Manufacturing Common Sense – A Follow-up

From the archives, by Stanley Gucwa

You may recall my brother’s earlier article describing how reducing inventory levels is like lowering the water in a lake that has hidden rocks: the lower the water level (inventory levels), the more rocks (problems) are revealed that were once hidden. This article builds on our focus on customer values]

I was transferred to an inner-city manufacturing facility where the unionized employees were there forever, most of them with twenty-five years plus seniority. Classic traditional manufacturing practices right out of the Pleistocene (or is it Mesozoic?): long production lines, batch production, everybody doing their own thing. I knew that trying to yank the process into the 20th century by brute force would be like trying to tell a plankton that it could evolve into a fish. Good luck!

Instead, first thing we did was to have a meeting with the entire production staff in the company cafeteria at 3:30 Monday afternoon, on company time. We chose 3:30 PM because everybody would realize that we weren’t going to drag it out beyond quitting time. We explained that we were going to try some new production practices such as cross training. We also explained that in order to be more competitive, meet customer demands, etc., this was necessary and worth a try. There had never been any cross training in this plant before, and the response was…dead silence. Meeting adjourned.

This set the scene. Nothing more was brought up during the week but several employees stopped me during the next few days to ask subtle questions about what we were planning to do. “Just hang on. We’ll elaborate at next Monday’s meeting,” I answered. “You mean we are going to have a meeting next Monday too?” came the question in disbelief.

“Yep, every Monday at 3:30 PM. Quality awareness meetings, and everybody is invited.” A global E-mail was sent to every PC in the building with an invitation.

Wham! It was as though we detonated a bomb. And then salvos fly from every direction. “We’re not inspectors! We do assemblies,” claimed several individuals. “The inspectors and testers at the end of the line, that’s their job to check for problems.”

Sound familiar?

“Hold on a second. Think of it this way. If we can find a problem early in the assembly process, it’s easier to fix than after attaching a bunch of pieces. We may have to take the assembly apart to get at the defect, fix it, and then put it back together again. That’s double work, and that’s expensive.”

The change in their expressions said it all. For the first time, it seemed, our production crew was being given practical information that would lower their resistance to doing things differently. Hmmm. Better keep talking.

“The added expense of rework just adds to our overall costs. Factoring that cost into the product means we end up charging our customer for our lack of quality. If we can produce our product without this added cost, we can sell cheaper – cheaper than our competition. Now, cheaper than the competition…for a higher quality product…is good.”

Now it’s their turn. “That means the customer will continue to buy from us rather than go to the competition. That’s good too. We get to keep our jobs.”

Not a tough concept. Just common sense. But, you would be surprised at just how many companies don’t communicate this to the shop floor.

OK, so now the seed is planted. We need to make a quality product without rework costs. But what, really, is a quality product? My challenge was to put it into a perspective that our assemblers could relate to.

“Do you remember a couple of weeks ago when several products shipped without a power cord? When the field service tech went to install it, he couldn’t plug it in.”

From one of the assemblers: “So, finish the day’s work, go to the local hardware store, buy and cord and come back tomorrow to plug it in. What’s the problem?”

Now to water the seed. “Suppose you order a new car. You’re all excited about getting your new car. It comes in and it’s missing a window on the passenger side. OK, so tomorrow the window comes in and everything is fine. Are you happy? Oh sure! Everybody you see from then on will know what dealership delivered your car with a missing window. You had to drive your old car for one more day. Just a bit of an inconvenience.

Our customer bought our machine to generate income. But when we missed delivery on a vital part of the machine, he lost a ton of money. More than a mere “inconvenience.”

These kinds of stories are ones that everyone can relate to and realize the importance of producing a quality product on time. And believe me, they work. Morale skyrockets when everyone knows their opinions and suggestions are valued. Before you know it, everyone will be contributing ideas to help improve quality, increase productivity and improve the bottom line. Without any prompting. Without your resorting to corporate financial rhetoric. After all, who knows more about assembly than the assemblers? Common sense. Knowledge Branches:

  • Management. Function: Operations
  • Management. Sector: Manufacturing
  • Management. Soft Skills: Communication, People