Where lean manufacturing meets quality control

Pursuing two strategies at once

The Tube & Pipe Journal January/February 2014
February 24, 2014
By: Eric Lundin

Lean manufacturing may have once been little more than a buzzword, but it is way of life for many in the metal fabrication industry. Meanwhile, the pursuit of quality is as critical as ever. Conference facilitators and participants discussed how these can go hand-in-hand at the 2013 EDTR roundtable event, Lean Manufacturing and the Quality Imperative, Sept. 15-17, Silverton, Ore. The outcome was a series of stories and tips that any fabricator could use to run leaner and maintain a quality product.

Lean manufacturing

lookAllegheny Technologies Incorporated’s (ATI’s) small-diameter tube line is one of many lean processes that serves the company’s customers in the aerospace and chemical processing industries. A vertically integrated company, ATI provides specialty materials including titanium and titanium alloys, nickel-based alloys and superalloys, engineered forgings and castings, zirconium, hafnium, niobium alloys, stainless, and specialty steels for use in the aerospace and defense, oil and gas, chemical processing, electrical energy, medical, automotive, construction, and mining markets.

“If you’re a manufacturer and you haven’t begun to wring non-value-added costs out of your operation, you’re standing on a burning platform.” That’s how one participant summed up the importance of lean manufacturing at the Tube & Pipe Association International®’s recent conference on extrusion, drawing, and tube reducing (EDTR). The conference, with the theme Lean Manufacturing and the Quality Imperative, brought together a diverse group of participants for the 2013 EDTR Roundtable in Silverton, Ore., to discuss challenges and solutions associated with casting, extrusion, cold drawing, and pilger mill operations.

One of the common themes at the conference was that becoming a lean manufacturing operation cannot be a top-down process. Plans developed by executives and managers, and carried out by supervisors, are doomed to failure. Soliciting inputs and insights from everyone is the key to developing a thorough plan that incorporates all the details.

A second theme was an emphasis that lean manufacturing isn’t a one-time event. It’s an entirely new way of looking at processes, and it requires an overhaul of company culture. It’s a mindset, something practiced every day, with a focus on continuous improvement (CI).

Finally, every company needs to build bridges that span generations. This isn’t specifically related to lean manufacturing, but it came up in conversation nonetheless. The generation gap is nothing new, but in days gone by, the gap was probably a little narrower. It sounds like an oversimplification, but the generation that relied on the pocket slide rule gave way to one that relied on the pocket calculator, whereas these days the most-used pocket-sized device is the cellular telephone. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that sending and reading text messages is a distraction, not a core work function.

This doesn’t mean that older employees can’t work with a generation that grew up with easy Internet access and the social connections enabled by cell phones; it just means that it takes a little more effort.

Meeting in the Middle

Among the biggest challenges in addressing a quality issue—which invariably results in a change to a process or procedure—is bringing out the best among everyone on staff to troubleshoot the problem, develop a solution, implement it, and measure the results. Likewise, a solid lean manufacturing program relies on inputs from all of the staff members. Bringing out the best that everyone can offer sounds like a daunting task because everyone’s background is different, but it’s the diversity of experiences and perspectives that can make a collective effort greater than the sum of its parts.

• The big benefit of workers with decades of experience is that they can offer insights and perspectives from years in manufacturing. The drawback is the potential for some to want to remain in their comfort zone, clinging to current processes rather than moving into unknown territory.

• Workers who are recent high school or college graduates and have been on the job just a few years are probably more inclined to adapt to changing conditions and processes than workers with more longevity; with less time on the job, they have fewer ingrained habits. However, less workplace experience and less familiarity with manufacturing operations are potential shortcomings.

• Some of the previous generation are baffled by the tendency among 20-somethings to stay in nearly continuous contact with friends and family. This is the generation that grew up with the Internet and cell phones, and the advent of texting—less obtrusive than a phone call—makes it very easy to communicate frequently. This compulsion is so common that its root cause even has a name: fear of missing out (FOMO).

A major concern among executives is the need for unwavering focus while an employee is on the clock.

Lean manufacturing

Many of the EDTR Roundtable attendees participated in a trap shooting event, organized by John Reinhart (center), director of development for Superior Tube Co. The runner-up was Jerry Miles, left, engineering manager for Cerro Flow Products Inc. The winner was Phillip Cross, process engineer with Plymouth Tube Co., right.

“Focus is the first requirement in good quality. A distraction is the start of poor quality,” said Ike Tripp, president of Etna Products Inc. Safety also is at stake.

It’s hard to drive a fork truck while reading a text message.

• For decades fabricators could rely on a steady stream of farm kids to join their ranks. Accustomed to long days, hard work, and using a little ingenuity to solve problems, farm kids could be counted on to get the job done without complaint. Familiarity with tools and machines, and taking great care in how they are prepared, used, and stored, was also beneficial.

