physi- limitations, cost considerations, and health and safety
cal cells which are information-deficient, and Ž5. — concerns. To compensate for this potential interrup-
latent physical cells which are both time- and infor- tion in cell integrity, the company created a unique
mation-deficient. organizational structure in which a single plating
operator became a full member of the cell team.
5.2. Virtual cells Although the individual continued to perform plating
tasks in the part of the plant dedicated to plating, he
A Õirtual cell can exist when people and equip-
reported to the cell manager and was dedicated
ment are dedicated to a partrproduct family, and the
exclusively to the plating of components and sub-
workflow is closely connected in terms of time and
assemblies used by the cell. He attended cell team
information, but not space. Virtual cells, in fact, are
meetings and interacted face-to-face with the team
often referred to as ‘dedication without rearrange-
several times a day. Full participation as a cell team
ment’ ŽWemmerlov ¨ and Hyer, 1989, p. 1512. and member provided him with more complete informa-
tion about the total production process, and made it
possible for plating to better support the needs of
internal and external customers. According to man-
agers who worked with the area, ‘‘this close connec-
tion—in terms of communication—to the rest of the
processes has helped our performance.’’
The configuration described above has permitted
the virtual cell to attain many of the advantages
typically reserved for real physical cells. In situations
where equipment cannot be moved, virtual cells offer
some of the advantages of dedication. However, they
are likely to be less effective than fully linked physi-
cal cells—time required for transfer among non-
proximal operations will lengthen throughput time,
and the absence of ongoing face-to-face contact
among operations may contribute to a ‘throw it over
the fence’ mentality. For this reason, Schonberger
Ž1996. notes that virtual cells should be viewed as
Fig. 4. Real, latent, and virtual cells. temporary solutions.
570 N.L. Hyer, K.A. Brownr Journal of Operations Management 17 (1999) 557–574

5.3. Latent Õirtual cell discussed above, are at the root of the problem that
deprives a cell of the advantages of time and infor-
A latent Õirtual cell exists when people perform- mation. Three feasible possibilities involving time
ing sequentially related tasks in physically remote and information deficiencies are depicted in Fig. 4.
parts of a facility experience long delays in product A latent physical cell with time deficiencies ex-
movement in spite of the availability of information ists when machinery is organized in spatial proxim-
that would allow them to operate effectively. The ity and information is available to operators, but
infrastructure exists for the timely transfer of infor- bottlenecks, part shortages or large lot sizes prevent
mation, but available data are not being used. This the timely flow of materials from one station to the
situation might occur when employees do not seek, next. This cell does not meet the time linkage re-
understand, or use the information available to them. quirement, but its weaknesses can be easily resolved.
Perhaps, they have not been provided with adequate We witnessed the operation of a latent Žtime-defi-
training in the use of the system, or perhaps the cient. physical cell at a New England manufacturer
system is difficult to use. This situation occurred in a of electronic medical equipment. Operators had re-
West Coast electronics manufacturing plant where sorted to producing in large lots because of a bottle-
the wave solder operation, a required step for the neck at the testing station, but those involved viewed
parts made in the cell, remained centralized. The this as a temporary fix and recognized its potential to
implementation of new information linkages was limit the cell’s effectiveness. Once the bottleneck
designed to substitute information for physical prox- was eliminated, they reinstated the time criterion and
imity of the cell. For example, the system was returned to their previous level of effectiveness.
intended to provide people in both areas Žthe cells A latent physical cell with information deficien-
and wave solder. with accurate information on status cies exists when equipment is closely located and
and priority of transfer batches. However, employees successive operations are tightly linked in terms of
could not use the information available to them time, but where there is little or no information flow
because the company had not provided adequate between stations. Where language or physical barri-
training for use of the new system. Thus, the infor- ers prevent operators from sharing information, for
mation was available, but employees could not use example, one would have an information-deficient
it. physical cell. In the electronics cell we described
A latent virtual cell possesses the informational earlier, both language Žeight were spoken in the cell.
capabilities of an effective virtual cell, but is unable and physical barriers Žtall partitions separating work-
to achieve its potential to make the needed time benches. inhibited communication.
connection. This sort of cell might also exist in the A latent physical cell with both time and infor-
presence of a poor support system for transporting mation deficiencies exists when tasks are tightly
parts among spatially distant operations. This is likely connected in terms of space—all required operations
to occur when the organization’s material handling take place within a limited physical area—but the
support system operates in a culture of job shop-style time between tasks is long and the information flow
large batch transfers. Physically disparate operations is poor. Such a situation might exist when a physical
may be sharing information in an effective manner, cell has been created but where operating practices
but materials are not arriving as needed. Here again, and policies Žbatch sizes, communication patterns,
we have unrealized potential for achieving cell bene- etc.. have not been redesigned to connect tasks in
fits because of failure to adhere to the critical space terms of time and information. We are most likely to
and time linkages at the heart of the real cell disci- see a time- and information-deficient physical cell
pline. where there has not been a culture change embracing
5.4. Latent physical cells the principles of CM. The electronics subassembly
cell, described earlier, is an excellent example of a
Latent physical cells are characterized by spatial time- and information-deficient latent physical cell.
proximity, but not by time andror information link- Although cell stations were close together and opera-
ages. It is often the case that the enabling factors, tors were fully cross-trained, operating policies per-
N.L. Hyer, K.A. Brownr Journal of Operations Management 17 (1999) 557–574 571

