Dec 24, 2007

teensy lean action taken for gift giving

Well, it's Christmas Eve and time for the frenzy of shopping to stop and the frenzy of giving and receiving gifts to start. Now that we're both retired, Mike and I agreed we'd cut down on the number of gifts we buy each other, and we made charitable donations in the names of many of the adults on our gift list. We're at the time of our lives when we really don't need more stuff. Our son and daughter-in-law are in Beijing today, part of their four-month study visit to China. We gave them some tiny inexpensive things to open today, but sending anything is too expensive.

We bought fewer gifts for the younger nieces and nephews, but they're not likely to notice at the family party. Usually there is chaos and none of them know who gave them what, frustrating the moms trying to teach them to make proper thank-yous.

However, last night I noticed that Mike had quite a few more gifts under the tree for me than I had for him. I pondered where I could go to shop without getting an anxiety attack, and looked in a few flyers for ideas. (Mike's report is that Target's throughput at the checkouts was excellent, and Macy's had plenty of pleasant salespeople available on Tuesday.)

We are the kind of people who live surrounded by too much inventory. Mike has full-pantry syndrome from having grown up in a family with eight kids and limited money for groceries. We probably have some things we brought with us when we moved into this house 13 years ago, although once we went through and threw out anything that was too old to have a bar code. I know there are piles of unopened dress shirts in his closet.

So it came to me -- there must be some nice food gifts around that he'd forgotten about. Hmm... let's take a look. Yes, there are several bottles of premium scotch in the liquor cabinet from some buying sprees at Merchant of Vino and Sam's Wines. Ahh -- how about a nice bottle of Lagavullan. On to the pantry. Way back on the shelf with all the condiments. Some Chesapeake Bay hot sauce? No, he'd know we haven't been there for years. The date on the label is 2000. Here we go -- a pretty jar of lavender honey from Lulu's in San Francisco. I can't use the dress shirts since he doesn't wear them anymore; that would give away the game.

Now parity is more or less established and I made a couple of lean decisions as well. This could be kind of fun as a family challenge. You could have piles of forgotten toys, baseballs, or boxes of macaroni to open on Christmas Day and not add to waste at all.

I've heard of people who "re-gift." We all have the gifts we've put aside over the years because they are just not things we use or like. There's some stigma to sneakily passing an old gift off as a new one, especially embarrassing if it goes to the original giver, but if it was all in fun, why not? And kids under the age of four or five usually have lots of things they've forgotten they own, because they've been showered with birthday and holiday gifts. You could probably get away with recycling some of those things too.

I'm not good at keeping secrets so I'll probably let him know what I did. But didn't your mother always tell you, "It's the thought that counts."

One more thing - Our western Christian culture overwhelms all others so that Christmas is way more visible than the recent Eid, the month of the Hajj, Hanukkah, Buddhist, Hindu, and various midwinter festivals of other religions. The timing of Christmas is actually overlaid on old pagan winter festivals. There are agnostics and non-observers who don't mind having fun on December 25. And there are atheists who are annoyed by the religious aspects.

So I'll acknowledge the fact that our western European attitudes can betray a cultural arrogance, and send my best wishes to all people of any or no faith for a day of peace and hope. Just because.

Dec 20, 2007

Check it off

To echo several other bloggers, you must read an article by Atul Gawande in one of the December issues of the New Yorker, The Checklist. It's not going to surprise anyone who has the first idea about standard work or mistake proofing, but it's illustrative of a couple of things. First, in medicine (or getting what you ordered at the drive-thru, or the financial assistance you may be entitled to if you're homeless), all the technology and off-the-chart IQs can't take the place of a simple checklist. And that such an idea has penetrated so little into what people do every day. I've got nothing enlightening to say on the subject. Read the article.

One-day university admission

The University of Michigan-Dearborn has found a way for a student to spend one day and get through all the steps of choosing a college. This includes:

- Complete an application
- Meet with an undergraduate admissions counselor
- Receive an evaluation of your transcripts
- On-site transfer credit evaluation
- Find out about community college transfer scholarships
- Tour the campus
- Learn about co-ops and internships
- Find out about financial aid
- If qualified, will receive on-site admission
- Sign up for placement exams and academic advising
- Gain insight into the 80 degree programs offered by the four colleges
- Get information about campus resources to help students succeed at the University

Plus, the $30 application fee will be waived. All that’s left is to enroll in classes in January. The service is offered every day (except Sundays) in December. No appointment is necessary.

Some questions remain - Why just in December? If they can do it for a month, shouldn’t they be able to do it all year long? Is this a trial program?

Do other schools do this? Competition to fill seats is brisk in the Dearborn area. There are several community colleges nearby, plus campuses of all sorts of universities. Could this be what universities have to do nowadays?

It’s about time the educational community realizes that students are customers. It’s not all about research grants, celebrity faculty, or how much you spend on buildings. Do you deliver the service and can you strip out the waiting?

Dec 19, 2007

Sensei Kringle beats the insanity rap

From Sue Kozlowski in the iSixSigma blog

Miracle on 3.4th Street

(Movie Review - WARNING! May contain spoilers...)
At the beginning of the movie, the Santa Claus who is scheduled to appear in the Thanksgiving Day Parade is found to have significant defects. He is replaced with a worker who seems to utilize standard work, Sensei Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn).

The new Sensei yields improved results for the corporation, Macy’s, based in New York City. The replacement worker, who has a consistent approach to his work in alignment with organizational goals, finds that some other employees don’t believe that his lean six sigma approach can be successful. Taking this as a challenge to persuade and educate, Sensei Kringle embarks on a series of efforts to transform the perception of others who he meets through his new job (Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood).

Sensei Kringle runs into trouble, however, when he takes a so-called "employment test" with an interpretation based on opinion, not fact. The leader who gives the test, a Mr. Sawyer, demonstrates many of the Eight Wastes and seems intent on ruining Sensei Kringle’s efforts towards lean transformation.

In order to minimize the waste of transportation and motion between his home and the Macy’s department store, the Sensei is invited to room with lawyer Fred Gailey (Payne), Sensei Kringle works with Mrs. Doris Walker and her daughter Susan who live in the next apartment. Susan especially begins to appreciate the core tenets of continuous incremental improvement, although she and her mother still harbor some doubts about its overall effectiveness. While discussing Voice of the Customer and Critical-to-Quality issues, the young girl asks for proof of lean’s effectiveness, which Sensei Kringle promises to develop (although it’s a tall order in the short lead time left before the holiday).

When provoked by Mr. Sawyer’s incompetence, Sensei Kringle loses his temper and implements a point kaizen on Mr. Sawyer’s head. Taken to the nearby Bellevue mental hospital, the Sensei deliberately flunks his mental competency test in despair that he will ever get anyone to buy into lean six sigma concepts.

When the Sensei’s cause is taken up by Fred Gailey, the competency hearing becomes very interesting as the judge in the case asks them to prove that the Sensei is really who he says he is. Finally vindicated by no less an authority than the U. S. Postal Service, which has been using lean concepts for some time, Sensei Kringle is declared sane and free to go on Christmas Eve.

After the next day’s Christmas party, Sensei Kringle gives Mr. Gailey, Mrs. Walker, and her daughter Susan special value-enabling directions to take while driving home. Susan is astonished when she sees her special wish for proof of lean’s effectiveness appear right before her eyes - a small Cape Cod home that’s a model of value-added design. She immediately declares that it exceeds her specification limits.

Fred Gailey and Doris Walker realize that their future lies together using lean six sigma, Susan goes out into the back yard to investigate the swing set, and Mr. Gailey congratulates himself on being such a good lawyer and process owner for getting Sensei Kringle off the hook. Suddenly they spy in one corner the Sensei’s cane - was it just a case of effective project management, or was Sensei Kringle a lean transformation expert after all???

(For those of you who somehow have not seen "Miracle on 34th Street," I highly recommend the 1947 original black ad white version. Happy holidays!)

Thanks to Rob Cushard for pointing the way to Sue's blog post.

Dec 13, 2007

The gemba is the dojo at Toyota, says Peter Abilla

Peter Abilla had an interesting post in his Shmula blog last August about how learning works at Toyota: The gemba is the dojo. He says that having a new employee work on the line for an hour before training creates the humbling realization that there is a lot to learn to perform an operation correctly.

The dojo, if you have taken any martial arts training, or watched any martial arts movies, is the place of training. After the quick exposure to the gemba, the employee goes to the dojo in the right frame of mind to start learning.

The gemba, where value is added or where the truth is found, tells you that there is much to be learned. And the dojo doesn’t have to be a special place with a training simulation. Attention in the gemba, whether it’s the plant floor, the road you drive to work on, or the book you are reading, leads to knowledge.

Peter relates the Toyota way of learning to his exploration of Wing Chun, which has led to his study of the Chinese classics, starting with Confucius. He finds the ancient wisdom that learning and order start with the cultivation of being sincere in thought and investigating all things.

