When fast is not frugal

by Dr. Glen Miller
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While at a meatball production facility recently, I was reminded of a Lean Tip that was published this past year while observing an alarming number of re-worked products hindering overall productivity.

In early 2009, I wrote a Lean Tip that implored meat processors to slow down. The operators of this facility obviously didn’t read it. The line was moving fast and that was a big part of the problem, but not the only issue. There were several other factors contributing to the amount of rework, but the factor that significantly contributed to about 25 percent of the packages being reopened and sent back for sealing, labeling or overwrap processing was line speed. To iterate: Fast is not the same as efficient and effective.

Following is an excerpt from the 2009 Lean Tip: “In my years working in meat processing, the main goal has always been to get ‘meat in the box.’ In simple business terms, product processed and ready to ship is the main goal for production management. However, the process of getting “meat in the box” may be more wasteful than productive. Moreover, the natural response for more processing is faster processing. The difficulty is that faster usually means more mistakes. When we put our Lean Thinking hat on, more rework, more problems and more waste is not the path toward more “meat in the box.”

It requires first-hand observation to fully appreciate why I encourage slowing down. Consider a ground beef processing plant I recently visited. In this particular part of the plant the line forms, cooks, freezes and packages meatballs. There is a bevy of activity at 5 a.m. Workers are looking for parts and assembling grinding and forming equipment. The first meatballs are moving toward the oven around 7 a.m. I believe this would have been 20 minutes sooner, but there was a fire drill this morning. Eventually, the meatballs are cooked and quickly frozen. Flow is reasonable to this point. Product is moving along with little or no jams or bottlenecks. Now the meatballs are conveyed up a level and shaken into a large hopper that sorts the meatballs into package size. The next step is the Ross machine. This Ross is older, but seems to function well. Packages are filled, gassed and sealed and then the packages move to the labeler, overwrap machine, metal detection and packaging. These final steps are generically called packaging and today we are having a difficult time getting “meat in the box.”

First, the labeler is adjusted using packaged meatballs. So someone moves the package through, checks the label, adjusts and then does it again. After about 20 packages run through and then return for sealing and labeling, the labeler is working. Next is the overwrap equipment. This process feeds, folds and glues cardboard wrap around the plastic trays of meatballs. The wrap basically advertises the product and makes it attractive to the customer. However, there are problems as a maintenance worker simply could not get the wrap to wrap. Sometimes the feed speed was out of synch with the fold speed; other times the suction cups were not synchronized evenly to grab the wrap; sometimes the glue did not register adequately. In short, most packages had to be sent back through overwrap. Some had damaged seals and others became jammed up. Flow was almost nonexistant. Rework was at least 25 percent of all packages.

Lean thinking can significantly contribute to efficient and effective production. The most obvious ineffectiveness in this processing story is rework. Rework is a waste. The more important question is, why so much rework? Initially, I suspect the production foremen, mechanics and workers do not fully understand the principle of flow. Flow is a production rhythm or product moving continuously at a rhythmic pace. Stopping and starting or batch and queue are the opposite of flow.

Taking takt time

How fast and by when the ordered product is pulled through the production process is called “takt time.” Think of takt time as finished product over a specific period of time. Takt time is how long it takes a product to flow though the line on a good day. On a bad day, there is evidence of flow variance such as jams, rework and other wastes. In the meatball scenario, I observed considerable effort that did not lead directly and rhythmically to “meat in the box.”

Fast is not necessarily rhythmic. Fast is not necessarily productive. Fast is not necessarily effective. Using the theory of constraints (TOC) a Lean thinker realizes that the goal is quality meat products packaged, not packaged product that has to be reworked. Overwrap falling on the floor or piling up product is a form of constraint. Look at the constraint and change the way you frame the problem. Think, is this flow? If not, stop the process and look at root causes. At times and often, equipment that requires synchronization of various moving parts and function works smoothly if not run at full speed. Slowing down can be a practical solution for enhancing flow and maintaining steady production.

Evidence and feedback indicate that most meat-processing managers don’t agree with this point: More often than not, slowing production down will put more “meat in the box” than speeding up the line. Output must be a measure of quality product ready for shipment. Sure, rework is work but it is not productive . Take a new approach and slow down at least a little. You should find more product is efficiently and effectively produced and packaged. 

Dr. Glen Miller is senior Lean consultant for Performance Essentials Inc. For more information on Lean manufacturing go to: www.performanceessentials.com.  
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