Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Alternating Career

Another one of the "aha" moments of my lean "journey" (aka Green Mile) actually happened before the first step. I remember it like it was yesterday.

I was walking briskly through the plant, exchanging pleasantries with people along the way, rushing to some important "management" task. One of our chemical operators called me over. I extended my pointer finger, indicating to him that I would be right there (just finishing up an conversation about the Patriots with someone else). I made my way over to "Joe", who was in his mid-forties, and had been with the company for 15 years or so. What he said to me froze me in my tracks, and had me laying in bed thinking for the next 3 or 4 nights. You see, Joe made epoxy floor paint for a living. Batch after batch, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. The only thing that changed was the color. Dang he was good at it. So good, in fact, that it took 2 people to do his job when he went on vacation, and batches still had to be re-worked sometimes.

Joe asked me "Bill, is my lot in life to make epoxy floor paint, until I retire?" 

I didn't know what to say. I was speechless. After all, I loved to tell the world how important "our people" were. How they were our #1 asset. Yet, I was pretty darn comfortable knowing Joe was on task, making sure orders were filled, and I was happy with the idea that I didn't have to think much about Joe.

Enter The Toyota Production System. Enter Principle #2, "Develop Your People and Partners". Enter the concept of a true Learning Organization. Now fast forward the clock about 5 years. 

Joe still made epoxy floor paint. And so did 3 or 4 of his friends, with zero drop off in quality or productivity. (Joe had led 4 or 5 A3s where the problem solved was lack of standardization, and the deliverable was how-to instruction videos. Joe also rotated into other areas, including shipping, based on demand, because other people's work was standardized also. Joe led other A3s, small, reversible steps toward flow, and he was picked by his peers to be on dozens of others. He was sought after as an A3 team member because of his knowledge and experience. During any given week, Joe may be involved with 3 or 4 different 20 minute self-directed work team members.

We had taken this learning organization thing to heart, and had created a 4 year, 40 credit company university with the purpose of teaching all stakeholders how all of the major value streams in the company worked. Chemistry classes, IT, supply chain, finance, sales, etc. Joe was in the first class to graduate (in 3 years) because he took multiple courses each trimester. He took an "Instructor 101" course, where he learned how to build curriculum, write tests, design Power Point presentations, and speak in public. All of this happened between the hours of noon and 1 pm, three days per week. Joe actually helped teach one of the core manufacturing courses at the university after completing the Instructor 101.

Some of my clients have developed internship programs, where someone on the factory floor spends 1 hour every week for 10 weeks with sales, in the tool room, IT, engineering, or in customer service. Keep in mind people spend that much time each week talking about the NFL playoffs. I developed a process in my company where everyone worked, over the course of a year, in every department for a morning (it was called "in each other's shoes). It was about respect and possibilities.

When all was said and done, and in retrospect, I understand the concept of "the alternating career", and the benefit to your business, both in terms of morale and to the bottom line. Toyota always says that their main objective is to "build leaders". If you truly invest in people, you do not need to throw new bodies (or worse, layers of management) at problems or at spikes in demand. 

The two main pillars of TPS are continuous improvement and respect for people. I'm pretty sure the definition of respect for people doesn't include limiting a human to a machine 9600 hours per year. I am so grateful that I learned first hand the value of BOTH pillars. And so is Joe.

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