Peter describes these insights much better than I – check out the post at If you have time, look around the rest of Peter’s Shmula site. You never know what you’re going to find – he can range from queuing theory to Confucius to adopting a baby -- and his professional background is awesome.

Dec 6, 2007

The line worker's potential recognized in 1923

I have a fondness for old books about manufacturing, and actually read them from time to time. I like tracing the history of ideas and methods. We think we’re coming up with new stuff as we study lean, but we are not. People just stopped paying attention to what past generations were saying.

I was paging through Production Handbook, edited by Alford and Bangs and published by the Ronald Press in 1949 (copyright 1944). Among the more than 80 contributors and advisors was Thomas G. Spates, VP, General Foods Corp. His forte was what was then called “personnel administration,” but he had a human resources attitude, writing:

"Personnel administration is a code of the ways of organizing and treating individuals at work so that they will get the greatest possible realization of their intrinsic abilities, thus attaining maximum efficiency for themselves and their group, and thereby giving to the enterprise of which they are a part its determining competitive advantage and its optimum results."

Alford also quotes (I believe from work by Spates) E.K. Hall of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, the first to be given the title of VP of personnel relations, who spoke to the Illinois Manufacturers Association in 1923. Hall’s address was entitled, “A Plea for the Man in the Ranks.” Let’s just grant that there weren’t too many women in the ranks then. Please note that it is “for” the man in the ranks, as in “on behalf of,” not “to” the line worker:

"Now here is the plea I want to make for the man in the ranks. Make him a member of the team, just a straight honest-to-God member, and treat him like one until he realizes himself that he is a member. That will take time. It will take quite a lot of time. He does not think he is on the team now. He does not think that you think he is on the team now. He thinks that you consider your team consists of the men whose names are listed on your organization chart—the chart showing your line and staff organization. He thinks that he is working for that team and not on it."

Note that he addresses resistance, by saying that you must treat a person as a member of the team until that becomes part of that person’s thinking and feeling. And it can take “quite a bit of time,” to use Hall’s phrase. You’re not going to persuade someone that has been treated like an interchangeable part that he or she is now a team member. People are smarter than that, and they have seen it all before. Let’s face it, many managers instinctively think of people working for them, even almost 85 years after E.K. Hall told an influential group of manufacturing executives that was untrue.

(I tried to find the full text of Hall’s speech online and failed. I did find a book by Spates that I ordered and which is on its way to me right now.)

People like Ohno and Shingo weren’t sitting around dreaming up the principles of the Toyota Production System. They studied and observed everything they could find. What happened here?

Dec 2, 2007

Safety is the foundation - Taiichi Ohno

Quality, delivery, cost, safety and morale (QDCSM) are all important goals at Toyota. Taiichi Ohno said that safety comes before everything else. “Every method available for man-hour reduction to reduce cost must, of course, be pursued vigorously,” he said, according to JeffreymLiker’s book, The Toyota Way, “ but we must never forget that safety is the foundation of all our activities. There are times when improvement activities do not proceed in the name of safety. In such instances, return to the starting point and take another look at the purpose of that operation.” (Excuse the poor diagrams - they came from a PDF of Toyota's 2006 Sustainability Report and a published PPT file and need to be redrawn.)

Toyota today places safety and health firmly in its sustainability strategy. (Toyota Sustainability Report 2006) They are connected to the very foundation of a corporation. “Safety is management itself,” says one maxim, and everyone from senior executives to factory floor employees is expected to take responsibility for placing safety first.

Toyota’s fifth five-year safety and health policy covers the period from FY2005 to FY2009. Among its goals are zero designated occupational diseases, those that result from dust and noise, or musculoskeletal disorders, and zero STOP6 accidents, those that result in death or disability. The STOP6 accidents are:

Being caught in a machine,
Collision with a heavy object,
Collision with a vehicle,
Electric shocks, and
Contact with a heated object

Important goals of the five-year policy are to raise the level of workplace safety skills and to continue implementing and improving proactive prevention activities. Toyota wants to build a workplace environment that is healthy for the mind and body, working to address lifestyle issues such as smoking and obesity, and improving mental health measures.

In FY2005, Toyota addressed basic steps to raise workplace safety levels and to increase the visual representation (mieruka) of all accidents, including minor ones. It implemented new ergonomic measures to prevent musculoskeletal disorders, and promoted stronger measures against noise and dust. Perhaps more importantly, it introduced a comprehensive occupational safety and health management system (OSHMS).

During FY2005, there were no fatal accidents, and the number of STOP6-type accidents and designated occupational diseases remained flat or increased only slightly. Measures against asbestos in facilities and buildings were begun, scheduled for completion in 2006 for facilities and the end of FY2007 for buildings.

Also in FY 2005, the Toyota Safety and Health Global Vision 21 was adopted. This program is designed to standardize the creation of safe and healthy workplaces through a PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) cycle based on OSHMS as specified by the International Labor Organization (ILO.) It started in Japan in 2006 and will be rolled out internationally.

Toyota Safety and Health Global Vision 21

The overall Plan phase of the system with its interlocking PDCA cycles begins with the Toyota Safety and Health Promotion Division. It will begin to clarify health and safety policies, with information gathered from Toyota and external organizations.

The Do phase will take place as overseas affiliates, holding companies, and plants adopt and implement safety and health plans, with support and audits from the corporate level.

Internal production preparation divisions will perform the Check phase, conducting system audits. There will be a feedback loop between the internal production preparation divisions and the corporate level to continue policy clarification.

The Act phase will be carried out, initially in Japan through out its housing works and plants, as it receives a review of OSHMS from the internal production preparation divisions’ system audits. Information from the plants will go to the corporate safety and health promotion organization, which will also provide support and audits to the plants.

Information will be exchanged between each of the four entities in the system, with support and audits coming from the corporate entity to each of the other three. PDCA cycles will also be carried out between each point of the overall cycle.

Safety: The Toyota Way
Phil Bluck, safety and security manager, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Inc., Cambridge, Ontario, says “Safety First” is a corporate value supported from the top down at Toyota.

Speaking at the 2006 conference held by the Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA)
in London, Ontario, Bluck said Toyota has a top-down commitment to safety, and a belief that safety underlies overall organizational performance. He stated, “A workplace that is strong in safety will demonstrate its strength through quality and production.”

Toyota’s Cambridge facility, which opened in 1986, employs 4300 workers. Its worker-focused vision says, “Team Members will thrive in an environment where safety, mutual trust, open communication and opportunities for personal growth are encouraged.” In the realm of safety, its vision says, “Our behaviors, words, actions and processes will consistently reinforce the principle of safety first.” TMMC Cambridge aims to be the safest auto plant in North America.

Bluck showed how Toyota’s principle of respect for people and mutual trust are related to the desired safety culture, job satisfaction, pride in one’s job and motivation, team member engagement, and effective listening.
Toyota is striving for zero accidents. Accident prevention begins in vehicle design and continues through process/equipment planning and preparation. Standardized processes are developed for vehicle production. Feedback is collected through suggestions for kaizen activities to check if equipment is inherently safe, and may result in improvements to vehicle design and process and equipment planning. As standardized processes are modified through continuous improvement, safety checks are performed. Periodic checks are also made to ensure that equipment is safe. Throughout the manufacturing process, training is conducted and abnormalities are identified for kaizen improvement.

Bluck said managers are responsible for securing the safety of employees by:

Ensuring that safety policies or workplace rules are followed
Developing a “manager’s eye” to see unsafe conditions and practices
Establishing, implementing, and following up on the prevention activity cycle
Promoting the identification of unsafe conditions and safety kaizen activities with employees

Attention to what TMMC calls ergonomic burden can result in improvements to both employee safety and productivity. Bluck gave the IAPA conference audience an example from the Lexus production line.

Before the process was improved it took 58 seconds to install one fender on a Lexus SUV, with 19 of them spent walking and carrying three jigs used to ensure the fender’s proper fit. Jigs and parts were kept on a nearby flow rack. The result of a kaizen was to design a cart that would transport and hold all the jigs and required parts while the worker installed the fender.

The number of “dance steps,” as Bluck called them, went from eleven to three, with less time spent carrying the jigs. Worker satisfaction improved, fender fit accuracy from 96.8% to 99%, and the risk of musculoskeletal injury went down.
TMMC safety management cycle

Nov 23, 2007

Consumers and retailers drive sustainability in Asia

MAS Intimates Thurulie (MAS) in Sri Lanka will be making bras for Marks & Spencer (M&S), a favorite UK department store, in a green facility. Retailers like Walmart and M&S are driving change in Asia, where environmental and safety responsibility are often lacking. Part of the change is the result of shoppers' growing concerns about how the products they buy affect the global environment. Consumers want guilt-free buying.

