Lean manufacturing and a tale of two sandboxes

The role of empathy in continuous improvement

The FABRICATOR February 2017
January 30, 2017
By: Gary Conner, Logan O’Hara

Change can cause an emotional roller coaster. One often-missed component of continuous improvement is empathizing with those who must change what they do every day. Without empathy, understanding, and describing what the change means for the whole organization, emotions can run high.

Any manager will attest that developing a willingness to change is no easy task for a workforce. I hope that the following story may help encourage you to keep trying.

My son, who just turned 18, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder) about six years ago. We knew he was special from the time he was born prematurely at 3.5 pounds; we just did not know much about autism at the time. I just thought it was so cool that, as soon as he learned to walk, I would take him to the grocery store and he would tag along, straightening up soup cans on the bottom shelves. He could never stand things that were out of place (a characteristic of some people with autism). Because I teach lean manufacturing, I thought he was just demonstrating a hereditary ability to straighten, one of the 5S organizational techniques.

When he turned 4 years old we moved to the Oregon Coast. Our house was about 200 yards from the beach. He loved playing in the sand. My wife Pamela asked me to build him a sandbox. I looked at her, then at the beach (just a short walk away), then back at her. She read my mind and said, “But … he wants a sandbox in our yard!” Twelve pickup loads of sand later yielded a 20-foot square sand pile surrounded by railroad ties.

Knowing what I know now about Asperger’s, I can look back on this with a completely different set of eyes. He would use his Tonka trucks, backhoes, and plastic shovel to carve out roads and tunnels and perfect little sand castle buildings. He would work tirelessly to get the sandbox just the way he wanted: perfectly organized. Then Stella, our 2-year-old granddaughter, would come for a visit. Of course, she wanted to play in the sandbox too.

I imagine that you can see where this is going. She significantly shifted the sand around his meticulously arranged sand towns. Back then I attributed his animated outburst to the fact that being the “only child” living in our home had made him selfish and spoiled. I did not realize at the time how distressing the experience was for him, that it was not really about him protecting his territory or ownership of sand. His mind was short-circuited, overwhelmed by the fact that the sand had moved from where it belonged; it was no longer perfectly “organized.”

Only years later did I gain an understanding of how his brain was wired completely differently from mine and most people’s. I came to appreciate that he has challenges (but also strengths) that I do not.

I have also become aware that even for people who don’t have Asperger’s syndrome, change is difficult and stressful. To a degree, when something we are accustomed to (especially if we created it) changes, we grieve. If we cannot be honestly and openly empathetic to how change distresses people, then we may not be well-suited to facilitate change.

Given my career choice in lean manufacturing consulting, by necessity I have had to become acutely aware of the effect of change on the teams that I work with. If I am unwilling to react sympathetically to the often negative “knee-jerk” reactions of people affected by change, it is very difficult for me to be an effective facilitator of change. Over the years I have had to educate myself about the manner in which change affects not only my son, but the tens of thousands of people I have worked with over the years.

I personally enjoy change, but change is almost unbearable to my son. It has been said that 80 percent of the people in the world are protective motivated, meaning they tend to protect their current, comfortable, and familiar way of doing things. The remaining 20 percent of the population are OK with change, and they drive the other 80 percent crazy.

In this, my son has taught me a life-changing and career-changing lesson about change.

FCC Commercial Furniture is vertically integrated. Besides woodworking and upholstery work, the company performs a range of metal fabrication and coating processes, including laser tube cutting.

Two Projects, Different Sandboxes

I learned these lessons after two continuous improvement projects at a high-product-mix manufacturer in Roseburg, Ore. FCC Commercial Furniture laser-cuts, tube-bends, welds, fabricates, and prepares metal to be assembled with materials from its fiberglass, solid surface, and wood departments.

