September 13, 2011
At a major automotive OEM, a support operation is devoted to continuous improvement projects for the assembly line, fabricating items as needed to make life easier for line workers. Unfortunately, the improvement shop wasn’t very organized. As managers soon realized, it was time to improve the improvement shop.
In early September I attended a conference about improvement practices in job shops, spotted a manager from a major automotive manufacturer—and did a double-take. After chatting with him briefly, I understood why he was there.
I met this person at Jobshop Lean 2010, a conference organized by Shahrukh Irani, an associate professor at Ohio State’s Department of Integrated Systems Engineering. The conference focused on efficiency techniques for high-mix, low-volume shops. The overarching message: One improvement methodology may not fit all. Portions of lean manufacturing, theory of constraints, Six Sigma, and other strategies may work for some shops but not others. There is no one “right” way to improve efficiency.
Ironically, no person at the conference worked with more product variety than that automotive manager, who, because he isn’t an official company spokesperson, agreed to be quoted on background. He runs an improvement center within an assembly plant. He oversees skilled people who build components that help make life easier for assembly line workers. It really is a high-mix, low-volume job shop inside a high-volume, low-mix assembly plant. Improvement shop personnel can work on anything from sheet metal containers for holding parts to massive platforms that may help worker ergonomics. They handle just about anything besides actual vehicle components.
Historically, people from the plant came to the shop with a problem. Improvement shop personnel then would walk to the line to view the problem, work to develop a solution, and then fabricate components to make those solutions happen. In 2008 the line shut down for longer than usual, and this put more focus on improvement efforts. Plant workers now had time to think of ways to improve operations.
Ideas abounded, which was a good thing, but it also happened to overwhelm the improvement center. The flood of projects shed light on an issue that was overlooked during busier times: Though the job shop continually helped production workers strive to be leaner, the actual shop helping those lean ideas come to fruition was, well, anything but lean.
It was home to skilled craftspeople untrained in the nuances of production and part flow. Traditionally, workers and managers from the assembly line would describe their improvement idea on a form and bring it to the shop. But inside the improvement shop, jobs weren’t prioritized and little thought was given as to how productive people were. They would finish the jobs they could, which meant other jobs just had to wait. Though the rest of the plant workers were trained in lean concepts—including concepts about internal customers, serving workers downstream on the line, and so on—the improvement shop workers still approached their jobs as if they worked in a garage shop with poor customer service.
Managers knew this had to change. For one thing, the department was measured by how much money their improvement projects saved on the production line. The more efficiently they worked, the greater number of improvement projects they could complete, and the more money they could save the plant.
The shop actually competes with outside contract fabricators for work. But unlike outside vendors, improvement shop personnel just walk over to the assembly line and view problems firsthand, no driving or flying required. Unlike many job shops these days, though, the improvement shop itself wasn’t very organized or efficient. So team members transformed it, applying the very improvement ideas preached on the production floor.
It was time to improve the improvement shop.
Managers first instituted a job priority and scheduling system. Today jobs are ranked from 100 to 900. Any job that solves a significant safety issue in the plant is given absolute priority, assigned as a 900-level job. Other safety and worker ergonomics issues, as well as problems related to quality, are assigned to the 800 and 700 level.
Items related to cost savings can only be a 600-level job or lower. The message: Worker safety and product quality come first, and then cost savings. For work not related to safety or quality, the priority level fluctuates based on how long a job has been in the queue. The longer a job waits, the higher number it gets.
They then examined work processes. After videotaping operations, they uncovered surprising inefficiencies that were eliminated years ago in the plant but were still alive and well in the improvement shop. The manager didn’t blame the workers. Although they were very skilled, they were never trained in production planning.
For instance, to make a large sheet metal basket, workers would walk a considerable distance to a shear and a press brake, then all the way back to the welding cell. It took two people an entire shift to make only a few baskets—a stark example of how inefficient operations can be from that “excessive motion” waste of lean manufacturing. The shop had to produce 100 of these baskets, which meant the status quo just wasn’t acceptable.
So managers instituted a production planning process. For any job requiring 10 or more components, workers lay out production with Post-It® notes and black markers on a whiteboard to develop a standard, efficient system for making those parts. For that sheet metal basket, weld cells were moved close to the brake and shear, eliminating that excess motion.
After implementing some improved fixturing and other ideas, workers successfully fabricated 100 baskets in a single shift.
The shop managers call these “factory activities.” Managers give a due date, and team leaders figure out how to get the job done within that time period. A manager may give four hours to complete a job, and the team leaders then think about the materials, part flow, and people required to meet the deadline.
Once production starts, the improvement effort doesn’t end. After they begin the job, team leaders stop a quarter of the way through to analyze efficiency and, if possible, develop additional improvement ideas. This could be better jigs or perhaps quality-check components to check fabricated parts. For one job, workers made a simple Plexiglas® container; if the final fabricated basket fit neatly inside, it met tolerance requirements.
For every job, the team leader role shifts to another employee so that everyone has a chance to learn how to manage a team for a project, from start to finish. After the project, team leaders must write a reflection about what went well and what didn’t. These documents then are kept on file for use on future jobs.
The job shop hidden within a massive assembly operation represents what’s best about manufacturing: the desire to do things safer, better, faster, and more cost-effectively—always. It’s pure, no-nonsense, unadulterated, unbureaucratic creativity aimed at increasing safety, quality, and profitability.
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