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How To Take A Plant Tour.

The best way to tour is on foot so you can get close, talk to people and move

at your own pace.

Some people spend their entire life working in a factory but rarely get to see another one. Others have administrative jobs and never set foot in a manufacturing plant but wish they could. Whether you are regularly visiting plants or anticipating that rare opportunity, a couple of questions always pop up. How do you know the factory is a good one? What do you look for to figure out if it is a competitive operation?

At Harbour and Associates we are fortunate that our work lets us see 50 to 60 manufacturing plants around the world every year. Some are automotive, others aren't, but after a while you get a good idea of what separates the best from the rest, and what's different or similar about each operation.

Always remember there is something good you can learn at every plant, if you listen and watch.

In general, the objective for any plant is maximum output with minimum input of material, labor, energy and investment. Essentially, the best plants have the least waste in those categories.

Following are some things to look for when touring a plant:

* Don't be misled by the view from the aisle -- Don't be in awe of lots of new robots and automation. While much of it may be good, it does not automatically equate to high quality and productivity. More often automation is just high cost and downtime. Look for the right combination of people and machinery to provide low cost, high quality and good flexibility. Many of the best plants we have seen recently are the least automated. On the other hand, people are only efficient if a high percentage of their work is value-added.

* Substance -- Every plant has pretty presentations about its operation and they are important for background information. But try to maximize your time on the factory floor where you can breathe, smell and sweat what's going on.

* Mingling -- Talk to as many people as you can from the plant manager to the material supervisor to the welders and painters. With a good cross-section of input you soon get a feel for the best aspects of the plant and the issues people wrestle with every day. When they know you are interested they love telling their story.

* Telltale Signs of Lean -- A good lean operation runs itself. Look for good visual controls on boards, pellar charts and standardized work instructions. Listen for music indicating line stops or downtime. How is material delivered to operators? How much material resides in a work area and how do workers access it? Can they readily show you simple, easy examples of process error proofing? Is the workload balanced or is one person toiling in sweat while another is on Section B of today's paper? Is the layout conducive to good flow and efficient work?

* Spic and Span -- Was the plant cleaned for you the day before or is order and cleanliness a full time situation? There is a difference. Are tools, racks, inventory and so on kept in the same place and any excess thrown away? If housekeeping is a constant, any abnormalities are instantly detected.

* Manufacturable Designs -- Are components designed to be easy to assemble? Has part proliferation been minimized? Is there needless part complexity?

* Preserve The Memory -- Either take good notes or bring a partner. You will never remember all the details, and if you see numerous plants they all run together. Leave your cameras at home. Most often you won't be allowed to use them on your tour.

* Dump The Cart -- The best way to tour is on foot so you can get close, talk to people and move at your own pace.

Most importantly, adhere to all the safety regulations at the plant -- safety glasses, ear plugs, hard shoes and others. Keep alert and enjoy the tour.

Ron Harbour is president of Harbour and Assoc., manufacturing consultants in Troy, Mich.
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Publication:Automotive Industries
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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