The Million Dollar Fan Or Your Biggest Fan?

When is a small computer case fan worth millions of dollars? When the lack of one is the bottleneck, limiting the factory’s ability to meet customer demand. This is exactly the problem one of our associates was facing when working with a major medical device manufacturer. The management team was at a total loss to understand how to keep up, with the bottleneck seeming to move whenever they thought it was resolved. They were focusing on the symptoms and not so much the actual cause, bailing water out of the boat without plugging the leak.

Unfortunately, management often see people as the problem. However, if we dig into the root cause of almost any business issue, be it a quality control or management problem, the actual concern should be about processes that are run by people.  Is the line backlogged or otherwise inefficient? Yes, the immediate cause may be about industrial layout, maintenance on capital goods, or task design, but all of these based upon the actions of people – people interacting with their work environment and each other. Issues on the line mean workers cannot keep it moving as it should. The fortuitous side of recognizing this is that the solutions are also human based. Buying a new machine or switching up production techniques is nothing more than giving workers new or improved means of doing their original functions.

In quality management and operations it is all too easy lose sight of this. The metrics and performance indicators we are looking at are all quantitative yet impersonal. We are literally trained to see the whole operation as a machine, and employees tend to be categorized as one of the gears in this machine. That’s not to say that our profession is inherently anti-humanist, just that all too often we lose sight of the personal aspect when staring at Gantt charts and failure rates all day.

And this is bad.

Whenever we’re trying to improve the performance within an organization – whether that’s through more efficient means of assembly or better task design – it will require cultural shifts and buy in from the people that perform the work every day. Some of the most clichéd issues manufacturing can face, such as divides between management and workers, are often a result of a failure to recognize the human element of our work.

That is how our associate discovered the million dollar fan. On the manufacturing line, our associate was brought in to solve the limited capacity problem. Line-side supervisors allowed workers to float around and choose their own stations. While this might seem like a benevolent policy – and it arguably is – people gravitate towards things they prefer and are comfortable with. Workers would gravitate towards friends and familiar tasks as the day went on. When our associate went to the floor to investigate, he first asked everyone to stay put for just one day, as it would be easier to identify where the constraint might be. But, this kind of change to a work environment requires empathetic implementation. An outsider just coming in and ordering employees to change their work habits will not create the permanent and positive change desired.  Once the people began to follow the defined standard work, the bottleneck quickly became obvious as work naturally began to pile up in front of a single operation.

Once we identified the source of the bottleneck, we set about fixing it. Of course there is no supplement for some metrics and data, but even more important is listening to the people who perform this task every day. The woman working at this particular job step explained that she had to load plastic sleeve components onto production parts and then place the assembled pieces underneath one of the fan units, leaving them all there to dry for fifteen minutes. The actual loading only took five minutes, and she only had two fans, meaning she had five minutes of downtime built into the process.

She had worked at the company the whole time they were experiencing this problem, but neither the engineering nor management team ever came to the floor to speak to her. The solution was not hidden, it was just never sought. Worse yet, we found out that the engineering team had just implemented improvements to the line and never solicited the input from the line workers.  Instead, the improvements were implemented over a weekend with no workers present. The line workers had their first sight of the new work environment when they returned Monday morning.  Recognizing the human aspect of operations here directly could have saved this company millions of dollars and weeks of headaches.

With just a basic understanding of how humans will behave and a little empathy, our team was able to resolve this persistent issue relatively quickly. To attempt to make the lesson stick and get the company’s supervisors to understand what was actually going on, we had the workers all take a nice lunch together while the supporting engineers and technicians implemented the improvements that were recommended, tested and approved by the line-side workers. Again, understanding the charts and data is important, but hands on experience is crucial.

The effects of this went well beyond the immediately perceptible changes as well. By showing a willingness to engage and work together, supervisors built trust and goodwill with the workers. With this kind of culture, perhaps the woman who knew the solution all along would have spoken up and fixed the issue immediately.

We had to make one more change as well. By finding the bottleneck, we were able to keep the relaxed station requirements employees were so fond of. However, we discovered that additional capacity could be reclaimed by staggering lunch. Those working on the line were happy to make this change and work with us since we had sought out their buy in and goodwill throughout the whole process. As one of the workers told a member of our team, “You’re not the typical supervisor.” Pareto charts have a lot of insights, but they won’t manifest this kind of relationship within your organization.


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