All posts by

The “Who was helpful?” Culture

This sanitation procedure is unsafe. Why isn’t the new plant manger correcting them? The meeting is almost over. Say something! People are standing up. I do not want to be a know-it-all at my first training session. I must do this.

“This procedure is not correct. You put a tag on a sanitized tote to let everyone know the tote can be used for rework. When an employee starts using this tote, he takes the sanitation tag off the clean tote. Quality assurance then has a few hours to retagged the tote as safe to use.

When the floor drain clogs and totes are moved around, errors are likely to occur. Which tote was sanitized? Which tote needs to be sanitized? Nothing is tagged. The sanitation tag must be left on the rework tote until QA adds its identification.”

The plant manager quickly seconded the motion. The procedure was reluctantly changed.

Things were not going well before this training session. First shift treated me like I was an idiot. After the training session, things got worse. First shift refused to talk to me. The person I relieved did not update me on critical factors. He told the other second shift quality assurance tech. I was being put in my place. I finally told the other second shift tech that he would have to handle any problem on my side if he continued to support this blackballing.

Every day, third shift employees left notes in my drawer or on the bulletin board. “I would thank you for helping us but since you didn’t, I won’t.” Third shift’s first task was to take samples from newly filled storage tanks. Daily records revealed they didn’t take samples until two or three hours after starting their shift. I ran eight hours everyday. If anything, they should be helping second shift. When I mentioned this, the notes stopped.

When I was eligible for my post training raise, the boss was out of town. I asked the human resource manager when I would be getting my raise. I will always remember her exact words, “Last I heard, you were not doing well.” I was breathing fire when the boss returned. I received a raise without saying a word. Later I found out it was only a fraction of the normal raise.

The plant manager never talked to me again.

When the next employee started in the lab, someone asked if I would help make her look incompetent. Otherwise, she would get the next promotion.

When the plant held its one and only kaizen blitz, the guy who asked me to sabotage a newbie’s career was the lab’s representative. The blitz’s goal was to identify oil waste. The main waste of oil was actually not using the proper amount of water in margarine. Less water used equates to wasted oil. I did not help. The blitz only focused on oil going down the drain. A minuscule amount compared to the 2.5% waste of oil in the margarines.

How could we have caught this problem sooner?

The problem was competent employees were being forced out. At least six tenured, trusted employees against the newcomer. It was easy for management to side with the majority.

I prefer to make my own judgement on the competence of each individual. My first task is to objectively identify innovative behaviors. Correcting a procedure during a training session would be an innovative behavior. Anytime a procedure is changed, I want to know. Achievement is a key component of conscientiousness. People who care about our customers make improvements.

Employees exhibiting innovative behaviors will be asked, “Who was helpful?” Only helpful people will be promoted.

The simplest and fastest way to identify innovative behaviors is to ask each employee for a list of lean stories.

Leroy’s Lean Story

On my second job, I investigated customer complaints for a floor care products manufacturer. One summer, paint was peeling off gym floors at an abnormally high rate. Lab work is basically comparing bad product to good product. Comparing the bottom of paint peelings to the bottom of paint still adhering to the floor was impossible. This problem did not appear to be solvable.

Finally, I noticed red paint never peeled off customers’ gym floors. The lab’s paint adhesion test was inaccurate. Red paint did not always adhere to wood in the lab. I needed a substrate that would give accurate and consistent results. I applied red paint to everything I could get my hands on: steel, glass, ceramic tile, aluminum, concrete, etc.

Red paint always adhered to glass. The colors that peeled did not adhere. Leroy, another research chemist, used my adhesion test to add the necessary amount of bonding agent to the paints that peeled. New formulas were sent to our paint manufacturers. My paint adhesion test became a Quality Assurance procedure and was shared with suppliers. The company’s most pressing problem vanished.

A few weeks later, Quality Assurance was performing my test when I walked through the door. They were puzzled when I kept peeking over their shoulders. When I told them that was my procedure, they all laughed. The new paint adhesion test was Leroy’s idea

The pot calling the kettle black

This is the answer to the question “How could we have caught the problem sooner?” to last week’s story, My favorite lean interview question.

