Category Archives: One Man’s Lean Journey
A lean thinker will always continue to push on boundaries whether it be around processes or how things are viewed. It isn’t an easy road to continually be pushing against the normal thought pattern but when it works out it is very rewarding. One big breakthrough makes up for many failed breakthroughs.
The automotive supplier I worked for specialized in plastic trim parts. The parts had three finishes: molded in the color, painted or chrome. The facility had 30 injection molding presses ranging from 500 ton to 3500 ton. In order to reduce inventory and shorter our lead time we had the hair-brained idea to actually connect four molding presses to the chrome plating line. It was hair brained for two reasons: 1) we needed to moved 1800 ton presses and they weren’t easy to move and 2) the chrome plating line racks were 10 ft x 15 ft so a pit would have to dug in the concrete next to the molding press so rack could be lowered to where operators could load the top of the rack.
Studies on paper showed the molding cycles and changeover times lined up nicely with our rack storage capacity for the plating line as it was. The savings was in the neighborhood of $250,000 or more per year in inventory, lead time and labor. The VP would not sign-off. He just couldn’t picture it.
Fortunately, the plant manager wouldn’t drop it. So, I got approval to purchase a computer simulation package I had a history with and model the before and after states of the areas. It took about three months to get refreshed with the program language and then create the base models. We then spent another couple of months tweaking and playing with scenarios. This allowed for a better estimate of the savings and to help visualize how the facility would work.
We were able to present the idea again to the VP and he started to see and move on his original opinion. It took a few weeks of the plant manager following up with the VP before he finally gave his consent.
From original idea to breaking ground was about a year. When it was done it worked very well. We reduced the lead time about about a week, freed up employees to work in areas where we had temporary help and saved approximately 20,000 sq. ft. of space.
Nothing like this had been done before and even people in the facility said it would never work. When it did it opened up the possibilities for so much more.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t there to see the “more” because I left and took a position at another company.
* It can be hard and frustrating to not be able to get others to see the potential and just continue so squash ideas, but if you have just one or two of the right believers it can make all the difference in the world. For me, that was the plant manager in this case.
* Sometimes you have to be creative to get people to change their views. You have to provide them with new positive experiences. For the VP, we couldn’t spend the large about of money to just do it and show him. We had to come up with a different way. That was the computer modeling. It allowed him to see things and ask questions to have a good experience in the new world. For the plant staff and employees, it was seeing the new idea actually come to life and work.
* I learned how to be stubborn with my beliefs but to do it a positive manner and how to back up, regroup and take a different approach to get the message through.
Following a structured problem solving approach takes fortitude and courage when the world around you wants to shoot from the hip and judge based on their emotions. I found this out when dealing with one of the automakers we supplied.
Our quality engineer (QE) got a call that our grilles were not fitting the front of the cars correctly and asked her to take a look into it. The QE asked me to help find the root cause. We first tested our gages at our facility and found they were certified and working properly. Our parts showed to be within the tolerances given to us by the automaker.
We decided a trip to the automaker was needed to see the process, talk with the operators and also run a couple of tests. The QE and I asked the automaker’s QE to pull two vehicles off the lot and save for us to test. One vehicle is a great example of how the part should fit and one vehicle where the part fits very poorly.
When we arrived at the assembly facility the first thing the QE and I did was go out to the assembly line and talk with the operators that assemble our grilles the the vehicles. The operators said our grille may not fit the first vehicle but would work great on the next one down the line. This was a big clue. Direct observation of the process was a huge help in understanding how our grilles were assembled to the cars. We ended up knowing the process better than the automaker’s QE.
Next we asked to see the two vehicles we requested to be set aside. Well, he only saved the bad vehicle and not the good one. This became a point of contention because we needed a good car to compare the differences and conduct a test. He argued with me for 10 minutes before I finally convinced him to pull one in from the lot outside.
I conducted my test and proved with a 95% confidence level that our grille was not root cause of the fit issues. There were two possible causes: 1) the fender or 2) the fender’s interaction with our grille (the fender on one end of their specs mixed with a grille on the opposite end of our specs could cause the fit issues).
This was not received well at all. The automaker’s QE contested everything I did and wouldn’t believe the findings even though he watched me during the entire test. It took a second automaker QE to come over and see what was going on to get any agreement. The second automaker QE heard about the test and backed up my findings.