The 100-employee company has responded to the demands for accelerated building and remodeling, taking a lesson from the customers it serves. Owners Gary and Scott Crowe have committed time, financial support, and other key resources to enfranchise their workforce to find ways of minimizing waste while maximizing value as perceived by the customer. Through operational excellence and lean thinking, FCC has shortened lead times, reduced inventories, improved facilities layout, eliminated non-value-added activities, and smoothed production flow.

These efforts have paid dividends not only for the customer, but for FCC in the form of improved financial results. According to Gary Crowe, the improvements have allowed their organization to diversify into fields beyond the quick-service food industry. The company is now designing and building tradeshow displays and merchandise displays for organizations as diverse as national mattress and bedding retailers as well as upscale coffee shops.

The transformation of this 49-year-old business has not been without its challenges. As Scott Crowe explained, “Old habits are hard to break, and not just for the people on the shop floor. For years managers have been used to making all the decisions. We had to learn to let go of some of what we enjoy most about our jobs. My office is warmly referred to as the ‘Crowe’s Nest.’ Located on a mezzanine, it overlooks the shop. We can survey the entire operation. It is easy to think that as owners and managers we know best. Coming to understand and appreciate that the best ideas come from the people doing the work was a major turning point for us. We have steering committee meetings where the continuous improvement teams bring us their ideas and recommendations, rather than us just dictating what we want them to do.”

Guided by Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership staff members and the FCC steering team, FCC team members value-stream-mapped the current state (the “before” condition), separating value-added activities and separating them from non-value-added activities such as moving, stacking, and counting. The team identified a number of opportunities for improvement and began reducing work-in-process inventory between each process.

Before the event there was a great deal of imbalance; some people were overworked and others were underutilized—a hidden form of waste. Now no one starts a job unless it can be finished. And everyone works to balance the flow so material does not stack up. This requires cross-training and a willingness on the part of the entire team to move to the bottleneck process to lend a hand.

Throughout it all, FCC took a team-based approach to continuous improvement. “It is amazing to see what these teams come up with,” said Ben Lane, FCC’s continuous improvement manager. “Specialized carts, flashing blue lights to notify the water-strider [a person who keeps operators supplied with products] that they need help, changes in facility layout, and so on—who would have thought that shop floor people would be doing industrial engineering-type work, calculating takt times, and determining equipment requirements? We are developing business thinkers at every level of this organization.”

Still, the team didn’t find success overnight, and that success didn’t come without major debates and challenges. Here’s where my life-changing and career-changing lessons came into play.

Sandbox One

FCC started improvement in final assembly, a decision not initially embraced by everybody on the steering team, considering other areas seemed to be in more need of improvement. But we reasoned that if we started upstream from assembly, the material might simply speed through the improved process and then sit and wait longer, because unimproved downstream processes would not be prepared to absorb the increased throughput of improved upstream processes. If we started at the last process, as close to the customer as possible, the customer would immediately see and experience the gains.

So we formed a six-person CI team to address the lack of flow in final assembly. One team member was named Toby, and there’s one important point: Toby did not work in final assembly; he came from another part of the company.

The CI team performed simulations to prove that our ideas to rearrange the work area were sound. We kept assembly employees informed of upcoming changes and actively sought their input. We carefully and frequently explained our reasons for changing the layout, material storage, and handling methods, limiting WIP and training them in new standard-work assignments to better balance the flow of products.

Regardless of our efforts to inform and engage employees in final assembly, though, a few continually balked at the changes. Toby’s reaction was swift and vocal: “Fire them!” he demanded. “We have shown them that this works. If they are unwilling to change, then they need to go!”

Employees in final assembly understandably reacted negatively to Toby’s outburst. Toby had driven a wedge between himself and them, and the remaining CI team members felt like they were caught in the middle. The assembly employees emphatically banned Toby from their work area. Toby retreated to his home department, and the CI team tried their best to heal the wounds and restore some semblance of engagement. Eventually, to the credit of everyone involved, the work team did end up adopting and successfully implementing most of the CI team’s recommendations.

But that is not the end of Toby’s story.

