Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Industrial Fiction: Stick the tip of the lever where it will have the most effect

Snodgrass dropped in on Malichi at the material delivery driver’s bull-pen right after lunch.

Malichi was sitting behind his computer and had sheafs of printouts on the edge of his desk.

“Hey, were you serious when you said I should talk to somebody like you when I had an idea?” Snodgrass asked.

“Serious as a heart-attack” Malichi said. “I gotta get my guys rolling but then we can talk.”

The delivery people came, in turn, and picked up a pile of papers. Then they mounted their tuggers and took off to their respective routes.

“Whats on your mind, young man?” Malichi asked.

Snodgrass started out, “I can see you put a lot of effort into errorproofing and making it easy for your workers to do their jobs without making mistakes.”

Malichi visibly inflated under the praise.

“But I cannot help but thinking that some of what you did displaced the problem from material delivery to the production workers” Snodgrass finished.

Malichi’s face hardened.

“What are you talking about?” he demanded.

“Hey, everybody agrees that your guys are bulletproof at getting the right totes into the right slots in the roller racks. Am I right?” Snodgrass asked.

“Yeah” Malichi agreed.

“Some of those bins hold fifty, maybe even a hundred parts. So your guys can check and double-check where it goes. But the production worker has to get it right fifty times or a hundred times and he doesn’t have time to check” Snodgrass suggested.

“Lemme tell you something, Snodgrass. A hundred years from now you will go to Toyota and they will be doing their material exactly the way I am doing it now. It cannot be improved upon” Malichi said, referring to the fact that Toyota’s factories were the ones the company had benchmarked for their new, lean-manufacturing processes.

“I am not arguing that it isn’t perfect. I am arguing that it stops short, that it doesn’t comprehend the impact on production workers” Snodgrass tried a slightly different tack.

“Look Snodgrass. I don’t know why you came here but I did my job. My people don’t make mistakes. Production people make mistakes all the time. I dealt with my problems. Production supervision needs to put on their big-boy pants and do the same” Malichi said.

“So you don’t feel any pull to try to help production workers out, even though it would be good for the company?” Snodgrass asked.

“Hell no. I don’t work for production. I work for material delivery” Malichi said, dismissively.

“Well, thanks for your time. Just remember, I DID try to reach out to you first.”


The next morning at the standup with Paula and Matthias, Snodgrass asked for a few minutes of time with Paula. Time alone.

Matthias nodded and left. By now Snodgrass knew he was chained-to-the-oar in the Random Parts job.

“What is up?” Paula asked.

“You told me to review anything I intended to do with you if it might leave you exposed” Snodgrass said.

Paula nodded.

“But first I have a few questions.”

“Am I considered a member of ‘Management’?” Snodgrass asked.

“Yes you are” Paula confirmed.

“As a member of Management, can I put any hourly person on-notice and issue discipline?” Snodgrass asked.

“Technically, if you see any hourly person doing something unsafe, you have an obligation to address the issue, up-to-and-including discipline” Paula said. “But putting an hourly person on-notice is the VERY LAST step. The focus is on changing the behavior, not punishing the person.”

“Why?” Paula asked. “Who do you think you want to discipline?”

That is when Snodgrass explained everything he had found. It was a nasty, snarled mess and he thought most problems should be addressed at the lowest possible level.

Paula thanked him for investigating the issue. Then she told him to shut-up and sit on it. She wanted a week to put some things into place. The situation had been festering for years and surely another week would not be a make-or-break situation.


Shortly after lunch on Tuesday of the next week, Snodgrass was pulled off the line. A group was touring the production line and it consisted of a broad swath of the Plant’s highest management.

Paula told Snodgrass that they were going to perform a “Layered Audit”.

The “Layered Audit” system revolved around the idea that management communicates expectations by what they inspect.

Team Leaders were expected to perform an audit of every station in their work-group once a week. They were to verify tools, safety equipment and most importantly, that the work-content-as-documented was being followed.

Area supervisors were expected to audit each T/L by co-performing the station audit with each T/L once a week. If the Team Leader’s understanding of how to perform an audit had drifted it was up to the supervisor to recalibrate him. If either T/L or supervisor uncovered any discrepancies they were expected to address those discrepancies with all due haste...before the close of the business day if humanly possible.

The Shift-Leader were expected to perform one audit with a supervisor once a week and of course the T/L for the station was also to perform it with them. Area Managers were expected to perform one a week with each of his three Shift/Leaders and so on. The intention was to get all levels of management and the Team Leaders "on the same page".

Snodgrass had experienced several audits during his training. He had seen several others on stations next to where he was working, including one with the Shift/Leader.

Snodgrass had a pretty good idea how they were supposed to “go down”. The highest leadership would make a few comments and suggestions and then everybody would make a few adjustments.

The Plant’s Director of Material Delivery was the Master of Ceremonies for the audit. 99% of the time the audits were of production stations. Snodgrass deduced that this audit was not going to be one of the 99%.

Paula said to him, “Only answer if you are asked a direct question. Got it?”

Snodgrass understood.

The group stood outside the production operator’s envelop and stood away from the roller racks.

Snodgrass was not surprised when Stringbean came to fill up the racks. It was his custom to show up 15 minutes after production resumed after lunch.

Stringbean consulted his sheet of paper and then started moving full totes off of the cart and loading them into the racks. Then he removed the empty totes and placed them on the carts.

