To improve shop operations, trust must come first
December 3, 2012
Trust is something that’s earned not only through hard work, but also by treating employees not as “direct labor hours,” but as, well, people.
Whenever I visit a fabricator, I keep my eyes and ears open for best practices, those nuggets that can help readers do their job better. But often when I talk with production managers and even senior management, I also hear about their pains. On background, shop personnel have told me why improvement strategies have failed, why the shop can’t seem to get ahead, and how they think the facility could be so much better.
I spoke with one such production manager on background several months ago. He had been enthusiastic about lean manufacturing and other improvement methods for years. He had read up on the subject and attended several conferences and seminars. All the talk of efficient part flow, shorter lead-times, and less inventory seemed great in theory, he thought. And the shop had taken some initial steps. It reduced batch sizes to combat the large pile of work-in-process building up around the press brakes, a common bottleneck. It also revamped its material ordering to ensure raw stock for a job arrived a day or so before it was needed, not a week or more before.
But the fabricator had yet to launch a formal improvement effort. The shop was busy, and managers expected to be even busier next year. The fabricator performed complex work—a subassembly of, say, 10 or so components—and all too often jobs arrived at the assembly department incomplete, with one piece missing.
What actually seemed most daunting, he said, was 5S—sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain. He specifically referred to individual workbenches. Many workers had complete sets of Allen wrenches and other simple tools, all laid out for easy retrieval. Problem was, most of those tools sat unused most of the time. Press brake changeovers usually needed just one or two Allen wrench sizes. In the grinding area, many jobs called for the same disc grit, but workers had an entire range of grits, just in case an unusual job came across their workstation.
Workers were hoarding tools, and for good reason: They wanted to ensure they would never be caught without the tool they needed. It was a basic mistrust. If they didn’t have the tool, it could be anywhere, which meant they needed to go on a tool hunt.
The production manager told me that instilling such trust would be the key to getting worker buy-in of lean manufacturing. This is a high-product-mix operation, so it is almost impossible for every workstation to have every tool a worker is likely to need. This was why organizing workstations with commonly used tools made sense. The remaining tools and consumable media (abrasive discs and such) could be stored in a central location, where inventory levels and usage patterns can be monitored. The manager said that to implement lean, the company would have to address this “just-in-case” mentality, which naturally develops in shops that process thousands of different products.
Moreover, when workers hoarded tools, they often found it difficult to find the right tool they needed for certain jobs. That wasted time, and the net effect was the same as looking for tools elsewhere in the shop.
It’s not about the efficiency of one worker or one workstation, but the efficiency of the whole. If more products don’t ship in less time, the company isn’t making more money, landing more work, or making better margins. Without any of this, nobody wins.
Continuous improvement requires employee buy-in, which is really just a euphemism for trust. And trust is hard to come by in business these days. Wounds linger from the layoffs several years ago. Some say it’s about money—the “what’s-in-it-for-me” problem. Continuous improvement may eliminate baked-in overtime hours. So after all their improvement effort, employees take home less pay than they once did. I’ve talked with many shops that have implemented profit sharing and throughput-based bonuses, basing pay not just on hours worked, but also on the throughput and quality achieved. This no doubt is an important part of the equation, but it may not be the only part.
I thought about this when visiting another fabricator, Cambridge Engineering, a maker of heating and air movement systems in Chesterfield, Mo., just west of St. Louis. The company hosted attendees of LeanFab Workshop & Tours, an October event organized by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association.
One of our tour guides was Bruce Kisslinger Sr. Of the hundreds of shop managers I’ve met over the years, Kisslinger has one of the most memorable job titles: Vice President, Quality, Keeper of the Corporate Culture.
Several minutes into the tour, he put his job title into action. And it wasn’t just promoting continuous improvement initiatives—though he certainly pointed out many of them, including a custom-fabricated cart used to carry all sheet metal parts for a particular unit through welding, painting, and assembly. By the turret punch press and press brakes, workers also had installed what they called an “Education Station,” where certain scrapped parts were placed to educate operators on proper procedures and to troubleshoot problems.
Overall, the company has documented its procedures well, and everything is clean and organized. Nobody hoards tools, and everything has its place. But I’m betting that to Kisslinger, all that is secondary. Early on during the tour, he introduced me to a supervisor in the sheet metal department. “Ask him about his canoeing trips!” Laughter and friendly banter ensued.
To Kisslinger and everyone else at Cambridge, employees are people first, workers second.
Competitive worker pay is a must, but I believe you can’t buy trust. It’s something that’s earned not only through hard work, but also by treating each other not as “direct labor hours,” but as, well, people. I know it’s corny, but when you really think about it, what else do we have but each other?