Buzzword rider: Or, everything that works in manufacturing

by Steve Hoeft

So many buzzwords; so little time. Many "buzzwords" have crossed my path in my brief history of manufacturing support work. I found myself riding or helping to create changes with several of them. Did each of these initiatives help improve or harm the way we make things? Being trained as an eternal optimist, I looked for, and found, a common thread of good ideas with each of these buzzwords. As a "buzzword rider" for the past two decades, I either wasted my energy or took part in truly remarkable change activities. I choose to believe the latter. How about you?


As I reflect on the past century, I see a quantum leap between Henry Ford's first assembly line and the modern manufacturing systems we create today. I must conclude that something has happened. But, it is hard to put your finger on the big changes. Major philosophy shifts occurred in those early years. We moved from craft to mass production back to more of a customized craft product delivery system.

Early on, craftsmen made then moved parts themselves to their sitting masterpiece. This way of making stuff seems perfectly natural in my garage, and still performs nicely today in many low volume manufacturing facilities. The next wave used a moving line to bring the product to the worker, who assembled just a few pieces. Then, automated machinery of all kinds did many of the dangerous and repetitious steps. Some producers tried to automate every step of production. Then, the assembly line sped up, and up, and up. That is, until the thrifty Japanese under Taiichi Ohno honed the fabled Just-in-Time (JIT) or Toyota Production System (TPS) at Toyota. Their insistence on producing all components in the same "takt" as the finished product forged a new favored philosophy of manufacturing. Just like a metronome waving, all products should move easily, on cue, through a JIT plant.

That brings us to the present. Today, the experts tell us that the product should flow smoothly through the plant without interruption. Actually, it should flow with minimal stop time through all of the suppliers' plants from base materials until our masterpiece is in the hands of the end user. Time is the enemy! Quality is expected to be near perfect. The customer benefits by receiving a tailored product with a minimum amount of waiting time. "Have it your way", said the old Burger King commercial; have it fast, too. This appears to be the goal of leading manufacturing systems today.

But, what about tomorrow? Where are we heading with all these quantum leap philosophy changes? Will manufacturing systems in one hundred years look as radically different as last century's do to us? I believe that the answer to tomorrow's way of making things lies under our noses again. There is a common "process" of improvement for manufacturing systems, and there is a common direction it is heading.

Buzzwords - The Story of My Career:

Walk with me, if you will, on a tour of the buzzwords from my career over the past two decades. See if you can see a common thread of ideas that work versus those that do not. You may draw different conclusions from those here, but this method of evaluation should prove useful as you vision the manufacturing system of the future. The names of each initiative did not matter. They never do. But, if you focus on the fundamental goal of each initiative, you find the common threads.

Back in 1984, I was a Co-op student at General Motors. My first assignment was to see if our home-grown machine scheduling system could match the results of Eli Goldratt's OPT scheduling system. At that time it could not. I learned a great deal about batch sizes, capacities and economic order quantities. I even learned how to find Herbie, a technique that I still use successfully today ("Herbie" is the slowest "pace-setting" operation, coined from Goldratt's eye-opening book, The Goal).

But, these massive scheduling systems relied heavily on accurate (and "real time") production, inventory and product order information. A whole world of Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) products and information-capturing devices was born. With each change in philosophy, a new set of add-on support products and software were launched on unsuspecting manufacturers. GM proceeded to purchase artificial intelligence, CIM products and larger mainframe computers to solve the inaccurate information problem. Meanwhile, Toyota was painting more old golf balls (more on that in a moment).

There were other issues with this scheduling "solution", too. While focusing on the "optimum" batch size in a state-of-the-art facility in Ontario, I was asked by a line worker, "why don't we just reduce the change-over time?" Hmmm. Another worker asked me, "why don't we just move the machines closer together so we don't need to match their schedules?" Hmmm. But what I could do with questions so off-base from my project? After all, the problem was the lack of updated schedules. Right?

In 1985, my next assignment with GM brought me front-and-center into the Factory of the Future (FOF) project. Completely "people-less" manufacturing plants. Cool! I thought. I was trained to use a brand new simulation package by Autosimulations (now of Bountiful, Utah) to help validate the material handling strategy for FOF facilities. Our early runs showed that these babies could work. That is, until some random downtimes and "normal" hiccups were introduced. My conclusion from this endeavor was that people are actually more effective than robots when assembling things! Our God-given 6-axis manipulators, "artificial" intelligence and vision systems are quite reliable. Wow. But, CEO, Roger Smith, was actively involved in this initiative. A second FOF site was pushed forward even though the first FOF site produced components at roughly 10 times the cost of the manual facility next door. GM's costly drive for "people-less" later added to his downfall.

