A lean, mean, car-making machine

I’ve heard and read so much about automobile manufacturing facilities and assembly lines but never had a chance to actually see one until last Friday, when I got a chance to visit Honda’s factory in Marysville.

In the remarkable facility I saw, what used to be a hub for manufacturing motorcycles has been converted into a car-making operation – and despite all of the intricate work going on, its cleanliness was astonishing. Hallways and storage areas were clearly demarcated, while yellow stripes separated pedestrian areas from space for forklifts and trains. Raw materials are supplied in totes in the same way they’re used in the assembly lines, leaving no need for boxes or wrappers. Once used, they’re sent back for a refill. How lean is that?

Material handler
A material handler whirs past in Honda’s Marysville manufacturing facility

At the Marysville facility, workers in both shifts turn out a car every minute. In my mind, that seems like a lot of rushing, but I was surprised by how calm the assembly line really was. Every operator or group of them has a designated area on the assembly line. Every minute, as a car arrives in that area, they perform up to five activities. The car moves on to the next area, getting built bit by bit by multiple operators. A few notable characteristics:

  • Operators had all the tools that they needed right where they needed it. 
  • Parts were lined up in the same sequence as the cars arrived, i.e. red-colored door handles were ready for red cars, silver for silver cars, placed within arm’s reach.  
  • A material handler, or “water spider,” went around every 90 minutes to check on what was used up and deliver what was needed. I didn’t see a single operator searching for supplies.
  • The team leader stays in the vicinity so that if the operators need help, they are right there to assist.
  • Electronic visual boards indicated what was the expected and actual production. This gave real-time feedback to the operators and managers. If actual production was slower, the manager could start calculating and planning the number of hours and staff for overtime.
  • To break the monotony of repetitive tasks, operators switched areas in regular time intervals.
  • Changeover time on the assembly line: Zero minutes. It didn’t matter what vehicle was being made at any given moment.

 Buried in these observations are hallmarks of lean thinking that could translate in their own way to your organization.


Stop playing dodgeball

Growing up, one of the many games I played with my friends was dodgeball. It’s also a sport many of us haven’t given up – particularly in the workplace.

Reactions to organizational change can at times resemble a game of dodgeball. (Photo courtesy HeraldTimesOnline.com)

On each side of the “gym” are functional teams that represent different departments and work on departmental goals and priorities. If a new initiative is launched, they try to dodge the responsibilities because they don’t align with priorities or most of the time they don’t know how they align. One fine day they hear from the CEO the new change needed to be implemented. People do everything to resist the change – think bullet-dodging a la The Matrix. This resistance sometimes comes in the form of excuses wrapped in the plausible explanation of having too much on the plate or not having enough resources to take on the new challenge.

Why do people resist? One thing we all know is that change is difficult. How many times have you made New Year’s resolutions? Another reason is there is not enough emphasis on why the change is being made and how it aligns with the mission and vision of the organization.

One other key reason that leaders forget is the need to have a candid discussion with people who will need to implement the change. In a game of catch-ball, you have to look at the person to whom you are throwing the ball and strategize such that he/she does not drop it. The catcher has to pay attention as well. The Toyota leadership style involves the catch-ball process for communication. The leader shares the vision with his/her team. The team converts the vision in actionable items and presents the challenges of implementing the vision to the leader. The leader may stick to the vision but he/she listens, empathizes and proposes how the hurdles can be overcome. Based on the feedback from the team the leader might also adjust the vision to make it more realistic and practicable. The team and the leader agree on what’s possible and what’s not and how it can be implemented. They check in with each other from time to time to ensure progress.  It’s win-win situation.

If you have been playing dodgeball, now is time to switch. Play catch ball. Get your team on board. Make them want the change.

MBOE Recap Week 4: The flow-stoppers

Imagine how a river becomes turbulent as it flows across rocks. A process in the same way can become inefficient or unpredictable due to the multiple roundabouts and rework we force our people to do while providing care to a patient or manufacturing a defect-free product for the customer.  What flows – the water – in a process are people, materials and information. Those rocks are waste, and our MBOE students in their latest on-campus session got a taste – no pun intended – of how it works.

The rocks of waste
The rocks of waste in the river of a process can turn a smooth trip downstream into a wild ride (Photo courtesy WhitewaterRafting.com)

How does the simple act of buying beer affect production? Through his beer game simulation, Prof. James Hill made it possible for the students to experience the monsters that suppliers, manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers have to deal with on a daily basis due to lack of communication. These monsters are many and include the frustration and cost of variable production and the inability to keep up, ultimately leading to customer dissatisfaction and defects.

A sample of the other experts and activities covered in the busy week:

  • Gary Butler walked students through the eight components of inventory and how to balance the production using Heijunka leveling, a lean tool to level production.
  • Jean Cunningham, author of two Shingo Prize winning books – Real Numbers and Easier, Simpler and Faster – exposed the MBOE Healthcare students to the world of lean accounting.
  • Kathryn Correia, CEO of HealthEast in Minnesota and Bill Boyd, value stream manager at Thedacare in Wisconsin, provided an insight on the flow-stoppers in healthcare, helping students identify process gaps in their organizations.
  • Yours truly led a simulation to show the complexities of multiple interactions and handoffs in the processes in an emergency department. Students from both cohorts went through the first round of the simulation to experience the flow-stoppers and applied improvements in the second round to reduce the chaos and unnecessary movements involved in providing care.
  • Barb Bouche, director and adviser,  process improvement at Seattle Children’s and Tom Mooney, manager,  lean transformation at Goodyear tire and rubber company, stressed the importance of efficient flow of materials and supplies to enhance how care or product is delivered to the customer.
  • On Friday morning, a gemba to the Giant Eagle grocery store and pharmacy provided a real-life example of producing to customer demand and shrinking the inventory in the backroom warehouses by increasing the number of delivery runs. Darren Evans and Brian Dorazio from Giant Eagle gave an overview of their lean journey and provided a tour of the store and pharmacy. It was a great example of application of a heijunka board to track the number of prescriptions filled through the day.
  • Finally, COE Executive Director Peg Pennington facilitated inbox simulation to help identify the ‘invisible’ wastes in electronic communication in an office setting.