I even volunteered my help to conduct more tests to find the root cause. They agreed to the help and both the automaker and the QE from my company had action items to complete in the next two weeks in order to do further testing.
As we followed up with the automaker’s QE over the next couple of weeks, we found he was not living up to his end of the action items and was still trying to blame our grille. The QE and I had to escalate the issue to our plant manager who supported us and called their plant manager.
A compromise was reached. The test was conducted as I laid out but I was not allowed back into their facility. In the end, it was the fender that had issues.
It was hard to stick to the process when every obstacle was being thrown in the way. It taught me a valuable lesson about how strong emotions on a subject can be even with data and facts presented.
- A strong process is an amazing thing to be able to fall back on in times of stress. It showed exactly why people fall back into old habits when things aren’t going well.
- The right thing isn’t always the easy thing. It can be hard to standup for the right thing even when it is good for your customer.
- Having a leadership team that supports and encourages strong processes is critical when those processes are challenged
- Solidified my belief in the power of a strong process to get predictable and sustainable results
- Direct observation of the grille being assembled provided strong facts that no one that hasn’t seen the process could argue
One of the most valuable lesson I learned while working in the automotive industry wasn’t about the industry or people or even myself. The most valuable lesson I learned was having a great process will yield predictable results. I didn’t learn this from a manufacturing process. Instead I learned this from a problem solving process.
The automotive supplier I worked for was part of the Chrysler Supplier Quality Program. As part of that program, I got to learn different methodologies for problem solving. One was Shainin’s Red X methodology. I followed the methodology stringently. The benefit was repeatedly achieving great results.
One example was the with the electro-plating line. This is a large vats of chemical baths that produced a chrome finish on plastic parts. The line was operating at a 84% yield. Any defects that came out of the line had to be trashed. The parts could not be salvaged. We were throwing away approximately $40,000/week in scrap. I was asked to problem solve the scrap and get the yield up.
I knew squat about chemistry then and I still don’t know squat. In fact, I needed a tutor in college to get me through freshman chemistry. But that was my task.
Following Shainin’s Red X methodology and never wavering from the process, within in two years the plating line was running at a 96% yield. The line had never ran above 91%. Scrap dollars were down to $10,000/week.
I learned that I didn’t have to know anything about an area to achieve significant results if I followed a good process. It is something that is stated repeatedly in the lean world, but until you have the experience it is hard to truly understand the power of this.
I was accused of “always being right”. I never said anything of the sort but when I was accused of that I would say, “Yes, because I follow the process not because I know anything.”
Have you experienced a good process that is predictable and repeatable?
- A good process is more powerful than hero employees
- You don’t have to be an expert in an area in order to produce significant results
- It is easier to stick to a process when you are unfamiliar with the area, because you can’t rely on your “expertise”
Lean and safety go together like peanut butter and jelly. Safety should always come first. Whether the company is trying to implement lean or not. Safety is #1.
The automotive facility I was working at was one of the many places that claimed safety first in everything they did. It wasn’t until the management saw it ranked nearly last among facilities owned by the corporation. This is when the transformation took place.
Safety became a daily discussion in every area. A safety committee formed by employees. Safety bingo with a cash payout began. But the biggest change was came within the management team and how they handled safety concerns and issues. When an accident did occur all management was required to participate in understanding why it happened. Also, anytime there was a requisition making the facility a safer place it was signed…no questions asked. No ROI.
Within two years, the facility was in the Top 5 worldwide for the corporation for safety. The facility surpassed 2.5 million man hours worked without an accident. Employees were correcting other employees when it came to safety concerns.
Actions around safety were clear and concise. There was no room for misinterpretation. A 40 year veteran and amazing tooling engineer got sent home for one week with no pay because he did not lock out / tag out the machine before he went into it. It was shocking but sent a statement.
Contrast that to another facility I was in a few years later where the hearing protection rules were vague and unclear. When approached about this the management team was defensive and was more concerned about the inconvenience of dealing with hearing protection. Two years later the facility had four cases of hearing loss.
Lean or not the automotive facility was truly dedicated to safety.
- Safety first is a mindset. It isn’t just something you do. It is something you believe.
- Being safe and believing in safety are different things.
- The actions of a leadership team give true insight into their belief around safety.
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is the importance of employee involvement in creating improvement within an organization. Working for the automotive supplier to create standard work instructions was time in my learning.
