Facility Start-Ups: Tips for Building a Lean Foundation

Warehouse, Green Logistics Co., Kotka, Finland

Warehouse, Green Logistics Co., Kotka, Finland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I began my Lean Journey on April 26, 2010. I had no idea what lean was, but I knew I wanted to learn more about it. I left my previous employer after a year and was in search of more of a career within the supply chain. I began networking and was contacted by a company named LeanCor. I skipped a job shadow with another company and headed to LeanCor’s headquarters in Florence, KY, to hear about an “opportunity.”  Next thing I knew I was driving up I-75 to North Liberty, IA, to work at LeanCor’s Lean Logistics Center (LLC), which was in its early stages of start-up business for LeanCor.

The LLC is essentially an operation responsible for sequencing parts for a 1 x 1 production line for a LeanCor customer. The first few months in North Liberty were very interesting.  For me, it was a crash course in lean. I learned and used new lean terms and concepts on a daily basis. I arrived late for the initial launch, but there was still plenty to do. The foundation was built, but it was not yet stable. For any start-up operation, it is crucial to first standardize and sustain your processes, then continue to improve those processes by incorporating various lean principles and tools. We had one goal in mind when we started and it was to become a “world class” facility. Our eyes were on the prize, but how would we get there?

Looking back on my time at the LLC, I believe there are seven areas you should focus on when striving to make your operation a world class facility: 5S, Standard Work, Waste Elimination, Pull System, Quality at the Source, Visual Management, and Safety. Below are some stories of how we incorporated each within our operation and the effects they had on our goal.

Start With 5S:  

Sort, Set, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain. It is not just cleaning. That will be your first obstacle when explaining it to operators. It is a discipline that will keep your operation not only clean, but standardized and in order as well. The tools your operators need should be readily available and whatever they don’t need must go (“when in doubt – throw it out!”). Each cell should be organized and clean so the next shift can come in and start working and not have to worry about anything else. To start, we got rid of everything we didn’t need and created shadow boards for the tools, safety equipment, and cleaning supplies we needed. Over time, our 5S program grew and sustained.

Strengthen Your Foundation:

The first project was to establish our standard work for every process. I observed the current state of all of our processes and then turned them into standard work documents. This was time consuming, but not difficult. It’s not enough to improve the process in your head, you first need to capture and fully understand the current state. From there, we continuously improved our processes. Involving the operators and running tests proved to be an effective way to do this. We challenged the operators to come up with good poka-yokes that would stop a process when an error occurred. This prevented our operators from passing on errors that would eventually reach the customer. The operator who came up with the best poke-yoke would then receive a $10 gas card. A simple incentive that no one will turn down!

Improve Your Processes:

Each quarter, my fellow process engineer and I would perform an efficiency analysis. We used time and motion sheets to capture the process times for each step of a process. We would then enter this information onto a standard work combination sheet to visually show what the cycle time was compared to the takt time. We were then able to level out multi-operator cells so each operator had the same process time. For example, moving one task from Operator 1 to Operator 2, allowed us to even out the flow of processes and prevent bottlenecks to occur. We also found instances where an operator was underutilized and we were able to add work to his/her standard work to free up headcount somewhere else. If you are able to take on new business without adding resources, your customer will be very pleased. In any organization, it is important to plan projects like this so you can continuously improve your standard work documentation. In turn, as processes change, so does your standard work.

Training Your People:

We often cross trained our operators, so it was crucial to have each process’ standard work up to date. Our philosophy held that if a brand new operator came in today, they should be able to read the standard work and be able to execute the job without committing errors while meeting the customer’s demand. I realized that to accomplish this, you have to make your standard work clear, concise, and visual. The more pictures you can substitute for words the better. Also, include specific Critical to Quality (CTQ’s) elements to the standard work that can help an operator understand the process easier. We made standard work binders for each process and cell. This helped standardize the training process. The team leaders would first have the new operator read through the standard work binder. Second, they took the operator to the cell to observe. Third, they had them read the standard work again and sign off on the process. The operator was then able to perform the process. The team leader would use his/her discretion as to the level of supervision the operator would need during the first few hours of being on their own. After a while, the LLC was operating like a well oiled machine. The engine was the standard work and the processes were the fuel that kept the operation running.

Eliminate The Waste:

After standardizing the processes we realized the next step was to cut out the waste and also focus on quality at the source. We documented a weekly waste walk in our Leader Standard Work. Using a waste walk document, we would document the many types of wastes that existed in our operation. The most obvious waste was the amount of inventory we had. The warehouse was packed and the cells always had too much inventory in them. The operators would stock as much inventory as they could until there was no more space available. This type of batch process doesn’t just limit floor space, it also increases your chances of picking the wrong part because you could often find multiple items in one home location. This was a big issue at the LLC. One box or container in the wrong location could turn into several hundred picking errors. A lot of the parts looked similar and differed by only a couple inches. This made it very difficult for an operator to know that he/she was picking the wrong part. To correct this, we created a 2-bin kanban pull system and redesigned many of the cells to only allow the MAX level of inventory we needed. You can always discipline your operators when they are not performing a process correctly, but if you only give them the space they need, they cannot stock more than they need.

Make Your Workplace Visual:

The kanban pull system also improved our visual management. When a cell used up one of the bins, the warehouse forktruck or tugger would notice the empty spot on the floor or shelf and know it needed to be restocked. We later took it a step farther and created kanban cards. The cards included the part description and location in the warehouse. This eliminated the time spent waiting on parts and decreased the distance traveled by the forktrucks because they wouldn’t have to search for the product. They would just go directly to the location on the kanban card.

Create a Scoreboard:

The LLC had about 20-25 operators on each shift. It was important for them to all understand how they were doing each hour. There were many questions we wanted to make visible. Were we ahead or were we behind? Did a particular cell/commodity need help? What is the score? These questions are important for all the members of your team to know at any given time during the day. To make those questions visual, we created a delivery calculator that measured our performance. Based on the customer’s usage and what we had in WIP, we were able to keep an hourly demand. We established different ranges of the demand to changed colors on the delivery calculator (Purple = Overproducing, Green = Meeting Customer Demand, Yellow = A Little Behind, Red = Risk of Shutting Down the Line). The best part was that we projected this scoreboard above the dock doors so everyone in the operation could see their numbers and stay informed.

When I look back at the time I spent at the LLC, I am very proud of the work I did there. The guys I worked with taught me a lot and we were all a part of something bigger than ourselves. After my time in Iowa, I was relocated and now work as an on-site representative for another LeanCor Customer. My new role takes me out of the warehouse setting and puts me on a team who manages an estimated 250 truckloads a week across four different distribution centers. The work is much different, but my goals are in line with the high level objectives I had while working at the LLC.  I am extremely lucky to have had so many great experiences up to this point in my career and feel I have all of the tools to make a difference in my new role. My team and I have introduced many problem solving tools, established new processes, and standardized many aspects of the shipping program. But there is still room to improve. And that is exciting for us because “No Problem is a Problem!”

Written by Tom Kinder, Lean Supply Chain Operations Manager at LeanCor

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The Lean Logistics Operations Provider

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