Always Room For Improvement

By Andy Wagner:

I had an internal factory tour that reminded me of Mark’s recent blog on the Not So Lean Factory Tour. The plant was not nearly the horror story Mark experienced, and in fact, it was one of best examples of lean that I’ve seen in my company. That said, based on some of the things expressed by this plant’s leadership, I think there must be “12-steps” separating a true lean mindset from the oft present “LAME” mindset.

The first step, of course, is admitting that you have a problem, which the folks in the factory that Mark visited were not ready to do. The factory that I toured passed step one with flying colors, but their motivation shocked me. It took a near fatal accident performing routine maintenance on a machine to convince them to take lean seriously. The root cause analysis determined that the technician could not access the machine in a safe way due to the clutter packing the entire floor of the facility. Their first 5-S measures were dedicated to preventing this kind of serious safety problem by clearing out the extra carts, racks, toolboxes, and equipment and making the factory floor a safe place to be. As I said before, shocking, but thank goodness they were willing to commit to meaningful corrective action.

The second step: learning that continuous improvement must be continuous. They haven’t got this one yet. The GM, professing to be a true convert to lean, told us all about their “5-year plan to lean the plant.” I politely declined to ask the rhetorical question about what he intended to do when the 5 years are up. (By then, he’ll be promoted to his next gig). In fairness, his 5-year plan represented prudent “hoshin kanri.” The plant was organized functionally, so the initial plan was, over the course of 5-years, to move machines around into value stream oriented cells. No other machining plant that I’ve seen in my company has had the lean commitment or foresight to do this. Looking at the results two years into the process, I have to applaud it. Their inventory turns are approaching double what I’ve heard for similar facilities. Cycle time has had a similarly significant drop. Still, on the floor, I’m amazed at some of the clutter, the extra racks, the extra inventory. And the inventory turn numbers aren’t very impressive compared to Danaher or Toyota numbers that I’ve read. I would hope they’re willing to continuously raise expectations.

Accounting was another area where I was struck by some of the GM’s comments. He was understandably oriented toward the financial numbers by which he is measured: direct labor productivity, keeping base hours up to reduce his labor rate. Unfortunately, as folks like Bill Waddell and Kevin Meyer continue to argue, none of these metrics drive you toward a lean and effective plant. By lean accounting standards, they’re measuring the wrong things, and only through very diligent effort, able to justify doing the right things despite their incentives.

It was great to see a facility in my company doing as well as this one has, but at the same time, it mostly stoked my hunger to go farther. There’s always room for improvement. That’s step two.

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Andy Wagner works for a major aerospace company. Andy blogged here from 2007 to 2010.

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