M&S will advise MAS on sustainable construction. M&S already claims to have “green” stores in the UK, so it is passing its knowledge and experience into its supply chain. M&S will start by paying for architectural design of the Sri Lankan facility. All this is part of the M&S Plan A.

Mr. Paschal Little, Head of Technology, Lingerie, Marks & Spencer, said at the factory groundbreaking ceremony, “Just as we are aiming to reduce the carbon footprint and waste from our operations in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, we are also keen to work with our suppliers to reduce our impact in the countries in which we source our goods.”

MAS brings to the table its MAS Operating System (MOS), based on the Toyota Production System, with which they have been applying lean in the apparel industry.

The 10,000 square foot factory is meant to be a zero-emission facility. It’s expected to save 50% on water and 40% on electricity compared to a non-green factory by relying on solar-electric, solar-thermal, wind, and sewage treatment-produced methane. LED lighting and rooftop rainwater collection will also cut down on power and water consumption. Building materials will include Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood and cement-stabilized-earth bricks. The project will be independently certified by the US Green Building Council's (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System.

The bra factory will be just one of the occupants of the evolving MAS Holdings fabric park, which is being built, according to MAS, “with respect for the site, the user and the environment, and drawing inspiration from traditional Sri Lankan architecture, building on stilts, with inner courtyards and extensive greenery around the structures giving thermal comfort, minimizing disturbance of land contours and drainage patterns.”

The green belts are also meant to get employees to use bicycles. Dormitories and “villas,” along with healthcare and sports facilities will be included in the development.

The MAS Institute of Management Technology (MIMT) will be on the site for training and IT development, rounding out the picture of manufacturing, employee services, and education.

MAS Holdings, founded in 1987, also supplies Victoria’s Secret (becoming VS’s supplier of the year in 2006), GAP, Nike, and Speedo with 28 facilities, two design studios and a sourcing and innovation arm across seven countries. It employs more than 40,000 people. MAS has also supported women’s empowerment through the Women Go Beyond program, the GAP Go Beyond Program.

Everyone knows that Wal-Mart wields considerable power over its worldwide suppliers, and it’s pushing sustainability on several fronts. It has entered a partnership with the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) to measure the amount of energy used to create products throughout its supply chain, including the procurement, manufacturing and distribution process. Using this measurement tool, says a Wal-Mart press release, the company will begin to work with suppliers to look for ways to make the entire process more energy efficient.

I’d be willing to bet this is the future of global development, with the values of European and North American shoppers making clean and humane manufacturing more or less mandatory. Yes, right now the constant low price focus of buyers is resulting in almost unimaginable damage, but global scrutiny is having an effect. Will the change come in time to keep humankind from trashing the planet? Who knows?

More about MAS
More about sustainability at Wal-Mart

Nov 17, 2007

Delivering what the customer wants, at the right time, for the right price

Kevin Meyer reflected on his experience at the Chicago Hilton at the recent AME conference there. He said:

Being a customer of the hotel, one gets the chance to see the rubber-hitting-the-road outcomes (if you look) such as how all services are provided. While they were impeccably delivered everywhere, what I found most impressive was cheerful, honestly helpful, self-confident people who made direct eye contact with you as they expressed a cheerful Good Morning or other acknowledgement. And they did it 24 hours a day – and it came from people at all stations in this complex. All you had to do is appear as though you were unsure and they were upon you to provide help.

My comment turned out to be pretty long, so I decided to appropriate it for "Lean Reflections."

During the AME conference in Chicago, my husband and I stayed at the Best Western, three blocks south on Michigan Ave. At $140 per night, we had similar customer service. When I realized the week before that my reservation was a day short, I called the hotel and Carissa was able to retrieve the reservation I had made online. Naturally that meant that she couldn't change it, but she went ahead and added a reservation, guaranteed I wouldn't have to change rooms, and honored the original price I'd gotten even though she was adding a Friday night.

Kevin found this guide for Hilton's staff. I think the Best Western folks lived up to it too:

When I arrived, Carissa was at the desk and remembered talking to me on the phone. There was no fancy entrance or doorman, but it was easy to grab a bellcart and take it the short distance to our car and bring it in. We were offered assistance, but like doing things ourselves. Carissa explained the parking situation (expensive, but normal in Chicago at $25 per day - how much was the Hilton?) and was perfectly happy that we had left the car with lights flashing on 11th St. where the entrance to the hotel was located. We could get the car whenever we needed it by calling the desk.

Actually when I arrived, I had to wait a few minutes to check in, bacause Carissa was giving careful instructions about taking the bus to two other guests who wanted to get to North Mich Ave.

The carpet wasn't as nice, but the room was pretty good for the price. I've paid more in Chicago for less. The towels weren't as fluffy, but we had plenty of them. The linens were higher quality than in most places.

When I had trouble accessing the wireless network, the guy at the desk talked me through a couple of troubleshooting attempts. When they didn't work, he had someone at our door with a cable almost immediately. Of course, by then I'd tried the microsoft fix of turning everything off and rebooting. The hotel's wireless service was fine. And free.

After a night with a spouse who likes to sleep in a chilly room, I asked for a second blanket around 11pm the next night. I had it at my door in less than 10 minutes.

Kevin also complimented the Hilton for its..

...cheerful, honestly helpful, self-confident people who made direct eye contact with you as they expressed a cheerful Good Morning or other acknowledgement. And they did it 24 hours a day – and it came from people at all stations in this complex. All you had to do is appear as though you were unsure and they were upon you to provide help.

When I called the Best Western desk each time, the phone was answered promptly and courteously. Whenever we came in or went out, we were treated like honored guests. Everyone was friendly and smiling. The day we left, one of the staff at the desk was calling other hotels to find a room for a woman who had arrived without a reservation. It was Saturday and the hotel was all booked up.

This in contrast to the day before when I was in the Hilton lobby talking to another conference attendee and a hotel employee literally pushed me out of the way to allow a group of obvously more important people to pass through to the elevator.

Did you get lost? The hotel was very confusing and the signage not much better. One sign read "Alternative Women's Restroom." I'm afraid to ask about the alternative women. (The sign was there because there were many more men's rooms than women's rooms. Huh?) Another read "Door is Alarmed." Maybe by the behaviour of the alternative women? Or the men looking for alternative women?

Actually, the people at the Hilton serving meals and in the 8th street lobby were all attentive and courteous. The carpets were amazing, and having a pianist at the grand piano in one of the lobbies was a touch of elegance.

This post isn't about whether I was smarter than the folks who stayed at the Hilton. It's all about value in the eyes of the customer. I wasn't looking for luxury, and I got better service than I expected for my $140. If I'd wanted more cushy surroundings and wasn't paying my own expenses, the Hilton at $250 or thereabouts would have made sense.

As for Hiltons in different cities, maybe it's Chicago that is the factor. It's a great city. Except for Nieman Marcus, but that's a different story.

Nov 15, 2007

Is this the voice of a new customer for you?

Lean manufacturers should be generating available capacity and resources as they slim down their production systems. Then what do you do? You need to add customers or products or both.

Here's an idea...There's a company looking for new PVCu/composite home building materials, improved manufacturing techniques, environmental technologies (e.g. integrated solar panels) or technologies to improve energy efficiency, U-value, product performance/lifetime, visual aesthetics and/or ease of installation. The company provides a range of channels to the home building market, so you don't have to deal with that part of the supply system.

Specifically, the company is looking for doors, windows, conservatories and roofing systems, garages, porches, canopies, awnings, carports etc. They also want roof line products, e.g. fascia, soffit, guttering/rainwater systems, cladding, panelling etc.

Maybe you have technologies that could be used for ventilation/heating/cooling systems, hardware & accessories. If you do, contact: Introduction Manager, +1-781-972-0600 or email

If you don't have anything for this market, subscribe to's newsletter. There's a wealth of tips for markets that are just opening up -- maybe there's one for you. The company's web address, not surprisingly is

Nov 14, 2007

Lean manufacturing moves to the cornfields of Illinois

One thing we noticed while driving along the highways of Kansas and Illinois is that there are a lot of new ethanol plants and grain elevators rising among the cornfields. Corn producers are looking at the alternative energy future as an opportunity to get more money selling their crops than they paid to put them in the ground. That prospect is stimulating capital investment on the ground.

Ed Zdrojewski, Grain Journal editor, reported October 30, 2007, that one grain storage manufacturer is gearing up to bring lean manufacturing methods to respond to the rapidly growing market. Scott Clawson joined GSI Group, Assumption, IL, as president and CEO in August. Since then the company has hired a flock of new managers made a number of promotions from within. Many are engineers.

Clawson cut his lean manufacturing teeth at Danaher Corp., an early adopter of the Toyota Production System. Before joining GSI, he was CEO of Iowa-based RYKO Enterprises, a vehicle wash system manufacturer, that was transformed, according to Zdrojewski, “into a growth-oriented, market-focused organization by strengthening its distribution, sales, and marketing team and by implementing lean manufacturing practices.”

