Two months ago we told you about Columbia Aircraft, which announced it was laying off employees in order to implement lean manufacturing methods. Of course we found something just moderately incongruous with that concept, especially when the company also has a healthy backlog and orders are up over 200% from the previous year. Once again we thought we had found a company that simply didn’t get it… they were shedding years of experience and knowledge under the false pretense of lean.
Perhaps we were mistaken. Yes, occasionally that does happen.
A hat tip to several regular readers who brought today’s article on Columbia Aircraft to our attention. What once were layoffs are now "furloughs," and the company is "recalling the first wave." Whether the employees were told they had been laid off or simply furloughed cannot be determined, but bringing back employees is a good situation. But there is still something of an odd twist.
"We’re recalling the furloughed employees in stages to meet the demands of our accelerating production rate," said Columbia Vice President of Manufacturing Chris Redgrave. "Essentially, we’ve spent the past six weeks cleaning house on our production line, upgrading tooling and implementing a number of Lean Enterprise practices to enhance efficiency. We’re now bringing back our associates as production demands dictate."
Wait a minute… you’ve been "implementing a number of Lean Enterprise practices" without having the employees involved? Perhaps it would have been beneficial to tap into the knowledge of those employees in order to identify and execute lean improvements. Yes, they do cost a bundle when measured on traditional accounting statements, but what is the value of their ideas? However reading a bit further may indicate that we’re being a bit harse.
"We’re very appreciative of the understanding of those who have stuck with us through this process," Redgrave said. "During the past six weeks, we’ve kept in regular contact with our furloughed employees and held two Lean Enterprise training sessions in anticipation of their return to work." Redgrave says he expects to recall the remaining furloughed employees in subsequent stages, and that their benefits will remain in place through June, if needed.
Well, ok. The furloughed employees aren’t coming back completely blind. A couple of training sessions will help, and paying for the benefits of furloughed employees is a nice gesture.
But imagine what that factory could have looked like if all 185 furloughed employees, a mere 10% of their workforce, had been trained on lean manufacturing and then set loose to search high and low for waste to kill and processes to improve. I would love the opportunity to have about thirty teams sent on defined missions for several weeks. Tough to manage and coordinate, and you’d probably have to bring in a bunch of sensei types to help facilitate, but wow. Perhaps some of those teams could have been sent to AME workshops or other events, or even to customers and suppliers to learn how to add value.
An opportunity was lost, but it still sounds like Columbia Aircraft is meandering down the right path. We’ll check back in a few months.