Lean manufacturing theory says that all process waste can be classified into one of seven categories: defects, overproduction, waiting, overprocessing, transportation, inventory or motion. The lean definition of waste refers to any resource or activity that is not adding customer value. Based on this, it’s easy to see how some of the things we do out in the plant and in the warehouse can be considered wasteful. For example, moving in-process work around the factory floor does not add to its value — neither does redundant or unwarranted handling or unneeded inventory.
Eventually an eighth waste was added to the list, referring to the potential value of human worker creativity and skills. Variously called unused human creativity, underutilized talent, incorrect use of abilities, unused human intellect or simply skills, the eighth waste is perhaps the most important of all. And with automation replacing workers at an increasing pace, it becomes even more important to recognize and develop this valuable resource, as companies have fewer employees to tap.
Most companies recognize that their employees are the hidden strength of their organizations and the sources of any and all future improvements and advances. Knowing this, however, does not always lead to setting the conditions to encourage and support employee creativity.
A connection to kaizen
Many businesses have a suggestion program or maybe even an employee empowerment structure based on kaizen that is intended to encourage employees to propose changes and improvements that can reduce waste or improve operations. Unfortunately, many of these initiatives are just for show because there is little or no underlying structure for implementing the suggestions, recognizing the contributors and encouraging participation. At many companies, the suggestion box sits covered in dust because ideas are not seriously considered, so employees stop making suggestions.
Similarly, kaizen structures and work groups often have short shelf lives: They are enthusiastically embraced for the first few months of a lean manufacturing initiative but quickly fade away after management attention moves on to the next improvement initiative.
The thing is, like kaizen, the process of empowering employees must be built into the organization’s infrastructure. However, this doesn’t have to require much management overhead. The best continuous improvement programs are structured to be managed at the grassroots level, and management only needs to step in when the change requires funding or affects another work area upstream or downstream.
That being said, managers and executives must be visibly supportive of such feedback and improvement methods. They also should help recognize employees who contribute great ideas. The rewards don’t have to cost much — and oftentimes public recognition is enough — but if the idea could save the company money, it’s nice to direct a bit of those savings back to the people who made them possible.
Plant and warehouse workers are best positioned to see how even small changes can make their jobs easier, more productive or safer. This type of brainpower is one of the few employee attributes that cannot be replaced by automation. Therefore, all companies must have a mechanism in place to receive suggestions and support the implementation of those that are of value. Otherwise, this important resource will go to waste.
Dave Turbide, CFPIM, CIRM, CSCP, CMfgE, is a New Hampshire-based independent consultant and freelance writer and president of the APICS Granite State Chapter. He also is a Certified in Production and Inventory Management and Certified Supply Chain Professional master instructor and The Fresh Connection trainer. Turbide may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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