Saturday, July 18, 2015

What do you hear?

During my working career I made it a habit to not hobnob with the upper hierarchy.  I am a believer in Sirach 13:2

Do not lift a weight too heavy for you,
or associate with anyone wealthier than you.
How can the clay pot go with the metal cauldron?
When they knock together, the pot will be smashed:
But every once in a while I would be walking down an aisleway and one of the heavyweights would be going in the same direction.

What do you hear?

As it happened, I was walking next to W, the new Lansing Site manager.  He managed two automotive assembly plants and a stamping plant with a total employment of about 4000 people.

He looked at me and asked, "Joe, what do you hear?"

I crooked my head and concentrated on the sound.  I heard nothing out of the ordinary.  I replied, "I hear the hum of a well-oiled machine."

W replied, "That is the wrong answer.  I hear an assembly line with too many people."

Puzzled, I asked, "Whaddya mean?"

W said, "There are 100 work stations with 200 operators within earshot of us.  Nobody hit the Andon in the last ten minutes.  That means there are too many people on this line."
Sidebar:  Andon is a way for an operator to call for extra help.  Variation in the build complexity from vehicle-to-vehicle can result in an operator getting swept out of station.  Andon alerts and calls for help from flex resources.  The standard is to call for help when the operator is less than 70% done with the work content as the job passes the 70% mark on the footprint.  That gives the flex resource approximately 20 seconds to show up for assistance.  The protocol is for the flex resource to assemble the next job coming down the line while the regular operator fights with the job he/she is in.

 No Andon calls can be interpreted as A.) jobs are too conservatively loaded as nobody tickles the precipice or B.) There is no need for flex resources...which can run as high as 10% of the assemblers.

Spreading the word

W would not say things like that if he did not the message to get around.  So I dutifully went to C, the person responsible for that segment of line (two pay grades above me) and reported what I had been told.  She was not happy with my story.

A couple of days later C collared me and told me what she had found out.  She was doing it as a courtesy.  She had no obligation to share the following with me.  Perhaps she thought W and I were buddies.

For the section of line that she was responsible for (300 people/shift) the conversion rate was the best in the corporation.

"Conversion rate" is the ratio between what the Industrial Engineers deem to be the absolute minimum, utopian condition manpower required to build the vehicle and the actual number of time-card hours the plant actually used to build the vehicle.  That utopian number does not include any walk time, bin restock time, repair time or tool pickup/putdown time.

Then she credited the Material/Scheduling department.  We were running a optimal mix of highly contented (highly profitable but complex to build) and low content "recovery" vehicles.  Scheduling ruthlessly adhered to the practice of scheduling a "recovery" vehicle after every high-content vehicle.  Every assembler knew that he could swim back upstream on the next vehicle when he got behind.  The assembler had 25,000 instances in the past 6 months where he had been saved by takt-and-pitch....he could count on it with all of the surety of gravity.

Finally, the plant had a stable, predictable build.  The flex resources could look up the line and predict when individual assemblers would need help.  They would be within hailing distance.  There was no need to "hit the cord" and tell the whole plant somebody was struggling.

Sometimes it pays to complain

It pays to complain when the business plan has responses pre-programmed to trigger based on your complaint.  That is, the business expects you to complain.

It pays to complain when there are well defined channels for the information.

It pays to complain when your complaint is rich in the right kinds of information.

It pays to complain when participation rate (of complaining) is the basis used to justify flex resources.

I don't know if C and W every had a face-to-face conversation on the issue.  I suspect that they did.  I suspect it went well as both C and W were promoted out of their positions.

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