Bent River Machine, located in Clarkdale, Arizona, provides contract manufacturing services and designs and builds custom factory automation. After building a brand new facility in a beautiful rural setting in 1997, Bent River Machine redirected its business to more effectively respond to the needs of its customers. Today, the company creates value for customers in the medical, semiconductor, communication, environmental and food industries.
Priding itself on being at the forefront of innovation, Bent River Machine embraced lean techniques to significantly improve its manufacturing performance. The next logical step was to apply some of those same lean techniques to the front office operation. Recently, Bent River Machine’s president, Norela Harrington, shared some of the benefits gained in bringing lean to the office environment.
How did you learn about lean manufacturing techniques, and when did you begin to think about implementing these techniques in your office?
“The Arizona Manufacturing Extension Program (MEP) gave a lean manufacturing presentation to our local Tooling and Machining Association. We got hooked, and since then, we have held various lean-based training workshops in our facility and sent our folks to workshops in other locations. Throughout all the training, I was thinking not only of how we could apply lean to our factory, but how it might also work in the administrative side of the business.”
Companies often struggle with the question of where to begin. What did you do first and how did it work out?
“We started out using the value stream mapping technique to identify wastes in each of our office processes. Everyone was astonished, shocked and even horrified at the length of time it took to receive an order, sign it off with department heads, enter it into our accounting system and release it to the factory floor. There was actually a 2 to 4 week delay depending on product complexity and a number of other factors. The time those jobs spent just waiting was quite revealing. As an example, there was a 5-day backlog of work at one process alone. As part of our analysis, we also had people wear pedometers and actually measure the distance they walked everyday. It turned out our quality manager won the “most frequent traveler award," walking over 4 miles a day, mostly taking papers from one area to another.”
Describe some of the improvements made in your office processes.
“We have reduced the signature block sign off on quotes from 4 days to half a day. This has really helped in servicing our customers faster. We are now looking at bar coding to help track costs and job status for our customers. We view bar coding as a great way to eliminate some of the repetitive and wasteful steps in our office process. We have become true believers in the 5S concept (Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize, Sustain) and have improved organization throughout the office. We focused our effort on key document and supply storage areas and, so far, wehave thrown away truckloads of stuff that was not used. This has helped us to find space for the things we do use, and although we still have a ways to go, the visual controls we have put into place have definitely made it easier to find and manage what we need.”
How has the workforce responded to your office lean initiatives?
“Change is very tough, but in our business, it is a fact of life. We put in place an incentive plan that shares in the profits of jobs shipped on time and made correctly. We have also included performance on our 5S program in the incentive plan. Employees know they have a vested (and monetary) interest in keeping their work areas safe, clean and organized. Obviously, the workers are the key to any improvement effort, and with their support, we have made steady progress. We recognize we still have a long way to go, but we are pleased with everyone’s response to what we are trying to do at Bent River Machine.”
Do you have any advice for other companies seeking to improve their office processes?
“As one of our consultants says, ‘In God we trust, everyone else bring data.’ Try to really quantify what is happening and quantify the change that you want to have happen. Often, what you think is happening is very different than what actually is happening and the sooner you find this out, the better!”