Reactive to Proactive Lean Operations: “Show Me How”

By John Matura, InSource Manufacturing Systems Engineer

The scope of the engagement was to replace the existing home-grown manufacturing IT systems with a modern Manufacturing Execution System (MES) that integrated with their existing business systems. Aligning the current workforce from floor associate through plant management (People), with the existing production processes (Process), and the soon to be deployed technical solution (MES Technology) was critical. Potential issues needed to be identified, prioritized and addressed. This included everything from a communication strategy through training requirements, commissioning, deployment and on the floor coaching and support. Every level of the organization planned to be actively engaged in order to establish ownership.

This client is a proponent of the Lean methodology and is an advocate of “leader standard work”.  Their interpretation was that leader standard work was a checklist of supervisory tasks that should occur on a daily, weekly or monthly cycle. This checklist was completed by the supervisor in his office every day and placed in a supervisor specific binder. The manager occasionally reviewed these and provided “coaching” for any misses or issues identified. The supervisors soon learned what to document and perhaps more importantly what was not necessary to document to avoid self-selection for additional “coaching”.

In theory this is fine, but the missing element was the actual “shoulder to shoulder” interactions with floor associates. The leader standard work elements associated with the client’s Gemba walks were based on observation of existing conditions, not actually interacting with the people and processes on the production floor. These walks resulted in the supervisors reacting to floor conditions instead of managing through their set leader standard work routines. When this was pointed out, management’s reaction was that the supervisors were really too busy to spend time with associates. Actually, they were right. The supervisors’ time was spent dealing with issues after they had become a crisis. This is what we see in fire-fighting organizations. The “urgent” always takes precedent over the truly important. Supervisors go from one crisis to the next. Management considered this behavior as acceptable because that is how it had always been done. As further validation, they noted that they were profitable. Sometimes a profitable organization can be a very challenging work environment for driving change because there is little to no buy-in on the need to improve. They knew that they needed the technology, but not so much the behavioral changes.

The idea of performance walks, purposeful documented interactions and engagements with associates focusing on the status of critical activities and processes at set periods throughout the shift, was rejected as being too much of a burden. Yet, performance walks are one of the items of a successful organization’s operating practices that provide the foundation for going from a reactive to proactive culture.

The original MES project deployment plan called for supervisors perform their leader standard work routines using the new MES for production order status, downtime tracking, material consumption, finished goods inventory, etc. Yet in their minds, nothing was going to change for them regarding production floor activities and interaction with associates.

The advantage of an outside perspective is often invaluable.  As we all know, it is possible to be “too close” to a situation to evaluate effectively.  While InSource adoption consultants remained on site, they took the initiative to work actively with floor associates.  As a result, the floor associate use of the new MES was driven by the InSource consultants. The interaction and subsequent value of the consultants engaging floor associates getting their buy-in and addressing concerns was invaluable. And to their credit, management noticed.  Plant leadership realized that they needed to course correct and became strong advocates for requiring greater supervisory associate engagement structured around performance walks. What was once considered an additional unacceptable burden on supervisors has become integrated with their daily job responsibilities. The associates look forward to the interaction with supervision in this structured positive way. Before they only dealt with supervisors when there was a problem. Now there are less fires to fight as issues are identified and addressed before becoming critical.  It only took someone to “show the way” and a team receptive to change.

Based on our experience, the plants that use performance walks do well, and those that don’t fail. Now this client’s whole team has buy in, from associates to supervisors to management.  They are set up to succeed and are doing just that.

Initially the client thought that the MES solution was purely technical and that consultants handling the associate training and floor requirements was a “check box”.  They were happy to have the help, but remember, the supervisors were way too busy putting out fires to engage the new solution. The bottom line is that it takes the alignment of People, Process, and Technology to deploy and sustain a successful MES solution.  After a short season of observing an outside resource in action, the path forward was clear.  This client has moved from a totally reactive firefighting mode to a proactive engaged environment.

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