After that, he walked around to the production side of the roller racks and started dumping partially full totes into the tote behind them. That was physically possible because the totes were only half-full by volume as the parts were physically heavy.

Then Stringbean threw the now-empty tote onto the return rollers and did the same for each tote on the pick-face. After he had created more space on the feed roller spaces, he went to the material side and loaded even more full totes into the system.

The production workers had to either work around Stringbean or reach around him to grab the part they needed.

Management was watching that happen and didn’t say a word until Paula spoke up. “I am looking at the operation description for the material delivery driver and I don’t see anything in it about him re-binning partially depleted totes.”

“Oh, its there” Malichi said.

“Where?” Paula asked. She knew darned well it was not there.

Malichi shuffled through the sheets of paper officially documenting how material delivery was to perform their job. He was unable to to find any language that directed material deliver people to access the line-side of the racks and "densify" the totes.

“They just do that to make their job more efficient” Malichi said. “They have always done it that way. Let me make a note to add that to the job description.”

“But if you add that to the job description you will need to get every production worker to agree to letting the material delivery person into their envelop” Paula observed.

Linda Hargrove, the Production Area Manager was on Malichi’s suggestion like a terrier on a rat.

“Now wait a minute. Our operators have really high job loading. I don’t think I can support having them standing around waiting for material delivery people to tidy up.”

“My people are really busy too” Malichi snapped.

Paula asked, “Does anybody know the job loading of the production workers?”

Matthias piped up “With the new product and the high option content, many of our operators are running at over 100% job loading”

“That is bullshit!” Malichi exclaimed. “That is not possible. Nobody can work at more than 100%.”

“These operators are fairly young and have been in the job for a long time and they still need help from the T/L every once in a while. 100% job loading is what an average operator with a week of experience can do, working flat-out. And we are going into a shift-area preference in a couple of months that will flood the system with new-in-station operators” Matthias, the Union Chairman reminded the Management team.

“Well my guys are real busy too!” Malichi continued to protest. Malichi did not mention that material delivery was considered a very choice assignment and there was almost no turnover.

“How busy?” Paula asked.

“Real busy!” Malichi insisted.

“Can you quantify how busy?” she persisted.

Malichi was mute.

“Snodgrass. You just looked up this information. What is the typical job loading for a material delivery driver?” Paula commanded.

“They top out at 70% but most are in the mid-60% range. Industrial Engineering targets +95% job loading for production operators and nearly all of the production jobs are above that level” Snodgrass parroted.

Malichi gave Snodgrass a poisonous glare.

The Assistant Plant Manager, who was more responsible for day-to-day operations than the Plant Manager said “I don’t think I can support anything that disadvantages the production operators to favor the material delivery drivers.”

Then Paula said, “Snodgrass, can you take a minute and explain to the team how you would rearrange this pick-face to improve build efficiency AND reduce the chance of mis-picked parts?”


John Snodgrass found that his truck had been vandalized after he left work. Three of the four tires had been slashed and the side of the truck that was hidden from the cameras at the check-in turnstile had been "keyed" with what looked like a large screwdriver. 

Next Installment


  1. ERJ, I assume at some levels this is based on how things actually work. Which is stunning. Honestly, makes me glad I ended up in the industry (Biopharmaceutical) that I am in. We have a lot of problems, some similar to what you write of. But not nearly to the extent of which you write.

    1. Things worked this way at the small less than ten employee businesses I worked at since 1970. I think this is just human nature.

  2. Yes sir, rock the boat, get pitched off to become fish food. I'm surprised that any of upper management is interested enough to show up. Paula, you bet.

    I figure if the tires and paint are fair game, so are the arms and wrists of the one that did it. God was watching out for me, putting me in a right to work state....

  3. "I don't work for Production, I work for Material Delivery"... Dude is toxic and needs to be kicked back to the line.

    Malichi forgot that the whole plant exists to assemble the Products. Every job and every system supports the Assemblers. I will be Malichi didn't why the skin damage rate went way down or who's ox was going to get gored if it didn't....

    1. Union protects
      He may be management now but he come from hourly.

      Many moons ago in a far galaxy, I was mgmnt at a large plant. My car was rifled through. I took the habit of parking next to the guard shack. My car was vandalized several times more. The guards never saw or heard a thing.

      It all stopped when a certain two workers were found drunk on the job. This was their third time. The same two threatened to throw me into the acid waste pit to which they were assigned.
      Union protects toxic persons.

  4. This case study involves a unionized shop in which there appear to be multiple unions involved, each with formal written agreements between the union and management regarding a substantial number of conditions, work rules, procedures and lines of responsibility.

    There are a great many right-to-work businesses that do not have "regular unions" but are operated in a Soft Union condition in which time and tradition has come to establish a work rules environment similar to a "regular union" environment.

    I'm not sure which is worse.

  5. Yep, toxic work environment ISN'T going to get any better for Snods...

  6. I will bet Snodgrass' next assignment will be correlating which parts have the highest pick error rates at the line with the driver(s) who deliver that product. If a parts vendor can get dinged for shipped damaged parts maybe internal groups can be managed the same way. With all the focus on getting product out the door the lights may start shining on Malichi and the slackers in his unit.

    That, and Snods needs to start riding taxis to work, he is really breaking a golden rice bowl now.

  7. Joe, longtime lurker here. While I was very sorry to learn of your injury (been through something similar), there is a silver lining - you're writing fiction again. Great stuff, matches my own real-life experience.


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