Work-Station Shop Organization Systems

Thoughts on a shop setup that involves moving the workpiece from station to station, rather than moving pieces and tools onto and off of a single work bench.May 23, 2011

The current edition of Custom Woodworking Business magazine has a case study of a company called JK Concepts. They discuss workflow and work station logic. JK Concepts has apparently moved away from a bench based assembly strategy. It used to be that all the different operations would occur at the same location. In this respect, the workbench became the equivalent of an all purpose scanner-printer-copy machine, capable of doing anything (eventually), but nothing stellar.

Creating individual work stations for the various processes provides a certain clarity. Imagine the optimum bench for installing drawer slides and how different it would be from the optimum bench for assembling the cabinet. The dedicated drawer slide station might have just the accouterments germane to drawer slide installation, whereas the bench for screwing the box parts together might include a nail gun and confirmat screws.

The typical strategy is to launch the cabinet, then gather the tools together as needed for the various processes. The tools need to be collected and put away when done. There is usually some searching involved because the tools are not always where they are supposed to be and there is usually some unnecessary competition because the tools don't necessarily get put away when they should.

The biggest problem with the bench based strategy is the opportunity for randomness. When everything is democratic, it is hard to sustain an optimum set of sequences or to even understand status of completion.

The work station based model seems to fix a lot of these problems. The tools you need are only where they are needed. The completion status of any particular cabinet can be gauged just by location in the bench cycle. This approach probably also helps to sustain the use of best practice methods. It's harder to stray off the reservation when your facilities prescribe a limited scope of activity.

The best configuration would be one where a bench could accommodate two workers. These same two workers could float with the same cabinet through the various stations on the line. A buddy system, if you will. This approach would at least improve training because the mentor can remain productive and available. These stations could be staffed by one or five as demand fluctuates or resources become available.

This is obviously something that would work best with a defined product line and plenty of real estate. Would it be possible to accomplish some of this within a smaller facility? How would you configure the individual work stations? Could they be developed in a way that builds in flexibility? Could our shops be configured like a great big Taylor clamp where the work stations rotate?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor L:
What it appears you are talking about is an assembly line. That can be full blown or bits and parts. We have one area that could best be described as a cell. When there aren't a lot of items to go through it, one man can operate it. When there are more than 50 cases or so, we add people and break it down into smaller operations per man. At that point it might be considered an assembly line. The advantage of an assembly line is both speed and the "push" that it generates. The cell must be configured with all the required tools always there, in use or not. Few people are really good at everything. Specialization has advantages in reduced setup time, training time and responsibility. Shop size and product are going to be major controls.

From contributor B:
I love the buddy system to affect an automatic training program, but think that could be expensive if done at each station. Could it also be used as a toc floating training method? I guess my core concern is that if all cells operate with two workers, this would sort of establish a minimum required volume and thus not be as scalable as this volatile industry demands us to be. Of course, if a good portion of the workers are part-timers, this in itself would create terrific scalability. I'm pretty sure that's what you're already doing anyway. But wouldn't it be amazing if we could build a production model that could transition from a tiny, flexible line to a multi-manned cellular workstation beast that graduates and retracts in capacity as smoothly as a car's automatic transmission! Since I am still dreaming, would it not be the ultimate in macro-scalabilty to grow a company through the use of multiple small shops rather than growing an ever-larger single one? Sorry if I went too far sideways for this thread.

From the original questioner:
You hit it right with the automatic transmission analogy. There are two primary reasons for developing work stations that can accommodate two people. The first one is for training purposes.

One of the accepted realities of integrating new people is that the employer will be under water financially until the newbie gets it figured out. The classic work station does not allow for a second participant and, as a consequence, the trainer or mentor usually leaves the station prematurely. If they could stay throughout the whole production cycle, the quality of training would increase and output would not suffer. This would also keep new people from creating their own policy with respect to method or pace.

The second reason for being able to staff with two is for peak demand or otherwise balancing the line. This two person station seems ideal for teaching. This would be the best way for an experienced craftsman to share knowledge (would that they did not perceive this opportunity as decreasing market share). This station would also be ideally set up to drive with just one participant.

From contributor C:
Man this rocks! I can't believe what light you just shed on training and work flow!

From contributor B:
I do see the advantages of your two-man system, but my problem is that my shop is only 1000 sq. ft., which forces me to test alternative methods. My micro-shop is divided into about three even sections. The saw, lumber/sheets, and parts cubbies at one end, a finishing area at the other end, and the assembly/processing happens in the center, in front of a roll-up door, where my enclosed trailer is parked close by outside.