The farm population continues to dwindle, so fabricators have to rely more heavily on incoming workers that don’t have the attributes learned through an upbringing on a farm.

Rowing in Unison. Understanding what every worker can contribute, and devising ways to capture those contributions, is just one piece of a complex puzzle. Getting all of the workers trained to understand that lean manufacturing is a daily process, not a one-time project, and that a quality issue isn’t a problem but the result of a problem, are other pieces.

“As soon as we start a project, we jump to solutions,” said John Reinhart, director of product development for Superior Tube Co. Inc. A key troubleshooting tool in lean manufacturing is the A3 process, a structured plan for getting to the root cause of the problem. Developed by Toyota and named for the paper size (A3, the metric equivalent of an 11- by-17-in. sheet), the A3 strategy’s strength is that it is thorough. It doesn’t simply look at the problem and potential solutions, but requires a comprehensive study of the processes currently in place that create the problem, and it uses a somewhat exhaustive process of devising a plan and getting it approved.

  1. Identify a problem or need.
  2. Conduct research to understand the current situation.
  3. Conduct root cause analysis.
  4. Devise countermeasures to address root causes.
  5. Develop a target state.
  6. Create an implementation plan.
  7. Develop a follow-up plan with predicted outcomes.
  8. Discuss plans with all affected parties.
  9. Obtain approval for implementation.
  10. Implement plans.
  11. Evaluate the results.

The A3 process can be difficult to implement if company management hasn’t instilled a culture of systematic and painstaking investigation and troubleshooting. One participant pointed out that a superficial solution, one that didn’t address the root cause, might actually allow the root cause to spread to other areas and cause additional problems.

Also, while Step 2 and Step 11 don’t come right out and say so, the steps require productivity measurements. Evaluating the results at the end will be meaningless unless they can be compared to a benchmark.

Skimming the Surface Versus Deep Diving

Lean gurus stress that lean manufacturing can’t be bolted on. This is akin to dropping whole coffee beans into a cup of tepid water and expecting a decent cup of joe. Lean manufacturing has to be infused throughout the organization, much like running hot water over ground coffee beans. It’s anything but a superficial program.

“In most improvement events, a group sits around a conference table and the facilitator passes out preconceived marching orders,” said Rick Price, a lean facilitator for ATI. “This is anything but lean,” Price said.

The phrase “buy-in and by all” sums up the spirit of lean. As described by conference participants who use lean practices, a successful lean manufacturing program has to include everyone in the organization. Also, it is a two-way street—management has to solicit input from everyone in the organization, and it has to give weight to all of the input.

“Don’t leave out the equipment operator,” stressed Mark Deaver, a mechanical engineer with Superior Tube Co. Inc. Managers and supervisors might think they have dreamed up the best process, but the machine operator might point out a holdup or a hurdle they didn’t know about. “We have operators on all of our lean teams, and they provide excellent feedback,” Deaver said.

Lean gurus also stress that “one-and-done” thinking doesn’t apply. Some phases of lean manufacturing are single occurrences, specifically kaizen events, but a successful program relies on making small, continuous, unrelenting improvements.

“Daily continuous improvement should be part of the job,” said Yvonne Muir, continuous improvement supervisor for A-DEC Inc., a manufacturer of dental office equipment.

While the goal of lean manufacturing is to improve production, and the improvement must be measured to determine if it was successful, lean manufacturing shouldn’t focus on results. It seems like a paradox, but lean manufacturing focuses on processes. Improvements in processes lead to improvements in results.

Two terms commonly used by lean proponents are kaizen and kata, which complement each other. Kaizen refers to a one-time event, whereas kata is used daily. Kata is a martial arts term for a routine or pattern rehearsed repeatedly until it becomes second nature. A kaizen event might miss small yet critical steps; kata, which is a daily routine, would catch these.

Continuous improvement facilitators often use a quote from Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

New Roles. A successful lean manufacturing and continuous improvement program recasts the roles of both management and the rank-and-file workers. Although management is accustomed to managing, it must learn to take a much more restricted role. Management provides the investment in lean education and creates an environment in which lean can flourish: It must emphasize that lean manufacturing and continuous improvement are intended to wring difficulties out of the processes and provide a fertile environment for future business growth. Beyond that, it has to resist any tendency to encroach on the process, providing little more than some guidance.

Meanwhile, the workers take on a larger role than they traditionally do. Making continuous improvement successful relies on inputs from everyone—initiating new ideas, providing input, helping to uncover and resolve potential roadblocks, and so on. Until recently company management just wanted the workers’ hands; continuous improvement engages minds as well.

Participants discussed the importance of team-building events. Some are scheduled during the normal workday, such as catered lunches or organized lunch-and-learn sessions, and some take place outside of normal working hours, such as team-building dinners.

ATI’s Price advised starting a lean program with a short business seminar. Explaining concepts such as inventory turns, work-in-process, and other accounting terms can help all team members understand how efficiencies are measured.

