People + Process = Performance

L.E.S.S. ™: The Case for a New Strategy and Approach to Productivity, Quality and Safety-Part 2

In part 1 we looked at current business disciplines, their associated strengths and weaknesses and the reason for why a new strategy and approach is need for proactively and reactively solving productivity, efficiency and safety issues.  In part 2 we are going to explore the power of L.E.S.S. ™

 The Power of L.E.S.S. ™

The best way to understand the power of L.E.S.S. ™ is to consider actual examples that used one methodology and compare it what did happen or could have happened if all four were used. (Note:  I’ve removed the company names and identifying characteristics from all of the examples.)

 Example 1: Errors With Manual Inspection Of Iron Castings

ABC Foundry had been experiencing problems with their final inspection process of the iron castings.  Defective castings were being shipped to customers at an unacceptable rate.  In this case, the “miss” rate was 5%.  ABC Foundry attacked this problem using Six Sigma and its DMAIC process (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control).  The problem and Definition was obvious—inspectors were not identifying defects in the castings.  The Measure was pretty straightforward as well as they knew how many castings were returned by the customers and the locations of the defects on the castings.  In this case the miss rate was 5% (Out of 5,000 castings/day 250 were defective).  The foundry also had data that showed when the castings were inspected and who was doing the inspection at the time.  All of their inspectors had been in that position between 2-20 years so experience wasn’t thought to be an issue.  Analysis showed that the defects occurred with specific types of castings, identified the location where the most frequent defects were missed and determined the “best to worst” inspectors based on their miss rate.  The cost of these miss defects was significant as it resulted in 1 lost customer, decreased satisfaction from the customers who decided to stay with the foundry if improvement were made and in the material/labor cost to produce, ship “make good” castings.  The financial impact was estimated at $900,000. Based on the analysis several Improvement ideas were generated.  They varied from staying with the manual inspection process and retraining all of the inspectors on those specific castings to going to an automated inspection system.  It was deemed too costly to automate inspection so they decided to pursue retraining and add a second inspection process that would re-inspect 10-15% of the castings.  At first glance this appears to be a logical solution based on the data. The above changes resulted in a 50% reduction in the miss rate, from 5% to 2.5% which was still too high to satisfy all of the foundry’s customers. Now let’s compare that to what would have happened if L.E.S.S. ™ was used.

 In this case, Ergonomics (human factors) would have addressed factors related to human performance physically such as lighting, fatigue, posture/positioning assumed while inspecting, and cognitively such as repetitive work, fatigue and why identifying and using the defect detection tools wasn’t easy.  Using principals and tools from an organizational Ergonomics, Systems thinking and Lean would have resulted in the use of value stream mapping with attention given to processes upstream and downstream to inspection.  Potential upstream factors to consider would be the engineering design of the casting, mold/sand quality, issues with the knock off or grinding process, etc.  The potential downstream factor to consider was what happened to the castings once they leave the inspection area that may cause damage to the casting.  The solutions generated by using L.E.S.S. ™ would address quality, efficiency, human and machine factors.  Potential solutions include:  modification of casting/mold design, putting in place quality control processes to ensure consistent sand mold quality, modification of work shift and/or job rotation of inspectors in order to prevent mental and physical fatigue, modification of lighting, different gloves that allow greater tactile sense so defects can be felt easily, modification to conveyor height/workstations to optimize posture and viewing angle/handling of casting, add/change inspection tools  to aid in the speed and consistent detection of defects, review the process of how inspectors are hired or promoted to this position and the training they receive initially and thereafter.  One and does the hiring/advancement/training for inspectors need to change.  Another option that could be added to the list of solutions is to assess the culture of the foundry to determine if the vision and goals for the foundry by management is shared by the employees.  Culture impacts employee engagement and their commitment to company improvement and success.   

 Example 2: Desire to Minimize Information Entry Errors

PoisonX Hotline Call Center did an informal audit that showed required regulatory information had not been entered into 30% of each customer call’s contact entry.  For those contact entries that had information, 40% contained inadequate information.  The potential impact on the company was deemed very significant.  They could be cited and fined several thousands of dollars or worst case scenario, even shut down the company in the event that the regulating body would come for a formal audit and find the deficiency.  The company applied process improvement principles to try to solve the issue.  The problem was obvious, necessary information wasn’t routinely being entered by their representatives.  The “who” that were not entering the necessary information was essentially all of their representatives, meaning it was a widespread issue regardless of length of time on the job or the skill level of the representative (these call center representatives were professionals that held degrees and licenses in the specific poison field).  The “why” was difficult for them to figure out since all of their representatives had been trained that this information was needed.  They hired an outside auditor to help them identify exactly what information was needed and under his advice retrained all of their staff.  They gave each of the representatives a “cheat sheet” that listed the categories and information required under each one.  They posted reminder stickers on the computer monitors.  They anticipated this would provide the cue to the representatives to enter the information and standardize the information entered.  Two weeks after training they did another informal audit and found dramatic improvement with missing information down to 4% and inadequate information down to 10%.  The next informal audit occurred 3 months later and the result was disheartening as the missing information went back up to 15% and inadequate information to 18%.  Now let’s compare that to what would have happened if L.E.S.S. ™ was used.

