Change has sprouted

May 27th, 2007

I knew nothing about manufacturing or business when I came to Acme, so I heave learned all my notions of the proper way to do things from influences within the company. Any time I point out something that is not being done the right way, there is a discrepancy between theory and practice in Acme.

Now the plant manager is pushing to close that gap. One of the nice theories that we recently finished detailing says that Acme should keep no finished product on hand except those with an overall steady, high demand. Keeping these tools in stock will allow same-day shipment of orders, even large orders. All other product should be built to order, which will result in a longer lead time.

Half of this theory went into practice without a hitch. Suddenly we had piles of our high-volume product sitting in shipping, where there was no room for them because we still had plenty-plenty of our other products in the same space. The strategy and geography of storing product in shipping has been woefully confused for as long as I’ve known it, and plans have been in the works to make improvements. Then one day the plant manager came out to shipping and jostled the cart when he told P. B., the shipping manager, to include space in his plans for only the high-volume products.

This is radical. From a traditional perspective, this is the tail wagging the dog. An enlightened customer perspective may see nothing out of place in the last function of the factory dictating what it will allow the production area of the factory to produce, but it is heterodoxy to the old school. Production and planning build product based on component availability. There may be orders for product A and no order for product B; but if you have no components for A and you do have components for B, than you obviously should build B now while you can so that you do not wind up with orders for A and B at the same time and not enough capacity to build both at once.

This makes a certain amount of sense, and if you offered only products A and B it might even work. But when you have a huge range of products for sale, building in hope of future orders means that you use up in B components that you could have put in orders for C, while hogging machine capacity that could have been used to produce parts for sold product for Line 3 — but that is not your production line or your responsibility, so (to be polite) you don’t care about them.

After all, your first priority is to build a number of units equal to or greater than your “takt” number, the number you are supposed to build each day in order to meet the goal number for the month. This goal is determined at the beginning of the month and is projected. Whatever customer orders are on the books are taken into account, of course, but a large percentage of the orders that will be due in the month are placed near the end of the month, when marketing starts offering sweeter promos so they can make their monthly goal.

Note that the takt number is in units, not specific model numbers, so that building 5 of tool B is measured equivalent to building 5 of tool A.

Many people, including my replacment as the Lean department’s errand boy, seem to think that level-loaded production (or “building to takt”) is a tool of Lean production. It is not. It is a crutch for Lean production. True takt is customer demand divided by available time, which is a Lean tool, but in our implementation takt is projected demand divided by available time. It is a device to spread the work out so you are not building 500 units today and 2 tomorrow. Ideally, though, your production would be capable of doing just that–producing however many the customer wanted at a given moment in time, and not a single unit more. Monthly takt based on a projection of customer orders is a concession physical realities.

Since takt is meant to be customer demand divided by units of time (one day, at Acme), a measurement called Daily Schedule Adherence keeps track of how close to takt production actually ran. Build too few, DSA goes down; build too many, DSA goes down. When takt is based on a projection, DSA is close to useless, but you can make it even more irrelevant if you measure the daily adherence to what the planners said they could accomplish at the beginning of the day.

I said I could build 2. I built 2. My DSA is 100%. The customers wanted 300; who cares? I measured well.

I said I could build 700. I built 700. There are only orders for 20. Who cares? I measured well.

Evidently, this is at least the perception of DSA that our planning and production department has had. The plant manager asked my former boss, the Lean leader, to straighten everyone out, and now the factory is filled with furious faces, bitter words, and sometimes loud arguments. What? DSA is to be measured against takt? But I can’t build that many tools–I don’t have the parts!

But it is not about what the planners are able to do, or what production is able to do, or what parts are in stock. It is about what the customer who pays money wants to get. If we cannot meet that demand, let the record show that we cannot. A failure should show as a failure, not as succesfully meeting our goal to deliver what nobody wanted.

