Swarm the Floor

April 15, 2008
Management gets a little closer to the lean action.

When deploying lean, managers have a tendency to focus too much on the results and not enough on work processes, says Andy Carlino, founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center. It's a mistake that can turn continuous improvement programs into disaster-recovery operations.

"The results are an autopsy," Carlino says. "Whatever has happened has already happened."

One recent trend that's helped manufacturers dig into the work flow and understand how and why waste is occurring is what Carlino calls executive "swarms." This is when groups of executives descend on the plant floor and observe the connections between individuals, how work flows between them and what value-added and non-value-added work is taking place. It's also an opportunity to ask plant workers questions about their roles and why they carry out certain tasks.

By watching the plant operations, executives become less detached from the ground-level work and gain a better understanding of why situations occur. "That direct observation of lean has always been in the back seat of lean, but it really should be out in front," says Jamie Flinchbaugh, Lean Learning Center partner. "It's a core skill and principle people should be integrating into their work."

Once management knows how each process impacts another, it's important to communicate that to the employees so they know how their work affects the rest of the company. Otherwise, people lose sight of why they're being asked to change, reducing the chances that the lean initiative will sustain itself. For instance, employees might know what 5s requires, but they don't necessarily know why they're doing it or what it means to the organization as a whole. What results is a "housekeeping tool" instead of 5s' intended goal of identifying abnormal conditions, Carlino says.

When managers realize that measures such as 5s can remove frustration from their daily routine, they're more likely to feel engaged and participate in the process. "They're not going to be as connected to whether the company makes a whole lot of money or whether they're growing in market share as they're going to be connected to how much better their work is and how much better they feel about their work," says Carlino.

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