Three sets of eyes bored a hole in me. I read in their glares that if I screwed up, I was going to get stomped. I started to sweat profusely but tried to will it away, knowing that moist fingers handling small LEGO pieces could surely lead to my untimely death. To make matters worse, $20 was offered to the team that produced the most units minus any defects. To these guys, that might as well have been $1 million, and they were counting on me to deliver the goods…or else.
The pieces started flying at me, fast. My job was to snap on two top pieces, then place the assembled structures in the done pile. I started off okay, but then I started dropping pieces. I watched as the semi-assembled structures started to pile up – I was creating a bottleneck! My teammate, Technician #2, realized this and started to help me with my backlog. Of course, that drew him off his task and put him behind, too. I started envisioning bike chain whippings and axe handle beatings from this crew as more pieces spilled clumsily from my fingers. I was the last cog in this wheel, Technician #3, and so I was surely going to take the brunt of the blame.
Realizing I wanted to live, I got my act together quickly and started to catch up. When time was called and units were tallied, our team came out on top and won the $20. My teammates whooped it up, held the double sawbuck in the air and high-fived each other. But I was notably absent from the celebration, a puddle of spent nerves under the table.
The event was PPG Green Belt Training. The location was Driver’s Village Collision Center in Syracuse, New York. The task was a LEGO building exercise meant to reinforce the principles of lean manufacturing and the differences between a “pushing” system and a “pulling” system.
“A practical pulling system in collision will limit inventory from building up,” said Jim Berkey, director, Business Solutions for PPG. “A pulling system is all about producing only what is needed to replenish what has been used or proceeded.”
Around the conference room in which the training was held were diagrams and words of wisdom relating to lean. Concepts like 5S (Sort, Simplify, Systemize, Standardize, Sustain), takt time, continuous flow, variations and buffers were discussed. Other insights were doled out:
• Overproduction has no value.
• When in doubt, throw it out – sort what’s needed from what’s not.
• The less variation, the better things flow.
• Any time you take on too much, you hurt yourself. If you build a lean system, you may have to cherry-pick jobs. Take all of the stuff your machine doesn’t like and give it to other shops. (Unthinkable in this market, right?)
And somehow it all made sense when we saw a video of a person who was trying to get a hiking group he was in charge of to reach its destination in the allotted time. One hiker was lagging behind, which slowed the whole group down. The initial solution was to put the slow hiker first, but that just created a bottleneck and uneven gaps between hikers. Finally, it was determined that the reason the hiker was dragging was because his backpack was too heavy, so items were taken out and distributed among the team. Soon, the hikers were whisking along at an acceptable pace.
At one point, it dawned on me what was most remarkable about this gathering: absolutely no one complained about insurers. Instead, everyone was razor-focused on building a better business machine. And I found that refreshing.
If you haven’t yet attended one of these training sessions, whether it be put on by PPG, Sherwin-Williams, AkzoNobel, BASF or DuPont, I highly recommend you do. It’s good to step away from your business, take an honest assessment of it and more clearly see where waste and inefficiency lie. It’s not going to solve all of the industry’s problems, but it will allow you to fine-tune the one thing you indisputably control.
Jason Stahl, Editor
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