Sunday, March 27, 2016

Lean for Engineering Managers by Paris Thalassinos


Paris Thalassinos is Project Engineering Manager at Ward Leonard CT LLC (Thomaston, CT), an occasional guest blogger here at P4 Lean Strategy, and one of my trusted confidants.
As an engineer, you’ll have to make the decision to stay an individual contributor [team member] or take the leap into management. This sounds easier than it is, especially if you’ve spent your career working in a manufacturing environment; you’re accustomed to the organized chaos that somehow derails every plan. As a team member, this reality is of little concern to you. One of the best quotes I’ve heard over the years was “Today went as expected, everything I planned to do didn’t happen and I solved a whole host of problems I didn’t know existed yesterday”.

How do you manage a team of people that have accepted the status quo of operating this way? How can you handle production support while ensuring new product development goals and deadlines are met? This is the balance you need to find as a manager, and it’s no simple task!

Eliminate Waste
           
Waste isn’t as easily seen in an office environment. Materials aren’t piling up, machines aren’t sitting idle, and most work can be performed in front of a computer without moving for hours. The value stream is intangible, from concept generation to the flow of information between departments or people. Waste in this scenario could be waiting time, over processing [going “above-and-beyond”, or "gold-plating" for you PMP folks], or over producing [creating inventory].

With the downsizing of corporations over the last several years , most organizations have shifted towards project oriented matrix staffing. Cross-functional teams are assembled as needed to accomplish a task. As an engineer , you'll likely have several projects on your plate and an equal number of team leaders trying to monopolize your daily schedule.

Let's look at a simple example : John is assigned responsibilities in projects A, B, & C. Each project can be subdivided into multiple milestones:

A1, A2, A3
B1, B2, B3
C1, C2, C3

Left to his own accord , John will likely start with A1 and continue on until he has completed A2 & A3. Meanwhile , the next person in line, a manufacturing engineer, is waiting for B1 and then C1 to follow. This delay on the front end can add days, or worse, weeks to the end of the project. Think of each milestone as a product flowing through the shop floor.

The waste in this scenario should be easy to identify :

  • Inventory - if work packages A2 & A3 aren't needed , they essentially sit on a shelf,
         albeit a digital one.
  • Waiting / Idle Time - The manufacturing engineer receives A1 and completes his portion of the
         work package assuming B1 is in process.
Some of you may be thinking this is an easy problem to solve, and you're right. The first step is open communication with your team members. If each individual understands the needs of the organization and buys into accomplishing those goals, everything else should fall into place.

You don't need fancy tools such as complicated spreadsheets , enterprise resource planning (ERP) software or any of the flavor-of-the-month type strategies. A simple white board with milestones and dates will do the trick. A method I’ve taken from the project management world is a task list known as a RAIL, or, Rolling Action Item List. Any task, for any project, is added to this list as soon as it’s identified and then fit into the “production” schedule based on priority and resource availability. This list is routinely reviewed with the rest of the organization to ensure we support the needs of the operation and any changes can be addressed quickly.

Encourage interdepartmental communication; Let the needs of your customers (both internal and external) drive your production. One of the hardest things to do is breaking down silos or departmental walls. Design engineers are busy working on "pie in the sky" solutions while manufacturing engineers are on the shop floor making things happen. Who better to steer the design work and needs than the people tasked with making it all happen.

Long gone are the apprenticeship programs where engineers learned how to make parts by running machines. There's something lost when you can't appreciate the skills and methods used to turn a design into reality. If you promote open collaboration, both groups can learn a lot from each other. You might even surprise a few people who doubted “management's latest fad”. 

5 comments:

  1. Agile Software Development is pretty much what you describe here.

    A simple white board with milestones and dates will do the trick. - Scrum board!

    A method I’ve taken from the project management world is a task list known as a RAIL, or, Rolling Action Item List. - Otherwise known as a Backlog

    Any task, for any project, is added to this list as soon as it’s identified and then fit into the “production” schedule based on priority and resource availability. - Release backlog prioritization

    This list is routinely reviewed with the rest of the organization (Product owners/Stakeholders) to ensure we support the needs of the operation and any changes can be addressed quickly. - Backlog Refinement!

    great article

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