I was recently thinking about the problem of empowering front-line employees in a regulated environment.
It is extremely hard to do. There are layers of approvals and complex change control documentation that gets in the way. On top of that, there is usually a division of walls between manufacturing and the support departments they need to create change.
Even in less-regulated industries, the division of departments creates all kinds of challenges for operators to participate in continuous improvement. Tooling, purchasing, quality, scheduling, maintenance, and other departments could be buildings and parking lots away from where the workers need help.
How is an everyday font-line employee supposed to overcome these challenges?
The practical answer is that they can’t. They won’t.
If manufacturing is truly going to be empowered to make change, there’s a radical change that has to precede it. It is perhaps best articulated in the book Lean Thinking.
“The old-fashioned and destructive distinction between the office (where people work with their minds) and the plant (where people work with their hands) is eliminated… The lean enterprise groups the product manager, the parts buyer, the manufacturing engineer, and the production scheduler in the team area immediately next to the actual production equipment…” (p. 59).
This change is quite a radical one: I’m suggesting that the walls between your departments may have to be torn down in order for collaboration and problem solving to flow without resistance.
It’s perhaps no surprise then that when asked about the single most important change made at Fastcap, Paul Akers said it was being personally present on the shop floor and tearing down the walls.
The whole point is to get your supporting players in the same space as the people doing the real value-adding work every day. When you do this the benefits are extraordinary.
1. Supporting Players Get First-Hand Experience Of Manufacturing Challenges Every Day
Instead of fixing problems through email or hearing second-hand information about a problem over the phone, your supporting players will experience manufacturing every day. This means they will know the true condition of your operations. Problems will be less hidden. They will also be more clear. The advantages of this are massive.
2. Accelerated New Hire And Long Term Education
By placing your engineers, buyers, scheduler, and managers in the center of manufacturing action they are almost guaranteed a daily education. This education accelerates onboarding for new supporting players and adds to their overall career development.
3. Immediate Support For Manufacturing
Placing all essential supporting players in the same space as manufacturing means that manufacturing personnel will get immediate support. It communicates a genuine “manufacturing first” priority throughout the entire organization. If there’s a problem in production, it’s everyone’s problem.
4. Faster And More Effective Problem Solving
Tearing down the walls allows for rapid and clear communication. Without this it can take three phone calls, two walks, and four hallway meetings just to get 3-4 people all on the same page. This is a huge waste of human time. It’s better and faster to simply keep essential stakeholders in manufacturing to begin with.
5. More Successful Design Transfers
The close proximity of supporting engineers, buyers, etc. in manufacturing means that the team as a whole has a much more intimate understanding of manufacturing processes. Consequentially, this enables the team to transfer new designs more effectively to production. No more “throwing it over the wall!”
Tear Down The Walls
The intangible benefits of on-demand teamwork and a priority for manufacturing are too numerous to count.
Perhaps you’re not in a position to tear down physical walls. If that’s you, that’s okay. You can still make a point to plant yourself inside manufacturing as often as possible.
When I worked as the General Manager of a medical device division I frequently grabbed my laptop and plopped myself down in the middle of manufacturing.
Maybe you even make a lean desk on wheels and go mobile.
But if you’re tired of poor collaboration and lackluster support for manufacturing, do something more radical.
Do what lean companies do.
Grab a sledgehammer and start tearing down some walls!