I got a new pair of steel toe boots in April. Visually they are appealing—gray and blue, with the appearance of a hiking boot—and I don’t believe I would feel a thing if an elephant were to step on my toes while I was wearing them.
Unfortunately, I haven’t given them much of a workout. They remain pristine. Not a scuff, not a hint of wear. Translation: I’ve been stuck at my desk for much of the past four months rather than visiting the inside of manufacturing plants.
The gist of my last column was that engineers can’t be the best—or the most helpful—they can be unless they are out on the plant floor seeing and doing. I didn’t say it then, but that same thinking holds true for other manufacturing leaders. Are plant managers on the floor every day, or most days, or are they sitting behind a desk well removed from the action? Is the company president visiting individual manufacturing sites with some regularity and engaging with the folks there? Or is that leader unknown outside of the headquarters location?
It’s important to go to the gemba, to go to where the action is. For me, too. Oh, I’ve been speaking with manufacturers on the telephone and at an event or two—and both types of contact are valuable—but it is inside manufacturing facilities that I learn the most, and the best. It’s on the shop floor where I see smart glasses delivering visual instructions to workers as they build a custom tractor. It’s on the shop floor where I see the truth of whether empowered employees have the okay, nay the responsibility, to shut down the line if they observe quality issues. It’s on the shop floor that I see, if I am lucky, engineers and associates working together to improve a process.
The shop floor is where all the words I hear via telephone conversations and trade show visits are translated into physical products by the folks who know manufacturing best: the front-line employees.
So, I am on a mission for the remainder of 2019, and that mission is to get inside as many manufacturing facilities as I can to learn as much as I can about what is moving manufacturing forward right this minute, as well as what will drive it forward tomorrow.
This kind of learning helps me deliver the type of content that is most valuable to our readers, which is my primary job. I am compelled to add, on a selfish note, that the manufacturing plant experience also is a tremendously fun part of my job. To this day, I have not forgotten a visit I made fairly early in my career to a vertically integrated pulp and paper manufacturing plant. The new kraft mill was state-of-the-art at the time, and quite impressive. One of the most amazing sights to me, however, was the means by which the facility literally shook the bark off the tree trunks that came in to be processed.
That bark then became fuel for the plant. As I said, quite an impressive operation. On that trip, I learned about alternative energy sources, new technologies and an extremely collaborative work environment between leadership and line employees. I shared it with you, and hopefully you learned something, too.
So now, I’m lacing up my steel toes to explore more of those plants. In the process, I’ll come back with all new stories to tell.
Are you ready, boots?