Planning Improvements: A Fable

The following “fable” illustrates divergent approaches taken by two companies to improve their operations. Alpha Company started its improvement initiative with a series of departmental meetings, in which time, representatives of its management met with each employee and provided an update on business conditions, upcoming challenges, customer feedback and other areas that needed improvement.

Columns From: 1/3/2005 Modern Machine Shop,

The following “fable” illustrates divergent approaches taken by two companies to improve their operations.

Alpha Company started its improvement initiative with a series of departmental meetings, in which time, representatives of its management met with each employee and provided an update on business conditions, upcoming challenges, customer feedback and other areas that needed improvement. A sense of urgency was expressed, and there were opportunities for employees to ask questions.

At the program’s inception, Beta Company’s management sent a memo to all employees, explaining that competition was tough and changes would be necessary. The memo also explained that employees would be seeing new people in the plant who would be trying to help enhance productivity.

Alpha Company then established a schedule for training all employees on proven concepts of lean manufacturing. Everyone, including the entire management team, was scheduled for this training.

At the end of each session, program evaluations were distributed. These asked employees how they felt about the program and requested one idea for applying lean concepts in their respective areas.

Believing lean techniques would help the company, Beta sent a few key employees to a training program, telling them to spread the word about the benefits of lean manufacturing to others in the company.

Alpha’s next task was to develop a time-phased implementation plan covering a 12-month period. On average, one lean concept would be addressed each month. Between six and eight employees were selected to receive additional training on each concept. The “firm” part of the plan called for starting with value stream mapping, followed by two workplace organization events and setup reduction efforts in two areas. The “tentative” part of the plan called for training and implementation of other lean concepts, with the content and timing contingent upon the outcome of the “firm” plan.

Beta Company had difficulty developing an implementation plan. There were differing opinions within the management as to what could be accomplished while continuing to run the business. A month passed before management decided to start with a workplace organization effort, which was thought to provide the greatest short-term benefit. Because inventory management was traditionally a problem, Beta decided to conduct a 5S event in the warehouse.

While Alpha’s value stream mapping effort yielded surprising results, an unexpected area turned out to be a major source of production delays. The company decided to conduct the initial 5S workplace organization effort in that area.

Beta struggled with its 5S effort. The team encountered problems from the moment it tried to sort out what was and was not needed in the warehouse. Basically, the team was told that everything should be kept “just in case.” The effort continued for 2 weeks. Other than introducing some lines on the floor and labels on rack locations, little benefit was derived. Team members became frustrated, and some said that the initial lean effort was a waste of time.

Alpha’s 5S effort focused on a limited area and involved people with extensive knowledge. After two days, many items with no purpose were removed. Employees commented that the area looked different and that they could find things faster.

Beta abandoned the 5S effort in the warehouse, focusing instead on reducing the setup time on a critical machine. A group of employees watched a portion of the machine setup, but they were unable to watch the entire event because the department supervisor forgot to notify them of when the setup started. Nevertheless, the group identified the need for power tools to make attaching fixtures a little easier.

Alpha continued on its lean journey, learning about and implementing techniques throughout the organization. The company “managed” the effort with weekly update meetings, which were held on the shop floor and kept to a maximum of 20 minutes by focusing on exceptions, or problems that hindered progress.

Beta’s lean effort struggled along for a few months. A monthly meeting required everyone to report on the status of all activities. The first two meetings lasted more than a half-day, with most of the time spent addressing reasons why things were not done.
Perhaps we can all learn a little from this “fable” as we try to introduce improvements in our own companies.

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