LEAN for the Job Shop (or Harness Department)

Have you ever heard this from a salesman? “We excel at providing low cost, high quality, and quick turnarounds. We can do anything from high volume to low volume and our customer service is the best in the business.” If I could paraphrase, “We are the world’s best supplier!”

We are not any different and I am sure our sales team pitches a very similar story. If we are going to claim to be a company with a continuous improvement culture, we have to show progress to meeting some of the above mentioned capabilities.

I would like to share an example of how we are doing this in our Harness Department. In the past, we typically would build custom harnesses in batches between 5 and 25, with some exceptions between 50 and 75. It is a very high mix, low volume manufacturing environment. One operator per shift would work on the parts, finishing an entire operation before moving on to the next. For example, operator A would terminate the entire 25 piece order, before moving onto splicing, then to layout, etc.

Lately, we have seen our order sizes jump to 100 and 150 pieces. What used to take a week to get an order through the system with one operator, now was taking 3-4 weeks. The throughput did not decrease, but it tied up cash and resources, and decreased our flexibility. All of which decreases our value to our customer. We needed to make a change.

We held a couple informal Kaizen events, started a 5S implementation, and manipulated the layout of our manufacturing space to facilitate better flow through the system. These all helped, but most importantly, we decreased our batch size to 5-10 pieces maximum ala Alex Rogo in The Goal. Using many of the same concepts used in this simple novel, we have increased capacity, reduced WIP, and increased our flexibility for the customer. Most importantly, our operators are happier. They now have much more ownership on the floor, they have the freedom to move around much more (opposed to sitting at a termination bench all day), and Quality is improving.

Interestingly enough, our throughput has increased slightly. Per all of our calculations we expected throughput to decrease due to increased setups, more walking waste, and a new system. You could point to the 5S organization contributing to our improved throughput, but I truly believe it is due to the general morale improving due to the new system. If you are cynical, which many engineers tend to be, you could also attribute the success to white coat syndrome. As expected with any change in manufacturing, our management team is keeping a close eye on the department looking for any potential faults. We aren’t hanging our hats up yet on the increased throughput, but it has been an welcomed surprise for our team.

We are closing in on a full month after making the initial changes. We realize the change is relatively new, but it is our hope that rather than regress we continue to progress with the improvement. All metrics point to an improvement, which we all know is reflected in value to our customer.

Does anyone else have a success story they would like to share, particularly related to using concepts from Theory of Constraints or The Goal?