mitted individual workers to complete work orders tion is a central element determining the effective-
from start to finish. Working independently, opera- ness of manufacturing cells. Because other CM defi-
tors did not communicate with one another. More- nitions focus on spatial relationships, this emphasis
over, because operators felt it was more efficient, on information distinguishes our definition from those
they had a practice of voluntarily increasing work that have preceded it. Our position is bolstered by
order Žbatch. size. This lengthened the time between the case of the truly effective virtual cell where it
successive operations, increased total lead times, and may be possible to substitute information flow for
almost completely negated the benefits of spatial physical proximity. Such an exchange can be legit-
proximity. imized from a theoretical standpoint based on the
The experience of an East Coast medical equip- ingenious perspective of Galbraith Ž1973, 1994..
ment manufacturer provides another example. At this The classic work of Galbraith Ž1973, 1994. on
plant, material delivery personnel had not adopted a organization structure provides a theoretical under-
‘cell culture’ and insisted on delivering large batches pinning for our observations about the critical nature
of component parts to work stations. Tall part bins of information flow in CM. He has observed that
necessary to store these quantities of materials cre- once organizations have established such structural
ated physical barriers for information interchange fundamentals as rules and programs, a system for
among operators. Additionally, processing speed was hierarchical referral, and goal setting mechanisms,
vulnerable to the effects of extensive rework in cases they can follow one of two alternatives to achieve
where these large batches of components harbored effectiveness. First, they may reduce the need for
defects. This cell type may require infrastructure information processing by creating self-contained
changes before it can come close to realizing its tasks or creating slack resources. Self-contained tasks
potential. It is our position that this configuration operate independently of others and are typical of
Žtime- and information-deficient physical cell. strays those found in traditional job shops. Slack resources
too far from our definition of a real cell to legiti- such as buffer stocks between operations or idle
mately be included in field research that purports to machines and labor also are commonly found in job
investigate manufacturing cell issues. However, as shops. Experience has shown us that these ap-
we have noted, if one takes the perspective that a cell proaches can produce excessive inventories and re-
is nothing more than a layout, this configuration work, long lead times and increased costs.
would meet the test. From our more disciplinary Insulation and buffers are necessary in the ab-
perspective on cells, it does not. sence of complete information. This is where Gal-
braith’s second alternative can deliver—instead of
5.5. An infeasible Õariation
depending on slack or buffers, an organization can
One combination of time, space, and information invest in vertical information systems and create
has been omitted from Fig. 4 because of the improb- lateral relations. It is his position that a fundamental
ability of its occurrence. A configuration linked by tradeoff in organization design involves slack vs.
time, but not by space and information, most likely information. He uses CM as an example of a situa-
would be infeasible. Spatial proximity andror infor- tion where the need for slack resources is reduced
mation are essential to the time linkage, at least in because of the existence of information about work
our current Žpre-Star Trek. state of technological flows, materials, quality, etc. Vertical information
evolution. Perhaps someday, we will be able to systems inform operators and managers of customer
‘beam up’ parts from remote locations, so we leave demand, order status, and material availability. Lat-
the door open for later extensions of this theory to eral information systems enable employees to quickly
include the time-only linkage. and easily assess the flow of goods through the cell.
As we have indicated previously, information flow
5.6. Conclusions about cell Õariations
does not necessarily require a computer to be effec-
An examination of the characteristics of the cell tive.
variations depicted in Fig. 4 has led us to the under- The discussion summarized in Fig. 4 highlights
standing that a close connection based on informa- several types of cells, only one of which Ža real
572 N.L. Hyer, K.A. Brownr Journal of Operations Management 17 (1999) 557–574

