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Struggling with Change

Things returned to normal after the kaizen event. Employees returned to their regular jobs after wrapping up loose ends. At this point, I had drawn a few conclusions. First, hiring a lean consultant can be very helpful for your lean journey, but only if you select one who is knowledgeable and proficient, provides hands-on consulting, and has excellent communication skills. The kaizen teams from X-Corp’s first event were in constant confusion, and for that I fault the company managers as well as the consultant. They provided either no direction or bad direction.

Second, the company was more concerned about impressing the consultant than listening to its people. Because of the training that everyone had received, each team had solid performers who generally knew what needed to be done. Third, it was apparent that we needed a comprehensive company kaizen program (as explained in Chapter 3). Unfortunately, on this journey, communication, scheduling, team member selection, and up-front planning were minimal. And fourth, X-Corp did not establish goals for the teams or metrics for measuring progress. Chapter 2 describes the strategic purpose of lean manufacturing and explains why it is critical to establish key shop floor metrics. X-Corp had no strategy in place for this, or, if it did, the kaizen teams knew nothing about it.

A company’s first kaizen event can be difficult even with a kaizen program in place, so it is important to point out that X-Corp was trying. The company had simply started poorly, and as the senior lean engineer, I needed to recharge and get back on the horse.

X-Corp had now entered the sustaining period. The engine line had gone through a major change, not only in flow and standard work but also in the physical layout of the line, forcing the operators to work as a team. The old layout had allowed operators to build as much WIP as possible on the long conveyor and then walk away. The kaizen team implemented a mobile assembly process, in which the engines were removed from a tote and placed on customized carts designed specifically for the engine line. The line used only seven carts, which moved single piece flow through the six workstations and left no room for WIP. The seventh cart was usually in queue at the first workstation. As the final workstation completed its work and placed the engine into the main assembly process, the line supervisor brought that last cart to the first workstation and placed it in queue.

After the redesign, the space was much more confined but still large enough for the operators to work, maneuver the carts, and find tools and parts. Typically, the line lead stood around watching the assembly of the engine; therefore, he was assigned as the materials handler. We established a three-hour parts replenishment rotation so that he had ample time to address issues as they arose and circulate the carts as needed. All these changes meant that there were many new procedures and protocols to follow.

The operators firmly resisted the modifications, as did the line lead. With the new layout, flexing was now an absolute necessity in order to keep the line moving. Flexing is an industry term that simply means “the movement of workers.” It is a movement between workstations as needed to ensure that product flows evenly. It is an automatic response to bottlenecks in flow. This was a hard concept for the workers to comprehend. Management had not trained them on flexing or how to identify bottlenecks in the process. Most of the production workers had received very little hands-on lean training, and this was unfortunate because it would have been directly applicable to their environment. There was no system in place to bring the operators up to speed. There were operators on the kaizen teams, but that was the extent of their participation. Therefore, after the changes were implemented, they fell back on old, established patterns of operating, and this created a multitude of problems on the new line.

It was still common for workers to leave their workstations even though the line was under single piece flow and flexing rules. Operators would also leave to retrieve their own parts, because the line lead had refused to take on this new role. Flexing was virtually nonexistent, and many times an operator would stand in the workstation, waiting. The line lead did not make people accountable, the supervisor was rarely available to advise the line lead, and the production manager was never involved. With no accountability and no actions taken to eliminate the resistance on the floor, output and quality suffered.

The need for culture change is the hardest part of the lean journey, and the plant manager and upper management simply did not address this issue enough. Production people were allowed to do as they wanted, and, ultimately, the line’s poor performance was blamed on the kaizen teams. Several meetings were held in which the manufacturing engineer and other kaizen team members expressed their dissatisfaction with how the lines were being managed. They complained that the operators and line leads were not following the work content, were refusing to flex, and were still leaving their workstations.

As the lean engineer, I continually advised management to train the operators more formally. I explained that the workers were given a new process and were expected to follow the rules without any notice or up-front training. The problems that the line faced were a result of management’s poor planning as well as its approach to employee resistance. The engine line and other newly developed lean processes were falling apart.

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