I have an industrial engineering degree. I had been certified in Ready-Work Factor and MTM motion-time analysis tools. I was taught how to analyze every slight movement a person makes and how to determine the amount of time it should take. I was the snot-nosed, arrogant, young engineer telling employees how to do their work quicker. I can count on one hand how many of the work instructions I wrote were actually followed for more than one day.
At the automotive supplier, my manager and I took a different approach. When going to an area to document the work standards, we pulled several people off the floor across all shifts to help. The teamwork between everyone was fantastic and my eyes were opened in three ways: (1) How common it was for a job not to be done the same way by multiple people, (2) the incredible dialog created to combine ideas and determine a better process, and (3) how the new work process was being followed by everyone weeks and months later.
Lean implementers will talk non-stop about the importance of employee engagement in everything that is done. There is good reason for this. Every problem has a countermeasure. Those countermeasures mean a work process WILL BE changed. It may be for one person or many. It may be a small, simple change or it may be a large, complex change. But there will be a change to the standardized work.
Getting people involved early helps to expedite adoption of the new process and helps to ensure adherence.
- Working with employees to create standardized work is critical to creating adoption and adherence to the new process
- It is extremely common that no one does the same job, the same way and standardized work is needed
- Standardized work is the foundation of improvement because it provides a baseline AND it DRIVES EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT.
Working for the automotive supplier, I had moved from industrial engineer to program manager and now into the lean group. The lean group comprised of just myself and one other, Joe Wilson who has contributed here at Beyond Lean.
One of our first assignments was to implement a plant-wide kanban system in 4 weeks. It was a mandate that came down from our Vice President to all the plants. In that short time, Joe and I had to learn about kanban, devise a system, create a simulation to teach 500 employees and implement the system.
Good thing we were young and full of energy back then, because I don’t know how we did it but we did. We developed kanban cards by color signifying which department the card need to return to in order to place the order for more parts. We then created a very simple Lego simulation. The simulation was good for 5-6 people at a time and allowed each person to be hands in order to create better learning. We also used the exact kanban card that we were going to put on the shop floor for the simulation so the employees got used to seeing them and could give feedback on them. We then trained 500 people on the simulation, five at a time across three shifts.
One rule we stressed the employees was, “Do NOT violate the kanban!” If you don’t have a card, you don’t build. Even if you know cards are in the internal customer’s hand and haven’t been brought to you. That holds the customer accountable for “ordering” the parts from the supplying department.
Everyone was ready to go live on our due date and we nailed it. Not saying there weren’t problems, but we hit the date and people were trying their best to follow the new procedures.
Then it happened. Our go-live date was mid-June. If you are familiar with the auto industry, everyone shuts down for retooling for a week or two around July 4th. So one week into the kanban system, our management was telling everyone to violate the kanban in order to build the bank of parts for the few shipments we have during the two week shutdown.
Yep. Violate the Number 1 Rule right out of the gate. It caused Joe and I a lot of rework after shutdown to get the kanban system back up and running. In the end, it worked well thanks to the great employees and the management support, but the false start didn’t help.
- Building the bank of parts for shutdown was the correct thing to do at July 4th. What we need to be more conscious of is when we start something. It would have been better to start the kanban training after shutdown so we didn’t have the false start and have management telling everyone to violate the number 1 rule right off the bat.
- We made kanban cards that were small. 4 inches x 3 inches or so. Cards were get dropped and lost quite a bit. It is better to make larger kanban cards (8 inches x 6 inches). It is harder to lose these because they are easier to see and don’t fit in pockets without folding a laminated card.
- Creating a simulation that allowed everyone to be hands-on and using the actual kanban card from the floor really helped to create learning, understanding and good dialogue with the employees.
I spent about a year working as an Industrial Engineer at Guardian before I got on opportunity to move into the Program Manager position. In this role, I was responsible for managing every engineering change that came through the facility. That could be a new paint color, new components or even a complete redesign with tool modifications. This covered over 5,000 part numbers and at least 10 customers.
Not only was there the external customers, but there were the internal customers. I had to work with the corporate design engineers and product managers as well as the facility’s engineers and senior staff. I had to make sure we were still profitable with the changes. It was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated. This is where I learned how to listen to customers wants and combine them with our capabilities.
