People versus Technology

Consider this excerpt from a recent article on The Big Picture in Industry Week:

We reviewed several conveyor delivery systems and settled on cutting-edge technology. It eliminated so many positions that the payback was very quick. Parts were routed through the department and into a sorting area to be automatically picked … we were really proud of this engineering marvel. … Then, reality started to set in. We weren’t ready for cutting-edge technology. It required engineers to program and mechanics to maintain all the little switches and gates. … The downtime had gotten so bad that we positioned full-time mechanics on the line. … We were missing cycles on the main assembly line and having to manually run interiors over to catch up with product. There was considerable capital investment and lots of sweat equity.

So the company brought in TBM and Shingijitsu lean consultants and started to study the Toyota Production System. They started with a week long kaizen event focussed on one component that resulted in a U-shaped cell delivering JIT to the assembly line that worked nicely on 90% of products. Additional kaizen events totally changed the department layout to a smaller footprint that verified the methodology. Then the plant ripped out the high-tech conveyor systems and performance improved while the production footprint decreased almost 45%. As a result, the plant was able to in-source a regional distribution center that generated additional savings and created synergies across the supply chain.

Moral of the Story: technology is good, the right technology is better, but nothing beats a great team with the right training and the empowerment to do what needs to be done.