Sunday, July 8, 2012

Making the Workplace Speak

Do your processes speak or are they too shy to bring problems to your attention?  When it comes to the workplace, you want processes to be as loud and obnoxious as possible when something isn’t running exactly as planned.

Moving toward lean thinking often requires transformation. This means a significant shift in thinking, leading, systems, and general approach to operating the business. Although there are elements that are common to most transformation efforts, organizational differences make it difficult to single out one or two that apply in all circumstances.  One of the most common but often overlooked elements involves making the workplace speak.

Processes must be designed so they sing out when problems occur enabling issues to be identified and addressed quickly.  Without the ability to speak, a process can hide problems until they become such a normal part of the operation that they are no longer recognized as problems.  When this happens, the process moves further away from the ideal state and countermeasures, when applied, consist of throwing money at symptoms.  Examples include increasing inventory, lot sizes, and inspection – all of which increase costs while giving a false sense of security that a problem is effectively addressed.

Clarifying Objectives

Clarity of objectives is the foundation for encouraging processes to speak. When objectives are clear, it becomes much easier to create signals that communicate problems immediately when something puts an objective in jeopardy.  Examples include takt time, inventory levels, and problem boards.

Takt Time
If we can identify the optimal pace for a process and focus attention on maintaining that pace, setting up a signal that identifies when a problem occurs should be fairly easy. This can consist of a takt board or dashboard that shows when a process step is unable to keep up with the rest of the process.

Inventory Levels
Setting up visual cues regarding inventory levels can make it obvious when a process is overproducing.  As an example, installing a bin system between two processes that only holds a maximum or minimum number of parts will signal when the prior process is producing faster or slower than the following process.  Whether the problem lies with one area overproducing or another failing to keep pace will not necessarily be known, but it will be clear that something is wrong.

Problem Boards
Making the process speak can be done as easily as setting up a board in the workplace where problems can be recorded as they occur.  Parts that don’t fit properly, instructions that aren’t clear, or equipment breakdowns can be easily recorded using a checksheet, free text, or both to bring problems to the attention of those who are able to address them.  Without an easy way to record these types of issues, however, they can continue to occur due to a lack of visibility.

A common signal used in assembly lines is the andon cord, which is pulled by workers whenever something interferes with doing their work as planned.  Even without an assembly line, however, the andon concept can be used by providing people with the ability to signal when a problem occurs.  Whether it's an audible alarm in the factory, a signal light that goes off in an office, or a text message that is automatically transmitted to those who need to know, the andon can be a valuable way for the process to speak.

Make the Workplace Scream

Very few of us like to work with people who are loud and obnoxious, yet these are the exact traits we should desire in our processes.  Processes should be designed in a way that they scream so loudly when a problem occurs that we never feel it is acceptable to let them go on for very long.  The workplace should be quiet only when things are running smoothly and all objectives are being met.

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