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.
All day long she did this.  I asked her if she ever complained.  Yes, she told me, but with no results.  The supervisor made it clear that he had more important things to worry about, so she continued to work with defective material, doing the best she could.
In another factory large control panels were being assembled on special racks that could be wheeled to different locations.  Several of the racks were loose and tended to sway back and forth.  To compensate for this, the workers would wheel the racks up to a post, a wall, or other fixed object and hold the rack against it with a hip, to keep it stationary while they added components and wired them. 
Over and over, I see workers struggling with inadequate material, poor methods, poorly operating equipment or lack of clear information about what is expected of them.  They soldier on, doing the best they can.  From time-to-time they may get chewed out for not producing enough, because the best they could do was not good enough to compensate for deficiencies in the process.
Many of the process failings would not be hard to fix. If you want to improve the effectiveness of your manufacturing operation go to the factory floor, pay attention to the workers, note who is struggling to get the work done, and dedicate the resources (often small) to permanently eliminating the source of the difficulty. Management does not add value to the product. A significant part of its purpose is to provide support to the people and processes that do add value.
To improve the effectiveness of an organization, it would be better if workers who were having difficulties with their processes stopped until their problems were corrected. This calls attention to the problem.  As long as production workers keep doing the best they can, they hide the problems.  Everyone is staying busy.  We think things must be doing okay. 

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