Jul 26, 2012

Heat wave should not cause harm to employees

Manufacturing leaders who don’t often visit factory and distribution facilities may be ignoring a serious safety hazard. And it's one that can get them in trouble. An employer has a general duty under OSHA to provide a work place free of recognized hazards, which includes excessive heat. And an employer that claims to be lean implicitly promises to respect employees, not to enclose them in an inferno.

Besides the respect due to workers, poor working conditions come at a cost. Absenteeism and lagging production are just surface issues. Workers overcome by heat need immediate medical treatment, a risk to their health and an increase of health care costs. Heat-induced illness also causes interrupted production, perhaps higher insurance rates, and belongs in OSHA safety records. In a union shop, poor working conditions can result in work stoppages and serious conflict.

The NIOSH website of the Center for Disease Control website is pretty clear about criteria and consequences. I'm quoting pretty closely, because a manager in an air conditioned office may not look at working in a heat wave this way:

  • During unusually hot weather conditions lasting longer than two days, the number of heat illnesses usually increases. Heat stroke, heat exhaustion, fainting, fatigue send workers to the hospital or home.
  • Some causes are body fluid deficit, loss of appetite, buildup of heat in living and work areas, and breakdown of air-conditioning equipment. It is advisable to adhere to preventive measures during hot spells and to avoid unnecessary or unusual stressful activity.
  • Heat promotes accidents due to the slipperiness of sweaty palms, dizziness, or the fogging of safety glasses.  
  • Working in heat lowers the mental alertness and physical performance of an individual. Increased body temperature and physical discomfort promote irritability, anger, and other emotional states which sometimes cause workers to overlook safety procedures or to divert attention from hazardous tasks.
  • Many industries have attempted to reduce the hazards of heat stress by introducing engineering controls, training workers in the recognition and prevention of heat stress, and implementing work-rest cycles. 
  • The amount of heat produced during hard, steady work is much higher than that produced during intermittent or light work. Therefore, one way of reducing the potential for heat stress is to make the job easier or lessen its duration by providing adequate rest time. 
  • Mechanization of work procedures can isolate workers from heat sources (perhaps in an air-conditioned booth) and increase overall productivity by decreasing the time needed for rest. 
  • Another approach to reducing the level of heat stress is the use of engineering controls which include ventilation and heat shielding.

John Holmquist, blogger at the Michigan Employment Law Connection, also reminds us that it is only a matter of time before we hear of employees being disciplined for complaining in Facebook about heat at work and the employer’s unwillingness to do anything about it. The NLRB has supported employees making negative social media posts, and even employee action like walking off the job when safety hazards are not addressed.

It can be worse than just a mention on Facebook, witness Amazon’s embarrassing position when newspapers reported that fulfillment center employees in several U.S. cities were expected to reach high production goals in sweltering conditions. The company has since spent $52 million [corrected from $52 on Aug 1, 2012] on air conditioning for those facilities. If they had done it sooner, they’d be hailed as enlightened instead of hardhearted. 

Jul 14, 2012

A customer's view of waste: another long story

Weeks ago, maybe months now, a cable guy worked on the thing where our underground connections go. He left the box open, and we thought he’d be back the next day, or he had perhaps just forgotten it. Mike tried to close it, but it wouldn’t budge. After waiting for a really long time, I thought I’d better call the cable company and report it.

Comcast is our cable provider, so I called them. A reasonable amount of time on hold, if there is any reasonable time to be on hold, and a polite rep took my report and said someone would be out the next day. (Later Mike said I should have called Ameritech because it was their name on the box -- wasting my own time for not looking at the box for information before calling them.)

True enough, the cable guy came, looked, and talked to me: It wasn’t Comcast’s box. It belonged to WOW, who had bought Ameritech's cable delivery business in our area. He told me he tried to close the box, but the thing inside was too big. 

