Continuous Improvement -- Bust Down The Walls

You know the factory floor is where the action is. Why aren't you there now?

The other day I was told a story -- it wasn't too far from the source so I don't think it's apocryphal -- of a manufacturing plant manager who, when it was announced that the CEO would be visiting the site, posted his photo all around the facility so that everyone would know who he was.

It wasn't the CEO's photo that he posted, but his own.

Most of us have worked in or toured companies where the top dogs sequestered themselves in their air-conditioned offices, occupying their days with reports and important meetings, only venturing out into the plant on special occasions.

As surprising as it is that such executives could survive today, the best managers continue to embrace the "management by walking around" philosophy, adapting it to today's manufacturing operations.

Compared with many other areas of the business, manufacturing operations have always been well suited to walking the floor where the flow of material into finished products can be seen first hand. Managers who have set up their factories with enough visual management cues can easily identify trouble spots when they are out on the floor.

At one factory I visited last month, the management team -- the plant manager, the production manager, the engineering manager, the quality manager and even the human resources manager -- walks the plant each and every morning. As a group they spend an hour or so checking in with each workcell, reviewing the previous day's performance and today's targets.

As you might guess, they spend more time in those areas that require extra attention. The idea being that in a manufacturing plant, customer value is created on the floor, all other activity is just dross, and that's where every manager should focus his or her time and effort. You can bet that everybody in that facility knows who those managers are. Other manufacturers have taken the mandate of lean advocates to "go to the gemba" literally, squeezing the desks of engineers and others who support the production processes into spaces between the machines. Roughly translated from the Japanese, gemba means "the real or actual place." When I once asked a plant manager what the engineers thought of the co-location as I watched someone adjust the designs for a job on a computer screen as a noisy machine tool reamed out valve bodies behind him, the answer was, "They get used to it." When hourly people and managers see one another every day, and learn the names of each other's children, the "us versus them" attitude that arises with physical barriers falls away. Shorter lines of communication allow problems to surface and to be resolved before they become a crisis, which makes everyone's day better. One progressive assembly operation I visited several years ago didn't have any office space at all. The division vice president and all of his direct reports worked in cubicles surrounding the plant floor right along with everyone else. He didn't need a management dashboard on his computer. All he had to do to find out the status of the day's output was to look up. One of the reasons such a layout seems so foreign to most people is because the vast majority of U.S. factories (75%) have been around for 20 years or more. Like the long assembly lines and large inventory storage areas that they once housed, the typical big metal box attached to a smaller box with windows that face out toward the road -- away from the factory -- are relics of another management era. Look around your facility. How many of the walls and offices are actually necessary? How many are only there to make a few people feel more important? Perhaps it's time that you grab a sledgehammer and start swinging. David Drickhamer is IndustryWeek's Editorial Research Director. He also coordinates the IW Best Plants award program.

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