I recently visited a factory where I met one of the hardest working production managers I have ever met. She is a liked manager with a very attentive way of working and she is always there when something happens. A lot of her work days go to handling troubles and problems.
Quality trouble, errors and meetings fill her day. The production runs in five shifts, and there is a good market which means every small interference affects the bottom line.
We discussed what could be done to improve the situation and agreed that it was time to start some work for improvement. Being the production manager she has to be the leader of that work. The company has tried delegating the improvement work by choosing a “Lean coordinator”. The approach was not very successful since the Lean coordinator felt it was too big a responsibility.
Since the production manager's schedule was more overflowing than ever, it was obvious that real improvement was the only way. The only question was how. Everyone else also had a full schedule.
We, therefore, asked her to describe a typical work day. That showed she spent most of the time working within the system – not improving it. We could identify two "time thieves", stealing hours from the workweek.
Every time a complaint came in it was sent to the production manager. She went into the production system and read comments in the journal and tried to write a report that could explain the quality problem. The report was then used by the sales department to ensure the client that they took the problem seriously.
The report writing would take around 1-2 hours every week. The problem was that the time put into it was not in any way improving the process. A lot of the time she would not find anything special, other times it was an earlier known problem. She sended an e-mail to the responsible leader of the shift that a complaint had arisen but since the lead time was weeks or months barely anyone remembered what had happened.
Sure she could have delegated the writing of the report to someone else, but, in this case, our common conclusion was that the work was pure waste. In most cases, the sellers did not even want to tell the customer there was a problem in the production process.
Like every process of course also this production process had its natural process variation. The variation typically depends on lack of standardization or bad state of the equipment. Our main task as managers should be to minimize these variations, not to chase events hidden behind the usual noise.
Another time thief was the monthly report that was supposed to be put together for the staff groups. Every data in the report was compared to the previous year and budget. The responsible managers needed to comment on every negative deviation.
Time and energy were used to analyze events that often only belonged to the group of natural deviations. The work did not create learning or an increased understanding. In the worst cases, the numbers were tempered with to “look good” and to get out of having to explain things.
We concluded that we should have a method of distinguishing between real deviations from the normal noise. We, therefore, proposed that all data included in the monthly report should be drawn on a chart where also the process’ normal variations are shown. Only if a value is outside a control line, it should be investigated and commented. In this way, we hope to start a more fruitful discussion on the root causes and improvements.
The next step is to reduce process variation. The plan is that the production manager will be trained to lead improvement work with their employees, a coordinator, and some coaching to help. Small steps to get out of chaos but working with a methodically with a scientific method I am convinced that the result will be great.
By Oskar Olofsson