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MEs in the '90s: pulling together on the shop floor.

MEs in the '90s:

Pulling together on the shop floor

The '90s will challenge those in manufacturing to learn to pull together, to work in teams toward a common goal, to integrate their resources, and to forget the selfishness and divisiveness of the past. This will be a decade of cooperation and integration. It must, because that will be the only way to remain competitive.

In this, the first of three articles, we will examine the changing relationship of the ME and those on the shop floor. It is based on interviews with a wide range of MEs who contributed to our changing-role survey last year. For an outside viewpoint, we also include the advice of a leading manufacturing consultant.

After reviewing some basic problems, we will look at how you are solving them. The common thread in every case is learning to cooperate, to integrate diverse functions, and to work in teams in bold and exciting new ways.

A litany of little problems

Before we look at solutions, here are some basic problems that must be faced before the new manufacturing era can begin: * Job insecurity. That post-World War II phenomenon--job security--is no more. It peaked in the early '70s, and average inflation-adjusted incomes since have been in a slow decline. In the '80s, management decided it was time to dismantle the huge armies of high-cost employees assembled during those postwar boom years. Today, employment no longer lasts a lifetime, and those people discarded by manufacturing are finding new jobs in services, but with major cuts in pay and benefits. * Lean and mean. As a result, nearly all organizations are running leaner. So much so, says one respondent, "it's almost a requirement for everyone to work overtime every week. We're overloaded to the point of never being able to completely catch up--to achieve what management expects of us." * Fat and lazy. Yet a few anomalies remain. Admits one senior ME, "Because we're part of a large corporation, we haven't slimmed down, and we have far too many in management now. We lost a major product line a few years ago--half of our plant is now empty, that equipment sold, but only 70 of our 300 workforce were laid off. Because we're hoping to get business to replace it, engineering was kept intact, and now we have more MEs than we know what to do with." * Education gap. Shop-floor recruits, young people willing to become machine operators or assemblers today, lack many basic skills. They have trouble with simple math or following instructions. They clearly reflect the sad shape of our educational system today.

Veteran shop workers with limited skills also are in trouble. Each year, America discards 1.5 million people with unusable skills. Most cannot return to the workforce without assistance. * Bad press. Due to manufacturing's poor image, our best and brightest young people continue to head elsewhere. Our high-school counselors continue to degrade the mechanical/technical occupations in favor of professions with more glamour. Any student with over a 2.50 grade-point average is pushed in the direction of the "clean-hands" occupations. * New red tape. Government regulations are becoming a bigger shop-floor headache. "This is making some employees more difficult to deal with," reports a frustrated ME. "They are constantly requesting material-safety data sheets, and we spend a considerable amount of time explaining coolants and lubricants."

Adds a California ME manager distracted from his normal work: "We used to spend time overcoming natural obstacles or reacting to the competitive environment. Now, much of our time is spent on social issues that are ever so debilitating: EEOC, hazardous-material control, OSHA, EPA, drug testing, etc." * Computer lag. "If anyone accomplishes anything around here on computers," says one irate ME, "it's because they are doing so on their own. Three or four are doing this, and they're our only hope to sell computerization to management." * ME drop-outs. "Who needs high-tech skills?" asks an ME in his mid-fifties with a company hanging onto their mid '50s technology. "I'm never consulted on new equipment purchases, and I see no need for upgrading my skills--at least not here. What's the point in advanced degrees or preparing for a great leap in technology. It's not going to happen here!" * Nobody else cares. Several MEs feel their workforces either are unaware or unconcerned about the competitive situation on the outside. "They only believe what they see first hand", says one. "They really don't worry about bigger issues. In contrast, it's MEs like us who are probably worrying about those things too much."