Vicki was taken into the lab manager’s office and interrogated by a lab tech chasing the promotion carrot:

  • What are the Lab Rats hiding?
  • It’s best for your career if you come clean now.
  • Why would the Lab Rats do something like this?

These questions could not be answered. The Lab Rats weren’t hiding anything. Each week, the lab manager received a copy of our meeting minutes. That was our team’s rule, not the plant’s SOP. When Vicki was queried, the lab rats were between projects. The turkey project was over; we had been producing good turkey products for weeks.

After an hour, Vicki left the interrogation room and headed for the parking lot. Thankfully, the lab manager caught up with her and asked her to come back to work. The manager would not tell me why this happened.

Weeks later I learned why the Quality Assurance manager had Vicki interrogated. He taught the low protein supplier how to check the moisture content of the ground turkey before it was shipped to our plant. That was a good idea. If the turkey was out of spec at our plant, the turkey would have to be reloaded on a semi and sent back. Best to make sure it is good before it is unloaded.

The only thing the boss did wrong was not telling his lab techs about his project. “One of our suppliers is now testing the turkey for moisture before it is sent to us. Keep me informed on any problems you find with our turkey products.” The Remarkable Lab Rats were not keeping secrets; lab management was keeping secrets that cost the company a significant amount of money and customer satisfaction. New products were being appraised during the turkey crisis.

When Vicki was cross-examined, Nick, Duane and I were working second shift. We were relieved the long week was almost over. This relief soon turned to mischief. The conversation drifted towards a practical joke.

Lab techs carry radios to keep in contact with production supervisors. We decided to tape down the transmitting button on a radio and hide it in the office area of the lab. Next we moved all the office chairs into one of the instrument rooms. The plan was in place just in time.

Linda was surprised when she saw us sitting in the wrong room. In a panic stricken voice, one of us asked if she saw the Quality Assurance manager in the parking lot. After a negative response, we quietly showed her the rigged walkie-talkie. She took the bait. Linda believed the boss bugged the office and was listening to our conversations.

Vicki would be at work in thirty minutes. We had that much time to convince Linda to tell Vicki about the radio. Nick, Duane and I believed Vicki had been through enough this week. This would put her over the top; she will quit if she knew about the radio. Nobody wanted her to quit.

The four of us left the lab to continue our debate. Everyone, except Linda, was visibly upset. Finally, Linda squared her shoulders and proclaimed Vicki had a right to know and she would tell her. Her body language told us not to get in her way.

We discretely followed Linda back to the lab. Looking through the door’s window, we could see the conversation. It was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. Vicki’s eyes and mouth were wide opened. The kind of look you see in a horror movie when the victim sees the monster. Linda was very determined. We must have watched them for five minutes before they saw us. I never laughed so hard in my life. It was contagious. Soon Linda and Vicki were laughing as hard as we were. Later, when we were all talking, Vicki said all her friends were at a party and she wanted to go there instead of work. As it turned out coming to work was more fun than going to a party.

I loved and hated my job.

My favorite lean interview question

“What made you happy on your last job?”

My answer:

“Four lab technicians and I enjoyed each other’s company during a shift change. I suggested we start getting paid for talking. We were very close when we formed our team, The Remarkable Lab Rats. We hit the ground running.

One variety of canned dog food irritated all of us. The cooking temperature had to be adjusted continually during the production run. If the cooking temperature was too low, the ground turkey would not form a loaf; the contents looked like thick soup. If the cooking temperature was too high, the loaf would look small in the can. The cooking/sterilizing process took two hours. Many times, before changes in the cooking temperature took affect, the continuous flow of product would turn good. The changes then caused another downturn. We hated this product.

Quality assurance records included the number of sample cans (out of 20) with unacceptable image for each hour of production. To our surprise, 72% of the complaints for soupiness came from hour codes that only exhibited small loaf defects, 28% came from hour codes that had no image defects, and no complaints were made from hour codes with only soupy image defects. The customers’ terminology was different from ours. Our customers called a small loaf with a lot of broth, “soupy.” This is the opposite of what we labeled this image. If the plant had initiated corrective action without fully examining consumer complaints, we would have intensified the problem.