I have no space for dedicated workstations, never mind two-man workstations. Thus, I must eliminate the need for much training where I can. I have been delighted with the results of choosing to view the subassemblies that comprise a cabinet as separate independent product lines, and think of the bucket-brigade production runs for each as separate mini-factories. Workers get lined up along sort of a circle of adjustable height benches, with one bench in the center (only 3' or so walkways between), much like the sewing circle someone mentioned the other day, but with a small buffer zone in between workers - these too are fully size flexible, but I prefer room for a max of 3 parts/units. Then each crew member is assigned a small cluster of task elements, according to his ability, so I consider each worker a cell in the line. Often, many cells/task clusters can be arranged to require very little training, and help is usually only a couple arm's lengths away. Furthermore, there seems to be tremendous flexibility in balancing the task groupings, even mid-run, by simply shifting a task element or two to the cell/worker to left or right. Gathering tools is still a hassle, but I plan to soon elevate the tooling-up of the "cells" by means of a series of mini toolboxes, pulled from dedicated drawers. The tools/toolboxes will be sorted and sequenced to suit the number of task clusters, or cells, that I normally like to employ for a given type of run. To switch from a face frames run to a drawers run, for instance, we would simply toss one set of tool boxes in a drawer and pull out another set. The time required should be hardly noticeable.

Also, to help remove excess thinking about the division of tasks into cells, and skill levels, etc., I'm working on a football style playbook that diagrams how to set up each type of run for the number in that day's crew, and cells would be color coded to show where to place workers of various skill levels, as well as outline a series of rules to guide deployment. Sometimes runs need to be divided into a couple of sub-runs if there are not enough skilled guys that day. When a sub-assembly/component or cabinet has been pulled through the line, thus completed, it exits the circle directly into the finishing area or out the door into the enclosed trailer. I really only have space to facilitate one-pc flow, however doing so is what provided the space required for the finishing area!

Please forgive the incorrect terminology and rough methods. I have no formal training in all this so I'm pretty much just making things up as I go, stealing from you guys all the time.

From contributor M:
This is very interesting. We just ordered our case clamp that will complete our cabinet cell (NB router, bander, horizontal bore and now case clamp). The owner just suggested we get rid of some of the benches. I thought he was crazy but maybe you guys and he are onto something. Smaller stations, predefined tools and a system to build with.

Our thinking is as a small shop (one/two guys), we take a job through all the stations to job completion, or when really busy with larger jobs, we can man each station and run more of a piecework style production. The hard part as a small shop is making them flexible.

From the original questioner:
Contributor B, you seem to have this stuff pretty well figured out. Lots of people can grasp the basic concepts but very few can move theory into actionable items. You might be interested in a book written by Mark Woeppel called "Manufacturer's Guide to Theory of Constraints." He talks about how you can be in control of where your constraint is. It seems like you have this figured out intuitively.

From the original questioner:
Contributor B, I just re-read your last post. I am very fascinated by your logic. Your comment about the football style playbook is what made me think about Mark Woeppel's book. He uses the analogy of a football quarterback coming out of a huddle. The play he calls always varies, but is consistently dependent on observable data. His decisions are based on field position, score board, time on the clock. There are, of course, nuances like known weaknesses about the other team, whether or not it is first down or fourth down, etc.

Your decisions are also based on observable information. The way you develop sub-assembly is really great. The best way is to think of your company as a series of small factories. In the morning you might be a door company. After lunch you might be a drawer company. With limited resources (space and people) you will always get the best staffing in a bucket brigade format.

Having a strategy for how you run the play will depend on how many people you can put into the department. Sometimes we build doors with one guy. Sometimes we use three. This depends on how much information we have available and how much skill is on deck.

With this bucket brigade you will soon learn how to staff. Subassembly will be dominated and your next problem will become how and where to store the work in process. My first instincts would be to see what you can do vertically. You can't push the walls out, but you can harvest some space above some of the machines.

Final assembly is where you will become the most random. Here it is useful to think of your company as not one that builds kitchens or not one that builds cabinets. At this phase you are a company that amalgamates parts into parcels that get carried onto a truck.
The very last thing you do takes place on the very last bench. This is the real estate that you want to be the most productive.

Things you can work on that are not real estate driven are information flow. That is the same crisis whether or not you have 1000 feet or 10,000 feet. And remember that this information flow starts at the customer.

From the original questioner:

Contributor M, your boss is correct. If you eliminate the extra benches you will enforce a discipline that won't exist when you have the ability to have various things in undone status. Read contributor B's post again about the kit part. His idea about having different drawers on deck for different processes makes a lot of sense.

