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Plant tours – A simple tool to learn

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Operations Excellence by Sepp Gmeiner
Sepp Gmeiner is a partner with Lignum Consulting. For feedback, questions and/or suggestions please email
I like plant tours. There is always something to learn when seeing another manufacturing plant. Associations such as the CKCA organize plant tours for its members. During the LIGNA show the major machine manufacturers take busloads of visitors to tour modern plants. Cluster organizations, such as the Bluewater Wood Alliance hold tours combined with a peer review of the plant. Visiting plants, other than woodworking plants is also interesting. Touring a Toyota assembly plant is like visiting the Holy Grail of 
Lean manufacturing.
As we walk through different woodworking factories, how much do we pick up? Do we just discard what we see as “nothing new” or do we try to see what challenges this company has and what corrective actions they should take? It is difficult to find something if you are not looking for it. You need to switch your mind to a search and discovery mode. Older colleagues once shared an experience they had, after they provided plant tours for a Japanese delegation in the late 70s while touring several German manufacturers. After the plant tour, with no cameras allowed, the small group documented their observations out of memory. Layout, material flow, manufacturing model, machine model, material suppliers, as well as scheduling principals that had been understood. Visiting a plant in such a way is an acquired skill.  If we would quiz our tour group on what they saw, and how this particular company solves their problems, how much information would we collect? Dr. E. Goodson, with similar experiences in the 90s, decided to develop a system to read a plant quickly. He claims that by seeing the plant, he can estimate with reasonable accuracy the manufacturing cost.

Picking up ideas for your own plant
We should take any available opportunity to visit other plants. You will always learn something. It could be something new, it could confirm some of your actions at home, or it could give you samples of how not to do something. There is always the question: should you allow visitors or competitors onto your shop floor? My answer is yes. This answer comes with the understanding that such visits are reciprocated. We can learn from each other. The only instance where I will not show my plant would be if I have something outstanding, revolutionary, or very new, which could be copied after seeing it once. I would not show my product development for the next year. Toyota, as the leader in manufacturing, allows plant tours freely. “What you see on our shop floor is already the old stuff; the new is implemented tomorrow, and by the time you catch up to that we will be ahead again…” was their explanation. They certainly have areas in their plant where they do not allow visitors.

Assessing potential suppliers and partners
If you want to have a good supplier or partner, you need to understand each other’s needs. You need to learn to communicate with each other. Just exchanging purchase orders and drawings does not give you the full benefit of the relationship.
How do they ensure quality? Do they understand exactly what and how we need the product? Can they accommodate rush-orders? What is easy for them, and what is difficult? Learning from your suppliers and sharing with them some of your knowledge will benefit both of you.

Evaluating potential take-over companies
Assessing companies based on the books and by the accountants’ review will not give you the full picture or might even give you the wrong picture. We have all heard stories of takeovers gone wrong. A skilled plant tour sees beyond the numbers and can assess the level of Lean, customer responsiveness, quality assurance, safety performance, and management culture.
A trained eye can see things on a plant tour, which are not in the books. The age of the equipment is not as important as it is to see if the machines are the right machines to do the job. For example, is the company forced to produce in larger batches because the set-up times are too long?

Self-assessment of your own facility
Looking at other plants should trigger you to look at your own plant with critical eyes. Self-assessment is just the reverse of the above two points. How do our customers see us, or how do potential purchasers see our company. Being self-conscious about how you are and how you look to visitors enables you to work on changes. It is then up to you to make sustainable real changes or to just “put lipstick on the pig.”
It is surprising how accurate a quick assessment can be. The accuracy increases when more than one person is taking the tour (at the same or different times), and the results are immediately summarized. By combining the observations, gaps and omissions are reduced. The following eleven categories systemize the approach:

Customer satisfaction
Do the employees genuinely know their internal and external customers? As for internal customers: do the employees know where the product/work travels for the next operation, and do they know what criteria are important for the next step? Does customer satisfaction have center stage? Does the company share customer satisfaction scores or post customer feedback (positive and negative)?

