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?


Mike Gardner said...

Mike, great post! One other thing I've noticed is how many forklifts drive across plants without anything on the forks. That means the forklifts are wearing batteries, tires, etc. without accomplishing anything. This is a tough nut to crack, though. Any thoughts on it?

Anonymous said...


Nice redesign of the blog.

Internet Marketing Tips said...

Nice article. My boss was just mentioning that if we needed more forklifts, we should get them. He was basing his suggestion because the WH Manager said he did not have enough people.

Maybe I point him to this blog?

Lean Manufacturing Guide

Mike Wroblewski said...

Thanks Keith.

Mike Wroblewski said...

Great observation Mike. I certainly don't have all the answers but we are working on it one part at a time. Moving stations to point-of-use helps. We are also making carts on wheels to manual move across short distances and looking at creative ways to kit parts with the product. As for empty forks, establishing standard work for the forklift operator may yield opportunities to max his lift time. Even backhauling or helping other areas may increase forklift utilization as we look for more creative ways to reduce the need for forklifts.

Mike Wroblewski said...

Hi Mike,

Great lean approach. Always kaizen before spending capital!

Anonymous said...

Mike, This is a wonderful post!
I really like this article.