Here I go bashing software again. Really, I think computers are great tools. I obviously use one quite often to write the blog. I use one even more often in the course of running my consulting practice. Factories would be lost without them. But what on earth is wrong with us to be so quick to leap at a digital solution to everyone of life’s problems, usually stomping out all of the simple solutions in our path to get to that techno-fix? The problem this time: As manufacturing is shrinking, the average age of the worker is increasing. All of us baby boomers are on the fast track to the Happy Hills Retirement Home.
What is the manufacturing world going to do when we take all of that pent up knowledge and wisdom with us? The more cynical among you will answer that question by pointing out that us baby boomers, from floor sweepers to CEOs, are the ones who orchestrated the destruction of American manufacturing, so the sooner we pack up all our wisdom and get the hell out, the better. I will take the high road, however since cynicism goes against my grain.
Instead of heaping more useless hardware and software on top of the existing useless hardware and software, how about if we take a hard look at standardized work and cross training? One of the most glaring weaknesses of just about every factory I have been in is the herd of guys who have worked their way into being indispensable by being the only one in the entire company who knows how to do this maintenance job or set up that machine. We let these guys get away with convincing the organization that machines are mysterious black boxes, and only Harry Potter and his fellow alumni from Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry can make them perform. If we continue to allow this to be the norm, the software peddlers are right – at least so far as they have defined the problem. When they leave, the factory is in trouble.
How about this for a starting point before you run out and buy any whiz bang technology: Find a local swap meet or yard sale this weekend and buy an old Chilton’s Manual for $1. It doesn’t matter what car or what year it is for. It is the form we are after. Thumb through it to just about any repair job you want. The folks at Chilton’s have reduced replacing transmissions to a job for seventh graders. If you can read and you can turn a wrench, you can do anything. The key is to have their step by step instructions, along with pictures, in front of you. I know from personal experience that even a mechanical moron such as me can do anything to a 1997 Taurus with 200,000 miles on it. Whatever machine you have was surely designed with much more common sense than my 1997 Taurus.
Step two is to get Mr. Potter from the maintenance department and have him set up the mystery machine. You sit there with a digital camera, a pad of paper and a number two pencil. Write down what he does and take a close-up picture of all of the really interesting stuff.
Step three is to use your beat up old Chilton’s manual as a guide, use your notes and your pictures to create a Chilton style/seventh grade guide to setting up the machine.
Step four is to test your work by having someone who does not know the machine, but passes the reading and wrenching criteria, use your guide to set up the machine by himself. If he struggles, go back to step two and update your guide.
Step five is to schedule the retirement party for Mr Potter, secure in the knowledge that he can live out his days in peace, while life in the factory goes on.
Step six is to get a handful of people who also pass the reading and wrenching test together and challenge them to unlock their creative juices and crunch the time to do the set up or maintenance job down as low as they can. (You ought to give them a quick primer on ‘inside exchange’ and ‘outside exchange’ first) Use you camera, notebook and pencil to record what they come up with.
Step seven is to go back to Step three (although you can skip the retirement party on all of the subsequent iterations).
The lean objective is to get all of the specialized knowledge out of people’s heads and onto standardized forms. Not only does that broaden the base of people who can do any job, but it establishes a standard baseline for improvement. One of the real big problems with all of these folks walking around the plant with secret knowledge of how things are done is that they usually don’t really know either. They never do the same thing the same way twice. It is impossible to improve on a one time project. By the time you know what to improve, the project is complete. If it will never be repeated the same way, all you can do is criticize how it was done.
Frank Gilbreth – the Cheaper By the Dozen guy who was just as fanatical about efficiency at home as he was on the job – really pioneered this idea. As an apprentice bricklayer he was struck by the fact that every master bricklayer taught him a different ‘best way’ to lay brick, and not one of them even followed his own advice. His reaction, after he owned his own bricklaying company, was to distill all of those ‘best ways’ into one truly best way, teach it to all the brick layers, then watch productivity and cycle time skyrocket. The only difference between Gilbreth and lean is that we are not as smart as he was and it behooves us to have the production folks determine the ‘best way’, rather than to operate like Gilbreth and devise it on our own in some back room.
So if you are worried about the old guys movin’ on to greener pastures, or inconsistent maintenance procedures and erratic set up times, you can declare a corporate strategic emergency and justify IT resources, calculate the ROI, embark on a software implementation and training regimen. Or you can grab a pencil and a beat up old Chilton’s manual and go out in the factory and fix the problem.