Tag Archives: manufacturing

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!

Quality Tested

Everyone who has done any job for a while has a few ‘war stories’. It’s even a standard management technique to throw a few techie-tales into the conversation to bolster credibility with the geeks in the platoon. That can go badly wrong but that’s a story for another day.

Because some of my tales from the trenches were acquired while contracting, I’ve felt bound by client confidentiality and only shared them with a small number of trusted colleagues but surely a good yarn has a statute of limitations, if it is told for the good of society. As this one is more than 20 years old and the company has changed ownership at least twice in that period, I’m going to risk it. The facts don’t reflect badly on any individual, only on a manufacturing culture that had unwittingly survived beyond it’s sell-by date.

A group of Japanese businessmen were being guided around a luxury sports car manufacturer’s engine test facility to show off the company’s recent massive investment in robotics. The company had experienced a long-standing problems with cars being delivered to customers or showrooms, only to be returned because of significant oil-leaks from around the engine-block.

In the new system, each engine arrived in a wooden box which was unpacked and delivered on it’s pallet to a testing station where an operator attached oil, water and electrical connectors. Each engine had a bar-code attached so that it could be tracked throughout the manufacturing process and the foreman knew who was to be blamed for any error. Each engine was filled with oil and water then started up and run through a number of test cycles until the operators had either made minor adjustments to get the engine through the tests or had failed and been sent back to manufacturing for complete re-work. No more sub-standard engines would be put into cars and sent out of the factory gate to damage brand reputation.

The UK managers turned to the main Japanese visitor, glowing with pride that for once they were ahead in the race to manufacture the most reliable cars. The visitor hesitated then said, “That is very impressive but what I don’t understand is: why did you decide to build some of your engines with leaks?”

I dedicate this story to my Agile & Lean friends whose tests are built into their manufacturing process and I offer it as a warning to those who throw their software onto a transporter for delivery to Engine Test.