Lean Empowerment – Part 1: Sharpening the Saw

Empowering an organization with Lean methods is like sharpening the saw throughout the entire company. Once a company embraces Lean methods and is equipped with the tools in the Lean Toolbox, a new culture is born. Everyone within the organization begins to view their surroundings from a new perspective, embracing and encouraging continuous learning and continuous improvement.

In Part 1 of this multi-part series on Lean Empowerment, we will discuss “Sharpening the Saw” both figuratively and literally.  Figuratively speaking, sharpening the saw within a Lean organization is all about practicing continuous improvement or Kaizen (read more about Kaizen here). Literally speaking, several years ago I worked with a client to implement Lean practices and create a visual factory.  Shortly after the Lean transformation, a department on the plant floor ran out of sharp saw blades, triggering a chain reaction of response activities. This stockout presented an early opportunity for employees to work together as a team and apply their new Lean knowledge to resolve a problem. This story is about the first steps this company took toward Lean Empowerment.

Learning Lean Concepts

During the course of the Lean transformation, workers trained in Lean basics and visual factory principles. The concepts are simple:

  1. Keep work flowing.
  2. Always act in the customer’s best interest.
  3. Maintain constant Delivery Promise Date awareness.
  4. Make flow visual.
  5. Use the two-bin system wherever it makes sense.
  6. Implement poka-yoke, which means to mistake proof.

Applying Lean Thinking

The workers caught on quickly and began applying Lean thinking. The plant manager was supportive and nurtured an environment where workers felt safe bringing forth ideas, which were generally embraced and implemented.

What precipitated the first empowerment opportunity? At this factory, the company fabricated products from steel bar stock, cut-to-length using cut-off saws.  Because most orders required custom cut-to-length metal parts, the cut-off saws were central and critical to the manufacturing process.

Faced with a Dilemma

One busy day, as the workers were fulfilling their pile of orders, one of them reached for another blade and  noticed there weren’t any left!  They used up their last sharp saw blade! Their supply completely depleted, production workers faced two choices: either continue with dull saw blades or stop production. Since both options represented an emergency, everyone worked frantically to find the quickest channel for replenishing the sharp saw blade inventory as fast as possible. Purchasing, forced to drop everything else, worked the phones, contacting each supplier on their list to locate a source who could accommodate their emergency needs. Waiting for the sharp batch of blades to arrive, production workers pushed on with dull saw blades even though both quality and productivity were suffering badly.

Collaborating on a Countermeasure

Having faced this dilemma, the plant floor workers, procurement department workers and plant manager all decided the situation was both unacceptable and intolerable. Rather than blame each other, they put their heads together and worked on a solution.  They all agreed some type of action or countermeasure was required to prevent any future recurrences. Using their recently acquired knowledge and new tools from the Lean Toolbox, they devised a simple system for managing their MRO (maintenance, repair and operation) stores saw blade inventory. The situation became an ideal opportunity for workers to implement the Lean methods they had been learning. Working as a team, Lean Empowerment produced results! Figure 1 [below] shows the Saw Blade Control System devised by the workers.


Figure 1

The Shadow Board System

The workers came up with a shadow board system from the Lean Toolbox for managing saw blades. They designed the shadow board with two positions clearly marked. In each position, there is a round peg where circular saw blades are stacked. New or re-sharpened saw blades go onto the peg labeled, SHARP and the dull saw blades go onto the peg labeled, SEND OUT. The number of sharp saw blades and dull saw blades are always clearly visible to everyone, including both workers and management. The workers inserted a trigger tag between the second and third sharp saw blades. As the workers move their way down the stack of sharp saw blades and pull the third-to-last one, the trigger tag becomes visible, as a cue to the workers, to have all dull saw blades sent out for sharpening. The designated worker makes the phone call for saw blade pickup. The saw blade sharpening service picks up the stack of dull saw blades right off the SEND OUT peg on the shadow board and deposits a fresh stack of sharp saw blades on the peg labeled SHARP. Many times, the simplest problem in a department may have the biggest negative impact and wreak the most havoc but still only requires a simple solution to resolve.

The entire shadow board project only needed a few hours labor to fabricate and install. The plant floor workers, empowered by knowledge from the Lean Transformation Initiative-Training Program, devised a simple management tool for themselves, which assured they would never run out of sharp saw blades again!

Multiple Benefits from One Simple Tool

To some people, this may seem like a trivial project, hardly worth mentioning. However, this little project was a huge first step for both the plant floor workers and plant management. The production workers took a positive step toward embracing Lean principles, while simplifying and de-stressing their own jobs. The project also gave plant management the opportunity to support and embrace initiative demonstrated by the newly empowered workers. Workers coming up with ideas, which are then embraced and supported by management, is a cultural improvement cycle where workers become more and more empowered as they continue to come up with ideas and implement those ideas with support from management. While this may appear to have been a very small step, it was evident the company’s cultural transformation was well underway with this project.

Don’t miss our upcoming articles in the Lean Empowerment Series, including:

Lean Empowerment – Part 2:  Set-up Time Reduction
Lean Empowerment – Part 3:  Rejecting Bad Material
Lean Empowerment – Part 4:  Work Aids
Lean Empowerment – Part 5:  We Are Concerned
Lean Empowerment – Part 6:  Reducing Back Log
Lean Empowerment – Part 7:  Lean in the Back Office

Andy Pattantyus, CPIM is president of Strategic Modularity, Inc., a systems engineering consulting firm that works with clients on process oriented Lean Transformation projects, including initiatives to improve administrative workflows. Andy is also an active member of APICS-SFV and the ACA Group. If you would like to get in touch with Strategic Modularity, Inc., contact Andy here.

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