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Posts Tagged ‘Lean Ops’

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What’s the right mix of workers and machines in making cars? According to Bloomberg, Toyota has been re-thinking that question and moving to shift more work back to people (‘Gods’ Make Comeback at Toyota as Humans Steal Jobs From Robots, Apr 7).

Inside Toyota Motor Corp.’s oldest plant, there’s a corner where humans have taken over from robots in thwacking glowing lumps of metal into crankshafts. This is Mitsuru Kawai’s vision of the future.

“We need to become more solid and get back to basics, to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them,” said Kawai, a half century-long company veteran tapped by President Akio Toyoda to promote craftsmanship at Toyota’s plants. “When I was a novice, experienced masters used to be called gods, and they could make anything.”

These gods, or Kami-sama in Japanese, are making a comeback at Toyota, the company that long set the pace for manufacturing prowess in the auto industry and beyond. Toyota’s next step forward is counter-intuitive in an age of automation: Humans are taking the place of machines in plants across Japan so workers can develop new skills and figure out ways to improve production lines and the car-building process.

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I have become increasingly taken with the question of what constitutes a good job. Various parts of operations in many industries have become automated over time and that trend will continue. But firms will still need people. Some production steps will be sufficiently nuanced or require too much dexterity that using a robot is (at least for now) impossible. Other setting like retail will favor resources who can move more or less seamlessly between restocking shelves to checking out customers. So what do these jobs look like? Unfortunately, the answer can be fairly grim.

The Atlantic has an article written by an ex-Politico reporter who lost his job and ended up (mostly out of desperation) working at sporting goods store (My Life as a Retail Worker: Nasty, Brutish, and Poor, Mar 11) and found the experience rather dehumanizing.

Of course, I had no idea what a modern retail job demanded. I didn’t realize the stamina that would be necessary, the extra, unpaid duties that would be tacked on, or the required disregard for one’s own self-esteem. I had landed in an alien environment obsessed with theft, where sitting down is all but forbidden, and loyalty is a one-sided proposition. For a paycheck that barely covered my expenses, I’d relinquish my privacy, making myself subject to constant searches.

“If you go outside or leave the store on your break, me or another manager have to look in your backpack and see the bottom,” Stretch explained. “And winter’s coming—if you’re wearing a hoodie or a big jacket, we’ll just have to pat you down. It’s pretty simple.”

When he outlined that particular requirement, my civil-rights brain—the one that was outraged at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy and wounded from being stopped by police because of my skin color—was furious. …

I’m not sure why—perhaps out of middle-class disbelief or maybe a reporter’s curiosity—I pressed the issue. Seriously: I have to get searched? Even if I’m just going across the street for a soda, with no more than lint in my pockets? Even if you don’t think I stole anything?

Stretch shrugged, unconcerned. Clearly he’d been living with this one for a while.

“Yeah, it’s pretty simple. Just get me or one of the other managers to pat you down before you leave.” (more…)

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Kaizen as charity

food_bank41A few weeks ago we posted a video of how Toyota engineers helped a New York City food bank optimize how it packs boxes of food to be distributed to families still displaced from Hurricane Sandy. Now the New York Times has a more detailed story of how Toyota Production System Support Center has worked with various parts of The Food Bank for New York City (In Lieu of Money, Toyota Donates Efficiency to New York Charity, Jul 26). It turns out that packing boxes is only one project out of many.

One of the more interesting projects is speeding up how quickly clients can be seated for dinner at a Harlem soup kitchen.

Toyota’s engineers went to work. The kitchen, which can seat 50 people, typically opened for dinner at 4 p.m., and when all the chairs were filled, a line would form outside. Mr. Foriest would wait for enough space to open up to allow 10 people in. The average wait time could be up to an hour and a half.

Toyota made three changes. They eliminated the 10-at-a-time system, allowing diners to flow in one by one as soon as a chair was free. Next, a waiting area was set up inside where people lined up closer to where they would pick up food trays. Finally, an employee was assigned the sole duty of spotting empty seats so they could be filled quickly. The average wait time dropped to 18 minutes and more people were fed.

Why do I like this example? (more…)

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Using lean ops at a food bank

Here’s a great video on a New York City food bank using lean operations to improves its distribution operations so it can get more meals to more families.

Thanks to Justin Jugs (Kellogg EMP 91) for bringing this to my attention.

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MK-CE404_HONEYJ_DV_20130630185251One of the challenges of growing a business through acquisitions is how the buying firm can create added value that the acquired firm couldn’t create on its own. One possible solution is that the acquirer can bring some operational expertise that the acquired  firm lacks. That, according to the Wall Street Journal, seems to be the case with Honeywell (Honeywell’s System Sensor Plant Declares War on ‘Seven Deadly Wastes’, Jul 1).

The article describes the efforts Honeywell has put in to improve operations at a plant in its System Sensors unit that it inherited when it bought Pittway Corp in 2000. So what did things look like when they bought the place?

The 1,000 workers inherited at the St. Charles plant struggled to align output with demand. The facility often produced too much, anticipating demand that didn’t materialize. Overproduction and excess inventory are two of the seven “deadly wastes.”

“You couldn’t see the plant floor because there was so much inventory stacked up,” says Karl Odegaard, System Sensor’s director of manufacturing.