Sandbox Two

Because of the improvements made in final assembly, FCC determined that moving to an upstream process, the wood department, would be the next logical step. This happened to be Toby’s department. Since Toby had already served on a CI project team, the steering team wanted to expose other employees to the CI process. Toby was not selected to be on the team examining the very processes he performed every day.

Again, we examined the current state, developed a VSM, and identified opportunities for improvement. Given the previously stressful experience in assembly, we were extra-cautious to keep the wood department employees informed of even the smallest change; we provided them with data, details, and the logic behind each idea. But we knew that we would get a lot of support from Toby, since he was so vocal about the need to make changes in the prior event.

You can imagine the jaw-dropping reaction we all had when, after some of the changes began to be implemented, Toby announced that he was quitting the company. When asked why, he said that all the changes in his area were “stupid and unnecessary.”

The most vocal proponent of change when it did not affect him was now the most vocal opponent of change—when the “sand” shifted in his own sandbox. This all happened within a matter of weeks.

I have worked with nearly 1,000 kaizen teams in 250 companies. But I have never seen such an intense reaction to change play out so quickly, powerfully, and visibly within one person.

Toby prepared to leave. To the credit of FCC’s managers, they sat down with Toby and allowed him to vent his frustration. Once the emotion was defused, he got down to the root of his displeasure. It centered on the reassignment of certain tasks that he enjoyed. Many of these tasks were viewed by the CI team as non-value-added.

Toby enjoyed his daily walks to engineering to discuss questions related to projects he was working on. He enjoyed frequent breaks, leaving his workbench to stroll the distance of a football field to provide a material cut list to the saw operator, and then again later to retrieve the material once cut. These tasks are now taken care of by a water-strider.

The CI team performed a study and found that eight hours a day spent by the water-strider saved 24 hours of non-value-added labor previously expended each day by 15 operators. Even though work performed by the water-strider is still deemed non-value-added, at least now the water-strider’s activities do not interrupt flow.

Regardless, Toby was leaving.

When management asked Toby to commit to a trial period using the new process, he agreed. After getting all of his new tools in place (including a new saw that he does not have to share with a dozen other operators), Toby started to soften. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Toby announced that he would not be leaving.

Lessons Learned

The CI team completed the project, and we held a wrapup meeting with the entire department. As the meeting came to a close, I asked if anybody wanted to add anything or share any parting thoughts.

Toby raised his hand. He made what might have been one of the most articulate, personal, impassioned, and honest apologies I have ever heard expressed. Commendably, he expressed regret for stonewalling and resisting his own team’s recommendations and efforts to improve. But even more admirably, he apologized with a bit of emotion in his voice for the lack of empathy he had shown to the people in the assembly department, and for how he failed to sympathize with the distress that they had experienced.

He compared his own experience to theirs, adding, “For me, the emotional curve was a big one. At one point I hit rock bottom. I didn’t know if I even wanted to stay at FCC. I was frustrated. But now I think it is a great thing and imperative that we keep doing it, because the potential is unbelievable and almost infinite.”

I really appreciate Toby’s heartfelt comments. For me, the lesson learned is that no matter how well we think we are communicating, we need to allow people to test, practice, experience, and then express their feelings—even if that means that we end up listening to emotional outbursts and grousing from time to time. It is all a necessary part of the discovery, grieving, and healing process.

Toby grew accustomed to a certain way of doing things. He experienced firsthand the full range of emotions and stress of having someone come into his sandbox and rearrange his world. The emotional roller coaster was overwhelming. The transformation takes time and patience for everyone involved. Thankfully and admirably, Toby was able to turn the negative energy into positive action.

Images provided by FCC Commercial Furniture, 800-322-7328, www.fccfurn.com

Gary Conner

Senior Consultant
Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership (OMEP)
12909 SW 68th Pkwy., Suite 140
Portland, OR 97223
Phone: 503-406-3770

Logan O’Hara

Summer Intern
FCC Commercial Furniture

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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