And around and around it goes

Not long ago I conducted an exercise with a client in which two teams of three people assembled a Lego product. One team of three folks from accounting was given the 500 or so pieces the way Lego presents them – kitted in bags of parts that align with the largely graphic instructions. Basically, all of the parts needed to make sub-assembly #3, for instance, are in a bag marked ‘3’, and the instructions for 3 show pictures of exactly how all of the parts are to be assembled.

The other team, consisting of engineers, was given the same Lego set (in a different room) only the parts were organized and bagged by part type – big parts in one bag, small parts in another, specialty parts in a third, and so forth. And rather than the Lego instructions, they were given a picture of each sub-assembly and told to build them the way they looked.

LEGO STARWARS combinedNo big revelation resulted. The team of accountants assembled their Legos better than 40% faster, and did so error free. The engineers were slow and made several mistakes. All of this proves the obvious – kitting parts for production is a very good thing to do, and clear work instructions are a whole lot more helpful than basically handing a drawing or set of specs to production folks. The purpose is not really to prove the obvious so much as it is to (1) demonstrate that it is not a little bit better, but a whole lot better to provide parts in the manner in which they will be used and instructions so clear even an accountant can follow them; and (2) to embarrass the engineers by having them be blown out of the water by a bunch of accountants.

What is remarkable, however, is the sorry collection of reasons the engineers offered up for not putting much effort into kitting and effective work instructions. And the reasons – excuses – offered in this session were about the same as I have encountered just about every time the matter comes up with just about every manufacturer:

The process engineers are supposed to be working on things to enable the production folks to be more effective and productive, yet they were too consumed with setting standards, running down labor variances and generally riding herd on the measurements for the benefit of accounting and management who lived and died by productivity measurements to spend much time on things like kitting and better work instructions. It is hard to imagine a clearer case of being too busy digging to climb out of the hole.

The design engineers were too busy doing the design work to be bothered with creating work instructions and specifications that were usable by production folks. They were treated as, and acted like, a bunch of prima donnas, detached from the factory concocting their designs as if the designs were an end unto themselves. The notion that their beautiful work product was not worth a thing if it couldn’t be manufactured in a high quality, cost effective manner was not part of their mental equation. In other words, they were not involved in the business of actually making money – just creating works of engineering grandeur.

Kitting parts was purchasing’s problem, and purchasing as measured by material costs. Any gains to be had by presenting parts in a manner more useful for production was (1) hard to measure, and (2) not going to show up on purchasing’s metrics to offset the potential increases in supplier prices.

So we have the only folks actually adding much value – production – sub-optimized in order for the non-value adding folks to concentrate on silo optimization. The product might be too expensive and fraught with defects …. But the measurements of that high cost were accurate and right up to date … the engineers were designing fantastic products and sticking to their core competence … and purchasing was doing a marvelous job of keeping suppliers in tow.

And how is the CEO of this poor performing company to resolve the problem? By pounding on production with a bigger stick, of course. After all, the metrics prove the support folks are all doing their jobs brilliantly, so the production folks must be the problem, right?

And around and around it goes ...

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