Another ME, in a small-town atmosphere, agrees. "Our people have worked here and nowhere else. They have no idea of the competitive nature in the outside world--and they don't want to know. It's sad. They only want to hear from the veteran employees what it used to be like here in the post-war years, and wonder how soon all that is coming back." * Out of touch. In a study by Rath & Strong of 22,000 manufacturing hourly employees, barely half rated their immediate supervisor an effective manager, and two thirds said because their work was not assessed and redesigned regularly, they were not as productive as they could be. Jan Klein, assistant professor, Harvard Business School, agrees. "The lack of attention to role definition and training has been a major factor contributing to the ineffectiveness of supervisors and middle managers." * Participative hooey. Quality circles, participative management, total employee involvement, decision teams, etc--whatever you want to call it--suddenly, everyone has some version of it. When consultant Keith McKee, Illinois Institute of Technology & Research (IITRI) makes the rounds of client companies, that's all he hears. From owners of small companies to top managers of major corporations, they are all gushing with enthusiasm for their wonderful participative programs.

Yet, he concludes, it's a rare one in ten of these companies that is truly operating in a participative fashion. At one small company, the owner listens attentively to hour-long briefings from shop-floor people and outside consultants, takes an hour to defend his own methods, and then asks his managers and vice presidents for their views. Not surprisingly, they support him fully.

"Participation was encouraged, so long as none of the owner's views were challenged," McKee reports. "It became obvious why participation has not filtered down. The managers could not afford to allow creative ideas to see the light of day." * What employees really want. A survey by the American Productivity & Quality Center asked 383 managers what motivates their employees. Ranking well above job security and benefit packages were these key factors: "Challenging work," "My opinion on decisions matters," "Recognition for a job well done," "Pay tied to performance," "Fair performance measures," and "Job autonomy."

Are you on a guilt trip?

Do MEs worry that their job, in many cases, is to eliminate jobs on the shop floor? "Yes, most of us feel responsible to a certain extent," admits an ME in North Carolina. "People look at you as the one responsible for Old Joe loosing his job, getting demoted, or taking home $5000 less/year. These changes generally displace older, uneducated workers who have no potential for retraining, and limited usefulness as the corporation sees it.

"Because our workforce is mostly older people (average age is 48), this company has not done much toward retraining. Their answer is for us to idiot-proof the process so that they can use any labor that walks in off the street. Our only training is in highly specialized CNC areas."

Complains one union-shop ME: "Our direction is not to put in equipment that makes people necessarily more productive, but to shoot for reducing manpower. Management sees this as more of a tangible cost savings. They feel that if the displaced worker just moves into another area of the plant, where's the savings?"

Battling tech phobia

Too often, the shop-floor perception is that old timers are losing their jobs to younger people with more desirable technical skills and flexibility. That's very visible, but the productivity benefit isn't. "They just see new technology as more problems," says one ME, "without realizing it got rid of some of the old problems."

An ME manager tells of his tangles with tech phobia. "As we move from a little technology to a lot, it's a tough learning curve for everybody. It scares people. Our second robotic installation was massive, and when I came in and it wasn't running, I'd ask `What's wrong with it now?' Often, it wasn't the mechanics of it, it was just that people were scared of it. So I worked with them to show that it wasn't going to hurt them, it wasn't a big deal, and now it's running great. But, it was a very difficult transition."

One ME described why he is experiencing resentment introducing new equipment in his medium-sized non-union shop. "Some of it comes from our practice of not getting our people involved early enough, and trying to cram it all down their throats. Our management just doesn't want to take the time for that--they are too concerned with numbers, not enough with quality or people. They have the attitude that anyone hired off the street could do any of these jobs, because they don't really know what each job entails.

"This makes it tough on us to introduce something because those floor people can make it not work, and that's what often happens. It doesn't matter how good this equipment would be for them, they'll fight it."

Battling union resistance

We asked a senior ME in the defense industry how the shop people there were responding to new technology "The individual worker sees this as a positive step forward; generally, a fine thing. But the worker group, the union, has lots of problems with it, and when the union gets in the way, the individual union members have to go along, they can't do things their own way.

"For example, we have had a shop-floor CMM for two years that has yet to be used. We wanted operators to be able to set parts into it, log in, push a button, let the machine make its measurements, and then use the readout to make machining adjustments. But the union claims this is an inspection function, and they won't permit it."

Although he feels the concept of bringing the quality function to the work floor will be accepted in time, "this change is slower, the bigger and more unionized the organization, something that's no different now than it was ten years ago." However, for minor technology changes--installing new gaging, for example--that requires some training, "The operators are pretty open to that."