There are a number of forces at work making the grain storage and handling business poised for growth, Clawson told a meeting of the AgCafe in Decatur, IL:

* A record production of more than 13 billion bushels of corn is forecasted for the United States in 2007. Growth in corn production increases demand for GSI's grain storage and handling systems.

* As farms consolidate, more are investing in on-farm storage, and buying new equipment.

* Genetically modified crops, while controversial, are nonetheless being grown and produce higher yields. Because they require separation at commercial grain elevators, there’s a need for more storage bins.

* Ethanol production currently consumes about 25% of the U.S. corn crop, and GSI produces equipment for that fast-growing industry.

The company’s annual sales have increased from $272 million to $485 million over the last five years. GSI employs about 3,000 people worldwide and 2,000 in the United States,

While Clawson wants to boost international sales, particularly to Asia and Eastern Europe, and currently ships equipment to Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Asia, he says there are no plans to relocate any manufacturing operations overseas. He said GSI’s product is primarily sold in the Midwest and manufacturing will stay in the Midwest.

GSI is rapidly introducing lean into its operations. Training is underway, in the form of monthly workshops involving eight to 15 employees focusing on specific projects. More than 925 employees, 46% of GSI's U.S. workforce, have participated in workshops so far. Clawson said each workshop has improved productivity in its focus area by about 25%. Rising steel prices are putting pressure on the costs of building GSI’s products, so cutting production costs is doubly important.

Read the complete story:

Nov 8, 2007

Traveler's aid

As I've said before, Mike and I recently took a cross-country trip, and I found this example of simple employee improvements at a rest area. Someone had looked at the phone booths as work stations and assembled the most-needed tools there.

Emergency and commonly needed phone numbers were taped up on the left. I should have photographed a different booth, but thought I wouldn't expose some sustainment failures. There was a pocket made from ordinary manila file folders, labeled "pens" at other booths, but either the pens or the notepaper were missing. The next pocket, obviously, is for the note paper. Then there was a map of area codes, and a little set of instructions that I didn't remember to copy down.

Most of us have stood at a phone booth or with a cellphone away from home and needed to call for some sort of help. If there's a phone book, you had to fumble through it. More likely, there's no phone book. So this improvement eliminates an important barrier. Even if you call someone you know, you're likely to need make notes and realize you don't have a pen or paper. The thoughtful employee removes another source of inconvenience and anxiety. You have a phone number, but don't know the area code, or the area code has changed. So you have a handy map right there.

An alert person had been at the gemba and observed the customer -- the "worker" trying to use the phone booth to accomplish a task. Maybe people had repeatedly approached the desk (it was staffed) asking for pens or paper, etc. Maybe the person thought about what people encountered at times when there was no staff at the site.

Simple materials, simple construction processes, and problems eliminated. The next step would be some standard work for keeping the tools on the toolboard, but the abnormal condition is easy to spot. Even the missing pen pocket was obvious because there was a line of four or five phone booths along the wall, tools placed in exactly the same positions in each.

Where do you see little inconveniences in your workplace? How could you just take materials at hand and make an improvement? How could you bring a few other people together to discuss the idea so it would be even better and an appropriate person could add sustaining it to his or her standard work? Improvements don't have to be big or save hundreds of dollars to be valuable.

Nov 4, 2007

Start your week with joy

Conference-going for many people has a pattern: Anticipation, your first impression, inspiration, immersion, euphoria, exhaustion, and evaporation. Admit it - if you attended the recent Association for Manufacturing Excellence conference last week in Chicago, or any other really good conference, your head is bubbling with so many ideas and intentions that you can't keep track, you take lots of notes, hand out lots of business cards and you intend to spend Sunday putting it all in order and making a plan. Then on Monday you will go to work and make a difference. But eventually the euphoria dissipates and you're dragged back into budgets, politics or bad news.

But maybe you are better at handling your conference experience than I am. First, instead of spending Sunday composing follow-ups to all my new friends and thinking about what I will do with my new ideas, I slept 14 hours and woke up at 4:30 in the afternoon. Then I read a magazine and ate some breakfast. Took a shower and washed my hair. In short, completely wasted the day. But the thought of my little blog wasting away without me to feed it made me drag out my laptop. If you can't do the perfect thing, do something leading in the right direction, I thought. There is one thing that remains with me from the conference -- and it's something musical.

On Tuesday, the keynote speaker was Benjamin Zander of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. Doc Hall, Lea Tonkin, Pat Panchak and I missed most of the session as we talked about what Target magazine might bring you in the coming year. Drifting in to the Hilton's huge breakfast room for the last 15 or 20 minutes of his speech, I learned that Zander had promised the audience that they would be singing Beethoven's 9th "Ode to Joy" symphony, in German, by the end of the hour.

Well, it was more than a speech - he strode all over the stage, drew on flip charts, told story after story, confessed his years of practicing his craft in an unenlightened way, and transmitted a zest for life and energy for making one's daily life mean something. He told how he was asked to speak and refused several times because of a schedule that required him to conduct performances both Monday and Tuesday night. He finally agreed because of AME's ability to bring together a thousand people devoted to doing things better.

And yes, we did sing a few lines of the music, in German, after a few tries of not fulfilling all our possibilities, with a real joy. Fascinating!

On Thursday, Matthew Lovejoy told how his company went from complacently thriving to being on the rocks in a few short months in 2001. After turning a deaf ear to lean manufacturing for a number of years, Lovejoy decided that if he had to bet the company on something, he'd bet it on lean. His story was believable and instructive. At the end, a mirrored disco ball descended from the ceiling and began to revolve. The Bee Gees started singing "Staying Alive." I was disappointed that Lovejoy didn't show us any dance moves or perform the song karaoke-style, but he made his point. He also apologized for leaving us with one of those songs that you can't get out of your head.

On Friday, as I walked the three blocks to the Chicago Hilton, I realized that I was humming the Ode to Joy. Relieved that I wasn't hearing "Staying Alive," I realized that joy was a signature of this gathering of people from all over the world who want to kaizen - to make change for the better.

I hope that your Monday starts with the sound of Beethoven -- try Googling something if it's not in your i-pod -- and that you're holding on to the joy of learning and improving for as many hours or days as you can.

Oct 29, 2007

Hello from the Chicago AME conference

This is AME’s big week in Chicago – the AME conference is the best lean conference there is, as far as I’m concerned.

Today I went on a bus trip and tour to TC Industries in Crystal Lake, IL. TCI is a family-owned firm that started out in the business of art pottery and terra cotta building ornament – thus the TC in the company name. During World War II, the company got involved in heat treating steel, with their core knowledge of how to fire pottery at 2000 degrees for hours on end. After the war, the company decided that they were more about thermal processing than pottery, and that the heat treating and metal processing businesses offered a lot more growth than terra cotta.

Besides commercial heat treating of very large flat and round bar materials, TCI makes cutting edges. Not the teeny, tiny tool inserts that machining companies use, but the giant blade edges that earthmoving, mining and construction equipment uses. As a supplier to companies like Caterpillar and John Deere, TCI found its customers were less and less forgiving of long lead times and late orders than they might have been in past decades. Having decided to focus all its marketing and sales on the heavy equipment OEMs, TCI had to respond to customer pull. And since key customers offered to help TCI become the kind of supplier they needed, change began to happen.

The first and hardest thing, as we learned today, was to see that the company was in a crisis and to get people to believe it. After all, we’d all rather think things are OK, or just about to get better, than that we really need to take serious action. But in 2004, some dedicated leaders at the company turned up the heat and started to learn about lean and continuous improvement. (Actually, they had started with Six Sigma and ISO 9000 the year before.)

Today was the first time TCI had hosted a tour like this one, and it was thorough. We started with an orientation and met some of the key lean leaders, including a member of the family that owns the company. The speakers shared what they did – and wished they had done – with absolute candor. In a post as short as this is going to be, I don’t want to single anyone out by name because there were just too many impressive people there.

Remember, they work with big pieces of material, big parts, and big machines, and because of the scale that steel mills operate at, they had no choice but to keep some big inventories of certain materials. They weren’t going to be able to make simple or quick layout changes. Yet they used “shock and awe” and moved six machines in a week in one memorable kaizen.

TCI has done quite a bit of work on 5S (or however many S’s you like to use) and were starting up a pretty robust idea system. Most of the workforce is Spanish-speaking, probably not unusual these days, and TCI has made a consistent practice of using bilingual labeling, standard work instructions, and other communication methods. Interestingly, TCI started working on lean accounting (and accounting for lean) right about when it started the rest of the journey. In my experience, that’s pretty unusual and I think they will see some significant benefits down the road as they don’t get roadblocked by standard cost and trying to explain what happened to P&L as they started looking at inventory as an expense rather than an asset.

