Next to equipment, labor is the number one cost for most valve manufacturers. With increasing competition from overseas, finding new means to increase employee productivity with minimal investment is an essential component of ensuring ongoing business viability. Agree with me so far? Then if I were to tell you that the incorporation of lean strategies into company operations is likely the fastest and most effective means of achieving this objective, would you read on? My guess is probably not; so let me put it another way. Forget the concept of lean manufacturing and all of the hoopla that comes along with it. Lean is little more than organizing operations in a manner that improves efficiency, and it doesn't take a six-step program, a certification, or rocket science to achieve similar, if not improved, results.
Have I got your attention now?
There have been published cases, including valve manufacturers such as Ross Controls, where businesses have integrated lean into their operations and achieved numerous wins along their journey. What we can learn from Ross Control's journey, as well as that of other companies and industries that have implemented a formal lean management program, can be broken down into very simple steps that can be interpreted, modified and integrated by virtually anyone resulting in increased efficiency with little-to-no investment.
Here are three of the most effective strategies:
- Cleanliness isn't a virtue, it's a necessity. I don't know about you, but I can't stand disarray. I will admit I am a recovering perfectionist, but I find that each time I organize my office for example I stumble across something (usually multiple things) that I thought were lost. This is the same outcome that my clients achieve when we organize their shop floor, maintenance shop, or front office. Everyone who works in these areas has become accustomed to their state of disarray, and as a result time spent searching for tools, documents or procedures continues to grow, yet no one truly understands why. The first step to increasing efficiency is to reduce clutter and organize the work area. If it is clean, then tools, equipment, documentation, and other critical components can be found quickly and easily, reducing unnecessary delays and downtime.
- A place for everything and everything in its place. An organized shop only remains such if everything has a place. I recently toured a valve shop and found the floor to be very clean and free of clutter. As a distributor the company did very little assembly work, performing only minor modifications and bench testing. What I did find interesting, however, is that tools were not in the tool crib, but left to reside on the assembly carts, test benches, and on desks in offices on the shop floor. "How do you keep track of your tools?" I asked the General Manager. "If it's not in the tool crib, the guys know to look on all of the carts before ever ordering a replacement tool" he said. Wow, that sounds like a complete waste of employee time and likely investment of capital that could be better used elsewhere. Do you remember the last time you couldn't find your wallet or smart phone? The frustration you felt is similar to the frustration employees feel when they can't find their tools, even if they were the one who misplaced them. Make a place for everything, and hold employees accountable to return items to their home. Such a simple change can improve efficiency and generally increase the morale of staff on account of the reduced frustration and increased accountability.
- See it to believe it! With the shop floor and office maintained in a consistently clean state, the final (and most) significant step is to use visual cues wherever possible to minimize mistakes, reduce the chance of shortages, and increase efficiency. In one facility I toured they used color-coded tags hanging above material staging areas to allow production staff to flag material handlers for restocking without ever having to leave their work station or saying a word. Staging paper forms with a color tag inserted in the stack as a visual re-order point is another very simple yet effective measure. Using visual cues to manage operations reduces downtime, unnecessary discussions (you know those employees that would prefer to spend their day wondering the halls and chatting with others as they search for a new pen), and keeps employees focused on their task at hand. A simple solution to increase productivity at virtually no cost.
Now, if you are uneasy about making any changes in operations or administration before being confident of the resulting outcomes (if I haven't convinced you, well you will just have to trust me!), then start with a small, preferably congested, disorganized, or inefficient area. The key is to select one person in whom you have confidence (a "driver" of change in your company) and give them the task of interpreting and applying these steps. You will also need to give them autonomy to engage other employees in the area to gain ownership; create a buzz about the improvements and celebrate successes as a group.
So there you have it, lean operations in three simple steps. The onus is on you to make it work, but the outcomes will be reaped across the entire organization.
© Shawn Casemore 2012. All rights reserved.