Early settlers generally avoided swampy areas – with frequent flooding, stagnant water, and all the pestilence and disease that come with it. These first arrivals would head to higher ground to seek their fortune. Early attempts to rehabilitate the swamp look like small rivers to help drain some of the pools and expose the fertile land below. It wasn’t until the building of the Panama Canal, arguably one of the greatest enablers of commerce ever built; that we realized we can’t be successful unless we control the pests associated with stagnant water – in this case, mosquitoes. France began work on the canal in 1881, but had to stop because of engineering problems and a high mortality rate due to disease. The United States took over the project in 1904, and took a decade to complete the canal, which finally opened in 1914. By draining the swamp and controlling malaria workers stayed healthy and the project was completed.
What does this story have to do with your workplace? Everything. Think of the water as inventory. Stagnant, not moving, with all the ills that come with it: high carrying costs, excessive lead times, obsolescence, and simply hard to slosh through. High inventories make it difficult to build the right thing at the right time, and thus much effort is wasted. The solution is simple: drain the swamp. Building drainage channels is like building a line to create flow in a factory, or making a visual schedule in an office or hospital. The bigger and more complete the drainage system, the quicker water flows through the system and the fertile land is exposed. The more connected your workplace processes are to one another, the quicker work flows through your plant or office, and the capacity to do more work expands. By draining the swamp, we uncover a bountiful land.
Many offices and job shops exhibit poor flow: each job is produced in isolation, and there is little coordination or cooperation between departments. Material moves very unevenly, and inventories tend to be high. A cellular flow is the first step towards draining your swamp. Armed with a Value Stream Map, identify product groups with similar process flows and cluster them into specialized cells, or “factories within factories”. These cells become the first drainage ditches, enabling you to lower inventory and put resources to better use. To improve flow further, link cells with a production line. Generally speaking, one long versatile line is preferable to two smaller lines, in part because feeder lines or cells are easier to co-locate along a longer line, especially when incorporating difficult to move areas such as paint booths or fixed machinery. Further eliminate pockets of stagnant inventory by linking activities, with one pulling the other. The same thinking can be applied to an office setting: visualize a flow of information or of patients. Use visual systems throughout and use the line to beat the drum, or “takt time”, and keep activities moving and on pace. The more activities are linked to one another, the better flow you will experience, and the more inventories can be reduced and other wastes exposed and targeted. It won’t be long before that swamp looks like a Victory Garden.
© 2013 Paul Yandell.