Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Toyota Up Close

The Toyota Georgetown plant is a sight to see. I had the opportunity to tour this amazing plant today, and I was not disappointed. Certain things about the plant were what I expected, and some things were totally different.

Examples of things that I expected:
  • I knew that the facility was large (it covers 1,300 acres of land and 7.5 million square feet of covered space)
  • I also knew that it would be clean (I didn't see one single oil spot or even a somewhat messy area)
  • Andon cords are everywhere, and are actually used properly
  • Work flows from one station to the next without delay via the constantly moving conveyor line
  • All travel lanes are clearly marked and safety precautions are upheld
  • They have a large section of the plant devoted to employee training. This signals a strong commitment to developing their people.

Examples of things that I didn't expect:

  • I didn't anticipate the incredible level of automation. The amount of technology and machinery is mindboggling. Entire car bodies fly overhead courtesy of an overhead conveyor system. Dozens of welding robots work in perfect unison to weld the body together. Engines and other major components are delivered to the line and raised into position automatically by special hoists. Unmanned supply carts travel down aisles, guided only by magnetic signals.
  • A few things were way more human than I expected. Some associates actually ride around the plant on 3-wheel bikes with baskets on the back, just like a Florida retiree. Ping-pong tables, fooseball tables, and basketball goals are all located within feet of the main assembly line.
  • The plant was much fuller than I had envisioned. For some reason, I had expected to see a pretty open layout with plenty of walking room. Instead, almost every square foot of the plant is occupied by something. No space is wasted.
  • The tour was a little confusing. I expected a more logical "flow" to the tour path, but the tour is catered to the average potential customer, not to Lean advocates or manufacturing dudes. I wish I could have been walking instead of riding on the tram, but oh well.

Click here to take a virtual tour. The web site gives you a lot of the same information that you get on the real tour. After seeing Toyota up close, I realize that they're not this mythical entity that they appear to be when you read about them in books or on blogs. They're a manufacturing company.

That being said, they're a pretty darn good manufacturing company. They're also a pretty darn good corporate citizen. They provide their employees with education opportunities, a pharmacy, a daycare for their children, and countless other benefits. They work hand-in-hand with several local charities, educational institutions, environmental groups, and several other entities. They see these activities as investments in their future. Toyota is one heckuva role model.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Can you tell a difference?

Here are some before & after photos sent to us by Don Nelson, our Lean Advocate at the Martinsville Nationwide location:


And after...

It's looks just a little bit different in there now, huh?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

History of Lean

Click here for a timeline of Lean that dates all the way back to the 16th century, courtesy of Superfactory.com. I couldn't believe that they traced manufacturing as far back as they did. Pretty cool.

Setting the Vision

Here's a clip from LEI's newsletter this week (courtesy of Sean Levy):

Respondents to our 2007 opinion survey said “middle management resistance” was the top obstacle to lean transformations. It replaced “backsliding to the old ways of working,” which was named as the number one obstacle in last year’s poll. In the latest survey, which was based on 2,444 responses, backsliding slid back to the number six spot.
What does it mean? A couple of you have speculated in the LEI Forums that the latest results actually reflect badly not on middle management but on senior management, who probably are not changing the metrics or setting the vision to gain support for the transformation among managers.

In my recent travels, I've found this to be true. Setting the vision is the most important thing that an upper-level leader can do to ensure success with Lean.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Nationwide Again

Yesterday, I visited the home base of Nationwide Custom Homes in Martinsville, VA. I saw many of the same things that I saw in the Siler City plant, which makes sense since they adopted the building practices of Martinsville when they converted to a Nationwide plant. Here are some observations from Martinsville:
  • When the homes come off the end of the assembly line, they are complete. There is no outside rework area, nor is there a "finish-out" plant like in Siler City. This puts a lot of stress on the line. Whenever a home has a unusual feature (for example, wood interior wall panels instead of drywall), it can delay completion of the home. This means that the line can stop, because the house can't leave the plant unfinished. Since everybody on the line knows that the house can't be worked on outside the plant, there is a sense of urgency to fix these problems to avoid line stoppage.

