Tips for Lean Managers

Design Process Around People

By Jon Miller Updated on May 11th, 2017

The issue of policing the time people spend on bathroom breaks at Ford sparked discussions online and in forums this week. The Lean Manufacturing Blog and the Superfactory blog both posted thoughtful commentary.

Ford management reported that workers are taking more than their allotted 48 minutes per shift on bathroom breaks. This is slowing down the production line of the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator lines, according to Ford.

I’ve never been to the Ford factory in question, but I’m willing to wager that Ford’s plan to closely monitor bathroom breaks and have supervisors keep statistics will not make things much better. Simply put, what Ford needs is a combination of mutual respect and kaizen. Let’s take a closer look at these two things.

Kaizen: maintaining the rhythm, takt, and cadence of the factory
The movement of material and information in a Lean factory is like music. There is a rhythm and flow that you can see and feel. In contrast, in a factory that is not Lean there is a lot of “noise”. You will often see a lot of what we call PWA or “people walking around” in the factory. It is difficult for the untrained eye to see who should be taking a walk and who should not.

When work is paced and the next person in the line depends on you to complete your job in time and build in quality, it is easier to spot the abnormalities. The line stops, or in the case of a set-position-stop line the andon flashes if the problem is not resolved by the time the work piece reaches set position.

At Toyota, the entire function of the supervisor or team leader is to keep the line running by addressing these problems. The job of the worker on the line is to perform standard work and stop the line when this is not possible. For more on the importance of this “overhead” person in keeping the line running smoothly, see my previous post.

The difference is between leaving break times and line stops up to chance and closely regulating break times and putting all work on a takt or pitch is simply huge. This is one of the true differences between companies who really get Lean and those who are still knocking on the door of Lean enterprise.

A culture of mutual respect
It’s not respectful for Ford management to take this approach to a sensitive subject. You are treating adults like children. For the workers it’s unfair not to return promptly to the workstation or position when break time is over. You are letting the other members of your team down, and by extension the entire company, and your own future.
Some people engage in petty theft of company property reasoning that they are not paid enough or that it doesn’t harm anyone directly. Some companies turn a blind eye to this type of petty theft. It’s a slippery slope from taking office supplies home or taking extra long breaks to making personal use of corporate jets or being indicted for fraudulent accounting. It all stems from a lack of mutual respect between people.

Mutual respect isn’t a topic I can do justice to through a few paragraphs on a blog.
Away from Ford, the issue of break time and flexibility versus regulation is a practical question many Lean managers and consultants encounter during kaizen events and when converting from self-paced batch production to takt-paced one-piece flow. A common concern by workers is that they will be “chained” to the work position since there is no buffer (one piece flow) and if they leave the line will stop.

So what’s a Lean manager to do? We say “design process around people”. The first step starts with having respect for people, developing an understanding of what we are trying to achieve and why. With mutual respect and common ground, you can begin to make change.
Where this is lacking due to prolonged mistrust between management and workforce or management the union, it is very difficult to make lasting change. If there is a culture of mutual respect and an agreement to follow rules and kaizen them when they don’t work, people can achieve practically anything.

It’s worth repeating that the two pillars of Toyota management, and therefore Lean, are a mutual respect and kaizen, according to Vice Chairman Fujio Cho. It seems that if you have both, you can do just about anything.

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