Preparation and Implementation Tips. Participants that had embarked on the journey to lean manufacturing had quite a few pointers and tips for those that hadn’t:

  • Rather than merely pushing product through the system, lean manufacturing relies on a pull system, which responds to orders. Switching from push to pull tends to reduce batch sizes, work-in-progress, and cycle times, in some cases up to 75 percent. It also can improve on-time delivery rates. However, implementing a pull system requires a complete rethinking of processes and flow.
  • The initial planning and rollout can require a substantial investment in time and resources, but once it’s implemented, it requires less effort to maintain. This is illustrated in one small component, 5S. After completing the first four components of 5S—sorting, straightening, systematic cleaning, and standardizing—the fifth component, sustaining, might require just 15 to 20 minutes a week.
  • Lean initiatives rely on significant amounts of communication, both vertically and horizontally. Meetings among all members of a given shift, across shifts, and among all employees are necessary, in varying frequency.
  • Standard work documents are necessary; so is an explanation as to why standardized work is important to the program.
  • While no department can run in isolation, it’s not out of the question to run each department like it’s a separate business.
  • If management mistakenly rolls out lean manufacturing as a cost-cutting program, the “buy-in and by all” component will fade quickly. Management also needs to provide a specific financial incentive; if it doesn’t, all of the benefits of the program will accrue to the stakeholders and none will go to the workers, virtually ensuring that the program will dry up quickly.

Tallying the Results

Will every new improvement idea result in an enhancement to output, throughput, productivity, or quality? Absolutely not. In fact, many ideas will not get off the ground. Every idea needs a thorough review before it is worked up into a full-blown plan, and some ideas never make it past the justification stage.

Even of those ideas that do result in a bona fide plan, continuous improvement facilitators warn that some provide less-than-expected results. It’s likely that the first few programs will be dismal, at best. This discourages many companies, and some drop lean manufacturing

altogether. This flies in the face of continuous improvement itself. Just as continuous improvement efforts have to be practiced daily until they become habit (second nature), the management-worker team has to learn from its experiences, good and bad, to refine its strategy, and it has to keep at it until it masters lean manufacturing.

Success Stories

It’s often said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and some EDTR Roundtable participants have embraced this credo, relating quite a few anecdotes about lean and quality initiatives. They also shared operational tips.

  • Reducing inventory locations, if done right, can have a multitude of positive results in both defect reduction and lean progress. It can reduce the number of material handlings, decrease the time and distance of material movement, and lower the potential for damage.
  • One participant reported that some items in his facility were worked on just 10 percent of the time. The other 90 percent was spent sitting or in motion around the plant, moving up to 200 times and traveling up to 4 miles. This was due in part to the plant’s layout, a legacy going back more than 50 years.

  • In some cases, a big improvement comes from a small change. One participant cited the use of trays for temporary storage and transportation of lengths of tubing throughout the plant. The company had two tray sizes, and had enough of each size, but it didn’t always go as planned. Often when a long tray was needed, the closest available tray was the other length, leading to scratches on the tube’s OD from resting on the tray’s rim. The company eliminated the short trays and thereby eliminated a root cause of surface scratches.
  • A new operator should work under the supervision of an experienced operator until he’s ready to fly solo. When is an operator ready? One participant suggested that exposure to about 90 percent of the expected variables is a suitable benchmark. To determine this, it’s necessary to document the tasks the operator has accomplished and under whose supervision the tasks were carried out.
  • Reducing a kerf by 0.052 in. doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when you process a lot of copper, it is. During 2012 the wholesale spot price for copper was about $3.25 per pound, or $6,500 per ton. One fabricator switched to a narrower band saw blade, reducing the kerf from 0.130 to 0.078 in. It takes quite a few cuts to start to see the difference, but indeed the blade is turning former waste into salable product. The blade is more expensive, but the waste reduction far exceeds the increased price.
  • A fabricator that produces parts for distinctly different uses—for example, plumbing parts that need an aesthetically pleasing finish and others that do not—might be tempted to have two processes for handling, inspection, and so on. It seems counterintuitive that having a single process would be less expensive than having two processes, but it is. It prevents mixups in which the parts with higher finish requirements get handled less carefully than required.
  • For machines with pricey tooling, it’s good practice to have a setup team separate from the operators. This puts fewer people in contact with the tooling.
  • It’s difficult to train a team of operators on every aspect of running a machine. After an initial training session, the operators retain an average of 70 percent of the material; a year later, it might be as little as 40 percent. Refresher courses are beneficial.
Eric Lundin

Eric Lundin

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8262

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The Tube & Pipe Journal

The Tube & Pipe Journal

The Tube & Pipe Journal became the first magazine dedicated to serving the metal tube and pipe industry in 1990. Today, it remains the only North American publication devoted to this industry and it has become the most trusted source of information for tube and pipe professionals.

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