Large plant, large inertia

A senior ME at a large Midwestern aerospace plant agrees that the larger the plant, the harder it is to get it to move. "We have over 4000 machine tools in this facility, and a lot of these are quite old. These machines can't accept new tooling concepts--they have the horsepower, but not the speed or rigidity.

"So we're very slowly converting over, introducing the new grinding wheels, the new ceramic and CBN inserts, etc; when and where we can. We make gas-turbine jet engines, so we machine a lot of very tough nickel- and cobalt-based materials. It's a slow evolutionary process, catching up to cutting-tool technology, and it isn't as easy for us as it is for the automotive industry. Before we can change a process, we have to test it out on our engines to make sure it hasn't degraded our product in any way."

Expectations too high?

As a young ME in Michigan explains, "I work very closely with the people on the floor here. It's my immediate responsibility to support shop-floor production as an ME implementing SPC. We've gone through quite a capital-equipment acquisition phase over the past few years. We now have dual-spindle, five-axis CNC milling, lasers for welding and trimming sheet metal, etc."

Were any of these difficult to set up? "Oh, yes--all were! The problem is making the technology live up to its original expectations. We don't know ahead of time how each will perform in our situation, and when it's leading edge, there are not many people who do. The learning curve is unavoidable, and you must work through this period.

"When the new piece of equipment is considered for purchase, long before it's on site, the operators are selected and trained at the machine-tool builder's site. They understand that machine before it's even shipped. If we fall short in any area, it's in testing that machine on the floor before trying to implement it into production. Despite all our training, we need to have material to cut before we attempt serious production parts, but time or resources is never allocated for this. We try to make the machine perform on hardware that will ultimately be used in production.

"Eventually, that new system will work and do what was expected of it, but it will take twice as long and the interim results will not be anywhere near what management expected."

Training the small company

Even in the smallest of companies, tech phobia is still a hurdle. One young entrepreneur owns a tiny Midwest company making special cutting blades. He wears the ME hat, along with that of president, R&D department, product design, marketing, and just about everything except accounting. His only formal training was in architecture and clock making, yet in four short years, he has several patents on key process improvements.

He is proud that he treats his handful of employees like family, and he feels they are reciprocating this trust. "Our labor rates are not union scale by any means, but as we make production improvements, their pay scales go up with them, so they benefit directly from our progress."

There has been some turnover, however. "I had to relieve our oldest employee because she couldn't adjust to our change from low-tech aluminum-oxide to high-tech CBN wheels. That took a lot of training, but I had to relieve her because when I showed up the next day, the old wheel would be back on the machine. It was pretty obvious she didn't want to change!"

New ME responsibilities

A young ME at a medium-sized East-coast plant is being challenged to play a new role. "I'm starting to be held responsible for production efficiencies, and interacting with plant personnel. Before, it was just production supervisors who were held accountable for production and productivity. Now, management is saying the ME assigned to each manufacturing area also should be held responsible for that area's engineering-related productivity.

"That's fine with me--I don't have a problem with that--but it's often a Catch 22 situation. `Why isn't this process doing any better?' they ask you, and you reply `I can't do anything about that. I've done everything I can do. It requires input from other disciplines.'

"They want you to be responsible, yet you have no say about where people are allocated, staffing requirements, etc. They want us to engineer these variables out.

"I've read where some companies have gone even further--putting the ME into a position of direct responsibility. People report to him, he does the engineering with the help of a technician to do fire fighting, but he also does scheduling, other production work, and makes sure the efficiencies are there. That might be a way to go, but it would take an awful lot of trial-and-error development. Most managements would scuttle a program like that after a few mistakes. I wouldn't want that degree of responsibility for our current production system unless it were redesigned."

No more stonewalling

In the coming era of communication and teamwork, stonewalling is definitely out. "I've been with this company four years and I've seen some excellent progress," says a Michigan ME manager. "In companies I've been involved with in the past, a lot of people had good ideas, but upper management stayed in their shell. When people came to them with an idea, they would listen, thank them kindly, and then completely ignore their suggestions.

