A Blockage in the Waste Flow

At the recent Agile Staffordshire meeting on Kanban http://www.meetup.com/Agile-Staffordshire/events/220533872/ the subject of ‘waste’ was discussed. It reminded me of another story:

Kanban is a scheduling system, designed at Toyota. Cards attached to a notice-board model the passage of production items through the manufacturing process. ‘Waste’ occurs when a backlog of cards start to build up anywhere on the board. Workers are responsible for ‘pull’ing the next unit of work by picking up the next scheduled card. The idea of ‘pull’ was closely allied to the concept of ‘Just in Time Manufacturing’ that was giving Japan a lead over US and European motor manufacturers, leading to efficiency drives and fuelling 1980s industrial unrest in the British motor trade.

Across UK industry, ‘The bosses’ and the unions were in an uneasy cease-fire that could tip into conflict over a ‘brother’ spending more than 5 minutes in the toilet or a manager speaking too harshly to a worker who had made an obscene remark to his secretary as they walked across the shop floor. It was the time of ‘one out, all out’ as unions flexed their muscles in preparation for the class war they saw ahead.

The company I worked for was engaged in ‘push’ manufacturing. They measured success by the number of cars coming off the production line per hour (and days lost to industrial action.) The story I want to tell is about a time when the transport drivers were on strike but the production line workers were not. Cars came off the line and were parked in a dedicated car park, from where they were normally picked up for delivery on transporters. Occasionally, this area would fill up with cars and for a short period, a quiet corner of the huge staff car park was set aside and used. This time, the dispute dragged on for weeks. The guys who parked the cars were incentivised to keep the line running. They started to park new cars anywhere they could find a space. Their sympathy was probably with the striking drivers rather than than their employers’, whose income stream had been severed. Anyway, they weren’t paid to think. That was Management’s job. “Let’s see how long before they notice.”

No system to keep track of where the cars were going appeared. There was 24-hour production, so the car park was never empty. Unregistered cars might be visiting from other plants. Many of the managers drove company cars or had bought at discount. No-one had a list of which cars had been lost and which had been found. It had never been necessary because they had a perfectly good system.

Several years later, during a complete plant shut-down, several unused cars were discovered, dotted around the now empty car-park. Legend has it that if you go there now and hoot a car horn on the stroke of midnight… No, THAT would be silly!

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