Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Employee Engagement: Improving a Damaged Process

One company I worked for made flexible pouches for the medical device, food and military markets.

I'd just recently joined and was following my first order through the plant, so I was still getting to know the people in the production department as well as the processes they used to make our products.

When I came around to the line where my customer's product was being made, I noticed nearly all the operators had bandaids on their thumbs.  So I asked one of them why so many people were wearing bandaids.

This particular customer's product was formed and then diecut to shape in a second operation. To ensure the printing on the pouch was in register to the seals and the overall shape of the pouch, we used what is called a pin registration system. This means that, when the pouch is formed, a series of holes are simultaneously punched around the perimeter of the pouch. When the pouch is diecut, it is placed on a board with a steel ruled die and the holes punched in the pouch fit onto pins mounted in the die board to ensure the pouch is cut consistently and with print in register with the seals and the overall shape.

In this case, the operator explained they were puncturing their thumbs as they struggled to stretch the pouch over the die board to align pins with holes in the pouch. The pins being used were actually nails which, of course, had sharp points.  Moreover, the nails were aluminum roofing nails and were so soft the operators were constantly trying to straighten them out - the tension of the stretched pouch was causing the roofing nails to bend.

This particular product was new to me, but had been run before in our plant and the operator told me this was how the company had been doing this operation "for years."

I liked the ingenuity of using nails for registration pins, however, the type of nail being used was so soft they would only be truly in register the first time they were used.  As more pouches were cut, the nails became more and more distorted.

I went to the production manager and suggested they modify the design of the die to use steel nails, which were much stiffer and more resilient.  I explained the operators were getting injured from using the original die design and the aluminum nails were not helping us produce a consistent product.

The next day, I found the diecutting operation going a bit quicker, and the die boards now had steel nails instead of aluminum.  I asked the operators what they thought.  They told me the new "pins" lasted much longer and they didn't have to keep trying to bend the pins straight.  However, the pins were still nails and they still had sharp points.  People weren't getting hurt so easily, but they were still getting hurt.

Now I spoke with our plant engineer about the issue in our diecutting department.  Like me, he thought using nails as pins was resourceful, but still a long way from being a best-in-class die design.  He modified the pin system to incorporate spring-loaded steel pins with rounded tops.

When we introduced these to the diecutting department, the feedback from the operators was very positive and productivity improved.

I think the operators in this plant appreciated having someone come out to see how they were struggling with a poorly designed process.  Even though our first modification - from aluminum to steel nails - wasn't a complete success, it showed the operators someone was listening to them.  We reinforced that by getting more input from the operators, which led to our plant engineer's solution.

Another thing I found was that, when I went out into the production floor, the operators seemed much more helpful and friendly.  People opened up.  We talked about families, pets, hobbies - and about the processes we used to make our products.  One operator gave me a complete tour of her department - just because I asked "why do you do things this.....?"

Let there be no doubt about it, the people in the diecutting department knew they had a faulty process.  But management either wasn't listening or was just too cheap to do things the right way.  The employees were afraid to ask for improvements.  It just took someone from the front office going out to ask how things were going to get the feedback and drive some action to remedy the issue.

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