There has been considerable interest in my factory visit last Friday. I am still thinking about it. Like a great sporting achievement, the pleasant experience lives on in my memory.
There were two moments above all in the visit when I realised they were very good. The first was when I heard how low their error rate had been in recent weeks. At times they run at zero defects. The second was in some ways more revealing.
As we walked around this spotless factory, where the fluids were well contained behind screens and there was no usual smell of metal and oil, I noticed three pieces of waste paper on the floor. In that clean room style environment they looked out of place. I bit my lip instead of mentioning them.
I need not have worried. The Manager picked them up when he saw them. He studied them. He told me where they had come from. He said he would send them with a short memo to the manager responsible for the incoming trays of components. They had fallen off the side of the component trays when they were inverted to show they were empty and needed replacing. He would ask that manager to fix the problem so they could not fall off the trays in future.
I was impressed. That action will not make the factory more productive. It will make no difference to the figures. It just showed that if you want to be the best no level of detail is too small. Nothing need go wrong. There is a way to fix everything. No recriminations, no shouting, just a polite request to keep the factory tidy.
When I in the past have helped turn factories round I have found that cleaning them up is always a good first start. Bad factories have too much stock and work in progress littering the floor. Clear it, and you reduce the working capital costs. You make it easier to operate without the clutter. You cut down accidents as there is less to trip over. You reduce the faults from using damaged components that have been moved and left out for too long.
Clean the windows and remove barriers to natural light flooding in. That will cut electricity bills and cheer people up. Contain all fluids. People should not have to work in a sea of oil. If there is oil on the floor it is a hazard, and it is wasteful. If the factory is full of old cardboard boxes, bits of wood and other packaging materials from incoming components, put in a proper recycling and reclamation system, and have a place to hold such materials. Clean and re-use fluids where ever possible.
The joy of these techniques is they create a virtuous circle. A cleaner environment raises staff morale. It gives people something to be proud of. It cuts waste, which is now expensive to dump. It can lead to designing some of the packaging out of the process, to reducing the number of times an item is moved and held, and to faster line speeds. If you get it right first time you make more money and can pay better wages.
These same techniques can also be deployed in clerical operations, using computers to help cut error rates in processing paperwork. Clean green and lean needs to transform more of the public sector, just as surely as it has modern manufacturing.