No, that’s not a typo – Penny was one of the original automation operators in a manufacturing shop I led early in my career. And although she was the most junior person on the team she played a significant role in our success.
Penny had the least tenure of the group; the primary machine operators looked at her role as an automation machine operator as somehow less challenging and skilled; and, not surprisingly, she was the only woman on the shop floor. Her ability to become a leader despite her environment was a case study in pursuing excellence.
The year started with a technology transfer for an existing product from a manual to a fully automated process, essential to keep up with demand. We had 4 machine operators for cold-heading, thread rolling, pressing components, and final assembly – one person per process.
Line balance was virtually impossible at the outset, and our limiting factor was finding time to cross-train people while ramping up production. Penny saw the opportunity though, and once she got her assembly machine up and running she knew she could step away for blocks of time to learn other processes. So that’s what we did.
There was of course push-back from the operator whose machine she wanted to learn – the bottleneck machine. I had to intervene and get creative about getting her trained, assuming some measure of risk. But if we were to ramp up production to meet our commitments to customers and the business it was a risk worth taking.
Penny's next target was meeting our final assembly schedule. She was frequently stalled waiting for
parts from the upstream processes causing us to miss customer ship dates. I explained Pull Production to her, and within a few days Penny provided me with a list of racks and bins she needed to set up her assembly inventory.
I was really starting to have fun now. I watched as Penny designed
the flow rack bins based on component part velocity. So I gave her the next mission: create the parts production schedule required for her to meet order dates.
Yeah, the primary machine operators were really not happy about this. Who was Penny to tell them how to run their machines? I explained it was our customers driving the schedule, not Penny.
A month or two went by and everyone adjusted to the new process. But Penny was still not happy. She and the automation team (3 people by this time) were producing 100% on or ahead of schedule - but we were still getting hit with "1 day lates" on our shipping report.
Penny's solution? Pull responsibility for shipping our product out of the central Shipping Department and into our work cell. Anticipating my response Penny already had a list of equipment we would need and a location to set up shipping inside our area. I was game to take it on, but I let Penny know we would not be able to get additional headcount to help.
Penny didn't care. By now she was so invested in meeting customer commitments she had the buy-in of all of her fellow assembly operators to add shipping to their job duties. Penny's pride was infectious and readily spilled over to her workmates.
I bet you can guess how this story ends: we bought the equipment, set it up, trained the operators how to ship, and within two weeks met and sustained 100% on time delivery.
My role in all of this?
Create an environment where people are comfortable challenging the status quo
Provide opportunities to learn and grow
Push decision-making to the lowest level possible
Recognize and reward behaviors you want to encourage
Foster teamwork and healthy competition
I learned many lessons from this year, particularly around change management and gaining buy-in critical to sustained improvement. This experience remains a highlight of my career, worth more pennies than I could ever imagine!