I expect to be writing more about TCI in the future, so will make no attempt to tell anything like a full story. It was a great start to the week, and I want to thank TCI for hosting our group. (If you’re here at the conference, there will be another group going to TCI later this week, so check out the opportunity at the registration area.)

Oct 23, 2007

Don't till that field

Traveling from Colorado to Detroit on Route 24 instead of I-80 is a little like going to the gemba. In fact, if you really want to go to a gemba, try tent camping in an Idaho desert state park with the bathrooms closed for the winter or a Kansas campground in the pouring rain. I did a lot of thinking about our whole camping process -- maybe more on that in a future post.

At one stop for gas and restrooms, I found a lean recommendation in the Woodford County News Bulletin's column "RFD News and Views - For Central Illinois Farmers and Rural Dwellers" by Tim Alexander. Bob Frazee of the University of Illinois said that farmers don't need to till soybean fields in the fall after harvesting. In fact, the practice is causing soil erosion in some places.

Frazee said:

Data affirms this by documenting that yields of corn the following season are unaffected by either performing fall tillage or leaving the soybean stubble untouched. Leaving the soybean residue untouched on the soil surface throughout the fall and winter months provides valuable soil protection. Eliminating this fall tillage trip can cut crop production expenses and result in more profit.

He went on to say that this new philosophy adopted by Illinois soybean farmers has resulted in 60 to 75% of soybean fields being left untilled after harvest.

Think about it -- when you see massive equipment dwarfed by immense fields along miles and miles of highway, you can imagine how much fuel is saved by eliminating one pass in the annual process. Then you think about the wear and tear on the farmer's capital equipment. And the someone's time operating the machine along row after row of soybean stubble. (There's some work on running robotic tractors using GPS, but it hasn't reached the market yet.)

Questioning that one practice, conducting the experiments to determine that it amounted to waste -- that it even caused the waste of soil erosion -- can make a world of difference in an industry. Congratulations to Dr. Frazee and the Illinois soybean farmers who found a leaner way to produce a crop.

Oct 18, 2007

Lewis and Clark meet coal fly ash materials

Mandan, ND, was where Lewis and Clark spent their first winter, across the Missouri River from a town of native people. They visited back and forth, traded, and generally had as good a time as possible without cable TV, cellphones and WiFi. There were 45 guys – Sacagawea spent most of on the other side of the river – living in a space about the size of a large workcell.

Now there is a replica of the Fort Mandan with a grizzled historian who looks like Santa Claus in a checked shirt. What I really want to tell you about is the sustainable construction of the visitor center.

In fact, it is billed as “Headwaters Fort Mandan Visitor Center.” Headwaters Resources (NASDAQ:HDWR) says it is “America’s largest manager and marketer of coal combustion products, including fly ash, working with more than 110 power plants nationwide and marketing more than 6 million tons of coal ash annually.” It says it is “committed to sustainable business practices and sustainable products.” That can mean anything, of course, and I’m just looking at their brochure.

The visitor center is a showcase for the use of some of their products, but only incidentally. It does a pretty good job of illuminating the historical context of the fort and the Lewis and Clark expedition. It’s a nice looking building inside and out.

Coal fly ash is the material that goes up the chimney when coal is burned, that has to be captured somehow to keep it out of the air. So what do you do with it then? Headwaters uses it to replace up to 70% of the cement in the building’s concrete, saying it imparts more strength, durability and chemical resistance to the material. (How much of concrete’s volume is made up of the cement?)

The concrete that Headwaters used in Fort Mandan’s visitor center is called FlexCrete aerated concrete. It is one-fifth the weight of ordinary concrete. Air bubbles fill out the volume of the concrete and provide sound and thermal insulation. The brochure says coal fly ash comprises 70% of the volume of FlexCrete. I’m getting confused now about relative volumes of fly ash, other incredients of the cement, and the other ingredients of the concrete, but let’s just say that they’ve got a pretty interesting material that uses up an otherwise wasted combustion byproduct.

The ceiling tiles contain fly ash, as does the artificial stone that covers the exterior walls and the interior fireplace, and the stucco that covers the interior walls. Trails are constructed with a soil cement mixture containing 50% coal fly ash. They even got the carpet manufacturer to use the fly ash in the carpet backing. The concrete floors, sidewalks and parking lot surface are laid on a base layer of coal bottom ash. You might have guessed, but that’s the ash that doesn’t fly up the chimney and has to be shoveled out somehow.

I don’t know how many tons of coal byproducts were used at the visitor center to replace other materials, but ONE TON used conserves the equivalent of an average American’s solid waste landfill content for more than a year. It reduces CO2 emissions equal to two months of driving a car. And it saves enough electricity to power the average American home for 24 days. Considering that Headwaters claims to reuse 6 million tons of the material in a year, that’s better than doing nothing.

If you went deeply enough into the processes used throughout the coal mining, burning, waste disposal and reuse, you’d probably find that Headwaters is only providing a tiny bit of sustainability to the total system, but it’s better than nothing. And it’s a lesson that there are viable businesses to create out of unexpected resources.

Oct 7, 2007

Coeur d'Alene tribal leaders invest in manufacturing

The other day I speculated on ways for Billings MT to expand its economy. Then when the Wilhelm odyssey passed through Coeur D’Alene, ID, I found a story in that city’s local paper about a community that has the right idea.

Last year the Coeur d'Alene Tribe acquired Berg Integrated Systems, a manufacturing company that has earned itself a contract to produce collapsible fuel bladders that can hold up to 210,000 gallons of diesel or aircraft fuel. I never heard of fuel bladders and have no idea what they look like, but apparently they require some pretty high skill levels and technology to make. John Dickson, Berg’s general manager, told the Post Falls Press, "BIS has developed manufacturing technologies for the production of fuel bladders that exist nowhere else in the world." The tribe looks to be able to bring about $400 million to its local membership over the next five years.

Tribal leaders are fully aware that gaming revenues are not real wealth and do not provide the kind of employment that help their members best. Coeur d'Alene Tribe Chairman Chief Allan told the Post Falls Press, “It’s another opportunity for our people to control their own destiny. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe set out with a vision to make a real difference in the lives of our membership and the people of Northern Idaho.” Berg Integrated Systems has about 30 employees, but expects to open about 40 more jobs, paying $15 an hour.

In a February 13, 2007 article, Jack McNeel of “Indian Country Today” reported on the opening of the new Berg plant on the reservation. He said the tribe’s goal was to give workers high-end steel fabrication, welding, blueprint reading and practical application of basic math skills that would last a lifetime. North Idaho College is working with the tribe to train employees.

The main product produced at Berg is a remote-site, integrated expandable shelter platform. It’s a steel structure, 8 feet by 20 feet for easy transportation. The walls expand to 20 feet by 24 feet when positioned on the site. Units from Berg are used as mobile office space by the Oregon National Guard. Offices can include an air conditioning and window package, full lighting, and flooring. ESP systems can be used for medical facilities, water treatment units, executive offices, laboratory facilities, kitchen/dining facilities or security units, all ideal for deployment in emergencies.

Richard Williams, a tribal member employed by BIS, told McNeel, ''It's meant a lot to me, both job- and security-wise.'' Compared to his job at the Coeur d'Alene Casino, Williams said, ''There are more opportunities for promotions here. I started as a laborer and they trained me to weld. I've never welded before except in high school. They recognized my hard work and willingness to stay late, and now are talking about moving me up again. I really like it here because it has room for expansion if you're willing to work.''

The company’s website says it is committed to lean management, and the president and lean manager appear from their published profiles to have just few years of experience. Darren Stuck, the general manager, has some depth of lean experience. He was introduced to lean in 1999, and has studied and practiced it with a passion since then. He co-founded and served as chair of the Inland Northwest Lean Manufacturing Consortium.

I give the leaders of the Coeur d’Alene tribe high marks for believing that high-tech manufacturing can be successful in unexpected places. Community resources like State job development offices and community colleges can be valuable partners in economic development so people can have good jobs without leaving family and friends to hunt for jobs in other places.

Oct 2, 2007

Manufacturers should look at Big Sky country for growth opportunities

Mike and I are on an extended cross-country driving trip, and this is written from the car, driving through Wheatland County, MT. We spent the night in Roundup, in a spacious, newly painted and carpeted room at the America’s Best Value Inn that cost us only $50. Our host assured us that there was working free wireless access. “How can anyone get anything done without it? The router is right across from your window,” she said. She was in touch with customer needs, and value pricing too. At the Busy Bee CafĂ© this morning, I picked up “The Billings Outpost” and caught up on the happenings there.

Billings is the largest city in Montana – or as Chuck Tooley, former Billings mayor, businessman, and the new director of the Urban Institute of the Montana State University Billings, says, the only true urban area in the state. Enrollment growth in the local university is stagnant, but the area vocational-technical colleges have seen 25% growth in the last ten years.