"Today, management must get out on the floor--see the real world--and when people ask questions or point out problems, they must acknowledge the problem, work with these people, and make them feel part of the solution. You get good input when people see that you're willing to work with them."

Is this how you keep technology from being seen as an enemy? "Yes. For our first robotic installation, I tried to make sure that when people asked questions, they got complete answers. They were never cut off short. I took time to explain to the janitor and everyone else exactly what was happening, and made them all feel part of the system. This enabled them to understand the changes taking place, that this wasn't going to take any work away from them, just make their job easier, and that this higher technology equipment would mean a learning curve that would advance their own way of thinking and their role in the company. As a result, this technology was accepted very well.

"We have a lot of work coming in the future, and this will give us a competitive edge, make us more efficient. With quality control and SPC, this will give us a better overall quality product and better throughput. And this can be sold as beneficial for every employee's future."

New quality roles

With the new ME increasingly being held responsible for quality issues, he or she will need a solid quality background to design a process that produces a quality product--the quality tools to measure that process and show that it is indeed under control.

This calls for a new hybrid engineer. The quality engineer, per se, is becoming a thing of the past. At some point, many tell us, the ME will take that responsibility totally. Quality will be built into the process. Because he has to make what the designer designs, the ME's role will be to critique the product-engineer's design, and then design the process to build that product. In exchange for that early involvement, the ME will be held responsible for assuring the final quality of that product as it comes off the line.

There will be a similar increased responsibility for the skilled shopfloor worker. In CNC work, for example, the operator/programmer will be asked to provide more input, take more responsibility for producting quality, make necessary tooling changes, and then verify his output with SPC technology.

For example, an aerospace ME reports his company has drastically reduced its levels of inspection, and asked operators to log actual sizes to verify that the output of their process meets the quality requirements. They have also moved to a roving-inspection approach, auditing what the operators indicate. This was an effort that began five years ago, and was supplemented with SPC 18 months ago.

At the same time, the ME's job will be designing that process, wherever possible, so that low-skilled people can run it. So it's a double-edged process of change: the high-tech, highly skilled worker required in some areas and much lower skilled labor, such as machine loaders/unloaders, in others. The shop floor will need some of each for a long time to come.

Yet, there are some remaining barriers to this smooth transition in quality functions, reports an ME in aerospace. "We still have the same overseers standing in the background to do the final inspections. This redundancy is a customer requirement--military regulations--and to be consistent, we must use the same inspection system for both our military and commercial engines. The part numbers remain the same, the final engine assembly just has a different number for the military."

True quality involvement

With this greater involvement, says one ME manager, "We now have charts showing the scrap rates of each department. This is to let people be more aware of how each department is doing, not to foster any particular competition between departments. We want them to know where the problems are, and what we're trying to do to solve them. This promotes a much better relationship than saying `Here's what you're supposed to do, now just shut up and do it!'"

In addition to a formal quality-circle program, his company promotes on-going meetings with the people on the floor to exchange ideas. "I'm out there every day checking equipment and I'm available for their questions and comments. And this has resulted in a good working relationship. If you don't make this effort to communicate, you get cut off from this valuable source of information and ideas. Things get thick very quickly."

This communication is two-way street, admits a mid-50s ME in a medium-sized plant in the midwest: "I've been a specialist for so long and our plant covers so many processes, that I feel I have to depend a lot on shop people for help in areas where my expertise is low."

For another ME instituting participative management, "My job is changing to more of a facilitator and meeting chairperson role than actually doing things myself. In the past, whatever the change we made, we had limited success because the people weren't buying into the program, whether it was a good idea or not.

"Now, with our departmental meetings, we're beginning to instill the ownership idea, in terms of value added, the idea that the next person down the line is your `customer,' and this is changing the thinking on the shop floor."

Recognition ideas

Recognizing employee efforts is clearly an area that needs improvement. Several respondents mentioned how individual departments (even shifts) were evaluated--based on their efficiencies, scrap rates, etc--and rewarded with a catered dinner, and individuals with special achievements taken out to dinner with their spouses by upper management.