physical cell. may be considered fully functional and could shed light on some of the discipline’s linkages.
within the bounds of the cell discipline we prescribe. For example, researchers could manipulate distance
However, a virtual cell, with the proper infrastruc- between stations, communication of information, and
ture, may encompass enough of the discipline to time lags between steps, then objectively measure
come close to the performance of a real physical cell. outcomes such as quality and throughput time.
Although advances in information technology are Although it is unlikely that an organization with
making virtual cells more feasible, most cells Žreal or profit goals would allow full-scale experimental tin-
otherwise. in current use today are of the physical kering, we present it as the best possible option and
type. In interpretations of research results from CM suggest a more realistic approach would take on as
environments, it will be useful for writers to estab- many of its elements as possible. In the ideal field-
lish which of the six categories of cells from Fig. 4 is based experiment, the cells would differ only along
being investigated. specified dimensions Žtime, space, and information.
and would include only a limited menu of enablers
necessary for the cell to function. Performance data
6. The discipline of real cells: tests of a theory would be gathered at the time of implementation,
then at appropriate longitudinal intervals. A control
The research that led us to develop this theory group, devoid of cell attributes or enablers, would be
was deductive in nature. During the past several subject to the same measurement protocol, providing
years, we have endeavored to increase our under- controls for history and maturation effects ŽCampbell
standing of cell design and performance, but found and Stanley, 1963.. Such an experiment would, of
ourselves continuously faced with questions of defi- course, probably be impractical. Beyond the chal-
nition and theory. Field notes, recollections, and lenge of convincing a plant manager to cooperate,
intense discussions drew us to the theory described there would also be the problem of evolution and
here. Although we feel confident in our assertions improvement. If a plant manager notes that one of
based on extensive observations in field settings, these cell types is working better than others, he or
more work is in order. she would be prudent to convert the others to this
As mentioned previously, one of the criteria for form, thus truncating the experiment. Consequently,
evaluating the worth of a theory is its testability field experiments will not be likely to have all of the
ŽPfeffer, 1992.. We believe our theory to be very controls one would find in a laboratory. However, if
testable and suggest below several approaches that they involve a rich set of observational data and
may be used to further support the ideas set forth insightful interpretations, such experiments will be of
here. However, we wish to emphasize that we con- great practical value.
sider our role as one of provoking thought and not A difficult issue to be resolved is that of measure-
that of specifying rigid rules for future research. We ment. How precisely will we know if one cell is
leave this to the creativity of our colleagues and to connected by time, space, and information and an-
future explorations of our own. Thus, our research other is not? How can one measure the contribution
design propositions are broad in nature, suggesting a of enablers to cell success? Although there is no
spectrum of possible approaches. clear-cut answer to these questions, a mix of the
The ideal mechanism for testing our theory of real strategies should prove useful. First is the need to
cell discipline would be a set of controlled quasi-ex- rely on both perceptual measures and objective or
periments conducted in field settings ŽCampbell and observational measures to assess some attributes. For
Stanley, 1963.. Because we strongly hold that a cell example, to assess the strength of information link-
is more than a layout, we feel that true tests of what ages, one may survey employees to get their percep-
works and what does not work in cell environments tions of the extent to which they communicate. The
cannot legitimately be undertaken via simulations approach applied by Allen Ž1977. in studying com-
and other mathematical approaches. However, it does munication in R & D settings could serve as a model.
seem likely that basic experiments in a laboratory In addition, for information linkages, one would
setting, with subjects hired to perform simple tasks, need to ascertain what information is made available
N.L. Hyer, K.A. Brownr Journal of Operations Management 17 (1999) 557–574 573

to cell workers and how it is communicated. Do cell contend that to qualify as a real cell, a manufacturing
operators have access to material status information unit must meet the criteria we have established here.
via a computer system, a manual scheduling system, Equipment must be dedicated to a family of parts or
a visual scheduling board, by some other mecha- products with similar processing requirements, and
nism, or not at all? What other information is made tasks and those who perform them must be closely
available and how? Does each operator have ‘line of connected in terms of time, space, and information.
sight’ information—full visual access to all cell team The three linking elements Žtime, space and informa-
members? How often do operators meet as a group tion. reinforce each other, with information having
to discuss and interpret the information they share? the most dynamic influence on the system. Further,
The timeliness, frequency and accuracy of informa- enabling factors such as multi-skilling, set-up time
tion would be important predictor variables. reduction, small transfer batches, just-in-time mate-
Second, there are certain elements of our defini- rial delivery, etc., enhance the effectiveness of the
tional foundation that can be handled comparatively linkages. When one or more of the fundamental
—we can measure, e.g., the average distance be- linking elements is missing, latent or virtual cells
tween operating stations within various cells and emerge. These may not achieve the performance
correlate their performance with this measure. Simi- levels of ‘real’ physical cells. Nonetheless, organiza-
larly, processing time may be derived from company tional circumstances may dictate a less than ideal
records. Ultimately, through numerous field studies, cell discipline.
we may be able to determine the spatial relationship, Our theory of cell discipline grew out of extensive
types of information sharing, ideal processing times, field observations. However, our ideas have not been
and the enablers that typically have the biggest im- tested with the rigor and repetition necessary for
pact on cell performance, by industry. Research along solid conclusions, and the field is open for further
these lines would be powerfully important to practi- investigation. We must follow the lead of our sister
tioners because it would provide a comprehensive disciplines in the behavioral sciences by agreeing on
picture of why and when cells work best. a disciplinary theoretical definition before we pro-
At present, most organizations that introduce cells ceed with further studies. Obviously, the concern
seem to adopt a ‘ready, fire, aim’ approach to cell over the need for theory must extend beyond CM to
design and operation: implement the cell and then, other constructs if operations management is to gain
based on experience, tweak Žand sometime drasti- full respect as an avenue for serious scholarly pur-
cally alter. the operating system, the design, and the suit.
support systems to improve performance. We sug-
gest that with better understanding of cell building
blocks and enablers, organizations can follow a Acknowledgements
‘ready, aim, fire’ strategy—begin with a solid under-
standing of what will make the cell work best, put it The authors express their gratitude to the Canyon
in place, and then improve it as necessary. Such an Foundation and the Dean’s Fund for Faculty Re-
approach will allow organizations to begin their CM search at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate
efforts further along the learning curve. School of Management for their support of this

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