Billings doesn’t have a lot to work with when it comes to increasing employment opportunities. The strategy centers around healthcare, with an eye on the demand for nurses and other health services for aging baby boomers. Retailers like Wal-Mart are among the biggest employers in the town. Except for a mention of two local oil refineries, the awareness of manufacturing seems to be absent. In fact, manufacturing seems to be absent.

Maybe manufacturing presents an unexplored opportunity. What does Billings have to offer? How about a potential source of workers. Agriculture is big in Montana (isn’t everything big in Montana?). People with farming experience are often ideal for manufacturing employment – usually there’s not a farm machine they don’t have an intimate acquaintance with. They have the ability to improve processes with more mechanization. Long work days are also their norm. And family-owned farms don’t pay these days, unless someone has a job outside the farm to bring in some cash. Big agriculture can invest in the biggest most automated equipment, so they can use fewer and fewer people to run things, releasing people for other employment options.

Unemployment is low, but so are wages. That suggests to me that a manufacturing company could offer an improved way of life for people now in low-wage retail and service jobs. Besides that, Montana has gas, oil, and coal. And manufacturing requires power.

Logistics could a problem, however. Rail services are plentiful, built to take cattle and grain to Chicago and points east. I-90 and I-94 join up in Billings, so trucking is convenient. But customers are far away. The high cost of gasoline makes distance a concern when it comes to large heavy items. So you’d have to make high-value small things. Who needs those?

Aerospace OEMs, in boom times right now, need wire harnesses, connectors, fasteners, bathroom door handles and other assorted doodads and doohickeys. Companies like John Deere need parts. And where there’s drilling and digging, there’s a need to make and remanufacture parts in a hurry – just what job shops do.

North Dakota (or was it South Dakota?) started developing aerospace manufacturing a few years ago. Later, when one of the big aircraft companies held a job fair, they were so impressed with the quality of the workforce, they built some new plants locally.

Finding a manufacturing entrepreneur can be unexpected. By chance, I stopped in White Sulphur Springs, looking for warmer clothes, and met Sarah Calhoun at her store, Red Ant Pants – “finally work wear for women.” Sarah designs the pants – the one’s I looked at were olive green canvas -comparable to the tan material Carhartt uses – with red stitching. The workmanship was excellent. She has the pants made in Seattle. We chatted about the apparel industry, and I told her about Kathleen Fasanella’s blog, “Fashion Incubator.” When I said Kathleen’s expertise includes lean manufacturing, Sarah knew what lean was. She’d been to a seminar about it – I thought she said it had been held by the Montana Manufacturers Association, which I can’t find on the web.

She might have said the Montana Manufacturing Center, one of NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership Centers, which seems like one of the more robust MEPs. They have some credible success stories on their website. But the MEPs can’t make manufacturing happen by itself.

As for Billings, I guess I’d suggest that the mayor get in touch with Mayor Graham Richard in Fort Wayne. He understands manufacturing as well as community development. And a tip to any lean manufacturers reading this – Montana offers the chance to bring people into a positive culture without the resistance and suspicion that holds back lean efforts in other places. Besides, it’s a beautiful place full of friendly people. I think you’d find Detroiters and Los Angelenos who’d trade an expensive and crowded place for Big Sky Country.

Sep 24, 2007

Jobs are plentiful in Peoria

I spent most of last week at a conference and exposition in Grand Rapids, MI, put on by SME. One of the booths was Caterpillar's - specifically to recruit people for the hundred engineering and technical job openings they have right now. Not only do they want experienced engineers, but they also have jobs for new grads and internships for college students.

Steve Luthy was trying to buttonhole guys and gals and practically make offers there on the show floor. Jim Reeb, Director of Manufacturing, made a presentation and showed how fast Cat's revenues are growing. Although they manufacture in 66 countries, sometimes as a condition for selling into a country, the greatest part of their production is in North America.

Not only do they have a lot of openings, continued pursuit of efficiency and lean operations has made revenue per employee grow robustly.

Cat went through some labor difficulties a few years back, you might recall. Eventually about half the striking employees came back to work. Some had accepted jobs elsewhere during the strike, and others just stayed out. Since then, according to the guys at Cat, things have been going pretty well.

Reeb stressed the company's commitment to safety and integrity. He told a story of a negotiation to buy a company in Italy. He said that when it came time to sign the contract, the selling party started to talk about changes that just sounded fishy to him. He responded that he'd walk away from the deal before agreeing to what they proposed, and they questioned whether he really had the authority to make the final decision on the deal. He said that he knew that Cat's stand on integrity meant that he could count on management's support if he rejected a deal for an operation that they really wanted to acquire.

So if someone you know needs a job in manufacturing, engineering, logistics or a bunch of other areas, he or she should go to the Cat website and take a look. East Peoria, Decatur and Aurora, Illinois are nice midwestern places to bring up kids. Chicago isn't so far away that you can't have a fun weekend now and then.

It's hard for these sorts of stories to break through the gloomy picture the media presents. And remember, in an election year, everyone wants to blame the other side for anything and promise that they'll fix it -- even if it ain't broken.

Sep 12, 2007

Fatal accident costs Cintas $2.78 million - costs worker his life

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) today proposed $2.78 million in penalties against Ohio-based Cintas Corp. following an inspection into the March 2007 employee death at the Cintas laundry facility in Tulsa, Okla. The employee was killed when he fell into an operating industrial dryer while clearing a jam of wet laundry on a conveyor that carries the laundry from the washer into the dryer.

The facility in Tulsa has 160 employees."Plant management at the Cintas Tulsa laundry facility ignored safety and health rules that could have prevented the death of this employee," said Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Edwin G. Foulke Jr. Forty-two willful, instance-by-instance citations allege violations of the OSHA lockout/tagout standard for the failures to shut down and to lock out power to the equipment before clearing jams, and to train four employees responsible to clear jams that lockout/tagout applies and how to perform the operations. One repeat citation alleges the failure to protect employees from being struck or pinned by the conveyor.

Three serious citations allege the failures to protect employees from falls, to have a qualified person inspect the lockout/tagout procedures and to certify the procedures as required. In a separate case, OSHA today issued five repeat and two serious citations with penalties totaling $117,500 for violations of the lockout/tagout and machine guarding standards found at the Cintas Columbus, Ohio, facility.

OSHA also has opened investigations in Arkansas and Alabama. Washington, an OSHA State Plan state, has issued four citations with proposed fines totaling $13,650, alleging violations for similar hazards at the Yakima Cintas facility. A willful violation is one committed with intentional disregard of the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Act or plain indifference to employee safety or health. A serious violation is one that could cause death or serious physical harm to employees, and the employer knew or should have known of the hazard. Cintas has 15 working days from receipt of the citations to contest the citations and the proposed penalties before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

To add a comment - in a lean facility, not only would employees have been trained, they would be following a safe standard process and the root causes of jams would have been eliminated if at all possible. Safety has to be a high priority in any company wishing to be a lean manufacturer.

And from the Department of Irony...
Scott Farmer, President and CEO of Cintas Corporation accepted the Humanitarian Hall of Fame Award for large corporations for helping the poor.

Cintas has consistently ranked among Fortune's top five Most Admired organizations in its industry sector since 2001, and has topped the diversified outsourcing list for the fourth time.

Cintas ranked among Canada’s best employers in "Report on Business Magazine" attributed to company's culture. (Maybe they do better in Canada.)

From Cintas's own "Workplace Conditions" statement
New Cintas facilities are bright, air-conditioned and high-tech production centers with a number of innovative features to make them more environmentally friendly. Modern facilities also contribute to improved workplace safety. According to 2003 statistics, Cintas' safety record is 34% better than similar sized facilities in the laundry industry. For older facilities, particularly those added through recent acquisitions, capital improvement plans are in place to methodically update sites with new technologies and improvements.

Sep 11, 2007

Got safety?

I'm on my way to writing an article for AME's Target magazine about safety. Stories of early Japanese-aided lean transformation frequently start with a sensei leading a plant manager on a safety walk. Personnel freed up from a manufacturing process are sent on regular safety walks. Respect for people mandates safe conditions for working, as does flow. Accidents and injuries are the worst examples of waste imaginable.

Seems like everybody knows that accidents cost a company money. Guidelines for plant or office safety are easy to find. So why do unsafe working conditions still exist? I'll never forget reading about an accident in a bumper manufacturing operation where two guys were killed when a large press cycled when it wasn't supposed to. Employees had warned managers that the press had been operating improperly. The two guys were new employees who had received only the smallest amount of training. The process seemed to have involved not only hands-in-die operations, but bodies-in-die. There was evidently no machine guarding. A witness said that one moment two people had stood next to the press, and the next moment there were only four legs standing there. There was nothing left of the upper halves of the people.