Being focused on the customer and delivering what they would like does not mean bending over backwards and just caving to every demand they have. It means have a respectful relationship and working together to achieve the desired outcome. Sometimes it was easy. They customer would want a new paint color. I would work with the paint supplier to get the color developed, tested and approved. A pretty standard process and well within our capability.
Sometimes it was much more difficult. One customer wanted their grille of their flagship vehicle to have a “smoked chrome” look like it did in Japan. The look was very popular and they wanted to carry it over to the U.S. The issue was the paint they used in Japan was not legal in the U.S. because of the amount of VOCs. I worked with a team that sat down with the customer and understood what the “smoked chrome” look they were trying to achieve. It took over six months of development with our paint supplier and our process engineers to get the desired look.
All along the way the customer understood the effort we were going through and how complicated it was to get the desired look. Because of this, they agreed to pay a much higher than standard price for the grille. More importantly, a trust and a relationship had grown between our companies. One of respect and understanding. Our efforts to give the customer what they wanted but stay within our facilities capabilities made us a preferred supplier. Nothing was as complicated as that moving forward but when changes where needed, the customer took the approach of “this is what we are looking for. What can you do?”
It was a great lesson in serving the customer without bending on what your purpose and capabilities are in a way that benefits everyone.
- When working directly with the external customer, you must keep in mind your capabilities and core strengths and help deliver within those parameters. It can create some creativity.
- Must focus on the external customer first but you can’t forget the internal customer as well.
- Being firm, but reasonable can help garner trust and a strong relationship. When you give them everything not matter what it does to you, it doesn’t gain respect but one of dominance by the customer
My time at Thomson Consumer Electronics came to an abrupt end as the company went from 2,000 people in the U.S. to 250 people in a years time. I got a job with Guardian Automotive. The facility I was hired into specialized in exterior plastic trim. Guardian’s customers included almost everyone during the five years I was there: GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Harley-Davidson, BMW, International and Freightliner to name a few.
The first few months was very frustrating. My manager and I were trying to make process changes that made since to us in order to reduce WIP. We wanted to move assembly next to the paint lines so there was no paint inventory, but people fought this at every turn.
Then a big change happened. Guardian got a new VP of manufacturing and he brought in his director of lean. We were going to be a lean company. After years of studying Shingo and using lean tools, this was the first time I had heard the term “lean”.
Everyone got pulled off-site for an intro to lean and a hands-on balloon simulation showing pull vs push. During the simulation, I leaned over to my manager and whispered, “This is what we have been trying to do for months with the paint lines.” I was anxious to see how things would go now. The couple hour simulation was the extent of our lean training. We were told to “go do”.
Talk about ‘deer in the headlights’ after that. No real training and being told to “go be lean”.
The first thing my manager and I did was re-establish the idea of connecting the assembly area to the paint lines. We discussed it with the plant manager and how it would be like the balloon simulation. We had his support and were able to complete the work within a few weeks.
Over the next few years, the facility became a lean playground for myself, Joe Wilson (who also blogs on Beyond Lean), and our manager. We learned something, tried it, screwed it up, fixed it and made huge progress.
Our time was a huge success in that the plant went from $500k in the red on $120 million sales to $8.5 million in the black on $90 million sales in three years. But it was a huge failure as well. We had phenomenal support to make the changes we did, but we didn’t change the leadership’s thinking. After we all left the plant was back in the red in about a year.
I don’t say that to too our own horn, but as a lesson in how important it is to change people’s thinking and behaviors in order to sustain the change.
I will be diving deeper into my experiences at Guardian moving forward.
- It is critical to not only have the support of leadership but to change their mindsets and behaviors in order to maintain the changes during a lean implementation
- Top down support makes an enormous difference in the work you can accomplish and the time to accomplish it
In a previous post, I talked about learning a software package that allows people to model and simulate a factory before making any physical changes. After the building of the factory that failed to implement pull, my role was to model current production lines when changes were recommended and to model the proposed model lines for new products.
One of the new production lines that I modeled was for a new television technology. The Liquid Crystal on Silicone (LCoS) television sets. This technology was about a year ahead of LCD TVs and was cheaper to produce. It was only 18 inches deep which is laughable now but at the time was about half as deep as typical big scree projection TVs.
The manufacturing engineers came up with a design for the new production line. By all means, it looked like a line that would meet the production needs and on paper the number of stations and equipment needed looked perfect.
