Green Profit

In My Opinion - Lean Flow

by Kerry Herndon

The last two days have been exhausting. The consultant has made us look at our paper workflow. Self-examination is never fun—in fact it’s almost always embarrassing.

This all started when some venture vultures visited the nursery. I explained I had been unhappy with our final assembly process. While our mechanized shipping and product assembly looked good, I felt it could be better. They referred me to a company in Denver called Flow Vision. They are serious manufacturing consultants. They sent a guy to evaluate the facility for two days to see if they could or should sell us consulting. I asked the guy if this is what he expected to see, assuming he would express some surprise at the highly automated plant factory. He said it was exactly what he expected to see—another less-than-optimized factory.

His name is Mike, and it’s his job to set the hook. Mike did so by looking at how we assemble one particular product on a long assembly line with workstations, as well as product produced and flowing to buffering and boxing. I always have been quite proud of what I thought was an island of efficiency. Mike felt otherwise. He put some tables together and broke the process down to a number of sub-steps, with more than one person assembling each product. The result was greater throughput and a huge improvement in total quality. The hook was now set firmly. To see with your own eyes someone improving in hours what you have spent years building is a humbling experience.

Mike returned with another guy to train the staff. There were some complaints, and promises from the front line that the new manufacturing process would not work, but the results were as predicted: greater throughput and higher quality. We also can predict with great accuracy how long it will take to do all assembly and shipping. Mike said we got fast results because the staff quickly embraced the sweeping changes. Mike told me that, in most places, the owner or CEO will bring in his group, and the staff will resist change with great vigor. This did not happen here.

I was surprised when some of my cherished conveyor belts were removed to make the total process more efficient. I asked Mike if he removed mechanization often. Mike said, "All the time." For us, this was no big deal, but telling a factory manager to rip out a million-dollar line can be upsetting.

I asked Mike to come back and do the same thing in the office that he did in shipping. That meant the entire sales and admin staff had to stop what they were doing for two days during Valentine shipping. There’s never a good time to pull staff away from daily work, but it had to be done. We spent the first day learning about the fundamentals of lean flow work. Mike told us about his meeting with the famous Taiichi Ono, the inventor of the Toyota production system. The system Mr. Ono put in place is regarded widely as the most efficient auto assembly plant in the world. Mr. Ono told Mike that he read about the system in a book called Today and Tomorrow by Henry Ford, published in 1926.

I am paying expensive consultants to teach us today what Henry Ford shared with the world almost 80 years earlier. Mike told us that in his experience, work involving the flow of paper was waiting for action 99% of the time. The actual work performed by a person constituted only 1% percent of the time. We discovered we’re average.

We spent the rest of the first day mapping the process of taking an order in the sales department through billing the customer. Some of what we were spending a lot of time and energy on were unnecessary tasks, in many cases legacies from computer software we no longer use. The work remained because that is how we did it. After mapping the process, we were told to come up with an ideal process, without regard to any technical constraints. We were told to aim for a 90% improvement. It was surprisingly easy.

The last two days have been an eye opener for me. I’ve come to the conclusion that few of the world’s companies have embraced the potential efficiencies about which Henry Ford wrote 80 years ago. We all have a lot of improving to do.