But similar recognition programs at a large defense plant were described with less enthusiasm by another ME. "I feel these are beneficial, but it's hard to say to what extent. At least they have had no regressive effect."

"Dollars aren't that rewarding anymore," points out an ME at a large southern plant. "Our more stable, middle-aged worker tends to be more motivated by time off--good, solid recreational time is at a premium these days with everyone working long hours. So the potential motivater is time off with pay in exchange for meeting higher standards on the job."

When this ME was asked how he felt about employee-of-the-month type reward systems, he replied: "That's perceived as patronizing."

What should be done? "There are a lot of sharp people out there in the shop," he continues, "even those who don't have much of an education. They want to feel like part of the family, have a say in the situation, provide some input--a role in scheduling, for example, or some control over their working conditions. That would motivate them more than anything." (Our consultant, Don Chartier, agrees. See box Advice from the shop-floor doctor.)

Future roles

A confident ME sees parallels between the future roles of both ME and shop-floor worker. For the ME, he foresees more involvement in company management, being included in decision making, and helping set priorities for manufacturing. "I feel very good about this, it's about time! Although there are fewer positions to shoot for, those that remain offer more authority, more opportunity to make things happen."

Similarly, he feels blue-collar workers can also look forward to increased responsibilities. "To stay in business, companies will require less and less hourly labor, but those workers that remain will be more technically proficient. They will need education in SPC and know how to read and use precision instruments--no more calling an engineer to check parts. They will be making more decisions on how to make a part to print, and this will require new levels of technical expertise. Those without a good education will find it harder and harder to keep up."

Will this new worker be the electronic-era equivalent of the journey-man? "Yes, he will become a precision machinist, and have job security, good pay, and status comparable to the journeymen of the past. And those who don't put in the time for the necessary education and training--their lot in life will go down. The unskilled laborer able to make $12/hr will become a thing of the past."

FMS = Flexible Management Systems

Achieving truly flexible production will require flexible people on the shop floor--more fluid work practices and incentives that reward initiative and problem-solving responses to production problems, again for both blue- and white-color people. Rote performances, rigid specialties, and responses of "Hey, that's not my job" will become things of the past.

But this teamwork will challenge the organizational structure. The production-team responses of leading aerospace and automotive firms usually involve only a small portion of the workforce. Wider use of teams that bring together a wide variety of expertise to bear on a given problem will require redesigning the entire organization. This evolutionary process will require elimination of management layers and blurring of the once sharp division between manager and worker.

As these management functions peel away, they will be replaced by increased responsibilities and skill requirements for both the shopfloor worker and the ME. Also, if top management fully recognizes the impact of this transformation, they will realize that there will be no big productivity payoff without a major investment in employee training at all levels.

This may mean an advantage for the large and highly profitable companies who can best afford to risk big bucks on educational programs in a period of cost constraints and high worker mobility. But first, they must have some confidence that this training investment will pay dividends--that each training recipient will recognize that a company with a commitment to training is one concerned with their own future also and deserves a reciprocal commitment.

This is your life

All this will mean a heavier burden for the new ME who's being asked, "Why isn't this production system working like it should be?" and is being measured by end-goal results reportedly accomplished elsewhere. But then, you're the problem solvers, right? You asked for this, didn't you?

As engineers, you know that there are many solutions to any given problem, and many of them are right. But somebody has to decide which to pursue, and take the flak if it doesn't measure up to others' expectations.

One aerospace ME was philosophical about the difficulty of making technology live up to everyone's expectations. "Things eventually get worked out, although some of our goals were impractical from the very beginning. MEs are basically practical people. When we compare what we were doing before with day, we are doing much better now, saving the company money, producing better parts to closer tolerances, with less queue time, less fussing around, less setup time, etc. Although we didn't get there as fast as management would have liked, in all practicality, it was as fast as anyone could have under the circumstances."

The full service IE

An IE manager in Illinois is becoming very involved in evaluating processes. "We do estimating, process development and improvement, define new processes and equipment, and are involved in a broad gamut of manufacturing functions. On the shop-floor, we are seeing less adversarial relationships, more communication, and increased training.