A more concrete example might be all the tools needed for cutting an electric outlet box into a cabinet end panel. You need something to locate the center, a pattern to trace, two different drill bits, and a jigsaw. The jigsaw blade needs to be a thin one. It would be great if it was a sharp one and you didn't have to hunt for it each time you needed it. This may seem like a small minded way of approaching your business, but at the end of the day your cabinets are built with a series of small activity steps.

From contributor D:
Material handling will kill you. If something needs to move to different stations, make sure that when the component is ready to move along, it is already in the right spot for the next person to pick it up. For instance, pick up the part with your right hand, do the work and set it down with your left. The next person can do the same and the assembly moves through the shop with no extra input. Rolling carts take up space when they're not in use. Eventually they become nothing more than rolling storage shelves. When optimizing work stations we would attach a 6 foot string from the workers belt loop to the middle of the bench and count how many times it needed to be untied during a shift. The goal is zero.

From the original questioner:
That's an interesting idea about the string. Something similar takes place at Providence Hospital in Seattle. These people have created a secondary profit center called Lean Hospital University. They teach staff from other medical facilities how to decrease waste. One of the tools they employ is a pedometer. They merely track how much travel time is associated with a nurse's day.

A woodworking company in Idaho that makes (or used to make) hotel furniture did a similar study. Before consolidating work stations it used to take them 4 - 6 weeks to ship a project. After consolidation the same work order took 3 - 4 days. One of the metrics they discussed was travel time. A typical work order now travels 1000 lineal feet whereas it used to travel 1.3 miles. Consolidation reduced travel time to 15% of what it was.

This may seem like picayune cost to pay attention to until you realize the significance on cash flow. If you can build it quicker, you can get paid quicker.

From the original questioner:
Contributor B, you have a very profound insight into lean thinking. How did you come to this epiphany? What books have you read? My greatest mentor was Derek Slotemaker, though I don't think he actually understands how come. My epiphany moment was the day I was driving to work and realized that Mrs. Smith was not the customer, she was only the client. The real customer for what we were doing at any given time was the next process. I am interested in how you got to this level of understanding because if I could create that event I could create the production manager we need to develop durable advantage.

From contributor P:
Does Toyota use anything like this buddy system? I have seen and used this in the past because the two workers pace each other like an assembly line. On a larger scale, though, the assembly line only produces to the constraint. I guess this is where the bucket brigade comes in? Doesn't the bucket brigade have a certain amount of training built into it, as the slower worker will be forced into learning but also learn at his own pace?

From contributor B:
My flux-capacitor moment came as a result of great, great pain. After two decades of really hard work, the economy melted down, and I happened to notice that I had no savings, no retirement accruing, no money to pay for college or help with weddings. I had loved this business, but it had not loved me back.

From that moment about 2 1/2 years ago, I started a personal crusade. No more rubbing wood by candlelight; I determined to become a businessman, or get out and sell snow cones or something. I am a long, long way from the mark still. But after stealing from all of you for years and reading over 100 books (mostly used - only about $800 spent!), compiling 2000 pages of hand-written notes, and 20 binders of rough-draft systems and strategies, I feel that at least I have some new ideas to try, to test for results. I have learned that my opinions do not matter - only results. However, by no means have I actually accomplished anything yet.

This may sound a little excessive, but what were my alternatives, really? My hope is that I will come to view this depression, which dropped my sales by 75%, as one of the best things that ever happened to me. Time will tell.

I now believe that powerful opportunity lies dormant within this industry's inherent complexities. In fact, they are a natural barrier to competitors - blue oceans are possible! I am so grateful for all the great ideas shared above.

I'd like to honor all the "givers" on this site by quoting one of you present at this thread today, from a post you made here about 2 years ago: "Making judgments must be eliminated because they require both substantial experience and strong intuition. Rather, design systems requiring only choices."

From contributor B:
To the original questioner: Before commenting on the rest of your question, I'd like to thank you for the kind encouragement. Funny thing is, I really have not studied lean except for on WOODWEB, the internet, and in the free trade magazines they send me. My fledgling applications mostly come from a bit of extrapolation and following the ever-present logic trail. One book I have, though, is a real gem. It's called "Kanban on the Shop Floor" by Productivity Press as the listed author. I spotted it at the last Vegas show.

A kanban inventory of common parts, hardware and sheets, etc., limited to the batch size of a single kitchen, is what I'm really striving to find space for. I suspect this would tremendously smooth production (automatically feed lulls - without conversation!), use up scraps, and serve as additional schedule and financial buffers as well!? Couldn't much of orders prep simply be a quick view of the bins, even before engineering is done? Maybe I can find something less important to put up high, like you said, so I can create kanban inventory storage below.