I didn’t want to waste another piece of my life calling another company, but did anyway. I was optimistic about WOW, having heard CEO Colleen Abdoullah speak at an AME conference about outstanding customer service. Uh oh, not so. First, the phone menu actually lacked any option for a service request. I tried the old trick of hitting zero to get an operator, but no luck there. I decided I just had to connect to a sales rep and see if they could handle something outside their functional area. Well, they could do that. The woman took the report and said there would be a guy out the next day.

WOW. The WOW cable guy looked at the box. Then he said that WOW knew that it was sitting like this. It happens that they installed a gadget that was bigger than the box. So they would have to come back and put in a bigger box. That was many weeks ago. Well, it’s not my cable service that’s going to go out when water got into something electrical or electronic. The lawn service has been getting grass inside it. About time for a mouse to start nesting there. Or the bees that were colonizing my mailbox.

Let’s look at the unnecessary waste here. Several people in the neighborhood have stopped to do a good deed and try to close the box. I made two phone calls, wasting my time and the time that WOW and Comcast were paying their customer service and sales reps for. The service divisions of both companies had to schedule service calls, pay for the gas and the service guys’ time, plus our time getting the story from them. The box could be damaged by the weather. In any case, the installers will have to clean it out when they finally get here.

How come they didn’t know before they installed the new device that the receptacles in our neighborhood weren’t big enough? Seems like their database ought to have that among the details of location, age, and so on, of their equipment.

Isn’t it just as easy to switch the boxes now as later? Can’t the scheduling process handle that? Are they trying to minimize miles by batching the installation of the new boxes? Is that a cause of all the unplanned waste?

I doubt that financial reports will reveal this extra cost. If the right people were at the dispatch yard or the call center, riding along on a route occasionally, or listening to the service and call center reps, they could agree to a better process. If they were accustomed to lean thinking.

Till then, we live with the irritating “what’s wrong with this picture?” mental alert every time we catch sight of this thing, and think a little less of WOW as a company. 

Jul 4, 2012

Fireworks at the gemba

Seeing fireworks from a distance is like managing from your office.

Our city held its fireworks display last night, not too far from my house. I'm not attracted to huge throngs of people, and by 10:15 pm, I'm usually in bed with my book. I couldn't see them, but the explosions were rattling my windows. 

I can choose to hear and feel the fireworks from down the road, look at pictures on the local news website, or watch them on YouTube, perhaps,

But when you are at the park, lying on your blanket under the bursts of light and color, the ground shaking with the blasts, your hands over your ears, going "Ooooh" and "Wow!" it's a completely different matter. 

So is being at the gemba. You hear the machines, feel the impact when the press meets the die or the cutting tool winds the metal off the workpiece, feel the heat of forging or heat treating.Your sense of smell, perhaps below your consciousness, informs you of something overheating, fumes that should be exhausted, grease that should be cleaned, if conditions are in need of improvement. You are immersed in the experience, from feeling the floor beneath you as you walk, the activity 360 degrees around you, cranes above you, whether the illumination is adequate, too bright, or murky. 

You can answer or ask a question the moment the opportunity arises. Does the employee or manager know about the process as a whole or the operation in front of you? Is there enthusiasm and confidence, or hesitation? You see the faces of the employees: concentrating, smiling, or scowling. 

If you're miles away, you can get detailed real-time reporting on your new "dashboard" or get weekly or monthly "numbers." You can call or skype somebody, or even get a live video feed if you want.

If you're getting trained, you can read a book, go through a simulation, do some online learning, watch videos.

If you are in IT or engineering, you can talk to people, work to specifications, and test, test, test.

If you are in HR, you can collect performance evaluations, train people, and interview new hires or departing employees.

But you don't really get it if you're not THERE!

It's a choice. Be surrounded by the drama and excitement of the Fourth of July fireworks, or stay home, feel an occasional "boom," and listen to your windows rattle while you focus on something else. If it's your business, you need to be there -- at the gemba.