 In this case, the root cause analysis and solutions would be quite different from the above.  Using Systems, Lean and cognitive Ergonomics there would have been quite a bit more initial questions asked:  When did this issue start?  Why did representatives “miss” the entry field?  Why did those who did enter information “miss” entering the right information?  What happens during the call that takes the representative’s mind away from this entry field?  What happens before and after a call that impacts this entry field?  Are there time pressures to complete a call?  What is the average call volume?  What is the length of shift?  Do “misses” occur more frequently during high call volume or towards end of shift?  What can be done to “force function” to enter the required information into the entry field.  What can be done to make entry quick and a “no brainer”?   Looking at all of the possible entry field are there any that are unnecessary or redundant? Are short cut keys an option? Where do representatives get the information to fill in this field?  Is the information needed the same, similar, different or very different for each call?  Can the information be categorized and simplified to provide choices for representatives to pick from instead of having them research the information, synthesize it down and enter it?  There are many more questions that could be asked. The potential solutions highly revolve around incorporating cognitive ergonomics and Lean principals into the software: Modifications include color differences for fields that are required and optional, force function where required fields cannot be skipped, create drop down boxes with answer choices wherever possible so adequate and accurate information is assured, for open fields add cues for the information needed and then have a pop up box that asks them to verify that information has been entered, add short cut keys to access fields in order to reduce mousing (clicking), etc.  By doing all or most of the solutions the “miss” rate would drop down to zero—it would be impossible to skip the field and the chances of representatives entering inadequate information would be virtually zero.  The total time to complete the call may be slightly longer since this field couldn’t be skipped like it was previously; however, the additional time should be minimal (goal of less than 30 seconds) with the added short cuts.

 Example 3:  Strain And Sprain Injuries Of CNC Machine Operators         

CNC Specialties was experiencing a high number of injuries to their machine operations.  The injuries were primarily carpal tunnel, forearm tendinitis and neck strains as they had to debur and buff small parts after they were machined.  The impact to the company from these injuries was $40,000 medical costs, 42 lost work days, 64 restricted work days and an increase in their workers’ compensation insurance modification rate. The average size of the parts was pretty small, between ½” and 4” long with diameters less than 1”.  Operators would hold the parts in one hand while using small knives to debur and they would hold the part in their hand when buffing.  There were a few exceptions where fixtures were made to hold parts but even the fixtures were typically small and only certain operators had the experience and skills to make fixtures.  Some parts required the use of microscopes to see the burrs.  The HR manager with collaboration from the CNC supervisors looked at the issue and attempted to use physical therapy ideas and physical ergonomics principals to try to resolve it.  The solutions included teaching the operators stretching exercises to do during their work shift, proper positioning/neutral posture of hands and forearms and how to adjust their chair so there eye height would match the height of the microscope. Unfortunately, the result of these efforts did not reduce the injuries.   This company used Lean throughout their facility and had 5S’d everything so it was neat and clean.  They utilized visual management for all of their tools and supplies.  For had created standard work binders for each manufactured part that the operators followed and updated as needed.  It included the standard (expected) number of parts to be produced per hour. Now let’s compare what happened when L.E.S.S. ™ was used at this point.

 A full ergonomic (physical, cognitive and organizational) analysis of the operator position clearly revealed the repetitively use of hand/forearm muscles that was the source of the carpal tunnel and tendinitis injuries.  It also showed that the microscope height was fixed as it was on a fixed height table.  For the majority of the workers the height was too low causing them to keep the chair height low—which upon operator interviews revealed low back discomfort as well as neck discomfort.  The microscopes were not equipped with adjustable eye pieces.  The deburring tools had very small circumferences that increased hand/finger fatigue.  Holding onto the small parts caused the same hand/finger fatigue.  Another hazard was the loss of skin from holding the parts while buffering.

Organizationally the interviews with the operators, supervisors, engineers, software engineers and direct of engineering plainly showed the priority and importance of worker comfort was low and not valued.  The HR manager was pushing them to work safer and the supervisors would verbally agree that was needed but the needed commitment was not there.  Culturally the need to produce and deliver the parts on time was the priority.  Safety was thought to slow down and hamper those efforts.  Taking an objective look at their Lean journey revealed many gaps.  Among them the standard work didn’t involve the use of fixtures to hold the small parts nor were fixtures judged by supervisors to be important even though the use of them was measured to speed up the operators’ deburring and buffing.  A shared principle of organizational ergonomics, lean and systems thinking was looking at and mapping the entire process.  Looking upstream there were efficiencies to be gain.  When the order came to the plant the engineers would create a design for the part.  This design was passed down to the software engineer to write the code for the CNC machine.  The design engineers had the skill and time (once perceptions were changed) to design a fixture to hold the part at that time.  The software engineer had the skill, ability and time (once perceptions were changed) to code more details so that less burrs were produced by the machine.  The results were fixtures (designed with physical ergonomics for diameter and length) for parts that were classified as small and machining that decreased the number and severity of burrs. This in turn resulted in better quality parts from the machine and less time and physical effort deburring and buffing.  In addition different deburring tools were found that had wider and softer grips.  The total impact was a true and sustainable decrease in injuries, greater operator morale and no increase in the total time it took to produce and ship the parts.  The attitude and perception change regarding employee comfort equally efficiency was not easily or quickly changed.  Proving that no additional time would be added to the entire order-ship process was key.

 As you see, there are several more factors that go into the root cause analysis, solution identification and selection, and implementation when using L.E.S.S. ™ than using one or two methodologies alone.

In Part 3 we’ll conclude our look of Doing More With L.E.S.S. ™.