Shop Floor Management Systems

Woodshop owners discuss ways to improve the techniques they use to organize and run their operations. July 3, 2006

I own a shop that produces stairs, cabinets and what we call shop supported finish carpentry. We build a variety of items, both in shop and installation on site. We serve a resort community and it is pretty high end. I have been building for 30 plus years, have been in business for a good number of those years and have worked for others.

What techniques do you use to communicate with your employees? There is communication via drawings. You know - plan and elevations. Drawings are necessary, but not sufficient. There is communication or instructions about how to, i.e. how to take a pile of rough wood and turn it into a finished product. What step to take first, what step to take second, etc. Instructions or coaching about how to work as a team, machine setups, running machines, accuracy, how much time things should take. It goes on and on.

Some of the tools we use are:
A. Flow charts. We, as a team, write down the steps in order for the task at hand. The flow chart lists the steps, shows the order, indicates when the order is not critical, shows when steps can be done simultaneously and shows non-sequence-dependent steps. We write the flow chart on dry erase boards and hang them where the team can see them, refer to them as they work. We produce new flow charts for every task, every time. I could produce flow charts for all tasks while setting at my computer. But I want my team to own their flow, to engage their brains and think about how we are working. I think if I just handed them the solution, they might read it and they might follow it, but there would be no ownership of it, they would not necessarily buy into it. The look of the flow chart varies some based on the number of people on the team.

B. We use cut sheets that I produce on the computer. We have started to separate the cut sheets based on components. For example, if we were building cabinet doors, we would have a cut sheet for stiles, a cut sheet for rails, a cut sheet for panels and a cut sheet for the boards that make up the panels. These cut sheets would be sorted from longest to shortest or biggest to smallest. Sometimes the cut sheet will have a drawing on it showing how the piece looks at that step.

C. We use what we call process validation at each machine. That is a map of how to run that particular machine or work station. How to make sure that the work being produced at a given station is correct. Correct quantity, correct size, correct shape, correct material.

Even with these tools, we have some mistakes. Not a huge amount, but some. I think if we added people, the disconnects would increase exponentially. What do you use? What do the companies that employ 15-50 people use? How do the big boys communicate with all of those people?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor P:
Your system sounds good, particularly flowcharting. We use plans with comprehensive cut lists on them. Each machine has instructions attached to it (if it's complicated) and each also has a person assigned to it for maintenance and answering questions. Mistakes are bound to happen in any large and complex custom environment, but your system should minimize them. The other thing that we do that maybe you don't is have a floor foreman - our best and most experienced guy - whose primary duty is to answer questions about how to do things, to keep an eye on the less skilled people, and when necessary, to outline the best procedures to our newbies. Minimizing the turnover of your employees will also help minimize errors. The guys who have been with us for 5+ years and really know their job make the fewest mistakes.

From contributor T:
To the original questioner: You seem to have a good flow from the office to the backroom, well documented procedures with clearly defined steps. How do you handle the flow of information in the backwards direction, i.e. from shop to office? Do you have any mechanisms in place to know the current status of a work order? If you do, I am curious how you accomplish this. I've seen several project management applications that generate percentage completion reports for updating GANT charts, etc. Whenever I probed how this percentage was established, it usually came down to shoe leather and somebody making an educated guess. What is the mechanism you use to get these reports from the backroom to the front room?

From the original questioner:
We do not have a shop foreman, as I act in that capacity. I have my bags on every day. Some days for the entire 8 hour shift and some days for just part of the day. So as you can imagine, wearing all of those hats (shop foreman, drafter, CNC operator, salesman, bidding and invoicing) keeps me too busy. Hence the push for better systems. I have a good crew at present, but even at that, the employee situation is always a challenge.

As far as info back to the office, that is a good question. We have a column on the cut sheets for checking when a component has been made. And we write on the cut sheets "complete," date it, sign it when we have completed a cut sheet. Additionally, our cut sheets all have titles indicating job, phase or production run and what the cut sheet is for. This really comes in handy when we have to dig back through the paperwork to remake something or check if something has been built or shipped.

I am not sure if more detail is the answer. Personally, I get hung up on the details about everything. Whether you say "vacation" or "cabinets," my mind immediately sees all of the details associated with those activities.

From contributor P:
I don't know what your total shop size is or sales are, but if you want to get a handle on this, then you will need to expand management beyond yourself. It's a big step and can be very scary, but essential. 5 years ago I was where you are and it sucks the life out of you. The trick is to find someone to promote, and to identify which of your responsibilities can be passed on. Start with the ones you like to do least, as this will boost your happiness and performance. Oddly enough, things that I hated to do were enjoyed by some of my guys. Two things to keep in mind: delegating your responsibilities is the only way to grow your company, and relaxed management is the foundation of productive, happy employees. A single, overworked manager trying to do everything leads to all kinds of trouble.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the responses. Delegating responsibility, degrees of control, feedback systems for that responsibility could very easily be an entire thread by itself. Counting myself, we have a 4 person shop, with one person in the office part time doing payroll, job costing and data entry. We gross 425K a year. And we have shown a profit every year. We do not produce the same thing over and over. In fact, we pretty much do not build the same thing twice (has to do with our clients and market), and while there is a number of very talented shops in our area and talented craftsmen, none of the shops are very big.