  • They have a components plant located between the two main assembly plants. This component plant produces floor joists, trusses, etc. for the main line. Components are built to order (not stocked) and delivered to the main assembly plants in a just-in-time manner. Siler City does this also, but their component processes are located right next to their internal customers, in the same work space essentially. In Martinsville, the material has to travel a pretty good distance to reach its interal customer.

  • One of the assembly plants is a "shotgun" line and the other is a "side-saddle" line (similar to what most of our plants have). The first thing I noticed was the ample space that exists on the shotgun line. This makes it much easier to work safely and to get material closer to the point of use.

  • Both Siler City and Martinsville set the roofs earlier on in the production line than most of our plants. Typically, the main structure of the home (floor, walls, roof) is intact at the point on the line where we'd typically be just setting the walls. As an added bonus, much of the shingle work is already done before this point. Having the main structure complete so early allows the secondary structural installations (electrical, drywall, exteriors, etc.) to get started in time to finish before the home reaches the end of the line.

Both our Martinsville and Siler City plants are interesting to observe. They make use of common-sense practices and take extra time to check quality. That being said, they're still not Lean. As stated in my post yesterday, many opportunities still exist to improve the flow of work within all of the Nationwide plants.

Fortunately, the management team at Nationwide seems to have embraced Lean as the best option for drastically improving the productivity and flexibility of their production line. Martinsville has a Lean Advocate, Don Nelson, that has a combination of Lean knowledge (he's a Lean Six Sigma black belt) and manufactured housing savvy (former manager at Crestline). The VP of Operations, Tommy Rakes, is a Lean enthusiast, so I expect any barriers to improvement to be knocked down with zeal. I look forward to seeing their success.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

It Ain't Just Racin' Country Anymore!

Siler City, NC is in the middle of nowhere, unless you're a NASCAR reporter looking to interview some hard-core fans. Stuck in this hinterland between Winston-Salem and Raleigh-Durham is a Nationwide factory ran by Andrew Snuggs. According to the stories, this plant used to struggle quite a bit. Then, the facility was converted over to a Nationwide plant.

First, the factory was renovated. Then, Nationwide building practices were implemented. Now, all of the quality checks and common-sense practices that are hallmarks of Nationwide are faithfully executed by Andrew and his team. Siler City has become a positive example of how a modular assembly line should operate. Here are some highlights from what I observed:

  • Components (floor joists, trusses, etc.) are cut, notched, bored, etc. right next to where they will be used, and are only produced for specific orders (not for stock).

  • Interior walls are framed and the wall panels are installed on the same table by the same people. This eliminates the inventory (waste) that exists in the typical configuration of most of our plants, where the framing and panel installation are done on different tables by different people. This inventory takes up space, necessitates the double-handling of the framed walls, and increases the overall lead time for an interior wall.

  • Wall-builders and wall-setters are part of the same work group. If the wall-setters get behind, the wall-builders will help them catch up instead of overproducing walls (waste). This helps deal with the problem of cycle time imbalance that exists on our main assembly lines.

  • The homes are low to the ground, which makes them easier and safer to enter and exit. They are also flat and level, which is preferable to the cambered floors that we work on in many plants.

  • Shingles are installed in the roof build department, which is safer and more efficient that doing it after the roof is set.

  • The house is leveled, measured for squareness, and certified by the QC inspector before the exterior wall sheathing is installed. Also, sheathing is installed on the marriage lines to increase the rigidity of the home, which prevents drywall cracking.

  • Drywall is not mudded until the sheathing is installed, to prevent cracking.

  • Drywall finishing is done prior to installation of cabinets, appliances, etc. which makes the process more productive.

  • Windows and doors are not stocked, but ordered per house. The downside of this is the lead time from the supplier. The upside is reduced inventory levels, smaller space requirements, flexibility in ordering anything the customer wants, and less D&O risk.