In another incident, an explosive steam leak occurred in the Ford Rouge plant powerhouse. A few people were killed, and several others horribly burned. Bill Ford was in a meeting in Ford World Headquarters only a few short miles from the Rouge. He stood up and left the meeting for the accident site, ignoring the pleas of the lawyers. At the site, he immediately promised the families of the injured that Ford would do everything possible to help them, and Ford followed through on the promise as far as I know. The plant was shut down and remediated. Bill Ford earned my immediate respect by his actions, but the point remains - why was the accident not prevented? The cause turned out to be something that should not have been allowed to go wrong.

A safety engineer I met told me a story of a company where he was hired as safety officer. He found the most blatant violations. Electrical lines hanging over an aisle at head level. "People know when to duck," was the response when he found the condition. Wiring was unsafe throughout the plant. Unfortunately, the guy who did the wiring was now the plant manager -- not too receptive to the assertion that it was screwed up. In one instance, the operator of a paper guillotine (the name of the machine alone should have given the operator a clue) had circumvented safe operation of it by disabling one of the two-handed controls. The supervisor just shrugged - the guy was one of the most experienced operators, and nothing bad had happened. The story goes on with the inevitable - the guy was suddenly without fingers on one hand.

The safety engineer (who worked the midnight shift) put a report on the plant manager's desk every morning documenting what he had found the night before. He took the precaution of making copies of the reports, not only filing them, but filing them at his home! You guessed it - when he finally confronted the plant manager, he said "What reports?" There were none - they all had been destroyed. At this point, the engineer quit. As soon as he got out of the plant - before he even got home, he called OSHA. What I couldn't figure out was why he stayed there as long as he did.

Back to my article - I've found some awesome material on OSHA's website, but if I could add first-hand experiences from you, the article would be even better. I don't really need horror stories, but I'd like to hear about companies where steady progress was made on eliminating recordable incidents and the savings in cost and human suffering. So if you could contribute something, I'd appreciate it.

Sep 5, 2007

Report from the field - a visit to the ER

I spent about two hours in the emergency room last night - got there at around 11:30 - after my husband reached into the garbage can to pull up the liner that had slipped below the level of too much trash. He got a big gash in his thumb on some broken glass. (Home safety note to self - nag husband to put hazardous items in a cardboard box before putting them in the trash.)

When I drove up to the ER door, valet parking was closed. That meant I had to drop off my husband and a security guard had to explain how I had to take my car to the valet lot and call security to open the gate for me. That meant that either the guard or the receptionist had to repeat the same set of instructions to each driver to arrive. Keeping the valet service available would have eliminated the resulting interruption, confusion and stress to families.

There were maybe 20 non-urgent cases in the waiting room. There is also a whole warren of treatment rooms that were full - one of the waits was for rooms to open up.

Morale seemed fine. People were courteous and competent.

Check-in time wasn't bad. It was about 15-20 minutes before two triage nurses administered a tetanus shot and replaced the hand-held dishtowel (really - it was clean!) with a proper dressing. The second nurse happened to be going through the triage area and the first asked him to throw on a bandage while he went to get the tetanus shot. They teamed up nicely.

Then a long wait. There was a minimum frequency of patient complaints (patients were getting impatient) to the receptionist, however. Maybe the furnishing of the room had an influence, or the generally courteous treatment. As I mentioned, it seemed like the bottleneck was finding treatment rooms. Or changeover time from the release of one patient until the room was ready for the next. Or someone to see the people warehoused in the treatment rooms.

Other causes of congestion in the waiting room:

No standard process for assigning cases to rooms as they opened. The receptionist had her own system that didn't seem to suit a new person coming on shift who was going to escort patients to rooms.

Waiting for transport of expectant moms to the labor and delivery section of the hospital.

Waiting for patients who were visiting the restroom or standing outside when their names came up.

There was a person assigned to help family coming in to find a patient, but that station was at the back of the waiting room. The receptionist had to direct people there.

A long, long walk to the treatment room. If turnover had been faster, fewer rooms would have been needed.

The main bottleneck was likely a shortage of doctors. After we were in a room, we still had to wait about 20 minutes for her to come in, agree that there was a gash in Mike's hand, and assign the sewing to a physician's assistant.

Short waits then followed:

PA had to get to room. PA had to go get suture cart. PA had to go get saline to loosen the bandage that had stuck to wound. PA had to rummage through the cart to find the tools and materials she needed. PA had to set up.

Value added time, finally. PA disinfected wound, numb it up, and place four stitches - she did a nice job. Then she gave instructions for wound care and following up with a family doctor to have stitches removed.

Another wait for "paperwork."

Throughout, there were several apologies for the wait - "It was a really busy night." Along the way, someone let slip that it was always a "busy night." Clearly they know more about demand rate than they claim, and probably have resources geared to something lower, and possibly could have been trained to be more flexible. Can a nurse or PA be certified to treat simple wounds, perhaps? Of course, there's a shortage of those folks too.

All in all, I'd say the hospital gets B or B+ for last night. Wonder if they'd like to know.

Sep 4, 2007

The "multitasking" delusion

As companies cut tens of thousands of jobs, they always say they’ll cut out a similar amount of work. But tell me – do you have more work now than you did five years ago? Can you concentrate on one or two major commitments, or are you on more teams than ever? Does loyalty or ambition make you volunteer for more than you can handle? Reportedly, 45% of us think we’re being asked to work on too many things at once.

I’ve always felt juggling a lot of projects was not a problem – as long as I had someone to hand them off to. Truth be told, it was probably adult ADD and a short attention span that made me much better at starting something up than carrying it out. But that didn’t help the poor people I burdened with the projects I thought should go forward.

What’s the answer? Multitasking, of course. “Multitasking” is a word that originated with computer systems that seemed to be able to get more than one thing done at one time. If you were running accounts receivables, it was a help to be able to produce sales reports as well, and the old computers couldn’t serve more than one client. Then they could. But the dirty little secret is that computers still do only one thing at a time. They’re just really good at switching without forgetting where they were when they go back to the job that was interrupted.

Studies at University of Michigan, MIT, UC Irvine, and NASA, however, have shown that humans are pretty lousy at making rapid shifts in attention, especially when thinking is required. A white paper published this year by Herman Miller says that multitasking isn’t getting more work done – it’s actually been shown to reduce the amount of productive work a person can do. And it’s being blames for stress-related illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, depression and anxiety, further reducing our ability to get stuff done.

Social effects are noticeable too. New Ford boss Alan Mulally forbids even top execs to bring Blackberrys to meetings. Watching somebody texting away while you’re trying to carry on a discussion can be pretty annoying. Interestingly enough, the multitasker thinks he or she is doing something important, while others in the room think the multitasker is rude. Until they get a text message THEY think is important, that is.

Take a look at the report for yourself – it’s worth it. The next time you get asked to do more with less, brandish it about and see if it does you any good. Delusions are hard to break, though.

See “The siren song of multitasking” at

Photo credit:

Aug 20, 2007

Uncle Stencil's blacksmith shop

Last week I went to a reunion of my mother’s side of my family. The blog was neglected. I didn’t think the family stories and songfests had yielded any lean observations, but I was in for a surprise.

Mom’s family, the Hytreks, had been homesteaders in The-middle-of-nowhere, Nebraska, in the 1880s. Her father, John, was first-generation American, and carried on the family farm. John’s brother Stanislaus, called Stencil for no apparent reason, moved to town to care for their mother who needed to be nearer the doctor.

Reminiscing about when they were kids on the farm, my mother and her sister and brothers talked about a haystacker their uncle had invented and patented. They remembered the machine, and my uncle Andy, who still lives on the original farm, said that there was a model of it in a spare room in his house.

Stencil worked as a blacksmith in town, and worked on the farm when he could. When the brothers were in their mid-20s in 1916, there were not enough children yet to help with the farm work, and no ready supply of hired labor. Horses were about their only power source, and they had no fancy equipment or money to buy it. They needed to increase productivity. Stencil had no more than a few years of education, but had an understanding of how machines worked. His tinkering in the blacksmith shop yielded some important labor-saving devices.

I thought I’d see how easy it would be to look up the patents, so I plugged “patent search” into Google, and what do you know? Google has a beta patent search engine now. All I had to do was search on “Hytrek” and found three patents, with full downloadable PDFs available for free.

In August 1916, Stencil submitted a patent application for a wagon loader, not a haystacker. Clearly, the men were getting tired of lifting hay into a wagon, or manure into a spreader. With Stencil’s invention, all you had to do was to get it onto a ground-level platform, then a chain-driven lift would pick up the platform, and tip it over into the wagon.

Pictured: The improved loader

But you still had to get the stuff to the platform. Stencil now invented a “scraper,” with tines that would get under whatever had to be moved and push it along to the loader. When the scraper came near the platform, its tines would be lowered slightly, dig into the ground and allow the rest of the load to be levered up and dropped on the loader platform. A patent application for the scraper was submitted in November of 1916.