Working environment - Order, cleanliness, safety
Is the factory clean and orderly? Is there sustainable progress in 5S? Are workplaces, tools, WIP and inventory identified (location, label, sorted, lines marking aisles…)? Does the factory appear to be regularly cleaned, or was it just cleaned for your visit? Is the material stored properly to prevent deterioration and damage? Is the material next to the workstation related to a current order, or are workplaces cluttered with leftover materials? Do employees step-on/walk over material (i.e. dirty shoe prints on veneer boards...)

Visual management
Are company goals posted? Are the displayed key performance indicators relevant and up-to-date? I do not count motivational posters with layers of old dust build-up as visual management. Is out of place material/obsolete material easily visible? Are shadow boards and other visual aids implemented and sustainably used? Is Kanban replenishment implemented for some of the consumables, tools, WIP or raw materials? Is current paperwork (work orders, drawings, working lists, schedules) located in defined locations. Is the paperwork for completed work removed? Is it intuitively or explicitly clear what to work on next?

Scheduling system
Is the factory operating on a pull-system with an established pacemaker? Is the information required by operators and/or machines delivered in time and efficiently? Is there a visual sign to show the on-time-performance of the factory? Is there a heightened sense of urgency when orders are in danger of being late? Does the manufacturing facility show any awareness of their bottleneck? Are there any signs of ability to manage seasonal or other capacity fluctuations?

Space utilization, material movement and product driven layout
What percentage of the floor space is used for manufacturing and how much space is used to store WIP and raw material? How is the material used from work place to work place? How often is the material moved? Are machines placed together in cells?
Level of inventory and 
work in progress
How old is the oldest material on the shop floor? Is there obsolete material mixed in the inventory? Are the “corners” full of old material? Is the FIFO inventory system working? Are there restocking arrangements (Kanban) in place to replenish inventory levels? Is there damaged material mixed in the WIP and raw material? Is material brought to the assembly lines at predetermined locations and quantities? Lean plants look rather empty!

Team work and motivation
Are there company/department goals/targets prominently posted and are the current levels of performance (out-put, productivity safety) displayed? Are there practical work instructions on the different work places? Are employee areas kept clean in a respectful manner? Do employees relate and understand the meaning of the Key Performance Indicators? How do the people relate to each other? How is their body language?

Condition and maintenance of equipment and tools
Are the machines cleaned and free of debris? Are there old dust and oil stains on, under and behind machines? Are spare parts and unused machine units around the machines? Are the worktables cluttered with tools? Are adjustment knobs/handles, gauges and dials broken or missing? Are air hoses leaking compressed air? Are current maintenance schedules posted? Are machines operating with safety covers removed? Are adjustable wrenches instead of proper tools used to adjust machines? Are the tools on the floor, in the machines or mixed with sawdust? Are the drawers of tool cabinets orderly or an untidy mixture of sharp and dull/used tools, old paperwork and other non-essentials.
Management of complexity and variety of product offering
Are work instructions clear and precise? Work instructions showing customer’s name/order? Is there a functional document control in place? Do you see a lot of the employees “studying” work orders and developing handwritten cutting lists?

Supply chain integration
Is supplier material quality inspected? Are there quarantine areas for rejected product/material? Are there signs of supplier measurements in place? Do you see signs of supplier managed inventory?

Commitment to quality
Are there any signs of Continuous Improvement Projects in progress? Are there any signs for project management of new product introduction? Are there samples of fail-safe methods to prevent defects? Attention to quality is easy to spot. Are employees conducting prescribed quality checks and recording measurements, keeping charts and metrics? What is done with non-conformance material/product? Is it hidden or are there clear designated areas? Would you purchase this product over similar available products?

It would be possible to grade the company on each of the eleven categories. This would create a score, by which you can compare companies. It would also allow you to rate the same company in a “before and after” situation.
Also, organizations can do self-evaluations and this exercise can lead to a gap analysis.
Plant tours are a valuable resource and a simple way of learning from peers. However, it is when you learn how to see that these plant tours become more effective.

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