I had the opportunity to work with a wire drawing manufacturer where the machine operators were tasked with producing defined lot quantities to replenish parts for an in-process supermarket. Visual Kanban cards and hour by hour tracking charts/barrier boards were used to communicate to the operators when the supermarket needed replenishing. The operators complained to their supervisor that they were being micromanaged with the introduction of the Kanbans and the tracking charts in the plant. They believed they could no longer be trusted to put in an honest day’s work
The supervisor asked me how he should address the complaints of the operators. I suggested that he make the charts and visual controls about the process and not about the people. How do I do that, he asked. I said explain to the operators that the charts are a way for the operators to assign jobs to him and that his job was to resolve problems that interfered with the operators’ ability to run smoothly all day. The charts would tell the story of where he needed to step in and get the problems solved. I said emphasize to them that the charts are about micromanaging the production process, not the people.
The operators began using the tracking charts to document longstanding problems that repeatedly caused them downtime and frustration. The supervisor and the plant manager responded by focusing on these problems and getting them fixed. The outcome was progressive elimination of many recurring frustrating situations that interfered with the operators being able to get into a tempo and feel they had had a productive day at work.
The problems raised by the operators were plain to see to even moderately trained eyes, but they had simply been ignored in the previous batch environment, because the area had been buffered by large stocks of inventory. Now because they were running to a precise supermarket pull system, with carefully calculated on-hand quantities and replenishment times, the interruptions needed to be resolved.
Many of the issues emerged with the departure of the few experienced hands, taking with them the undocumented “tribal knowledge” of how the department ran. The result was sometimes near chaos, featuring things like mixing the storage of active and obsolete wire dies, without identification, on the same racks or jumbled together in cabinet drawers. There were no step-by-step work instructions for complex wire drawing operations, resulting in a lot of trial and error for the new operators trying to set up and run the jobs. Raw materials were delivered in such a haphazard fashion requiring time consuming handling to get them to the point of use. Gauges on the equipment needed alignment and calibration. Stock outs and defective parts were commonplace, given these sources of process instability.
With the introduction of Kanbans and hour by hour tracking charts/barrier boards, the operators were able to illuminate these situations. The supervisor and plant manager got them taken care of permanently, winning buy-in for themselves and the tracking system. Stock-outs and defects in the department are rare occurrences, operators rotate through the department without a hitch and productivity has increased monumentally. This is good illustration of why micromanaging the process can produce outstanding results for all interested parties.
So, keep in mind that when you implement visual controls focus on managing the process and not the people. It has been my experience that most of the problems in any organization are process related. People many times are constrained by bad processes not bad habits or purposely doing a bad job.
Willie Carter has nearly four decades of continuous improvement experience, which have enabled him be a good listener, teacher, coach and leader as he helps organizations do more with less to transform creative thought into organizational agility and excellence. In addition to his consulting practice, he is on the adjunct faculty at Roosevelt University, Chicago, IL.