Saturday, March 27, 2010

No Right Way

Over twenty years ago, I was involved in a small group discussion in which my friend and colleague, Tom Lane, proposed three principles for consulting:
There is no right way.
The word is not the thing.
We make it all up.
I have not discussed these ideas with Tom in decades.  I believe that he has changed “the word is not the thing,” to “the concept is not the thing.”  I have recently bought his book, Perceptual Intelligence and started following his blog, Wake Up!
My comments here are not an attempt to present Tom’s ideas.  After that discussion, years ago, I have often reflected on those three principles and how they could be applied to consulting and to the process of changing work to bring out the best.  What follows is my own spin on the three statements.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Keeping it Simple

We often overcomplicate things at work.  Complicated machines become obstacles to getting the job done.
In one factory, a large, highly automatic machine spun nuts onto threaded nipples.  The operator’s job was mostly to catch defective nut-to-nipple assemblies as they came out of the machine and set them aside for later repair.  If practically all of the assemblies were defective, because the nut had not been spun on straight and had jammed onto the nipple, he shut down the machine, tried to make adjustments to it, and generally ended up calling maintenance.  While maintenance tinkered with the machine, the operator would sit at a workbench and use channel locks to removed jammed nuts from the nipples, so that both parts could be put back into the machine. 
Sometimes, there were so many flawed assemblies, additional workers would be brought to the area, given channel locks and put to work undoing the bad assemblies.
I worked with a team of workers and managers on an improvement project that made this problem go away. We purchased two nut drivers with sockets sized to the nuts in question.  The nut drivers were of the type that activate when you press down on the nut, and stop when you release the pressure.  We mounted these upside down, side-by-side, in the center of a small workbench.  We fashioned some brackets to hold them with the sockets flush with the tabletop, through holes in the center of the workbench.  We had a bin with nuts and a bin with nipples on the workbench. The operator would take two nuts and slide them into the sockets.  He would then take two nipples and briefly press them into the nuts in the sockets. This activated the drivers to spin the nuts onto the nipples.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Management Gets More Than It Deserves

In the factories that I visit, I find that management often gets more than it deserves from the production workers.  I remember a woman at a workbench, taking four parts from bins and using a machine to drive a rivet through all four to make a sub-assembly for a circuit breaker. She did this over-and-over, but her rhythm would often be broken because one of the parts had the hole for the rivet off location and therefore would not go together easily with the other three.  She would struggle to make them go together, and sometimes succeed in forcing the rivet through all four parts.  Other times she would eventually set aside the defective component and reach for a replacement, which, all too often, would also be so far out of spec as to be unusable.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Treating People As If They Were Robots

I have consulted to a number of plants with recently acquired robots.  Often the robots didn’t work very well.  In some cases the robots were doing work that made little sense.  In one case, the robot was taking a stamped part from a hanging line and putting it on a belt. It was so unreliable that a worker had to stand by to catch parts that were about to be dropped by the robot. Having the hanging line descend to just above the belt could have removed each part without a robot.

In a factory in Brazil, a robot cell had been installed to weld some parts together. A second cell was in the process of being installed.  Management was very proud of it’s new technology.  They had a five minute video of the robots in the dining room.  The bright orange robotic arms waved through the air and set forth a shower of sparks with each weld. The dramatic video played endlessly, for all lunch breaks on all shifts to see. 
Not a week had gone by since the robots were installed when they didn’t break down and required repair. No one in the plant could do the repair and the technicians who could do the repair were four hours away.  When they arrived it often took an entire shift to get the robots up and running again.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Resistance to Change

People are just naturally resistant to change.
I disagree.  All people are not resistant to change.  We humans embrace change.  We seek change.  We initiate change.  Look at styles.  Look at new technology and the way people throughout the world seek it and embrace it.  Look at wanting a new car with the newest bells and whistles. We want change.
We are resistant to change under certain circumstances.  All of us are.  We are most resistant to change when we are convinced that it will be bad for us. We may resist if we suspect it will be bad for us.  This isn’t crazy.  It is sane to resist change that is going to hurt us.
So, when we are frustrated because people do not want to accept the changes that we are trying to initiate, ask how the changes might hurt them or seem to hurt them.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Balance the Work and Free Up Workers

When you have moved workstations closer together, so that product can be moved through the process one piece at a time, there is no longer the waste in accumulating batches of product that just sit there, but you are likely to discover some additional waste, previously hidden by the batch process.  Now some people in the process must wait for product to work on, or must wait for the next process step to be completed, so that the product in process can be passed to that operation.
Having people wait is wasteful. They are just standing or sitting there without adding value.  Often, instead of just standing there, they will do something to keep busy. These are wasteful activities.  Even if they are adding value by building ahead, it is wasteful because the result of their activity is going to just sit. When material just sits there, we run the risk of bad things happening to it.