Lean Empowerment – Part 3: Rejecting Bad Material

lean-empowerment-rejected-material-stamp-blogThis week, we continue to follow one of my client’s, who we also featured in Lean Empowerment Part 1 and Part 2. You will learn how Lean Systems enabled workers to reject bad material. This Lean Empowerment action resolved several negative issues. Workers were able to transform an impeded process into a smoothly operating workflow, which resulted in producing a higher quality product.

Lean Empowerment

In the previous examples, workers brought forth suggestions with some apprehension, uncertain how management would respond. However, once management fully embraced their shadow board solutions and approved these highly visible lean improvement projects, worker confidence and a sense of empowerment increased. This allowed workers to experience a lean environment first hand and develop a clearer understanding of expectations. The more familiar and comfortable they became with applying lean principals to flow-restricted processes, the more motivated they were to make improvements. Working together, they continued to identify more trouble areas and come up with potential solutions for management approval. As workers successfully implemented their own solutions, their motivation and confidence to take further action benefited both quality and productivity across the board. This is the perfect example of Lean Empowerment.

The Problem with Steel Bar Stock

Material quality is a common issue with steel bar stock. Often, angle iron and square tubing are warped, twisted or slightly curved. While this is not a problem for ornamental ironwork and welded steel gates and fences, straightness was a major issue for this client. They needed straight pieces to fabricate their products. The standard practice up to this point had been to straighten pieces after cutting. Bent, crooked, warped or twisted parts required straightening by hammering the part on an anvil.

Prior to Lean Empowerment, the workers viewed this step as a necessary, unpleasant task for any worker in the cut-stamp work cell. The banging of the hammer against the anvil could be heard as far as the front office and the manager’s and CEO’s suites. Unable to see an easy way around the noise problem, the entire company accepted the loud banging sounds as a normal part of the workday.

Massive Shipment Size Creates Problems

Every bar stock shipment from the steel service company included bent, warped and twisted bar stock. The steel service company was not deliberately trying to pass off bad quality. Quite simply, most of their customers were ornamental ironwork fabricators who did not care about straightness, so it was not an issue.

Before implementing the lean program, this client ordered steel once a month. The shipment resulted in a massive bundle delivered all at one time. The massive bundle was a problem for several reasons. First, it was excessively big and heavy, making it quite difficult to unload from the truck and handle within the factory. Second, inspecting this big bundle was not an “on the spot” task. Once the shipment arrived, workers spent all their spare time over the next couple of days sorting through the product and storing it in designated areas. Inevitably, every order contained defective materials, was missing something  and/or incorrect quantities were shipped. Because it took days to sort through shipments of this size, these problems weren’t discovered until days after the delivery.

Rejecting Bad Material

Because the steel service company made daily “milk runs” to the industrial park, a daily delivery charge was included in the purchase price, whether the buyer utilized this delivery option or not. During the Lean Transformation, the company took steps to make the steel deliveries more manageable. Using kanban cards and daily delivery, the company ordered smaller quantities more often. Each day, the steel supply company delivered 5-10 lengths of two or three different types of bar stock. One day, the small delivery included angle iron which was all twisted and bent. The workers in the cut-stamp work cell rejected the bent bar stock shipment. Being a small company, most of the workers had more than one duty and in this case, the cut-stamp work cell workers did the receiving functions for all bar stock deliveries. Upon rejecting this shipment, the bar stock was sent back to the steel service company with a request for straight bar stock. Workers then notified the plant manager and briefed him on their actions. The plant manager supported their decision.

Finding Resolution

The next day, the steel service company attempted another delivery to replace the defective shipment from the previous day. Once again, the angle iron was twisted and bent and the workers rejected the shipment. The workers reviewed their decision with the plant manager, who supported their decision. The second occurrence prompted a review meeting between the workers, plant manager and purchasing agent. After discussing several options, the purchasing agent called the steel service supply company to raise the issue and explore ways to resolve the problem.

As a quick phone call revealed, the steel service company had received a 10,000-foot mill run from the steel mill and all of the angle iron was twisted and crooked. No straight pieces were forthcoming from this steel service supply company in the near future, at least not until they consumed the entire inventory from this batch. The purchasing agent made several phone calls to the other steel service supply companies serving the company. He was able to locate and procure straight angle iron from a different supplier. The new shipment contained straight pieces, which the workers happily accepted. The steel service company made a note on this client’s account to ship only straight pieces of bar stock. Subsequently, all bar stock received from this company was straight and could be immediately cut to length and used without any further hammering. Lean Empowerment among the workers was well under way!

Starting with the Right Lean Systems

Kanban Card Post

Kanban Card Post

During the initial phase of this lean transformation initiative, SMI designed a two-bin system and kanban card system to specifically assist this client with managing their bar stock inventory. See the images to the right and below for a view of the steel storage rack and kanban card rack.

These systems were essential in supporting smaller shipments more frequently and for increasing visibility to expose problem workflow areas. Once implemented, these systems enabled workers to immediately see the defective material, even before signing to accept the delivery. Workers gained a better visual understanding of problem areas. This new visibility provided the ideal springboard for workers to develop effective solutions anytime an issue interfered with workflow. Without lean systems in place, these issues were too difficult to effectively identify and resolve. Thus, the Lean Visual Factory methods and smaller quantities more often, enabled workers to take action in favor of improving quality while reducing waste. Their motivation was to make their own lives easier. Every time they successfully implemented one of their solutions, it reinforced that motivation. By rejecting defective shipments, the workers made another important step to transform their 50 year old company into a smoothly running, efficient enterprise.

Steel Storage Rack

Steel Storage Rack

Strengthening Lean Culture

Empowered workers took positive steps in favor of quality. This simple action by the workers had a huge impact on overall process and reduced noise throughout the facility. This is Lean Empowerment!

What was their motivation? The hammering of crooked parts on the anvil was a particularly unpleasant task. Straighter raw material required less hammering. This alone, motivated workers to reject hopelessly twisted material. Management receptivity for their improvement suggestions was also important. Rather than live with the problem, as is so often the case, the workers decided to take action on behalf of improved quality. The workers reasonably expected management to support their decision. This was a seemingly small and trivial action. Yet this small initiative was a positive step toward building trust in the new lean culture. For optimal results, both workers and management need to operate under the same set of guiding principles and philosophies. Slowly but surely, the lean culture was starting to emerge and take root at my client’s company. Not only was the lean transformation well under way, but the lean culture was also increasing and strengthening with each passing day. What will Lean Empowerment motivate the workers to do next? It will be interesting to see!

Stay tuned for Parts 4 through 8 in this Lean Empowerment series.

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 GroupIf you would like to get in touch with Strategic Modularity, Inc., contact Andy here.


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