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How to Combat a Distressing Drop in Productivity at Shift Change

Ask the Expert: Lean Leadership: Have a question about lean leadership? Let Larry Fast tackle it for you.

Question: I'm not happy with the drop in productivity on the shop floor at shift change. While I expect some decline, I wonder whether there might be some tactics to help us in this area. Any thoughts?

Answer: It's not clear if it's a supervisor, manager or someone else who might have written this question about the productivity drop at shift change, but I do have some thoughts. First of all, I'd encourage the reader to change expectations, i.e. "While I expect some decline..." This is the first problem that must be addressed. Why would we have lower expectations about running effectively at shift changes -- especially since leaders tend to get what they expect?

Unfortunately, this is a common paradigm that tends to paralyze organizations. It's the old "that's the way it's always been" mindset that has perpetuated this poor process over the years. Recognizing and breaking out of this paradigm is the first step to improving productivity at shift changes. It's NOT OK to lose productivity at shift changes. We simply need to develop better processes to fix it.

In the short-term, get out the fire hose. Have meetings with each shift, size the problem in terms of lost productivity at shift changes and how it negatively affects the business. Ask for their help in minimizing it immediately. Just raising the awareness and having a more vigilant presence by supervision will help to stop some of the bleeding.

You can also suggest awareness issues. For example, suggest to your people that nothing says you have to wait until the end of the shift to do the cleanup. Let's put things away, sweep up as time permits throughout the course of the day so little is left to be done at shift change. You may not get instant results, but you'll get some degree of improvement. Most importantly, you'll have planted a seed of what will come next.

In your meetings with each shift, commit that you will have a team within the next few days, which will include some machine operators, to address how we can change the processes at shift change to ensure critical equipment doesn't stop and why it's important. Then the leadership must deliver on this commitment quickly. Now it's time for the leaders to get to work.

First, launch a pilot project in the value stream of the constraint that is priority No. 1 for increased throughput. If you have not already done so, do a value stream map (VSM) of the processes. This is the next step necessary to understand what the line balance is, by machine, and to determine the bottleneck. (By definition, the bottleneck operation must always be running except for the minimum time required for preventive maintenance and changeovers.) Improving productivity here will instantly create new capacity for little if any spending being required.

For the other operations involved in the process, you will also learn what OEE (original equipment effectiveness) is required of the non-constrained work centers to keep the constraint flowing. For example, let's assume that the present capacity of the constraint is an OEE of 85%. It may only take an OEE of 65% from a support machine to ensure the constraint is never starved of material. Another machine might be at 78% or 46% or whatever. The value stream map will identify all of that so you can plan the inventory footprint and the crewing plan to ensure maximum production of the constraint.

Based on your analysis you will find that direct labor operators, assigned to non-constraints, will have minutes or hours during their shift to assist with DOI (Direct-On-Indirect) and very possibly to operate more than just their primary machine. Of course, you'll likely be asking operators to think and behave differently than the traditional model so leadership must communicate what's going on, why and how it will be implemented, including getting everyone's input and understanding before going forward. Communication, communication, communication. Training, training, training.

Also, be prepared to address right up front with the hourly folks the following concern, which usually occurs. "I don't think I'll be able to do this. You're asking us to work a lot harder." My answer to this is something like: "I understand your concerns as this is new for you and for your leadership. But with your cooperation and help, we will educate you on the value stream mapping process so you will understand the thinking involved with it, e.g. how we determine the line balance for each operation involved in making these products. (Don't forget to explain what "line balance" means.)

One of the outcomes of that process is tracing the amount of each operator's time tending to the machine(s) and what time is available to be doing other productive things. Because these happen in small increments of time throughout the length of the shift, we simply haven't captured or understood that information up until now. So we're learning together. Our ultimate objective is to help products flow through the value stream without interruption and on to our customers with better quality, service and cost. Mining the opportunities from the VSM will allow us to do that."

There will still be anxiety and some griping after this but you've set the stage for what must happen next. I like to think about it like this:

  • The company is paying everyone for a full day of work minus time for breaks and lunch as published in the employee hand book.
  • The company isn't asking for people to work harder as is commonly thought. What we're asking is for our people to work more often.
  • We're asking our people to work more efficiently.
  • My experience is that once these things are clear and the bugs have been worked through and solved within the value stream pilot, you'll find that others who have been following the developments from adjacent areas of the plant will be forming a line to be next.

What I've described here is a pilot with multiple agendas:

  • Stop the loss of productivity at shift change.
  • Install a robust solution by re-engineering the process.
  • Educate, train, communicate in a new way including operator involvement from Day 1.
  • Begin a culture change and a new mindset around a broader definition of work in the plant.
  • Develop a training program to ensure an ample supply of operators is cross-trained/certified to run plant constraints on all shifts.
  • Develop crewing guides to increase flexibility in value streams. For example, if the normal crewing is for six people and someone calls in sick at the last minute, have a crewing guide and VSM readily available so the operators can rebalance the line until a relief operator or an operator from another shift can report to restore the normal crew of six.
  • Take the opportunity to celebrate the pilot's success and recognize the people who are making it happen.
  • Create a "buzz" around the plant about the new, more gratifying way of working
  • Start the "grass fire" we discussed in my last article by starting work on the No. 2 priority value stream right after the celebration of a successful pilot.

"Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes." --Oscar Wilde

"No person's knowledge can go beyond their experience." --John Locke

Larry Fast is founder and president of Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence and a veteran of 35 years in the wire and cable industry. He is the author of "The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence: A Leader's Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence." A second edition is planned for release in 2015. As Belden’s VP of manufacturing Fast led a transformation of Belden plants in the late '80s and early '90s that included cellularizing about 80% of the company’s equipment around common products and routing, and the use of what is now know as lean tools. Fast is retired from General Cable Corp., which he joined in 1997. As General Cable's senior vice president of operations, Fast launched a manufacturing excellence strategy in 1999. Since the launch of the strategy, there have been 34 General Cable IndustryWeek “Best Plants Finalist awards, including 12 IW Best Plants winners. Fast holds a bachelor's degree in management and administration from Indiana University and is a graduate from Earlham College’s Institute for Executive Growth. He also completed the program for management development at the Harvard University School of Business.

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