As far as getting your people to see the light, the other leanish book I have is called "One Small Step Can Change Your Life - the Kaizen Way" by Robert Maurer. It claims we need to feed workers, and ourselves, new methods in small enough doses to bypass subconscious push-back. They/we can change without even knowing it.

This may work to reform their actions, but I don't know about reforming their thinking. In my test runs of bucket brigade, in two instances, I have hired highly skilled, self-employed buddies of mine to join two different production spikes (sort of like mini barn raising events using bucket brigade). In one case, we almost entirely built a full face frame kitchen with four men (including myself). My total cost of labor was about $500.00. This was a feat never before done in my primitive, messy micro-shop. I was shocked when my buddy argued that it made no matter because, after all, "hours is hours - doesn't matter if done in a week or one day." He just participated in something he himself had never done. My hourly income was probably increased four-fold, yet he honestly could see no advantage.

I thought this blindness a fluke until it happened with the other buddy as well. This time we ran a brigade of five workers, not including myself. I mainly served as the lubricator. We actually formed the line on two 8' benches at the CNC shop, and ran 72 boxes straight into the contractor's awaiting trailer (he was installing himself). Done in less than 8 hours, including collating all those parts. I glowed that this test also went extremely well, to me. I utilized two guys with zero training, two skilled, one semi-skilled. My other cabinetmaker buddy that helped knew my cost of labor was about $800.00 and knew that I made almost 5k for the day - a feat still almost unimaginable to me (then rested and reset/prepped, for a week), yet he saw no magic in it, at all. To this day he hasn't even tried bucket brigade or lean methods, even though I try to spoon-feed it to him in love, but he works 7 days a week and is divorcing. I love him, but...go figure.

What first got my attention was a post on WOODWEB. Someone mentioned that as much as 85% of shop motions where non-value adding. Wow. Who would not investigate a claim like that?

From the original questioner:
It is not surprising that the people who work for you do not recognize the benefits of lean thinking. Trying to get even business owners to spend any time coming to grips with it is a whole lot like trying to get a cat into a cardboard box for a trip to the vet. With the cat you have to leave the box out in the living room for a while, then sneak up on it. Not sure how to do it for a business owner.

I can understand your passion for bucket brigade. Every time we employ it our metrics go through the roof. We are able to plug in completely inexperienced people for certain aspects and they perform as well (actually better sometimes) as people with decades of experience.

You referenced a blue ocean earlier. Blue Ocean Strategies is one of the better books I have read in some time. It's a bit of a slog but very worthwhile once the premise becomes clear. (I wish I would have read the last half first.) Many of the principles in that book apply not only to creating markets but also creating manufacturing paradigms. There really is no reason to benchmark yourself against your competition.

From contributor B:
Thanks. Blue Ocean is cemented in my top ten. Seems a 20-30% increase in customer value perception would be required. Would this not be possible with bucket-brigade flow, should the "good mechanic" become inclined (probably not a first choice)? Even a one-man shop would have much trouble competing against it.

In the end, I am greatly encouraged by those otherwise inclined - that is the opportunity. Can you imagine trying to survive in an environment where certain levels of efficiency became the norm? How many boxes would we have to build to get a paycheck?

From contributor P:
Did your bucket brigade include the router and edgebander?

From the original questioner:
Re-read this part of contributor B's post:
"I'm working on a football style playbook that diagrams how to set up each type of run for the number in that day's crew, and cells would be color coded to show where to place workers of various skill levels, as well as outline a series of rules to guide deployment."

This is an approach that could work with any shop, highly custom or factory line. This is how Lean is applicable to any type of shop. No matter what the particulars are for any specific flow there are best ways to apportion the tasks depending on whether or not there are 1, 2 or 3 people available at that moment. Once the line has been balanced for 1, 2 or 3 people there is no reason to change the playbook unless there are attendant changes to technology.

From contributor P:
The reason I ask is that if his time includes the router and edgebanding, those are very good times; if they are only assembly, not so much.

From contributor B:
I agree with you; it is not a stellar time for good modern methods. However, for me this was only a rough test of some new ideas. But I speculate that the potential is scary big. If making ample profit while also gaining personal free time (the true wealth of the new millennium) is my objective, then I would consider that test performance a reasonable success.

It is not my goal to invest to whip all comers - that would be waste. I only need to be able to tap-out the average competitor in my area to meet my intentions. The potential, though, is almost endless, I think.

But for fun, with a rocket CNC and a good bander, could not the same performance be replicated by simply adding another couple semi-skilled operators to the mix? I don't mean to oversimplify, but that would have cost only an additional $250 or so for the day?

