Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day 2008

Today is Earth Day 2008. Maybe it’s only me but it seems that this year it’s gotten substantially more press coverage than in Earth Days past. I think it is a great notion to put the spotlight on our eco-behaviors (or lack thereof) and make a positive effort to “do” more about improving our mother earth than just debating about what to do. However large or small our green activities, we should all plan to “do” something to improve our environment for our future. As part of the manufacturing community, we should also improve our company eco-behaviors for a cleaner future. It’s simply the right thing to do.

The 5S approach is just one example. Teach the basics of 3S (Sort, Straighten and Shine) and ask them to be repeated daily to achieve 5S. Explain that this is not a Spring Cleaning program to be completed once a year but a daily way of life. Encourage a daily 5 minute routine for everyone although you certainly can do more. And, focus not so much on cleaning but making a workplace organized to immediately see problems at a glance, any abnormality from standard.

Finally, while it’s great to see pictures and hear stories about the great volunteer work to clean up all the trash found in parks, rivers, and lakes, we should also follow the 5S lessons to look for the source of “dirt” and put in countermeasure to prevent it from getting “dirty” in the first place.

Now that we see we can make an effort on at least one day a year, let’s apply the kaizen approach and not wait until Earth Day 2009 to do anything else. Remember, the better approach to sustaining change is through gradual, small frequent improvements everyday.
Earth Day should be everyday, nothing special, no banners, slogans or t-shirts. Our actions to improve the environment should just be part of our daily way of life.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Value Stream Communication

In almost 100% of all business improvement books, the topic of communication is always considered a key factor to success. I am sure that many of us would agree on the importance of communication and may even consider it a universal truth. Most companies spend countless hours and substantial money to make sure communication channels are open and flowing. As a result, we have seen some pretty impressive technology over the years, all at our fingertips like cell phones, PDAs, email, laptops, voicemail, etc.

We focus not only on the quality and quantity of information but the speed of communication from the shop floor to management and back. We look of opportunities to improve communication including making sure we have solid two-way communication to battle the common complaint of only having one-way communication channels.

In our lean world, we understand the importance of information flow and communication. In fact, our value stream maps are constructed to focus on both material and information flow making opportunities visible in both areas.

But if we examine our value stream map process, we may find that is not always true. How many of us focus more on the material flow while constructing our value stream maps and give little attention to the information flow? Why? Is information flow harder to see? Is it that material flow has easy dollar savings tied to improvements in this area over information flow?

One of the most important, yet overlooked, areas of improvement in communication in our value stream is the direction of the flow of information. Just look at your value stream map. Are there more information flow arrows moving up and down (vertical) than information flow across the value stream (horizontal)? It is critical to look at improving communication across the value stream or this horizontal direction. This can reduce errors, remove non-value added gates, and speeds up the flow where it is needed most.

If you take a look at all our technology advances and communication improvements over the past few years, in which direction are we focusing on? Is it more the vertical direction (bottom-top-back down) or is it horizontal (side-to-side)?

This is not to say top-down communication is not important, just that we tend to ignore the very important horizontal communication path. Improving our horizontal communication is probably the most critical missing link we have today on our lean journey.

As an example of the power of horizontal communication, I can recall one event that occurred several years ago at another company. As with most typical manufacturing operations, our process was set up in a traditional manner, assembly followed by 100% inspection. The inspector looked over and tested the products, passed on good products and pulled non-conforming products off the line. The inspector, following procedures, marked the products and recorded that data. This information was passed on to the Quality Manager then on to the Plant Manager. The data was reviewed in the next day’s staff meeting with the supervisors with the action item to deal with it. And certainly, throughout the day, this information could be seen directly only if the Quality Manger, Plant Manager or Supervisor walked over to the inspection station.

What do you think about this information flow? How would you improve it?

Seeing that we lose valuable time between error detection and error countermeasures, we keep the information flow the same except for one major change. We directed the inspector to stop the line and notify the supervisor immediately with each problem. We also added that the inspector could stop the line and walk over to the most probable source of the problem and directly inform the employee of that process about the problem. At first the Plant Manager was not happy about all the line shut downs. But over time, we saw an amazing reduction of errors which ultimately improved productivity. Isn’t that what we are really after?

Take a quick walk to your gemba and look at the communication flow. Look for any ways to improve horizontal flow. How far apart are the associates in the value stream from each other? Can we change the flow to move them closer together? Can all associates see the proper information boards? Ask each associate what information they need and how fast is it getting to them. Ask each associate how we can improve the flow of information to them, get their ideas. With focus and creativity, improvements in the horizontal flow of information will greatly improve your value stream.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Thinking Outside the Wooden Pallet

Go to gemba and look at your dock area material handling process. Follow your material handlers around the plant. Go to your warehouse area and watch. What do you see?

