Too Long in the Loo


By Luke Van Dongen:

This link is to an article in today's Detroit News. I've been hearing reactions to this article all day – it really seems to have struck a nerve with people.

I'm not sure exactly how I feel about the stance that has been taken at Ford to curtail the problem of employees spending time off the line for washroom breaks that are in addition to the contractual breaks union employees are entitled to. To be sure, we are human and as such need to deal with these matters on a daily basis. But I have also been in a position where I had to effectively deal with people working on an assembly line who needed to be relieved during scheduled production time. I know first hand how challenging this can be. There are no manpower provisions to cover bathroom breaks, and getting people off the line without negatively affecting throughput is sometimes impossible. This is even more true when it becomes obvious that certain individuals are abusing the system. Adding more fuel to the fire, absenteeism rates of greater than 10% are also common, making it even more difficult to juggle resources effectively around other ‘needs' that arise.

I don't believe that such a stance to crack down on additional breaks would be necessary if the regular volume of reliefs, and average time taken were not beyond what can be effectively managed. The fact remains that some manufacturing jobs, particularly in assembly, require that employees perform their task each and every cycle to maintain flow. Not every job can be a ‘free effort' job.

Is there anyone who has experience in a TPS facility who can comment on how necessary unscheduled breaks are handled within that system in assembly operations?

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Luke Van Dongen
Luke, an auto industry engineering veteran, blogged here from 2005 to 2006.


  1. My understanding from my recent NUMMI visit is that, on the assembly line, you have an hourly “team leader”, one for every 4 or 5 production workers. If someone had to hit the head, the team leader would step in and do that work.

    I also know, in the UAW environment, that probably isn’t possible. A team leader who can do “real work” also covers the need for “relief”.

  2. So much for the “teamwork” of union and management at that plant, when someone in the union falls back on slamming harvard MBA’s:
    It’s a giant throwback to the bad old days of the ’70s and ’80s, when you squeezed the guy at the bottom of the heap any way you could,” Munro said. “That only causes lots of discontent, and only someone from Harvard could think of something as stupid as monitoring bathroom time.”

    Needing an HOUR a day in the bathroom is just ridiculous. If management can’t convince the workers that they are killing their factory’s productivity and that can cost jobs. That’s not beating up on “the little guy”. Too bad if the plant closes, the UAW people just go into the jobs bank and get 90% of pay, right?

  3. Hello,

    I have been learning Lean, and am now working for a company in the construction industry. With such a dirty environment, I have 2 questions as it relates to 5S Workplace Organization:

    1) When you have a lot of small parts/items, what is the rule of thumb for the 2nd S:Set–Arrange & Identify??

    With hundreds of small parts, do we label all of them? Or what is the best method to group these parts and label them?

    2) Is there a good reference out there for 5S Audits? The one we have right now is too complicated and confusing for operators. I am looking for somthing simple, yet covers all 5S pillars.

    Any help would be appreciated. Thanks.

  4. Hi Anonymous-

    Yes, I think you have to follow the 5S process for all of your parts. One way to think through it… what waste would possible occur as a result of NOT labeling a defined and specific location? What waste would come from not smartly arranging the items (most frequently used right at hand, etc?).

    A good book I recommend is the productivity press “5S for Operators” book, available through them or amazon.


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