Analytical testing on this product was done at the end of the shift. Eight cans, one from each hour of the shift, were blended together for testing. This blending could mask a problem with part of the shift’s product. We decided to individually test each hour code a complaint came from. The plant kept samples of each hour code for months.

Normally, the shift’s protein level for this product was over 11%. Every hour code that resulted in customer complaints for the past year had protein levels below 11%. Our problem was low protein. Since this product was all turkey, it was easy to find the source. One supplier’s turkey shipments dropped from an average of 14% protein to an average of 12% protein during the past nine months. Twelve per cent protein turkey was still acceptable. The other suppliers kept sending 14% protein turkey, thus causing the inconsistent production runs.

A research scientist told us an ingredient in protein, collagen, causes the turkey to set up and form a loaf. As long as the protein level is high enough, all soft loafs will solidify. We already knew this minimum protein level was 11%. This had great implications for our plant. As long as we kept the protein level up, we could run on the soft side and eliminate the small-loafed, overcooked product our customers were dissatisfied with.

Our greatest achievement wasn’t turning our worst product into our best product. Our greatest achievement was teaching our company how to focus on the customer.”

This interview question is a practical application of Hertzberg’s Motivator Hygiene Theory and McClelland’s Theory of Needs.

What’s the opposite of the current process?

The boss had to show me the procedure more than once. When the product loses its yellow color, run analysis on a jug of the uncolored product. If the density is low, the product was agitated too much (whipped). Determine how much salt and color is needed to “fix” the product still in the storage tank. Complete the production run.

This did not make any sense. If the product was agitated too much, what happened to the salt and color? It should be well mixed.

The next day, before filling jugs, I climbed the massive storage tank and looked inside. The product was separated. No color could be seen. Beach ball size globules floated in a colorless oil. It did not look appetizing. The heavy ingredients like salt and color must have settled to the bottom of the tank. Lighter ingredients floated to the top. A jug from the middle of the production run was less dense because the heavier ingredients were in the jugs from the beginning of the production run. The problem was not over agitation; it was under agitation.

The storage tank had an intermittent agitation setting that kept the product stable before packaging with minimum agitation. Whoever set up the machinery must have known the product would have a tendency to separate. That’s why the jug said, “Shake well before using.” Since bad batches were incorrectly diagnosed as too much agitation, it became taboo to use the agitator. Some batches sat a day without agitation before packaging.

Our shift started using the agitator and the bad product went away for one year. When first shift learned we were using the agitator, things went south. But that’s a story for a different day.

“What’s the opposite of the current process?” is a great question. It works more than you would expect.

How could we have caught this problem sooner?

Make it easier to look inside the finished product storage tanks. The top of these tanks were close to an overhead walkway. Strolling down a ramp is much easier than climbing an oily, two-story ladder wearing a safety harness.

When a batch changes during packaging, analyze samples throughout the production run. This would have identified the high salt content in the first jugs. No one ever questioned the quality of yellow product. A batch should be consistent throughout the production run.

The Last Lean Question

The most difficult part of lean is identifying a problem to work on. Hence, the last question in a lean improvement should be, “How could we have discovered this problem sooner?”

A lean correction from the food industry illustrates how critical this last question could be. The new oil supplier did not add preservative. The parts per million (ppm) calculation was difficult. When I gave the poundage of preservative needed to the oil tank farmer, he laughed. He would need a fork truck to add that much preservative!

I double checked my math with another type of oil that used the same amount of preservative. The computerized calculation was only one-tenth of the preservative needed. Incorrect math meant unsafe products left this plant for years. Extensive internal and external audits did not identify the problem.

How could we have discovered this problem sooner? The company had several identical plants. A oil tank farmer from another plant would have identified the miscalculation immediately. How many problems could someone from another, similar gemba easily discover? Was this problem the only reason the plant’s costs were lower than the other plants? Is the lowest cost a reason to celebrate or a reason to worry? Should all kaizen events include someone from a similar plant? Would both plants benefit? Who should we send? The last question usually leads to many questions.

The company was fortunate it did not suffer Blue Bell’s fate.