Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Spare Parts

Mostly Cajun has a short essay on the frustration that spare parts can cause.

I have felt his pain.

I used to work in factories that welded steel panels together.  In one of those factories the manager got tired of hearing the production blame the maintenance foremen for all of the production problems.  And he got tired of hearing the maintenance  blame the production foremen for all of maintenance's problems.  The manager decided he could kill three birds with one stone: He made the production foremen responsible for the maintenance of their own area and eliminated a boat-load of maintenance foremen.  Problem solved.

That did not work as well on the plant floor as is it looked on paper.

He trickled some foremen back into the system who had both maintenance and production backgrounds.  I was one of those lucky people.  It was a 94 mile commute, one way.  6:00 AM start.  Six days a week.

The problem

The problem was that the parts crib was run by hourly production people.  According to the contract, all production people were required to go on break at specific times.  Maintenance people would go into the robotic production cells at production break.  Remove the failing/failed part.  Hop onto a bike.  Peddle down to the parts crib....and could not get a replacement part until after "Fred" finished his card game.

If you were lucky you might be able to pay "Fred" over time (45 minutes pay) for him to saunter over, pick up your part, find replacement and slap it on the table.  He then took his full break (which was always longer than contractual....gotta finish that card game) anyway.

The source of the bickering was the ad hoc nature of the parts crib management.  It was one of the red-headed step children of the factory and NOBODY wanted to manage "Fred". "Fred" had super seniority and buddies in Union Hall.  Ordinary people did not get choice jobs like "Fred's"

I am ashamed to say it took me several months to figure that out.

My solution

Fortunately, I had worked with a very kindly parts guy in my previous job. He showed me how to hack into the Corporate parts database.  The Corporate spare parts database was maintained by Facilities (for reasons that were never clear) and was kept to the level of detail of supplier, the supplier's model number for the item, the Corporation's "stable part number", stack, shelf, cubby number and estimated number on hand.

Part of the disconnect is that the parts guy used the Corporate stable part number because we might change suppliers or the supplier would change a model number (for internal changes) even though the new part was plug-and-play in our application.  The maintenance people used the supplier's model number because all we had was the old, dead one we pulled out of the cell.  We spoke two different languages.

I would lock out the cell an hour before break.  Walk in with my flashlight.  Stand on my head to pull as much of the supplier model number as possible.  Weld slag is hell on labels.  I would then put the cell back into production, walk back to my computer and mess around with the database.  Sometimes all I had to go on was the name of the supplier, the noun name (pneumatic cylinder) and only four sequential digits of the supplier model number.

I would get on my three wheeled bike and peddle to the parts crib in the far corner of the building.  I  would hand "Fred" a slip of paper with the Stable Part Number and my "guess" as to the stack, shelf and cubby.  I usually had the replacement parts lined up by the cell access door before the start of break.

There were a few times when we had breakdowns that necessitated my visiting the Parts Crib during "break".  About half the time "Fred" would grouse about the interruption to his card game but would still get the parts.  I guess he figured I saved him enough work "messin' with that damned computer" that he could do me a favor (like, do his job) every once in a while.


One thing I never understood is why I was not able to interest my fellow foremen in using the database.  I think it was the boiling frog phenomena.  They were so used to the pathology that it seemed normal and right to them.

That factory is gone now.  I wonder how much of that had to do with management turning a blind eye to the mismanagement of non-core, but critical functions like the parts crib.

Part of the pathology is that factories print money when they build products with low variable costs and very high demand.  The Union knows that and uses "incremental volume" as a lever to create cushy jobs to reward their spear carriers (I noticed that "Fred" always had plenty of other guys to play cards with).  The cushy jobs do not go away when the demand for the product goes away.  Many of those cushy jobs can have a disproportionate impact on core operations when the Union decides to squeeze.

It reaffirms my belief that one should run one's business (or household) as if stone soup is on the menu for dinner and there are wolves scratching at the door, especially when times are good.

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