Come to think of it, the overhead, etc. for the shop and equipment and the operators' labor was already factored into the CNC fees I paid. And the overall profit doesn't even really matter because a better shop, such as yours, would probably sell that job for even more.

So, the problem that comes to mind is that the CNC may not be able to optimize the order of cutting to well accommodate a single box flow (my term for this is a "stop-cell"), therefore, the cutting of that job would need to have been done previously, but the day's run could have been picked up at the bander.

From contributor P:
I'm not criticizing you at all; I'm just trying to follow what you are saying. The Blue Ocean thing points out the power of positioning but it is hardly a how to book. It seems to me (I don't know) you would have to do some profound study of the marketplace to determine what is truly needed and wanted, and use some lateral thinking, otherwise you might end up where there is no competition but also no market. In blue ocean they found niches in a market that was not served, i.e. the beer drinkers with Yellow Tail, the solo drivers with Southwest, or the adult circus goers with Cirque du Soleil. The closest thing I can think of in the woodworking industry is cabinet refacing, closet organizing, home offices? Most of the guys on this forum rode the rising tide of growth. Today because of the demographics and national debt, I'm not sure that can still be done.

Jon Elvrum used to ask the question, what business are you really in? To me the answer was the promotion or PR business. The middle class has no need for this; they require something that looks different than what they have had for too long but doesn't cost too much. The upper class does have a need to promote themselves, retails stores, class A construction, trade shows, banks, restaurants, lawyers offices the same. At any rate, your enthusiasm is a breath of fresh air. I'm sure you will be very successful.

From contributor B:
I see your point, if the authors conveyed that we could attract a mass market opportunity by simply creating a niche market, that would be a hard sell in these times. Desperate innovation would well serve nobody.

It is a rich offering, so I can see how we could each come away with very different perspectives. If I were to apply the 80/20 rule according to my own impression of what was actionable in the book, I would tender that the idea is to cause the customer to think of my offering as a far, far better value than my competitors', thus making their choice to hire me somewhat of a no-brainer. Beyond a pure pricing play, I feel the authors were showing how these example businesses did it by exploiting multiple variables to create exceptional value. For instance, Circ did it by providing a new, original type of show, while at the same time axing the most expensive aspects of the traditional circus. Moreover, they could provide this new format in many places a regular circus could not go. All these and other advantages added up to create a superior value to the customer, while cutting costs (invented a space for profits) simultaneously, changing the game completely.

I read that book 18 months ago, but I think I got that mostly right. There is not time or space to outline my models, but I found the book to be a very specific guide. I found it fun to employ all the graphical guides and perception maps, etc. I enjoyed cracking into them with the 5 whys exercise they use at Toyota. In fact, I used the 5 why-nots and the 5 hows too. But I did color a lot of it with ideas from elsewhere, so maybe I read too much into it.

The famous TOC maven, Dr. Lisa Lang, spoon feeds the same applications in an extremely expensive (for me) seminar called The Mafia Offer - it is about creating the unrefusable deal. This deal would be one that your primary competitors cannot, or will not, match. She employs lean/TOC and other disciplines in a variety of applications to build in excess capacity, and then give it away as value to the customer in various ways - creating a blue ocean opportunity, although she seems to avoid using the term.

I have worked very hard to develop multiple (theoretical) profit drivers, designed to create synergy. In fact, production efficiency was one of the last things I looked at - working for your money is the hardest way to make it! The use of a lean bucket brigade to price compete in an ugly way is not really my intention, but my math seems to suggest that I could.

From contributor P:
To me that is all positioning. In guerrilla marketing they say that of the 31 aspects of advertising, by far and away the most important is position in the marketplace. If you haven't read it, make this number 101.

There is also a book called "Positioning the Battle for the Mind: A Different Take on Positioning." This is along the lines of 7up positioning themselves against #1 Coca Cola as the "uncola." This automatically positions them and makes them notable against #1. Another one was Avis rental cars: "we're number 2, we try harder."

All of the guys on the forums who are successful have a position in the market and their customers' heads whether they realize it or not. Saying position creates value is tautology.
It just boils down to finding out what is needed and wanted. It sounds like you are already hip to this point. Lateral thinking means that you don't go into this with preconceived notions, fixed ideas, which is deceptively hard, especially the older you get.

From contributor B:
That is very interesting. I'll need to revisit positioning a bit. If you think it is so important that you have made it one of your top two focuses, then I should take a closer look.

From contributor P:
It is the most important business decision you will make. As they say, be careful what you wish for.