On top of that, the management has also had the gall to say that production cannot have more parts if the computer system shows that they have more than enough already. It is recognized by all that the computer system will frequently be wrong, but one camp says that is the way it works and the other camp says that needs to be fixed. Well, it is harder to fix than one would think–but that is another long story. I hate our computer system.

All together, these changes make life very difficult for a section of the workforce at Acme, and our part in shipping has not yet come into play. Once we have our area overhauled, we are to refuse tools for which there are no orders. We are to send them back to assembly to be torn down into components and restocked.

Yes, change has sprouted at Acme, but it remains to be seen if it can grow in such unfriendly conditions. I think there are planners here who will either have aneurysms or quit.

The Good Ol' Boys

May 16th, 2007

I mentioned in my previous posts the planners and leaders who feel that it is normal to work overtime. They are the ones who, without having any authority over me, could drive me to work long hours. But they are also the ones who convinced me not to work so many, although I may forget the lesson.

We had a production manager who required the presence of these planners and supervisors at a daily meeting every morning to discuss what was likely to go wrong in the coming day. That production manager left the company and has not yet been replaced. As much as the man was scoffed, things have not gone as well since his departure.

On the morning of my epiphany, a planner for our most backlogged line of products (by value), needing parts, began shouting to the effect “We have needed these parts for weeks and nobody will tell us when we will get some! I know the problem isn’t solved yet but at least give us a guess! We need to plan the line, we need to have some kind of idea when we will get these! Just give us dates! Please give us some dates! I’m begging you, just give us some dates!”

He did not give up the theme all at once, but returned to it several times. A little later, during the discussion of some other parts that were once again in trouble, another supervisor chimed in, “For crying out loud! Look around the room, look at the salaries here! We have wasted more money spending all this time talking about these parts than those little parts are even worth!”

As we began the month of May, the fill-in for our missing production manager noted that our performance in the last months had been so abysmal, we were jeopardizing the Memorial Day holiday at the end of the month. His outrage was evident. His disgust and anger have been in evidence all month. But we are still on track for posting the holiday and requiring the hourly workers to come in and compensate for the miserable job done planning and supplying parts.

There are real difficulties involved in planning. Corporate policies limit the choice of suppliers, especially favoring cheap overseas sources, which may be cheaper up front but can also be delayed by pugnacious Customs officials. Even when their quality is impeccable and Customs does not interfere, the time it takes to deliver goods from global distances means that if we have unexpected demand, it can easily take a month for the supplier to respond. At least, without expensive expediting.

I do not know what the coporate requirements are for our suppliers, but we have clear repeat offenders for quality and delivery issues, and those suppliers should simply be dispensed with. The part may become more expensive, and thus the tool more expensive, but if we deliver the tool to the customer on time, that will improve our sales. And we could save a lot of “friction” by cutting out the constant agonizing juggling of priorities and availabilities.

Some of the persons involved simply need to be fired. Anyone who is known by peers and superiors and subordinates as a liar should not retain a job.

This is the set of people who will tell me I am getting paid to do the same thing–to work overtime, to cut corners and pull strings and lash out at those people who have made it impossible for me to meet my goals. They are the people who know how we used to do it, how it was even more barbaric in its treatment of employees but, supposedly, also more effective. They are the people who inspire my feelings of guilt for not managing all the responsibilities thrown at me.

These are the people destroying American manufacturing. Rather than trying to compensate for all the problems, we need to openly confess them, to discuss them baldly and comprehensively and make the problem evident in its grotesque mass and ugly details. Then we need to find some way to slay these monsters. This sounds idealistic; granted, it will never be accomplished fully. But this is effectively what the customer is doing and will always do. The customer may never know the details of the problems we face, but they don’t care. We are a middleman in the process of converting raw materials into their desired product, and they are essentially demanding that our suppliers do a better job so that the middleman in our function can do a better job. The customer will get that, and we need to still be there between our suppliers and the customers when that happens.