Caught at the Coffee Machine – The Workforce Fairy Tale

It was just another day at the office….

It’s a daily habit to have a little coffee break in the morning with my other Operation Excellence colleagues. Together we have been involved in Lean 6 Sigma improvement projects in the manufacturing division for many years, and the joint coffee break is a tradition. Whilst we were chatting, the operations director passed by and spotted us. He headed our way and asked:

“Hi guys and girls, I’m a little bit puzzled. In spite of all the successful improvement projects we did together, and the significant increase in output reliability, there is something I don’t understand. Some weeks our lines run as predicted, but sometimes – like this week – we face many issues and become unreliable. It seems that Murphy is in the house – I think it might have to do with the workforce. Could you have a look?” And he strolled away.

Immediately our conversation switched to the topic, and we quickly came to the same conclusion. With our operational improvement team we used the Pareto technique to concentrate on the main disturbers (80%) of our production process (machine, raw material, quality, etc.).
What happens now is that we have to look at the small disturbers (20%) and the effort to solve those is sometimes large. We all knew that workforce is also one of the causes of variability – so I agreed to go and explain this to the operations director, and went to his office. I decided to use an example out of daily life to explain it.

The party
I immediately told him my conclusion: “Workforce is a cause of variability.” To explain this to him, I asked him, “When you invite one person for a drink after work, what is the probability that the drink will start at the agreed time?” He immediately answered “Very high, but it depends on the person.” Indeed but when we invite the whole department? Chances that the party starts on time are much lower. Some people even have last-minute excuses like, “I still needed to read my mail”, or “My wife called and I need to go home.”
So it was immediately clear that if the number of people increases, variability increases. And whereas a party starts as long as some people are there, manufacturing typically does not. I saw in his eyes he understood that workforce is a cause of variability.

Workforce management
When dealing with machines and production lines, solving variability allows for an individual machine approach. With employees, it is unfeasible to deal with every individual small delay, but individuals respond to equal and fair management as a whole.
So workforce management is all about decreasing the workforce-related variables for the whole team, not the individual. It’s all about incorporating the employees in your value-stream exercises and concentrating on eliminating non-value-added labor, managing variability by aligning the workload with the demand, and motivating the workforce.

bluecrux is an independent management-consulting company concentrating on operational excellence and workforce management. Recently, bluecrux explained the role of workforce management in operational excellence at the production logistics workgroup at the KU, Leuven. If you are interested in knowing more, do not hesitate to contact us.