Stencil still wasn’t satisfied, and submitted a third application in 1917 with improvements to the loader that made it easier to adjust it to different wagon heights and easier to dump. All three patents were granted, #1,196,364, #1,206,709, and #1,249,100. He seems to have hired a draftsman and an attorney to create the applications. I doubt he earned any big money, but he did make an improvement in his family’s ability to produce hay and fertilize the fields.

He said in the applications that the devices were meant to be simple, and easy and inexpensive to manufacture, yet efficient and durable in use. Remember, he was going to have to make as well as use this device, and there wasn’t going to be much money around for materials and production equipment.

Well, there is a point to this story. You don’t need a big-time engineer to develop a simple and useful machine to improve productivity on the farm or in the plant. Someone with a basic education, the patience to understand a problem, can also come up with a solution. It might be better with a team – I imagine John and Stencil discussing the problems of getting hay harvested and in from the field and tossing ideas around for a way to do it better.

You might just need the equivalent of Uncle Stencil’s blacksmith shop, where employees can go to prototype and fabricate devices to load and unload machines, mistake-proof processes, and make work easier. Toyota uses simple, adaptable machines, often devised by the plant-floor folks, and has proved the value of the practice. Think about it.

Jul 31, 2007

Manufacturing jobs in Michigan

At a meeting last week of SME chapter leaders and student chapter faculty advisors, one subject of discussion was Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s constant refrain that there are no manufacturing jobs here. In fact, I’ve been saying that laid-off engineers and skilled workers ought to take a weekend trip to Alabama or Georgia to see if they like it there.

Mostafa Mehrabi of University of Detroit-Mercy said that what he needed were statistics. I offered to chase some down. After all, most of us have been reacting to anecdotal evidence. So I took a look at two things – the Detroit News want-ads and the Michigan Department of Labor employment projections.

Realistically, there are flaws in the data. We don’t know whether the jobs open now pay as much as the UAW-negotiated wages. I studied the methodology of the US Census Department’s employment projections a couple of years ago. The first thing we know about forecasts is that they are always wrong. The projections take into account retirements and people leaving a job classification, with some sophisticated modeling of average attrition of distinct age cohorts. Unfortunately, they build up each projection from a number of individual job titles, some of which represent a small number of jobs. A system is more predictable than any of its parts, so when they total up a lot of little job classes, they introduce a lot of error into the mix. The margin of error for any of the small groups can be up to 20%. So let’s say there’s a possible average of 10% an overly optimistic projection.

As for one or two weeks’ study of one paper’s job ads, well, that doesn’t include jobs filled by word of mouth, internal postings or online advertising.

Openings have often been hard to fill, according to employers and workforce development people I’ve spoken to. That’s not because there is a shortage of workers. It’s because there’s a shortage of people with the right skills. For four-year and two-year colleges, that’s good news. You can’t just walk into the employment office of a factory the day after graduation from high school and get a job paying $20 an hour. (When I was married to an autoworker in the early 70s, he made twice what I could make as a college graduate with a degree in business.)

The other reason jobs are hard to fill is that they all require extensive experience. I can understand that. But that means employers need to look at their responsibilities to offer apprenticeships, internships and educational assistance. There’s the argument that you end up training somebody who immediately goes on to work for somebody else. Sometimes that’s true. But nobody complains about hiring someone that another employer trained. And it might not be a bad idea to compare executive salaries to what you’re paying factory workers or people just entering the workforce.

OK, what about the data I promised you? Here’s the Detroit News:

I noticed something else in this week’s paper. There are at least two companies advertising for a bunch of engineering, technician and skilled trades aerospace jobs. Must be a few companies taking advantage of the local high-skilled workforce. The market can behave in wondrous ways.

Now for the state departments of labor projections. I used Michigan, then added Indiana, Kentucky and Florida for comparison. No great amount of thought went into selecting states for comparison. I could have done more, but the site I used has a tedious download method. I selected a number of engineering, technician and production job titles, again, unscientifically. Then I totaled the numbers to keep from including 11 pages of data, so allow for compounding of error. (If you want the complete spreadsheet, email me at karenwilhelm[at] The projections are based on data collected every two years until 2004, so declines after 2001 are included. However you read them, the numbers say Michigan has a lot of job opportunities coming. You’re looking at annual job openings, the number available each year through 2014.

So maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to tell everyone to train for “technology,” meaning IT, jobs. There’s plenty of manufacturing technology work to go around.

Jul 18, 2007

Remember falling in love?

Lately my pals in our SME chapter have been talking about education, scholarships and what we could do to bridge the gap between the workplace and the school. In fact, Natalie Lowell has pulled together a team of sponsors, members, educators and students for a Careers in Technology event in Grand Rapids in September. The 400 spots for students to participate filled up fast.

This started me thinking about why people become engineers or technicians. Education is about the joy of learning, and people becoming able to accomplish difficult things. It’s about seeing people at work who really know what they’re doing, and knowing that you helped make that happen.

But, dear readers, a lot of you got hooked on things technical at some magic moment in your life. When did you first feel that you’d found something cool and thought, “I want to do that.” It might have been seeing a brand new part come out of a machine, discovering the elegance of math or science, the beauty of design. It might have been building something in the garage or in shop class, fixing your bike or car, or solving a problem with your computer. Who was with you? Where were you? How old were you? How were you inspired to pursue your education or career?

Or think about a time when you influenced a student, your son or daughter, a boy scout or girl scout, to get excited about math, science, engineering or manufacturing, how things are made, or what engineers do. Was this a kid who just needed a bit of direction? Was it a kid struggling to understand a concept in math, science or technology, and you were able to help him or her understand it? Were you able to find a student an internship that really turned him or her on? How did you inspire that young person? What did you say, or show them? What did you feel at that moment?

Natalie told me about taking shop class in school as an elective. She stood in front of a wood lathe, tool in hand, ready to start turning a bowl. She felt a little scared. But she went to work, and when she finished that bowl she was hooked on machines. It was completely unlike what she felt about sewing a shirt in home ec.

My husband Mike got his ticket out of the warehouse to the computer room by convincing the hiring manager that he liked solving problems. Our house had been invaded by a mouse, and rather than going to a hardware store for a trap, he decided that he’d cobble together a live trap himself. I think he used a cardboard box, a tined object that might have been an angel food cake cutter and the spring mechanism from an ordinary mousetrap. Night after night, the mouse beat the closing of the cage, but Mike kept adjusting his mechanism. Finally the mouse was caught. Sadly, he was killed by the door closing on his spine.

As for a student’s joy, I felt it once when my son was about 16. He was helping a friend fix his car sound system, and loped through the living room where I was reading, on his way to the driveway from the basement. He didn’t stop, just said, “I love fixing things!” as he breezed through.

In the midst of this inquiry, I picked up the June 25, 2007 issue of the New Yorker and found myself reading about Cecil Belmond, a structural engineer and trustee of Arup, an international engineering firm based in London. After his family moved to Nigeria from Sri Lanka, he enrolled in the university. “I learned a lot about three-dimensional thinking in Nigeria,” he told David Owen. “I had a Senegalese maths professor who put pictures in my head that I hadn’t had before. It was just stunning. Something was triggered, and I felt a new spatial awareness.”

I’m not a good example. My dad tried to be Mr. Wizard to my sisters and me and I was always profoundly uninterested in why the moon lights up or why the sky is blue. Even making nylon spin itself out of a beaker of stuff failed to impress me. Sorry. Much later, he advised me not to become an engineer – not because he’d figured out that I didn’t care much, but because, “Nobody likes a lady chemist.”

I did have a glimmering once. I was working for the summer for a family friend who owned a machine shop. I was so bored after I finished up the small amount of office work there was, and asked if I could work in the shop. That was back when a person had to turn the cranks on the lathe. One product he produced was a stainless steel die that had soft-drink logos engraved in high relief. The dies were mounted in a wheel, heated, and used to brand the logos in the cork inside the bottle caps. It was finicky work to cut the metal away from the design with a pantograph engraver. I had to do both plunge cuts and cuts that entered from the edge of the piece. Just a tiny bit too much force or speed and the engraving tool would break, and they got dull pretty fast.

Eventually I might find myself sitting and waiting for a machinist to come and sharpen my cutting tools for me. Then came the day when my boss concluded he might as well just show me how to do the sharpening on the grinding wheel that was in the same room as the engraver. I was intrigued to learn that the tool actually had a spiral shape to it, and the tip was cut off at just the right angle. When I actually got my first tool sharpened right, I felt pretty good. Not good enough to make manufacturing a career.

Still, in more than 20 years working with people in manufacturing, publishing things they could use to do their work better, I’ve never gotten tired of hearing their stories. So, what’s yours?
Copyright @ 2005-2014 by Karen Wilhelm