Sunday, November 25, 2012

Focus and Leverage Part 167

My blog title, Focus and Leverage, is all about being able to identify the limiting factor in a system or process that controls the rate of units through it and then focus improvement efforts to leverage the potential gains to be made.  I’ve been using this methodology since the 1990’s and it has always provided significant improvements.  I had been hired by a company to facilitate either a best case turn-around or a worst case closure of a manufacturing facility.  This facility produced fiber glass hard tops on one side of the plant and convertible tops on the other side with approximately 250 employees working at this facility.

When I arrived at this site in Kentucky, I found it virtually in shambles.  It had just missed being unionized by five votes so the work force was pretty much split down the middle in terms of “camps” with one camp being pro-management and wanting to turn this plant around and the other camp, those who had voted to unionize the facility, having a very negative view of leadership.  From a financial perspective, the facility was on credit hold with some of its key suppliers and overtime was very high.  Customers were threatening to pull their business because of poor quality and terrible on-time delivery.  Absenteeism was high and morale was in the tank.  Sound like a fun place to work?

My background at the time had been almost exclusively Quality and Engineering with virtually zero operations experience.  My mentor from previous assignments had talked me into accepting this job offer and when I asked him why he had chosen me, since I had no previous operations experience, he simply told me that all I needed was my quality ethic and my people skills.  Little did I know that I would need much more than those two things.  There were two operation’s managers at this facility.  One had been there for 20 years and the other had just been hired.  Because I had no real operations management experience, I thought I could rely on my two Ops managers, but as I found out quite early on, that wasn’t a good thought.  Neither of them could offer and real vision for what we had to do to effectuate a turn-around.  I was starting to panic!

That first day I spent entirely (all three shifts) within the four walls of this factory, out on the production floor introducing myself to the employees and trying to get some sense of the true state of the business.  What I found that first day caused a great deal of anxiety for me personally because they were all looking to me for help….to save their jobs.  The next morning, in desperation, I visited the local library to find something, anything, on operation’s management to read.  That visit turned out to be a good move for me because in that library I discovered a small, partially hidden, paper-back book that would change the course of history at this plant in Kentucky.  This book would become my blue print for a complete transformation of not only this manufacturing facility, but for me personally and professionally.  The name of this book was The Goal – The Theory of Constraints – A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox.

I spent the remainder of my second day in my office and most of the night reading this manufacturing masterpiece.  There were concepts within this book that I had never heard of before.  I was so excited to get started applying these concepts, but I knew my team had to understand the teachings within this book before we could truly begin our transformation.  I found a local book store and purchased copies of The Goal for all of my direct reports and supervisors to read.  I over-nighted them in and mandated all of my direct reports to read this book in two days.  We had round-table discussions about the key teachings within this book on a daily basis and within a week we were ready to begin.

One of the first things we did was to establish a morning Herbie Hunt to search for and find the constraint.  Because we were losing so much money on the hard top side of the business, we started with it.  We would walk the process until we came upon a backlog of partially finished hardtops.  Once we found it, we then stopped and asked the operator why he or she felt that the process was blocked at their station.  We also asked this same person what they thought should be done to alleviate the backlog.  This technique turned out to have a multiple effects.  First, we were able to identify the constraint and then decide how to exploit it.  In the early going, it was clear that we had to subordinate the rest of the process to the pace of the constraint.  This was difficult because our corporate office tracked our overall efficiency and by asking the non-constraints to slow down, the overall efficiency took a nosedive.

Perhaps the most important effect of our daily Herbie Hunt was the true involvement of the hourly work force in our improvement effort.  They were amazed that someone was actually listening to them and that we not only solicited their ideas, but we implemented them exactly as stated, as long as no safety or customer rules were violated!  I remember one operator telling me that nobody had ever listened to the workforce before.  And so our improvement effort began…..

In my next several postings, I’ll continue discussing our improvement journey with real examples of the things we did, the barriers we encountered, the successes we achieved and the failures that resulted in key “learnings” for us as a team.

Bob Sproull

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