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Published Aug. 28, 2023, on theleanthinker.com.
I got the impression John couldn’t respond because he rarely, if ever, ventured into the actual plant. It was some distance from the office building, and it was loud, unheated in the winter (and cold), hot in the summer. Simply put, he wasn’t dressed to go out there.
Interestingly, though, we were back on the site a couple of months later. As I was walking through the shop, one of the workers pointed and shouted my name. He didn’t look happy, so I was thinking, “Uh-oh, I’m going to get an earful.”
It was Tuesday afternoon of a traditional five-day kaizen event. Monday morning had been spent training the team on the basics of “just in time,” including some fundamental principles and a 1:1 flow simulation to demonstrate some of the possibilities.
My response: “John, I have been here for two days. I walk past that oven every time I go into and leave the plant. I have not once seen anyone working there. The reason the oven is a bottleneck is because nobody loads it.”
I was pretty new at all of this. We were partnered with consultants that we paid for with the idea of eventually learning to lead these events on our own. What I was supposed to be learning was how to find opportunities, plan, and facilitate kaizen events.
As an aside, I’ve been in a lot of industrial facilities. This is the only one where I actually felt in danger. I kept my head on a swivel at all times—perhaps another symptom of management pretty much staying in their offices.
The team I assisted was focused on the flow through an annealing oven. This was near the end of the process and was perceived as a bottleneck. The oven was designed as a long tunnel; individual plates of material could be placed on a conveyer at one end and would come out the other having spent enough time in the oven for the process to work. It was ideal for 1:1 flow, and that is what we were advocating.
This was not a function of machine capacity. I had that math, too, and at the time was surprised that he didn’t. I was still new at this. Today I wouldn’t be surprised if management didn’t know theoretical or expected capacity. But the bottom line was simple: There isn’t going to be any output if there’s no input.
But even then, I was starting to question whether kaizen events alone, no matter how many or how quickly they were run, would actually create long-term significant change. We need to work on the culture, and the things that drive the culture.
Beginning midafternoon on Monday and continuing into Tuesday morning was “walk the process”—mainly looking at material flow, where things bunched up, and things that wasted people’s time (there was no shortage of that). By Tuesday afternoon the team was being guided through the process of developing a “vision”—a fairly idealized version of what would be possible with some changes.
And an earful I got. But it wasn’t about the concept. It was about management apparently not doing anything with the proposed changes. And I knew this guy. He was on the first team because he was a pretty influential informal leader among his peers. His opinion was important. He was willing to give all of this a try but was frustrated that management seemed to be hanging them out to dry.
I stood up to engage him—and keep him from derailing the rest of the team—and slowly moved the conversation out of the room. I was dressed in heavy work clothes, metatarsal protective boots, carrying a hard hat under my arm, heavy gloves inside it. I didn’t work there.
After that presentation, though, John came in. (I’m calling him John.)
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There were a lot of headwinds here, but nearly all of them came from the head office. Their top-level metrics conspired against them; they measured success as the amount of material they pushed through the start of their value stream. The individual operations were isolated from one another physically, in both space and time, with weeks and months of WIP separating them. The workers’ contract had heavy piece-rate incentives. (I wasn’t smart enough at the time to ask if there was a differential piece rate for hitting a higher goal—vestige of Frederick Taylor—but it wouldn’t have surprised me.) Needless to say, the concept of making operations dependent on one another with flow was a tough sell.
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Published: Monday, October 23, 2023 – 12:03
Part of the ritual was for the team to present their concept to the assembled management team for a green light. They did a pretty good job.