Having been at this blog for a while, I have come to recognize that there is a class of articles that should be filed under “Lean Ops: Who’d of thought?”. For example, all one has to do is a quick Google news search to come up with an article that essentially asks “Can the Toyota Production System help a non-profit food bank?” (Freestore Foodbank speeds delivery by using Toyota’s methods, Oct 28, Business Courier).
There is a recent article along these lines with an interesting twist. It is from The Atlantic and talks about the survival of an American coffin maker (Bringing the Coffin Industry Back From the Dead, Dec 2010). The company in question is Batesville Casket. While one would think that this is an industry with a reliable, inevitable demand source, US casket makers are facing challenges both global and cultural. On the global front, there has been a growing number of imported Chinese-made coffins. On the cultural front, more and more people are opting for cremation and foregoing the traditional casket. Enter lean operations.
To survive in such a climate, Batesville Casket in 1995 began following an unlikely path: the Toyota Way. It adopted the automaker’s signature “lean” production system, as well as Toyota’s philosophy of “continuous improvement,” or kaizen, which is now gospel at the Manchester plant. In the 15 years since, the factory has slashed manufacturing costs by 25 percent and the number of work hours devoted to each coffin by 40 percent. In 1999, one of every five caskets came off the line requiring repairs; today, that number is less than 1 in 100.
On the August morning I visited the shop floor, I was surprised to see entire sections of the factory vacant. With its economical flow-mapped assembly line and just-in-time “pull” inventory system, the plant now required about half its former space to operate at full capacity. Mary Jo Cartwright, the plant’s director of operations, told me about a worker new to the interiors line who was asked after her first day whether she could handle the job of resupplying the seamstresses. Visual displays were everywhere; sheer material for mattresses and canopies hung from color-coded racks that simply needed to be matched with corresponding colors. “This is kindergarten,” the worker said.
First, one might wonder whether a 25% drop in cost over 15 years is all that impressive. However, given that the products in question will require high quality steel and fabric, one suspects that materials make up the bulk of the costs. The reduction in labor hours and floorspace with a significant improvement in quality are fairly compelling evidence that this has been a successful program.
A second question to ask is whether it is at all surprising that lean ops made a difference at Batesville. I have to admit that this seems like an industry tailored made for a lean implementation. They produce in a reasonably high volume (about 1,100 coffins per day) and offer high variety (22 colors, options for decorative hardware etc.). So we are not talking about your proverbial pine box. My guess is that they were essentially a batch manufacturer back in the day and found a lot of benefits from moving to more a flow arrangement.
So what makes this a particularly interesting article? The real hook here is that it turns up the brightness on the human side of lean ops. Does lean ops make working on the plant floor better? Not everyone thinks so.
How such a lean refitting affects workers on the factory floor receives far less attention. Batesville’s management has guaranteed that no employees will lose their jobs because of a “kaizen event,” an activity in which workers are encouraged, through various exercises, to demonstrate how they themselves could be made superfluous. But Mike Parker, a labor writer who has described lean production as “management by stress,” told me the Toyota Way fixates on efficiency and productivity at the expense of workers. “There’s no place to consider whether some very narrowly defined, de-skilled job offers any satisfaction.”
The Manchester factory’s 370 “associates”—the name given to its hourly workers—are represented by the United Steelworkers. As casket caps and shells moved past on separate lines, Pat Carr, the local union president, showed me two giant robotic arms, indicating that one of them had replaced four people and the other, 16. He told me that the associates had at first resisted the lean initiatives and the steady pressure to reduce task times. But Batesville’s home office was looking to close a couple of its factories, and Manchester had to prove itself more valuable than a newer and better-equipped plant in Kentucky. In this part of Tennessee, most manufacturing jobs had long since disappeared, and few of those remaining paid close to Batesville’s average rate of $17.70 an hour. It was no time to debate the finer points of overwork or the human limits of continuous improvement. Last year, during the most-recent contract negotiations, the union grudgingly agreed that the plant could use temps, paid as little as $10 an hour, for up to a fifth of the workforce.
“It’s not perfect here,” said Carr. “But we’ve got to have our jobs. We’ve got cremation, and competition from China. And then within the company, it’s dog-eat-dog when it comes to one plant over another. Everyone wants to survive.” In death care, as in just about all manufacturing today, that survival inevitably entails the demise of others.
There are two parts to this critique. One is specific to lean ops: Does an emphasis on continually revising the process create undue stress on workers? It certainly changes expectations of workers. They need to be more flexible to adapt to new procedures and (if it is done right) need to be willing to suggest improvements. As the process improves, individual workers are left with less of a safety net in a way. As everyone moves to working at the same rate (ie at the same takt time), everyone is effectively the bottleneck. Fewer and fewer workers have jobs that can be executed at a relatively leisurely pace without impacting production (and presumably attracting management’s attention). Now does that necessarily translate into a de-skilled job offering no satisfaction? Why should a job that includes a lot of unnecessary steps which are unimportant to the overall success of the firm be more satisfying to one that focuses on valuable activities necessary to keep the firming moving forward?
The second part of this, the lack of security in American manufacturing, seems independent of lean operations. Being direct labor in a US factory is just not what it once was. Pitting plants against each other and worrying foreign competition is now the nature of the US economy. That is not due to lean operations. The real question is whether this plant would still be open without lean operations.