On a slow day at GM, I asked for a production supervision stint at a "tough" facility. Having helped design some of these manufacturing systems, I thought it might be useful to see how they really run on a daily basis. The boss at the transmission assembly facility told me to chase a good supervisor for a few weeks until her baby was due. You know our friend Murphy and his Law, her baby came that night. At 6:00 am the next day, I discovered just how difficult making products can be when the workers have been told to "just do what you are told". After a few days with the big boss screaming in one ear to get the line moving, I discovered something else. If you listen to the people who really make the stuff every day, and serve them as well as you can, the darn system can make products - barely. Thank you to all of the hard-working assemblers at GM for that important lesson.

In a wild move in 1987, I joined forces with Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company in Toledo, Ohio. I was assigned to use 3-D animated simulation software to model all proposed facility changes before the concrete was poured. Good idea. Try it before you buy it. I also helped write some "reactive" scheduling systems that quickly calculated the best way to cut up customer orders on a ribbon of glass that is constantly coming out of the furnace. That is, if the inventory and order information was accurate. Not that old problem again.

In a good decision, the leaders at LOF saw the value of having the manufacturing systems design team actually live with the plant people until it was working properly. Forcing the learning events (mistakes) to be driven home soon after the design trade-offs honed the team's ability to get a system right the first time.

Oh yes. The golf ball. Around that time, LOF formed a joint venture with a Japanese automotive glass maker. This allowed a group of us to visit Toyota Motor Manufacturing (TMM) in Georgetown, Kentucky. Among many small marvels, I saw the simplicity of "pull" production versus scheduled "push" production. I asked to see a worker's daily schedule at a metal component assembly cell. He had no idea what I meant. So, I asked my question slower. Again, confused, he pointed to a colored golf ball that just rolled down a trough. Like Homer Simpson, I hit my head with a loud, "Duh-oh!" It was a replenishment or "pull" signal. It was a signal that did not depend on inventory or forecasting accuracy. The worker, also a Quality Circle leader, said that sometimes the right thing to do is nothing. Nothing! He knew that he could make the right quantity of parts and get it to the assembly line just before it was needed. There was no pressure to make something that was not immediately needed. Wow. The complex, automated, artificial intelligence-tweaked, water-cooled, main-frame scheduling and MRP systems at GM (and many other companies) seemed really silly and unnecessary at that moment.

Around 1990, LOF joined the Quality Revolution with their own version of Total Quality Management (TQM). I added the Facilitator hat to my duties, studied strange concepts like next-process-is-the-customer, and experienced an "Ah Hah!" in Deming's Read Bead experiment. The variation is in the process, and management owns its design. Along with discovering that I actually enjoyed teaching, I also learned this: What the leaders of a company do is more important than what they say. Throughout any important change, the leaders of a successful company will not only cheer, they will also play the game. I have yet to see a Super Bowl team win when the coaches are meeting in a tall building far away. After a few good whacks with the TQM stick, we tried to implement World Class Manufacturing (WCM) facilities and eliminate non-value-added process waste.

In 1993, I worked for a Japanese-owned automotive component maker. My job was to make the Kaizen (small, daily continuous improvements) Teams and the manufacturing processes better. A recent, successful union vote and management issues caused the weekly "Kaizen Hour" to degrade into cafeteria ping pong matches. But, we brushed the dust off the standardized work charts, rebalanced the lines, and came up with ways to flexibly staff the assembly lines in the face of big volume swings. I also marveled at the rare sight of my Japanese advisors reverse engineering a competitor's module in a single night, determining the process, materials needed and cost as they tore it apart and laid the parts out on a roll of paper.

Around that time, hand-carried small lot containers (totes) became popular. Along with devising better roller racks for these totes, the workers and I also improved some troublesome operations with ergonomic assist devices. Again, my key role seemed to be listening to the people who do the work every day, and helping them make the changes. When they were freed up to do the changes, they felt better. But, someone needs to make the stuff for the customer every day. I had added the change agent hat to my duties without even knowing it.

In 1993, Johnson Controls, Inc. offered me an exciting assignment. They placed me in their Training Group and told me to develop courses that improved manufacturing. An experienced leader named Phil Beckwith at JCI's Georgetown, Kentucky seat plant served as my mentor. Two university case studies were written about their conversion to a Just-in-Time, Lean Manufacturing system. Phil says his Toyota advisors brought him "kicking and screaming" to JIT. Now, Phil is the biggest advocate for the Toyota Production System (TPS). The simple concepts changed the future of many supplier plants in that area. After some training at TMM, I learned and wrote and learned some more.

Phil had me focus on Problem Solving. He said Problem Solving was the key. I was certain that the key to TPS was something flashy like kanban "pull" cards, error proofing, or employee-performed Total Productive Maintenance (TPM). Phil said that TPS was just "doing a whole bunch of little things right - all the time". Phil considered the three simplest tools of TPS to be the keys: Standardized Work (best method clearly captured, documented and audited by the workers); Root-Cause Problem Solving; and Employee Involvement (all employees focused on and rewarded for manufacturing improvements in the two areas above). He said that all employees need to be trained and involved in solving problems to make JIT work. And, he said that top management must allow time for, even demand that, root causes be found and eradicated. Most of the waste in today's manufacturing systems was put in as temporary countermeasures to problems that were not really solved. As most of you know, temporary measures eventually become permanent if problems are not solved. Phil was right.