"This is not a situation where the IE of ME has the final authority to do anything. He is part of a team, and must communicate to all levels in the company to help achieve a group consensus. You must sell the idea to everyone from the top on down. You get all the technical background, do your homework, and then explain it fully to everyone, get their feedback, and keep working with it until it becomes a reality.

"We are developing department-improvement and management-improvement teams in conjunction with James W Harrington's book, The Improvement Process, and attending training classes that are part of an Illinois regional manufacturing-improvement program. Also, because we export to Europe, we receive state training money to help foster these changes. These training programs are top-to-bottom.

"I have to sell the idea of new equipment to everyone in the organization, from the guy who signs the check for it to the people who will ultimately use it. I must assure that there will be no surprises."

Are you really perceived as the worker's friend--aren't there skeptics? "You will always find skeptics, but that is rapidly diminishing. It takes time for people to see for themselves what changes are being made. But a lot of eyes are opening. Seeing is believing. We must perform. Most will take you at your word, but some take a wait-and-see attitude."

"Although antagonism is rapidly disappearing on the shop floor, I won't claim we've reached utopia. People are starting to see that they are not being blamed for things that go wrong--85 percent of these problems are management related and only 15 percent floor related.

"We're attacking the problems where they lie, not the traditional way of using fear--getting a bigger whip. If it's a problem you can solve, you solve it. If it is problem some one else can solve, you catalog it and follow up on it."

How does the worker see the results? "Just this month, we initiated a small reward for the best suggestion each month, a dinner for two. We also have just established a recognition committee that I'm on, with a new steering council to identify those who perform above and beyond the call of duty. This is a requirement of Harrington's improvement process, which we're following very closely--that's our bible.

"Recognition is very important, and this has been lacking in our organization. The steering council is really we the people, not just the top dogs. We the people see the need for recognition, and we the people are doing something about it. Top management is backing us--we had their commitment up front."

What's your answer to integrating new technology? "We try to keep the old machine alongside the new, as a backup. This way, people can grow into it. If they have problems with the new, they can fall back on the old and still get production out.

"We want to reduce the old idea of management by fear. Fear can be real or fancied. Even if you're the nicest guy in the world, fear factors can creep in. So the IE also has a role of part-time psychologist. A lot of our time is really just hand-holding. When problems occur, we try to form a group of workers to discuss this so that the individual floor worker doesn't feel singled our for blame."

Pressing for success

A young ME in Ohio is getting more and more involved at the floor lever. "As we introduce new technology, we are working with people to explain JIT and cellular manufacturing. We've done a lot of work on reducing order quantities and quick-change systems in the press room.

"The perception of new technology is improving. When it first hit, we had a real culture shock--jumping from 1950 to 1986 in one step. We took press setup times from three hours to less than a half hour in a matter of two weeks on our first target press. There had been adamant resistance when we first discussed the concept, but we just went ahead and did one machine as a demonstration. Once the operators saw what was involved, they begged for it on the other machines.

"We've since dropped trying to tie things to JIT, as far as verbiage is concerned. Because we're an incentive-pay shop, when we talk in terms of JIT, the shop people see that as a potential drop in their wages. We found that we get no resistance if we talk instead in terms of reducing setup time."

Were jobs eliminated here? "Yes, there were no setup people before. Press operators set up their own machines. With this chageover, we went from 13 press operators to seven, plus added the position of die setter. We're now down to five operators and a die setter and producting more parts than ever."

So, how do others in the plant view this change? "It's mixed. The younger people--ten years and less--look at it as progress, becoming competitive, staying ahead. The older people see it as the new guys taking over and are less readily convinced that this is something we should be doing.

Why can't that JIT message be made clearer for them? "It's a fault of past management. They didn't spend any money then, all capital improvements were put off until the last possible moment, and these expenditures were then used against the union in wage negotiations; i.e., "We had to spend this amount of money on equipment, and so we can't give you much in raises.' So these older hands now look at any new equipment as management spending their raises.

"Because we don't have profit sharing, their paychecks don't show the benefit of this new equipment. They don't see the effect of this technology, only that the number of workers went down."

