Jumping to “Could Be”

It was the moment that every practitioner relishes. A five member team of frontline operators were ready to show me the “Analyze” phase of their DMAIC project. They had focused on reducing minor stops generated by the feeder system on a mixing machine. This was also the first project that Troy, their team leader, had ever led, and his excitement level was high.

Troy and his team first reviewed their “Define” and “Measure” activities with me. The goal for this DMAIC project was to reduce feeder stops on Mixing Machine #7 from an average of 75 minutes per day to a maximum of 10 minutes per day. Almost immediately, the discussion skipped over to an improvement proposal that Troy was excited to share.

“Mr. Chapman, we realized that the feeder system on Machine #8 has almost zero minor stops. Four years ago, there was a $20,000 capital project to upgrade that machine’s feeder system,” Troy explained. “Our proposal is to request additional capital to implement the same upgrades to Machine #7!” As the management sponsor, Business Center Manager and others looked on, I smiled patiently and prepared my bucket of cold water – i.e., no $20K capital expenditure was available for Machine #7.

Before I dumped the proverbial bucket on them, I asked the project team what they had learned about the feeder system on Machine #7. One team member replied that the system on Machine #7 had more moving parts than the upgraded Machine #8. I then asked if the team had identified the root cause of some of the failures occurring on Machine #7. This question was answered with blank stares. When I asked the Business Center Manager how many requests for capital had been successful lately, he replied that few projects were being approved.

I turned back to the DMAIC project team and said, “Sounds like the request for capital might not go through. The feeder system still needs to be fixed, though. What other ideas did you come up with? What’s your Plan B?” The team was silent. They looked at me like I had killed Santa Claus – which maybe in a way, I had. There have been dozens of times in my career when a team or department was blinded by the vision of a big capital expenditure gift erasing all their problems. They think it will remove the need for actually understanding the processing principles of existing equipment and working together to meet the same objectives, although in a much less glamorous fashion.

I challenged Troy and his team to assume that no capital would be approved and start from there. I encouraged them to really study the current system carefully and identify those root causes that were resulting in the current failures. They could eliminate those failures without a $20,000 band-aid but by implementing effective countermeasures instead. The team didn’t look nearly as happy when I left as when I’d first arrived.

The following month, I was back to review the DMAIC project for Machine #7. The team met me with the same smiles and enthusiasm they’d greeted me with last month. Was this a sign that they’d ignored my coaching and applied for the capital request after all? My worries quickly disappeared as the team presented detailed diagrams of the current system on Machine #7, data from several trials they’d run on Machine #7, and also examples of worn parts that had been collected during the month.

Troy and his team had identified the root cause of at least 4 failure modes. By revising some preventive maintenance schedules, updating standard work, and adding a key pressure setting to the weekly layered audit process, the team revealed that Machine #7 had not lost a single minute to minor stops related to the feeder system for six straight days. The following weeks continued to validate their improvements. How much did their improvements cost? Just $5,000 to address some outdated wear issues.

When I asked the DMAIC project team how they had felt at the end of my last visit, the consensus was that they thought I was wasting their time. When I asked them how they felt now, their opinion was that they were excited to use the same approach to reduce other losses.

After the successful meeting ended and I was headed on my way out, I noticed that one of the team members was not smiling as much as the others. He was maintenance technician named Otis who had been working in the factory for over 25 years. When I came to shake his hand in farewell, I patted him on the back and asked “Otis, what’s the problem? Aren’t you happy about the results?”

“Well, I guess so, Mr. Chapman,” Otis replied, frowning slightly.

“You sure don’t look very happy,” I countered. “What’s the problem?”

“I was just thinking how nice that feeder system looks on Machine #8,” he said.

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Lee Chapman is a Practitioner with Performance Solutions by Milliken. His career in manufacturing spans over 26 years, and he has experience as a Business Unit Leader, Supply Chain Leader, Quality Manager, and Continuous Excellence Director. Lee coaches clients to work through their change management challenges and get them closer to their operational excellence goals. He graduated from Wofford with a BA in Economics and earned an MBA from Anderson University.

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