One thing that I see in almost every manufacturing facility is lots of forklifts moving lots of stuff, mainly on wooden pallets. But looking at the material before it is moved by the forklift and right after, what do I see? I see no movement, no flow, just waiting, waiting and more waiting.

If I go back over twenty-five years ago to my first days in a manufacturing plant, I saw the very same process. I still remember our Japanese Sensei going up to the board drawing a crude picture of a forklift inside a circle with a diagonal line thru it, yelling at us in Japanese, “Muda!, Muda!, Muda!” It was pretty easy to figure out that he seriously wanted us to eliminate all forklifts and create flow. Sounds like a simple idea but we did not take him seriously. We did not see forklifts as muda then and we really still do not see them as muda today. It’s just how we do things.

As far as improvements to our material handling process goes, this process has virtually remained unchanged since WWII when the modern day pallet first appeared with the use of forklifts. Sure, there have been a few improvements but nothing that changes the basic forklift-pallet process of moving large quantities of stuff fast with minimal manpower. As far as doing more with less, this process works. While lean thinking supports doing more with less, we want to move smaller quantities of stuff only as needed with minimal manpower. We want velocity, we want flow. Does the process of forklift and wooden pallet really support our lean vision of flow?

One other thing I noticed is a strange phenomenon in the behavior of forklift operators. Once they sit down behind the wheel of their forklift, they stay there. For some reason, forklift operators absolutely hate to get up from their seat. It’s like there is this strong magnetic force preventing them from being able to get back up once they climb into their seat. Maybe their seat is Velcro padded preventing them from getting up? On rare occasion, I have seen forklift operators jump off their vehicles but only after first honking their horn a few times. Once they are forced to get off their forklift, they suddenly become grumpy. As a side note, I recognize this identical attachment behavior in other areas of the business, only it has to do with sitting behind a desk. Strange, huh?

A few things we must consider: How much does it cost to purchase/lease a forklift? How much time, energy and cost does it take to properly maintain a forklift? How much does a wooden pallet cost? What does it cost us in time and energy to deal with wooden pallets? How long do they last? Do we properly repair them? How many broken pallets have caused damage to our products, created a mess or caused injury to our associates? Do our associates have to manually move or lift wooden pallets? How much space does the wooden pallets storage take up? How environmentally responsible is the process of forklifts and wooden pallets?

Maybe we can not 100% eliminate forklifts and wooden pallets, but can we drastically reduce the need for them? Can we confine their use to just at the end of our plant and receiving docks? Can we eliminate them from our interior plant processes? Can we think outside the wooden pallet and come up with a better way?

Lean Manufacturing 2008 Conference

On May 20-22, 2008, Noria and Reliable Plant Magazine will be hosting their Lean Manufacturing 2008 Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. This super event will include several outstanding sessions on lean manufacturing along with plant reliability and lubrication topics all in one place. Don't miss a great chance to continue your lean education. I am honored to be chosen as one of the speakers for this event. I look forward to talking about lean and meeting many fellow lean thinkers. Please join us.

Friday, April 04, 2008

If it Ain't Broke, Improve it Anyway

One of the hardest lessons to learn and follow on the lean journey is where to apply improvement efforts. For many of us, we can easily understand the need for improvement efforts on the problem areas of our operation or bottleneck areas. But what about the parts of our operation that really shine? What about the areas that never give us problems, do we improve these smooth running parts of our value stream?

At one of our Batesville Casket plants, we are currently planning a kaizen event in one of these low problem areas in our operation. It was questioned why should we improve there, it is running fine. It would be easy to make the case that we should not rock the boat. Why push over the apple cart? What if we mess up? What Plant Manager in their right mind would want to mess with an area that does not cause problems?

Why improve a seemingly perfect area? Because we see opportunity there. The reason to spend the time and energy to improve any part of our value stream is the opportunity to simply create something better.

Fear of causing problems in our improvement efforts should never stop us from moving forward. If we do make mistakes, then make the problems visible and fix them.

Kaizen is never ending, everywhere, everyday by everyone. There are no conditions or boundaries to kaizen. In the true spirit of kaizen, even as a product line is phased out, you should make improvements. And you should make improvements, even on the very last day of production. So if it ain’t broke, improve it anyway.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

First Day of Trading for Batesville Casket Company on the NYSE

This morning, the CEO’s of Batesville Casket Company and Hill-Rom Company rang the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange to signal the first day of trading as two separate public companies. Previously, both companies were divisions of Hillenbrand Industries which trading on the NYSE under the old NYSE ticker HB.

In today’s separation, the Batesville Casket Company will be traded under Hillenbrand, Inc (NYSE ticker: HI) and Hill-Rom will be traded under Hill-Rom Holding, Inc (NYSE ticker: HRC).
Congratulations to both companies on this historic day and continued great success in building our futures!