Midnight at the Gemba

By Kevin Meyer Updated on August 30th, 2018

In the late 1990s I was working in the Silicon Valley for a Fortune-50 medical device company, responsible for a drug infusion pump manufacturing operation.  I had just completed a crazy period where I had also “temporarily” (months and months…) led the advanced engineering department after that manager had transferred to a different location.  I was finally settling back into one job when I was offered a position to run the company’s largest molding facility in a different state.  Of course I accepted, without asking more than a couple questions.

A month later I arrived to a large operation with 60 heavy presses in a monster cleanroom, running at full capacity, 24/7/365, to make medical device components for other company operations throughout the world.  And it was several months behind schedule.  Downstream plants were shutting down every week, the scrutiny (“help”) from corporate was enormous, and I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping much for a while.

How do you increase capacity, quickly, when you’re already pushing every machine to the limit, around the clock?

This became my introduction to lean.  We went down the traditional path of spending millions on new presses, which had a lead time of a few months.  In the meantime I also did some research and came across the Association for Manufacturing Excellence where some fine gents like Doc Hall, Dan McDonnell, and Dave Hogg taught me about quick changeover.  By the time the new presses arrived we had caught up with demand and were even starting to think about retiring old presses.  I was hooked on lean and it changed the trajectory of my career.  Gemba Academy, and our strong support of AME, is one way I try to give back to help others be similarly successful.

But that’s not the point of this story.  Those of you who have worked at 24/7 facilities know that the night shifts can be a bit crazy – or even scary.  This operation worked a 4/3/3/4 rotation of 12 hour shifts, which gives the benefit of long weekends but can be pretty grueling long hours.  I soon learned about some “interesting” issues on the night shift.  Let’s just say that sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll covers about 50% of it, with the other half being quality and productivity.  Which is how you’d like critical medical device components to be made, right?  Perhaps I should have asked a few more questions before taking the job?

On the positive side I had a terrific staff that genuinely wanted to improve the operation.  They gave a young kid like me a lot of support, even when I started trying those crazy lean ideas that my new AME friends were telling me about.  But even before we dug into quick changeover, and before I knew what a “gemba” was, I knew we had to get those issues on the night shift resolved.

I thought a big reason for the issues was lack of attention and awareness by the managers, who primarily worked the day shift.  So I had my first idea: once a month we’d have our staff meeting at midnight.

You can imagine how that went over.  Ka-boom.

To their credit, my entire extended staff (I requested that supporting managers from QA, finance, HR, etc also attend) really did show up for that first meeting, even though some of them had an hour commute.  We went over the usual agenda items for a half hour, then we all went and walked around.  We met people we had never seen before, talked to supervisors, and experienced the operation at night.  What was planned to be a one hour meeting actually ended around 3am… there was just so much to see and learn.

We realized that the issues weren’t just due to a lack of awareness by the day shift managers, but were usually driven by the night shift feeling like they were being ignored and unsupported.  They also experienced unique problems ranging from being unable to quickly change to a new job due to lack of materials control and QA support to having a much worse break and “lunch” experience due to the cafeteria and nearby fast food options being closed.  Snowy parking lots weren’t plowed at night, without natural light the factory felt more dark and cold, and the perception was that they were outcasts and loners even though many wanted that shift for a variety of reasons – usually to support their families.

Our eyes were opened, we paid attention, and we took action.  Over the next several months most of the issues were resolved and the productivity and quality of the night shift began to match the day shift.  We were also able to capture and capitalize on the ideas and creativity of that shift, and since they had operated so independently they were actually better at developing and implementing solutions than the day shift.

As Toyota’s Fujio Cho famously said, “Go see, ask why, show respect.”

Before we even knew about Toyota and lean, we realized the power of going to the gemba, discarding preconceived beliefs, and listening to and supporting the people.  When we soon began to try quick changeover and then other lean tools, that respect paved the way for more support, enthusiasm, and results.

Are you respecting all of your people and tapping their potential?


    September 11, 2018 - 1:25 am

    Cert as only a takeaway for me. Making that deliberate attempt to pay attention is very rewarding

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