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Bruce Hamilton


Space Junk

Are your workplace fixtures junk, or do they facilitate flow?

Published: Monday, September 12, 2016 - 14:40

Last weekend in the Nantucket Ferry terminal, I passed a defunct phone booth: an ornate wooden kiosk used 20 years ago to frame a pay phone, provide a modicum of privacy, and hold a phone book. It appeared that this particular phone booth had been re-purposed to hold a suggestion box, or perhaps the suggestion box was also defunct. Who knows? I picked it up and shook it; it was empty. And there were no blank suggestion forms in the side slot.

As I viewed the pay phone/suggestion box combo, the following thoughts crossed my mind:
• In this bustling terminal, where customers crowded to catch the last boat to the mainland, someone might have written a suggestion if there had been pencil and paper. Notwithstanding my jaundiced view of the effectiveness of locked suggestion boxes, this particular one might as well have read: We don’t really care.
• When the phone company removed the pay phone, probably a decade ago, all that remained was an empty kiosk. The functional part of the phone booth had been stripped, leaving a useless shell.

These are two different kinds of space junk, a term I’ve borrowed from NASA that describes the half-million pieces of accumulated debris left behind by decades of astronautical experiments; except in this case, the stuff is floating around in our offices, factories, labs, operations rooms, and warehouses.

The first kind of space junk, epitomized by the suggestion box, represents a system that is apparently in place, but is not purposeful (and probably even counterproductive), because it does not demonstrate understanding or commitment. In fact, I frequently see suggestion boxes in this condition. Other common examples include:
• Taped lines left on the floor or signage left hanging from the rafters after a department’s layout has changed
• Huddle boards with to-do dates more than a year old
• Standardized work charts that bear no resemblance to the current condition
Kanban racks overflowing with overproduction—or conversely, empty
• “Employee of the Year” postings last updated three years ago

At one point any of these “experiments” may have been purposeful, but now they’ve become monuments to stagnation and backsliding.

The second kind of space junk, represented in this case by the kiosk missing the pay phone, is debris that is left behind from old systems. Like the kiosk, this stuff appears to be repurposed, but after a time it accumulates into a hodgepodge of hand-me-downs. I’d wager, for example, that more than half of the 7-ft shop cabinets I see are leftovers from earlier use. They are almost always too deep for the current use, creating first-in-first-out problems and inviting storage of excess supplies, tools, and materials. Other examples of this type of space junk include:
• Old desks turned into tables, perhaps to hold a printer plus “stuff,” or to be used as a lab bench
• A wall that once divided two departments, but which now just blocks the line of sight between two team members from the same department
• File cabinets and book cases repurposed as fixture holders or walls
• Electrical and plumbing drops left from an earlier time; like the pay phone kiosk it was just easier to leave them behind.

To be sure there are times when old stuff can be effectively repurposed, but more often than not these attempts save a few pennies up front, only to add cost and strain later on. Many years ago, walking a convoluted conveyance route with a material handler, we came upon a floor scale that jutted into the route, causing the employee to muscle the cart to the side of the aisle. I asked, “Who uses the scale?” The material handler didn’t know. In fact, nobody knew or could remember when the floor scale was last used. Space junk.

I invite you to look around at the fixtures in your workplace and ask if they are really there to facilitate flow and make the job easier, or if they are just space junk. How many can you find and how do they affect your work? Please share a couple of examples.


About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change. Also, he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an ongoing reflection on lean philosophy and practices, with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.


Space Junk

How many people have a stack of floppy disks and no way to read them?

I can't find the photo I took, but I remember seeing a large doorway that had been sealed shut with concrete blocks.  Above it there remained a sign that read, "FIRE DOOR - DO NOT BLOCK".