The model was built and simulated with actual unit testing data as well as workstation operation times. It was a great thing we did, because we could have had another fiasco if we didn’t.
The simulation showed the back of the line being severely starved and the front of the line being overwhelmed. The line would have produced at only 66% of the rate it needed to run. The animation of the simulation showed how many TV sets were being kicked out into the rework loop and the backup it caused. It was a perfect example of the Markov Chain in real-life.
We were able to redesign the production line to be 33% shorter and have the ability to produce at a rate high enough to meet demand and allow for growth with no investment.
This was a great example of fail fast, fail cheap. It took less than a month to build the simulation, test, analyze, rework and get approved. The company saved thousands of dollars and the product went to market on time.
I know simulation software packages aren’t cheap, but it was cheaper than building the production line seeing the failure in real-life and then scrambling to fix it or build a second line.
How does your company fail fast, fail cheap?
- The value of prototyping and understanding before going full out is ALWAYS understated
- Simulating with cardboard boxes to computer software is an important part of making changes, especially big changes.
- Always better to fail early on with something that doesn’t cost much vs. finding the failure in full production mode. Doesn’t matter if it is a new marketing idea (test in an area) or manufacturing.
Let’s have fun with this post. See how many things we did wrong in starting this new manufacturing facility and circle them. Hint: circle the entire post.
To this day, I feel very fortunate to have been a part of this work because of all the learning that I didn’t come to realize until years later.
I was a 21-year-old intern and had been selected by my manager to help design a brand new manufacturing facility in Mexico. There are only three people involved in this “top secret” plan. My manager, a consultant with an extensive computer simulation background and myself.
The goal was to design the first pull manufacturing facility in the company based on Demand Flow Technology (or DFT). DFT is one person’s interpretation of lean and how production lines need to be flexible enough to run every product at any time. Studying DFT would serve me well later in my career. I also gained a lot of experience in computer simulation of facilities.
I designed a spreadsheet that calculated the storage space required for every component and finished good across the facility based on production rates and size of components and product. This was an input into the simulation to help determine the size of the building.
We finished the design, ground was broken and I went back to school for a semester.
The new facility was opened a couple of weeks before I returned for another session of my internship.
(Pay attention here because this is my favorite part)
The Mexico facility was replacing a local U.S. facility. The company shut the U.S. facility down on a Friday and started up the new facility in Mexico on the following Monday. No ramp up for the new facility. It started it’s first production after the other facility was shutdown. There was no training of management or employees on what a “pull” facility meant and how it would be different. It was a “here is a new pull facility go run it like you ran other facilities.”
Within a month, there were over 115 tractor trailers on the parking lot storing components and finished goods. Inside the facility, finished goods were piled in any opening they could find. Television sets that were supposed to be stacked three high were six high and leaning over about ready fall. It was a complete disaster.
My manager and I were called to the floor. We were told our design and space requirements were wrong and we needed to go to Mexico and fix the problem.
I spent two days pouring over my calculations and could not find a single thing that was wrong. We got to the facility and spent a few days watching production, examining the inbound and outbound process and locating parts in the facility and in the parking lot. It became very clear that no management practices had been changed and the facility was operating in traditional batch push system.
We spent a month helping to change a few processes and get the inventory under a manageable control, but the overall solution from the high powered executives was to expand the building and keep operating as is. Not change the management practices and improve the processes.
I can’t understate what a disaster this was. Truly an enormous cluster. It was a few years later when I was leading a lean transformation in automotive that I realized how valuable that experience was.
- Having only three people involved in the design of a new facility, especially going from push to pull, is a very bad idea. It should be a larger collaborative effort. This will even help with buy-in a when the changes are made.
- Simulations are an incredible tool, but are useless when you simulate one set of assumptions and another is put into practice
- Absolutely no ramp up time for the new facility…Really!?! I am still speechless on this one.
- If you are switching from a push to a pull system, you have to train everyone from the plant manager down on how this is different and how to manage in the new system. This is crucial.
- There must be knowledgeable support for the entire facility when going from push to pull. Help everyone work through the kinks of the new processes and not allow them to fall back on old ways.
- Most important, when something goes wrong, learn and change to improve don’t fall back to old ways just because it is comfortable. In this case, it cost millions to expand the facility instead of learning new processes.