  •  Stay tuned for the overview of the next MBOE session in June.

Fisher class tours COE member Huntington

One of the Center for Operational Excellence’s many partnerships within the Fisher College of Business is its financial support of the Operations in Action class. This course launched in the 2010-11 academic year and is aimed at encouraging sophomore female students to consider operations management as a major and a career choice.

Now in its second year, the course got out in the field recently with a tour of COE member Huntington National Bank hosted by Jeannie Raymond and John Largent (click here for more photos of the student group). This was no normal walk-through. COE Associate Director Andrea Prud’homme tells me a team of students did research on Huntington and gave a presentation to the rest of the class on the morning of the visit. They then took the lead in engaging with Huntington managers and prepared questions in advance to fuel a Q&A session.

Andrea Prud'homme
COE Associate Director Andrea Prud’homme, far left, poses with Fisher students and Huntington executives at the bank’s headquarters


Raymond told us the bank greatly enjoyed hosting the students and said management was “very impressed by the students’ questions and their overall level of engagement and interest throughout the day.”

Huntington is one of a number of member companies that support this important course, and we’re always looking for female mentors to step up. Think that could be you? E-mail Andrea Prud’homme at prudhomme.3@osu.edu and we’ll make it happen.

COE welcomes member Mills James

You might not know the name Mills James, but chances are you’re familiar with their work.

Founded in 1984 by audio-visual production industry veterans Ken Mills and Cameron James, the company over the past three decades has grown and evolved into more than just the go-to shop for high-quality craftsmanship in Columbus. It’s a competitive player on the national stage with a broad range of capabilities and an innovative verve that feels in-step with what’s happening tomorrow.

On a tour of Mills James’ headquarters, from left: Robin Rasor Thompson, administrative director; Peter Ward, co-director; Matt Burns, program coordinator; and Peg Pennington, executive director.

It’s possible they had a hand in crafting and polishing that training video you had to watch. They might have helped you in the grocery aisle with an electronic display or served as the man behind the curtain for your company’s annual meeting. And if you’re a regular viewer of or wannabe participant in Ohio’s “Cash Explosion” lottery game show, they’ve entertained you from their home office on Columbus’ northwest side.

Mills James is the latest company to become a member of the Center for Operational Excellence, and they’re yet another great example of the ever-expanding diversity of our member base. What once was a hub for best-practice sharing among manufacturing plant managers has grown into an exciting organization whose members are committed to pursuing excellent operational practices and sharing those journeys with others. While we’ll work to provide value to Mills James, they’ll also be helping our own center as we grow our brand and deliver a better experience to all of our members.

COE formally kicked off its relationship with Mills James this week with a tour of the company’s headquarters. They were nice enough to give us a welcome that’s a tip of the hat to the movie marquee days as you see in the photo.

Now it’s our turn. Welcome to COE, Mills James.

You’re listening to WII-FM

Have you ever heard the WII-FM Station when driving change at your organization?

Not familiar with the station? You’ve probably heard many people resisting that change saying it: “What’s In It For Me?”

It’s easy for pilots to answer that question. They refer to a checklist before flying to ensure the safety of the plane and the passengers. Why? It’s part of their job, and their own life is involved.

In other professions, such as health care, that answer is less clear. We place a lot of importance on patient centeredness. This is a great concept, any many hospitals work hard at this with patient-satisfaction surveys and process improvement programs aimed at improving operations and ensuring patient safety. But medication errors, patient falls, lab report mishaps and other problems still happen, so why don’t process improvement efforts bear fruit all the time?

This question has many possible answers: Leadership isn’t committed, training is lax, quality improvement programs are seen as “flavor of the month” deals, other priorities take precedence… The list is endless.

In my experience, one other key problem keeping our changes from truly taking hold is not answering that first question, not making it clear to the people making the change what’s in it for them.  Improving processes means changing how employees have been doing work, sometimes for years. Now you step in and tell them it’s because of our patients or customers? Sure, no one goes to work with the idea to give the wrong medication or make a defective product, but customer-centeredness is still not enough of a change motivator. What also is important is what employees get in return.

To answer that, here’s a sample:

  1. The complexity in your work is gone
  2. Your productivity is improved
  3. Overtime is gone and your work-life balance returns
  4. No more waiting for help or for others to finish work
  5. Better communication with your colleagues
  6. More time to do what you enjoy and less time spent on useless activities such as walking or searching for documentation 

Last but certainly not least: It doesn’t hurt to tell employees there are consequences if they don’t buy in, and this isn’t communicated enough. Not much is done to celebrate successful adapters. Not much is done, either, to address those who don’t adapt due political or financial reasons.

Remember this next time you need your team to tune in.