What should be done? "Install an incentive bonus system. It's a fact that the company is making more money, but they are not sharing it. Our profits are going elsewhere in the corporate organization. Those profits should be reinvested here, both in people rewards and purchase of new capital equipment."

Advice from a shop-floor doctor

Don Chartier, Manager, Products Div, Anderson Consulting, is an expert at helping companies develop manufacturing strategies. Although he deals mostly with large companies, some of the biggest around, on occasion he does help those on the other end of the scale.

What new shop-floor roles is he observing? "Engineers are being challenged to bring hourly people into involvement in the initial layout and machine-design process--much earlier than previously. The biggest problem this creates is that these people are not comfortable in that new role. This is something that is not their first instinct to do, so they resent and resist."

Because this is too much of a jump for them? "The problem is in people skills, and the relationships between the engineer (`Hey, I know what to do.') and the union people more concerned with work-environment issues than technology (`Let's talk about ventilation, exposures, etc,'). The union people want in very early, and if they see anything beyond a simple sketch--if it's too well defined--they feel their input has been subverted, that you're just asking for rubber-stamp approval."

Training commitment

Chartier feels companies are more likely today to make serious commitments of money and time to training. "I've seen a lot of improvement. Generally, all companies, manufacturing of not, are aware that the new workforce they're getting from our schools lacks a lot of the basic skills, and thus, the company must shoulder a much larger training burden.

"In the past, you took the new hourly guy, pointed him toward the workstation, had him follow an experienced guy around for a day or two, and turned that job over to him. Now, you need more formalized training on specific operations--each assembly operation, for example, where there is always high turnover. This means developing standard training manuals, pretesting, post-testing procedures, etc. For example, at a plant with 500 people, you will see half a dozen people working to develop these training materials."

Changing organization

Are you recommending specific organizational changes? "Yes. Our approach is to set up a subplant organization, where the subplant manager as a miniature plant manager, controlling engineering as well as production, and potentially, even purchasing.

"By dividing a huge plant into multiple subplants, you make the situation more manageable, although there are a raft of issues with this--shared resources, matrix structures, etc.

"One key danger here is that you may be taking a guy with a level of experience only slightly above that of a production foreman, say a superintendent, who came up either through engineering or production, and are asking him to take a much broader view when he has not really been trained for this. A good plant manager has an appreciation for all facets of the business, and this is a necessary part of his development. But few have this background.

"So, it's very hard to find the right people for this role, and you have little or no lead time to train them."

What suggestions do you have for employee recognition? "We try to stay away from individual incentives. These have limited benefit. It is easily percieved as eyewash, the sloganeering approach that doesn't really pay off.

"At two facilities this summer, we spent a tremendous amount of time uncovering a list of issues that the hourly people have had for years and have not been resolved. We called this our `Make Every Part Every Day' program. This was essentially setup reduction and smaller-lot-size production.

"To do this, we had to have a buy-in from the hourly people, and they were saying, `We're not helping you until you resolve this list of 50 issues,' a lot of which were related to housekeeping and uptime machine problems. So we had to spend a lot of time working with them, assuring them that we were going to present their story to management and get them to respond to these issues. That was a real struggle! But this approach is certainly more effective than banners and slogans."

Any predictions on your success at taking advantage of available technology? "That's a tough question. The auto company I worked with spent billions on technology, but has now pulled back and is digesting some of that. Some of the robotized cells they were throwing stones at three years ago--threatening to revert to the manual approach--are now debugged and actually running well.

"I think this was just a case of US manufacturing building expectations too high, expecting too much too soon, then getting disillusioned, but now finding that this technology is being absorbed. Now, you'll see them moving forward."

So what's the consultant's real role in this process? "It's both as expert and change-agent, the facilitator aspect. People need someone to force the issues. Yes, we can help you with some of the necessary expertise, but our major role is often as a catalyst, a focus, an anticipater. The big issue here is not allowing that client to compromise. It's easier for us to focus on the idealized solution, while the client is overtly aware of potential roadblocks and is more risk-adverse. It's a case of providing expertise, focus, and pragmatic idealism."
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Title Annotation:manufacturing engineers
Author:Sprow, Eugene E.
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Feb 1, 1990
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