The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

“We don’t reject for ugly.” The look on the line operator’s face when our associate told him this quickly went from stunned to a hearty laugh and shared understanding.  Talking it through with the line operator, our associate explained how the customer was more interested in the integrity of the device and not the appearance, so the assembly in question was actually an acceptable part.  This collaborative approach to coaching led the line operator to recognize the need to alter his inspection criteria, and he easily made the changes. Just as a small computer case fan can be worth millions of dollars to an organization, this seemingly minor change resulted in a significant increase in this organization’s productivity.

Last week, we spoke quite a bit about the need to garner employee buy-in and respect in order to implement operational changes. This naturally brings up another aspect of our experience working with clients – change management. This is the hang up – the bottleneck if you will – that stops many good operational and quality changes from actually taking hold in an organization.

Too often, the engineers and Black Belts come in and make genuinely good suggestions that could decrease waste and increase productivity, but they are never implemented, or at least do not achieve the desired results. The ensuing disappointment leads to a lot of finger pointing and unproductive politicking within the organization. Without effective change management, it goes without saying your changes are doomed.

Operations and quality are heavily quantitative functions, so there is a strong tendency to overlook the softer, qualitative side of things. But change management is one of the softest – and most necessary – aspects of quality control to address.


A Hundred Years of Being Human-Centered

Consider our profession’s earliest improvement efforts, just after the Industrial Revolution. Frederick Winslow Taylor, author of arguably the most influential management book of the Twentieth Century – Principles of Scientific Management, may be considered one of the first management consultants When Taylor was discussing improvements in processes that reduce the need for raw labor inputs, he cautioned against cutting piece rate payments. While this would be a natural and fair change from a purely quantitative standpoint, employees will “lose sight of his employer’s side of the case and become imbued with a grim determination to have no more cuts if soldiering (sandbagging) can prevent it.” This is an intuitive and obvious observation, but something that is not immediately apparent unless one is reading in between the lines of the radar chart. It just goes to show, from the very beginning heralds of quality have recognized the importance of change management and the softer sides of improvement.


Back at the Factory

We had spent the morning studying why the spot welding station routinely had an hour or more of downtime each shift. Our Pareto and SMED analysis identified the location of the problem, but knowing the location was only half the battle. Repairing and adjusting the machine was a laborious task that could easily be improved. However, the frequency of downtime was more so driven by the line operators’ expectations for an aesthetically pleasing spot weld. This required a people centric approach to change, as changing a paradigm is something a bit more challenging.  This resistance to change was a major problem for the welder we were speaking with.

Our first conversation with the line operator was enlightening. Soon after speaking, we saw him rejecting a piece for no apparent reason. He explained that the spot weld was “ugly”, even though it met visual standards and was perfectly acceptable by the standard work procedures of the factory. Since the line operator was used to working in a regulated and procedure governed organization, our associate asked him where in their procedure it is required that ugly parts be rejected. Needless to say, the line operator was at first taken aback when challenged, but ultimately understood and passed the part. We were only able to garner this man’s buy in by recognizing the necessary approach – one that understood the work culture he was used to and tailored our appeal with that in mind.

The machine worked without any further issues until the next shift, when we were surprised to learn that the machine again became the bottleneck. Speaking with the technician that was supposed to be overseeing the changes, we learned he had essentially been bullied by the operators into reverting back to fixing the machine every time there was an “ugly” weld.

Our error was immediately apparent. The lessons discussed with the previous shift had not been shared with the second and third shifts. Even more, area leadership had not explained the necessity of the changes. A faceless, distant entity telling someone how to do their job will not be successful.  The lack of buy-in on their part and subsequent refusal to change would have been totally predictable if the team had not been overly focused on the quantitative side of things.


A Lean Culture

Lean done properly manages the change for us. Too often, organizations focus just on the mathematical tools and modelling that Lean provides while forgetting the personal components. Lean teaches us not just charts and statistical analysis, but also cultural change. In a Lean organization, employees are encouraged and empowered to suggest and sometimes implement the sorts of changes needed to stay at the apex of quality and efficiency.

Cultural shifts like this can be responsible for major increases in productivity and reductions in waste. In speaking with this technician we made another extremely obvious, easy change that had huge dividends. The shape of his machining tool was slightly off, to the point where he was using his hands instead to help align the machine. This was just “the way it’s always been” and not something anyone had even considered changing. Inertia is a strong force.

While just getting a new machining tool that actually fit would have been a sufficient solution to this issue, it would not have addressed the root of the problem. We instead worked with the technician to come up with a viable solution and allowed him to work with the supplier to resolve it.  We needed to create a culture where everyone from the bottom up is constantly seeking solutions to problems such as this. And – not coincidentally – this is one of the core tenets of Lean.

Lean, at its heart, is about people.

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