Planning for Workflow Improvements

A manager of a large shop who's working on streamlining the machine layout and work process gets advice on how to look before he leaps. October 2, 2007

I have recently taken the job of plant manager for a shop doing about 2 mil a year. The shop has some really nice equipment. We do mostly high-end residential. The shop has recently added 12,000 sq ft so the total is about 24,000; half of this space is upstairs. I feel the flow is wrong and the placement of equipment is less than desirable. The distance between materials and the CNC/edgebander is good. However, the nearest table saw/slider and upcut saw is about 100' away. We are in the process of making quite a few changes, however I donít want to make too many changes too quick and cause more damage than good. I feel that had I been here when the decisions were made on where to put what and what flow processes needed to be in place, we would be in a better position. That is not the situation, and I would like some advice from some of the more knowledgeable guys out there. What do you think?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor K:
While I donít manage an operation like that, the results can be the same for a smaller concern. Your instincts are probably correct, but before you spring into action, take a moment to put the changes on paper and an org. board. Once you see it in front of you rather than in your head, the things that need to be done in order to create a syntoxic working relationship will be clear. On the other hand, what isnít clear can probably wait.

From contributor R:
I would have a heart to heart with the boss, and find out if you have enough leeway to fix the whole burrito. I'm with contributor K - do it all on a CAD program and take your time. Get to know the process and people first. You will know when the time is right. The right flow can allow a sizeable increase in volume, and can help with several other problems too.

From contributor W:
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but I would encourage you to talk to the guys on the floor and get their input on changes they would like to make. Chances are they have seen many, if not all, of the ways the workflow could be improved.

From contributor L:
I agree with the others and would add one more thing: plan for the future in your rearranging the shop. Hard to do, but from past experience - expensive if you don't! Our shop is about the same size and well equipped. The best thing ever done here was to put in conveyors to handle the entire panel processing area. You will get every reason in the world why it won't work from almost everyone in the plant. We have about 550' of roller conveyor and 5 transfer cars. Material handling wastes more money than most people think because it seems necessary to push all those carts or move the pallets and then have to move the empties back to the beginning of the process. Of course there are never enough carts or they have leftovers on them that no one knows what to do with. They are always in the way and labor is expended moving them (doesn't add value, so it is waste).

We are in the process of installing a gantry crane with vacuum lift and heavy roller conveyors to handle full units of material so both the panel saw and CNC can have direct access to 7 units of material without having to fire up the forklift. It will eliminate some of the handling effort that goes into loading the machines, allow stack cutting on the panel saw without sliding one panel on another and causing scratches, allow instant changes between one material and another.

Iíve never been able to figure out what percentage of shop labor goes in to non-value added effort, but it is way too much. Pushing a cart, or taking an extra step, sure doesnít add value!

From contributor I:
There are some great responses here. I ran an operation that produced about $4M annually and will absolutely suggest you offer your best insight and influence for any positive change to your operation. At the end of the day, you are probably responsible for the total physical productivity of everything that occurs on that plant floor. Not suggesting things which you arrived at via a worthwhile and collective approach with legitimate stakeholders would be like shooting yourself in the foot. Any ownership and/or management that has a proper understanding of business wants to encourage and ultimately utilize ideas from others within the company which will grow the business for all.

From contributor J:
Thanks for the time. I have asked everyone for input, but the whole crew is fairly green, which is why my last post was about keeping employees once trained. I got very little input. The owner is a really positive guy and is willing to try anything that really makes sense. I did do a flow chart and will follow up with an actual cad drawing of the shop and the flow of machine processes as well as material flow/handling. The biggest obstacle is the second floor and no elevator. We are using a scissor type lift that is about 5 X 8.

The WIP does not flow in one smooth direction at present. I am also trying to shrink the rope from start to finish. We presently use NBM and I think taking the drawers and adj shelves out of the batch will shorten the length of the job by creating parallel paths for these parts. It takes 30 minutes per sheet for drawer parts and I believe with dedicated machinery, we can at least come close to matching this. At least we will take 3-4 hours off the length of WIP. Does that sound correct?

I am working personally in each department to get the feel of wasted movement and work habits that need some refinement. So far, so good. Having the extra input is like the old adage, ďmeasure twice, cut once.Ē

From contributor B:
The two most cost effective things I ever did in my shop were conveyors (what contributor L said, only on a much smaller level) and lights. The amazing thing about lights was the improvement in employee attitude, product quality and housekeeping. I guess they all make sense. We've all heard about the winter blues being caused by less sunlight, and I feel the same thing applies to just regular lighting. Product quality increase comes from being better able to see what youíre working on. Every shop I've ever been in, there is always a dark corner that seems to be the collection point of all orphan parts, remakes, customer samples and other flotsam. By putting a light in that corner, it seems to force you to make a decision on what to do with these parts.

From contributor G:
That two level situation is a difficult one. The worst case I've seen of that was having the finishing room upstairs, so everything had to be carried, by hand, up and down. The best use I've seen of the upper floor was to put the offices up there and out of the way of production. A similar question here on WOODWEB once got the reply that a forklift was the best way to get things up and down if you have to use the upstairs.

From contributor L:
I agree with contributor Bís comment about lighting. A few years ago we put all new lighting in the shop. 8' - 2 lamp end to end at 10' o.c. Much better working conditions, no shadows. But it failed to end the piles in the corner!