Jul 2, 2012

Thinking about starting a company blog? Rob Olney shows how to do it right.

Ever feel like everybody has a blog, and you should get one too? Well, if you do want to start blogging, do it right. How? Let’s go-and-see…

ETM Manufacturing has been fabricating and machining sheet metal and assembling products for its customers for more than 40 years. It aims to have a customer centric culture, and CEO Rob Olney’s blog demonstrates how that culture operates daily. When I look at Rob’s blog, I see these qualities:

Informal: Rob tells you a story in his own words. No corporate-speak. No stilted phrases.

Personal and emotional: Words and phrases like “stunned,” “shocked,” and “We had a scare the other day…” humanize ETM. When we care about our work, we feel the same emotions, and these glimpses can help us feel a connection with Rob and his team. (Some research says that triggering these feelings releases oxytocin in the brain. It’s been called the “trust hormone.” Scientific American, To trust or not to trust)

Smart: Rob tells a story about deciding whether to bring powder coating in-house. It spells out costs and alternatives, and how the ETM team worked with a customer to make it feasible. Although it’s a breakeven proposition, it’s the right decision because it increases process velocity as the part moves between customer and supplier. Sharing the thinking with blog readers shows a business decision that another company might not make. In addition, because employees often don’t know the dollars and cents analysis behind a decision, laying it all on the table makes them smarter too.

Constantly seeking improvement: Rob says, “For the first time, I saw through Jim (Womack)’s perspective the waste in our quoting and job release processes.  We take pride in 24 hour turns for any type of quote, but Jim had me see that 24 hours may not be valuable to the customer.  Two hours might be valuable on one quote and two weeks might be valuable on another quote.”

Partner attitude: As a customer or supplier, I would feel ETM is interested in making my company competitive and help me improve my product and process when I read, “An enclosure’s cover is getting scratched during the removal, storage or replacement processes… Keith’s solution was a 3M protective sheet to wrap the top enclosure... This is not a bad idea, but the lean thinker in me sees all the waste… A better solution came from Rich, our salesman.  Why not use returnable packaging between Keith’s company and our company?  We would build wood boxes with foam inside for each enclosure…”

So much is revealed in one little story: Rich is engaged with the customer, understands waste, and knows the processes involved. Rob knows an improvement opportunity when he sees one.  Rob gives Rich credit for his idea. And ETM takes responsibility for making the returnable boxes, which now become kanbans and produce all sorts of other savings.

Confident: In the story about the enclosure cover, Rob doesn’t neglect the sell, however soft it is… "You probably can think of several other solutions… you, me, and Keith’s end user don’t want to pay for waste…Once we adopt this customer attitude to our approach as suppliers, new opportunities always open up to help reduce waste and increase value.”

Available and helpful: “We have started working with a select group of customers to dive deeper into supply chain partnerships…We’ve found that those partnerships require a lot of training and process improvement work… customers who are searching for deeper, more integrated approach will be supported by our dedicated sales force.” (This post also announced that ETM has hired new salespeople, and how that can benefit you as a customer.)

Inclusive: Rob talks about people at ETM and customer companies, always by name -- Rich, Ed, Shawn, Kerrie-Ann. The team is the center of the story.

Friendly: I really feel Rob’s openness and connection with his team and customers.

Humble: “I used to think… Now, I know better.”

Direct: Whether it reveals a weakness or a problem with his company -- which of course he and his team are working to correct -- Rob tells it like it is.

Persistent: Rob blogs about once a week, which I think is about right. (I’ve been called out on not blogging often enough, and I can tell you how hard it is.)

I could go on about ETM’s website, Twitter feed, news releases, photo gallery, LinkedIn company page, YouTube channel, and networking activities with other manufacturers in the region. But you get the picture, and can explore these on your own.

So inside the social media buzzwords, you can use these new tools to share how your company works... and who doesn't want to read a story?

Copyright @ 2005-2014 by Karen Wilhelm