With much help, we pulled together a dozen modules and plant "trainer kits" for the JCI Manufacturing System. Each module would allow employees to learn a little about a lean manufacturing tool or concept, then give them an equal amount of time on the production floor trying to implement the concepts together. This award-winning (by the American Society of Training & Development) series became the operating system reinforcer for JCI.

In 1995, an assignment came up to lead the reengineering activities for a small book manufacturer. It sounded challenging. Michael Hammer, in his book on the topic, made it seem so simple. We just identify the key business processes, have some teams map them out with stick-em's on a big sheet of paper, then... Yes, then what? The words "get rid of the steps you don't need" leave a lot to the imagination. But, again, I was astounded by the creativity of the right people in a team process. Most of the people that do the work every day are thinking about ways to improve it. Just ask them. They are only waiting for someone with management's permission to help them implement the changes. Our reengineering plans would achieve a 90% reduction in quotation turnaround, and 50% reduction in order-to-ship time! But, like many reengineering efforts, a leadership change left most of the plans hanging in the team's war room.

In 1996, I finally bit the bullet and became a consultant with the Engineering Services Group (ESG) in Southfield, Michigan. I was always an internal consultant, but now I had become one of the breed we used to tease at the large firms. Now, I know why consultants can keep smiling. I was assigned to help lead engineering projects of a continuous process improvement or lean manufacturing nature. I led teams through some cost reduction, material handling system improvement, and small lot (tote) conversion projects. I also helped some large automakers launch new vehicles with more attention on how they are going to make the stuff and flow the materials. I discovered the need for good project management tools and skills, and picked up my Project Management Professional (PMP) certification to force myself to adopt these principles. Everything that has value when applied to manufacturing seems to be an organized process that requires discipline to make it work. Wow.

Buzzwords - The Common Threads:

You see, the buzzwords were all just tools to be applied to a process. Like a good carpenter, using the right tool for the job is the key. You do not use a screwdriver to cut a board. Misuse of tools, or one-size-fits-all thinking, or focusing solely on one piece of the operation at the expense of the whole has caused many of the horror stories you may have heard about. It's not the tool's fault. There is a proper use for all of the buzzwords, if you use them as tools, instead of as the goal itself. A saw is not a goal, just as Statistical Process Control (SPC) is not a goal. Improving the quality of a process is a goal. Making it right the first time is a goal. Getting rid of the wasteful steps that the customer is not willing to pay for is a goal.

"Owning" or knowing how to use these tools makes one more capable of building a manufacturing system. I recommend this method to make sense of the alphabet soup of manufacturing buzzwords. List every buzzword from ABC to Zero Defects (ZD), from TQM to TPS, from World Class Manufacturing to Lean Manufacturing, from Factories of the Future to Focused Factories on one side of a piece of paper. On the right side, list the benefits of the activities, how you would go about doing it, and what processes you would apply it to. Now, rip the page in half, throw out the buzzword side and find some change agents to assign full-time to the priority goals (one at a time please). And leaders, for goodness sake, get and stay involved in the process. It is your job to make changes happen. Let the people that do the work every day actually do the work. Give them the authority and resources. You focus on the changes.

I made a neat model with arrows and boxes to show how all of these buzzwords actually weave into a single story of what works in manufacturing. But, sometimes I think that the "slickness" of a model often lessens the meaning of the words. K.I.S.S. So, I offer instead, this list of the key things that work in manufacturing. These were the common threads in all of the buzzwords that worked.

  • List the improvements you wants (goals) then find a change agent (someone with the right "tools") to focus on the change activities full-time - involve the workers, too
  • Problem solving is the key; the top leader better be tracking these, allowing time for teams and demanding proof that the problem is solved
  • Unsolved problems are the key reasons why plants get messed up and are full of waste (mainly inventory)
  • You need to ask the workers, the people doing the work every day, for improvement ideas and solutions
  • Discipline! Do a whole bunch of little things right - all the time
  • Develop smooth, flowing production; keep the product moving; make 1 move 1
  • Minimize the distance that the parts and the workers need to move
  • Get a lot of people involved, map out your key processes, identify and get rid of the wasteful stuff, re-do the map, train others, audit that people are following it, then start all over again
  • Don't study a small part of a manufacturing system, study the whole system

About the Author

Steve Hoeft is a Senior Project Manager and Team Leader for the Engineering Services Group in Southfield, Michigan. Mr. Hoeft has over 16 years of experience in the automotive, printing, job shop, and related manufacturing industries. His areas of specialization include the use of Lean Manufacturing techniques to greatly improve the throughput and quality of a system. Mr. Hoeft is responsible for all aspects of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering projects from conceptual ideas through implementation at his consulting firm. Hoeft can be reached at