Sounds like classic case of push production scheduling, right? Here are some of the steps that they took to improve the process. (more…)

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Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and current 3D printing cheerleader, has an intriguing piece in the New York Times (Mexico: The New China, Jan 27). it deals with his experience running 3D Robotics, a maker of civilian drone aircraft. 3D Robotics competes with firms that sourcing their production in China and hence they have had to find a way to take on competitors with low labor costs. Their answer? Tiajuna, Mexico. 3D is based in San Diego so engineering is done on the north side of the border but assembly is done on the south. Labor costs may higher than in China (but, as the article notes, the gap is closing as Chinese wages rise) but Anderson sees many advantages in his firm’s “quicksourcing” model that depends as much on speed as cheap hands.

First, a shorter supply chain means that a company can make things when it wants to, instead of solely when it has to. Strange as it may seem, many small manufacturers don’t have that option. When we started 3D, we produced everything in China and needed to order in units of thousands to get good pricing. That meant that we had to write big checks to make big batches of goods — money we wouldn’t see again until all those products sold, sometimes a year or more later. Now that we carry out our production locally, we’re able to make only what we need that week.

This point obviously depends on owning one’s own facility in Mexico or having a very tight relationship with the Mexican supplier. If a small buyer doesn’t have much negotiating power with a supplier it will still likely face large minimum purchase quantities when buying from Mexico. Still it is an interesting observation and suggests that some start ups may be making ill-advised trade offs between cost savings and flexibility. (more…)

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Over the years, we have had several posts applying lean operations to health care (see, for example, this or that). However, we have yet (I think) to post anything on Virginia Mason. Despite what its name might suggest, Virginia Mason is located in Seattle and has long been known as a leader in taking lessons from Toyota and applying them to health care. Now, in the form of a report from PBS’s NewsHour, we have an excuse to remedy that oversight (Rooting Out Waste in Health Care by Taking Cue From Toyota Assembly Lines, Oct 24). Check it out!

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California is famous for its car culture but that lifestyle has been expensive in recent months as the price of gas in the Golden State has climbed and climbed. California gas prices are almost always above the national average but in recent weeks the gap has grown more significant than usual.

So what gives? According to the Wall Street Journal, it’s all about supply chain issues (California’s Gas Price: Is There a Villain?, Oct 18).

What’s the lesson learned from California’s recent spike in gasoline prices, which is costing consumers millions of dollars and prompting calls for an investigation?

Probably nothing more villainous than this: In the world of tight supply-chain management, if you live by “just in time,” you on occasion will get hosed by “just in time.” And that’s the price Californians opted to pay, in part because they have goals beyond just access to cheap gas.

As the article goes onto explain, there are two issue here. The first has to do with the features of the market that have operational implications.

The state is an isolated market. Ships deliver oil to California’s refineries, which then make gasoline and pipe it throughout the state and to neighboring Nevada, Arizona and Oregon. There is no major pipeline or rail infrastructure that can quickly deliver large amounts of gasoline or oil from other locales in the U.S. to California—supplies that could mitigate shortages.

How isolated is California? While the rest of the U.S. is consuming less imported oil and more domestic shale oil from fields like the burgeoning Bakken in North Dakota and Eagle Ford in Texas, California is importing more oil from countries such as Ecuador and Iraq—now up to roughly half of what it consumes.

The state also mandates a special blend of cleaner gasoline—with the strictest specifications in the nation—especially in the extended summer months. The cleaner and pricier gasoline, in a driving market that’s larger than many countries, has been a plus for the state’s air quality, a goal Californians sought. But the trade-off is that during emergencies, California stands alone.

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The new issue of Businessweek has an interesting article on how Iowa has a program to improve state services through lean services (Iowa’s Lone Efficiency Ranger, Aug 23).

Lean, a management theory popularized by Toyota Motor, focuses on kaizen, or, loosely translated, “change for the human good.” The idea is to first map all of the steps, stops, time, and personnel involved in making a product or executing a process, then rethink how it could be done more efficiently. In white-collar offices that’s hard because many of the steps are invisible. Still, a 2010 kaizen at the Iowa Department of Transportation resulted in a 46 percent reduction in the number of steps it took to issue a temporary restricted license, dropping the backlog of people awaiting them from 600 to about 100, and response time from 30 days to just five. “It’s a continuous improvement mind-set, and one of the things that you have to be doing is constantly reassessing,” says Mike Rohlf, the administrator of the Iowa office.

Issuing temporary restricted licenses hasn’t been the program’s only win. The Iowa Department of Management’s website list the various projects they have undertaken as well as the benefits they have seen.

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When you think of the retailer American Apparel, you may first think of racy advertising or a CEO prone to being served with sexual harassment suits. (My mind, of course, goes immediately to a classic Onion piece that combines both of these.) What you may not know is that American Apparel’s apparel is actually made in America. Just how they go about doing that is the subject of a recent LA Times piece (American Apparel fights the ‘made in America’ fight. For how long?, Jun 3).

The company’s seven-story factory, a former Southern Pacific Railway freight depot, is the biggest garment-making facility in the U.S., according to an industry trade group. Here, 4,500 workers staggered over two shifts cut, sew, fold, box and ship clothes to the company’s 253 stores and other clothiers worldwide. …

In addition to the two large buildings downtown, the company owns four smaller manufacturing operations in Southern California. Fabric for the company’s trademark cotton T-shirts, which come in 52 colors, is knit and dyed in those facilities before getting trucked downtown for sewing.

So what steps do they take to make manufacturing T-shirts in the US viable? (more…)

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