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Help! No One Supports My Efforts to Implement Lean in a Low-volume, Job Shop Environment

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

Question: I have failed to convince machinists who make individual unique parts of machined work to systematically check their work (setup, tool..etc). I tried to develop tailored checklists. I tried to promote A3 problem-solving, training, but somehow they thought that they were still miss something as the process is complicated. I tried to promote developing standards of operations that never had any standards (Nobody knows the right settings!), but the gap was big. I tried to make team leaders own their local quality KPIs, but they thought I was putting them under pressure. I have to say, I was alone in all of this, as their manager and the operations director were way on the other side of "lean," trying to produce as quickly as possible and asking me to do the "quality" bits. So let us be specific: Which one comes first in low-volume manufacturing: quality or delivery? As the volume is low, extra time take to check work is justified, right? How can I convince stubborn figures that their leadership style is ruining any efforts to implement lean quality?

Answer: Wow! There are lots of moving parts embedded in these questions, but let me take a stab at them. First, it's clear that the reader who submitted this is highly frustrated at the lack of interest by key leaders in manufacturing for putting some structure into place as well as a new, higher level of expectations for the operators.

Half of the problem here is caused by the apparent ignorance and low expectations of the manager and operations director and, thus, the machine operators, for pursuing lean principles to eliminate waste and make the numbers. But the reader raising these questions should sign up for the other half of the dysfunction. Here's why.

Any person accountable for manufacturing operations should always want to produce more quality product better and faster and on time -- and without capital investment for as long as possible. That means keeping constrained work centers running at all times. This increases revenues, opens up free capacity for new and existing customers, creates improved margins and free cash flow for the business. (Let's also not overlook the fact that this shop floor chaos means the costs are much higher than they should be!)

Usually, unnecessary capacity limitations are caused by processes in the plant that are not reliable, thus the disconnects. So, from a business standpoint, I encourage you to interpret what the manufacturing bosses want (which is what THEIR bosses want!) so you now have a common objective. They will begin to view you as a helpful resource instead of as a distraction. This gives you an opportunity, as you improve the current state of affairs, to educate and train away the ignorance about why formal processes such as SMED, standard work, SPC, PM and the like are important to increasing throughput and improving the KPIs.

This also gives you a forum to train up the leaders about how and why your use of formal problem-solving techniques will put an end to the constant fire fighting and provide a stable operating climate.

What you need from them in return is their support to open up the operators' minds as well as their own, and to be willing to help make the business better. It's time for them to take the "leap-of-faith" and change the mindset. Long-term, everyone's job security depends on it. At the end of the day, they all must be good enough to compete.

In my experience, there is always a link between lack of throughput and poor quality. Poor delivery performance is also negatively affected by poor quality and the unreliable production flow. So significantly improving quality will cause the manufacturing leaders to see improvement in all three areas they're concerned about. Once they understand that, why would they not want your help? What they will want instead is to know what help you need to help them do more, faster to accelerate the improvements.

So get your Pareto analyses together on the causes of poor quality and its effect on throughput and delivery. Get on their calendar and make a presentation of data-based recommendations for how you will help them get a lot better.

Together agree on bold improvement objectives that you all commit to. Then put your detailed plan together to execute it. (I'm assuming here you have skilled resources to do the training on the tools. If not, you'll need to get a good tools trainer in to assist with your improvement projects in the short term. Longer term, you should train up or hire your own experts.)

Ask the manufacturing leaders to meet/communicate with the operators re: why significant improvements are important; acknowledge that the operators' need help to solve these customer and business problems. Offer to be a part of the meeting and share the project(s) that will be the starting point to getting much better. For example, does communication on the state of the business happen regularly? If it does, then the leadership isn't informing them of the poor performance of the plant. If it doesn't, they should start now. All employees need to know when the plant is winning and when it is losing. But they won't know if their leaders don't regularly tell them the state of the business and how the plant is doing on key metrics such as quality, delivery, customer service and cost.  

Once you and the manufacturing leaders are on the same page I'd urge you to take a completely different tact in your communications with them and with the operators. In the writing of your original question, you say the following: "I failed to convince machinists....I tried to develop tailored checklists....I tried to promote A3 problem solving.....I tried to promote developing standard (work) operations....I tried to make team leaders own their local quality KPIs...."  

Too many "I's" here and zero "We's." Rule No. 1 on continuous-improvement initiatives: "Take your people with you by involving them in the change you seek!" Here's what I'd suggest: Take the time for some eyeball-to-eyeball communications with each operator whose involvement you need for each project you start. Get to know them. Ask the "5 Whys." Listen for at least twice as long as you talk. You'll be surprised how much useful information you will glean, not to mention the credibility and respect you will earn over a period of time by showing this level of interest in them personally. Those will be the first seeds for ultimately changing the shop floor culture.

Be the change that you expect from others.

As for the questions at the end: "Which one comes first in low-volume manufacturing: quality or delivery?" It doesn't matter if you are into low- or high-volume production -- you don't have to choose quality or delivery. If you were the customer, how would you answer that question? We have to do both. If we have robust processes backed up by robust maintenance, training, etc., you will get both. That's what the customer expects and is also what you should expect.

Finally you ask: "As the volume is low, extra time to check work is justified, right?  Sorry, wrong. Checking work after the fact simply means our process still is likely to produce defective products and having to check them multiple times to find out is pure muda (waste).

All the checking in the world won't eliminate the risk of defects -- it just sorts out the junk. Further, when an operator has some unscheduled time, the standard work should include productive things that can be done until schedule is available, e.g., 5S work/audits, cross training to learn new skills, working on a different machine or in a different value stream where there is scheduled work.

"There are only two ways to establish competitive advantage: do things better than others or do them differently."        --Karl Albrecht

"Standardization is the necessary foundation for improvement." --As seen in an Auburn University Works blog

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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