  • After the home is structurally complete, it moves to a "finish-out" plant where cabinets, appliances, etc. are installed. This area is free of the noise, debris, and distractions that are necessarily present in the main plant. I would think that this environment is more conducive to the finishing work that has to be done to make a house aesthetically pleasing.
All that being said, I still wouldn't classify them as Lean. Some of the work flows looks like spaghetti, some areas of the plant are a little disorganized, and visual control isn't evident throughout. Fortunately, their culture and leadership is quite conducive to a successful implementation of Lean. They have already performed excellent introductory training for ALL associates, and are committed to continuously learning more. Lean homebuilding may not replace NASCAR as the object of obsession for this region, but I think we've got a shot at #2.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Lean Tar Heels

Albemarle will be Lean. I'm sure of it after my trip there yesterday. They've got a new Lean Advocate, Kraig Ault, who is a Lean Six Sigma know-it-all (just ask him about any statistical analysis technique that you can think of). Their Production Manager, Allen Tucker, has been invovled with Lean for over a year now, and will be instrumental in pushing the Basic Workplace Organization (BWO) effort that we're just now initiating. Their GM, Frank Emmerich, is supporting both Kraig and Allen in their endeavours, and I think having Frank's hands-on guidance will make a big difference. Having these three pieces of the triangle (Lean Advocate, Production Manager, & GM) makes their path ahead much more navigable.

Of course, Albemarle is beginning from the same starting point as most of our plants. Some of their work flows resemble spaghetti, some areas can get messy at times, and there isn't much visual control of the workplace. These same traits are evident in about every plant that I've visited so far, so there isn't anything special about Albemarle's situation. The point is that we all have to get started sometime, regardless of where we are currently. Albemarle is moving full-steam-ahead with their Lean initiative, and it's wonderful to see.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Machiavellian Lean

Was Niccolo Machiavelli a Lean thinker? He was a political figure in Italy during the Renaissance, and his writings have become a guide of sorts for the aggressive and power-hungry. In fact, the term "Machiavellian" is often associated with the tactics of tyrranical despots and fascists. Niccolo doesn't sound like a good candidate for a Lean thinker, does he? Well, many of Machiavelli's teachings do directly contradict the Lean pillar of "respect for people," but I found a few things in his writings that sounded Lean:

"One of the best, most effective expedients would be for the conqueror to go live [in the conquered area] in person...[so that he] can detect trouble at the start and deal with it immediately."

This sounds a lot like the Lean principle of genchi genbutsu, or going to see the real situation for yourself. This is one of the most important facets of Lean thinking, and is the centerpiece of Toyota's management philosophy. Machiavelli also teaches the power of developing your own internal capabilities, rather than relying on "outsourcing" or temporary labor:

"Wise princes...have always shunned auxiliaries and made use of their own forces. They have preferred to lose battles with their own forces than win them with others, in the belief that no true victory is possible with alien arms."

Self-reliance and employee development are two major focuses of the Toyota Way, and of any good Lean philosophy. While many of Machiavelli's teachings are way out of line with Lean thinking, some of his insights are very appropriate to the Lean mindset. Do you agree?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Improvement at our Ft. Worth Plant

Our Ft. Worth plant has recently made a big improvement. I had the opportunity to visit this plant yesterday, and I snapped a few photos:

Here's their new wall-build area, which is now raised to the level of the house floor:

Here's are some close-ups:

Before the improvement, the wall-builders would set a few walls on a cart, which would be hoisted onto the floor and sorted through by the wall-setters. Now, there is no need to "batch" the walls in this manner. Walls can be "pulled" from the racks one at a time, which is much more conducive to creating flow. Over time, the inventory of finished walls in the rack can be reduced. This will lead to better connectivity between the wall-build and wall-set departments, and thus all of the benefits of flow (preventative problem-solving, more space, quicker detection of defects, shorter lead times, etc.).

The improvement at Ft. Worth is not a Lean improvement per se, but I think it sets the stage for future Lean improvements. Do you have any examples like this that you'd like to share?