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Bruce Hamilton


Too Happy Too Soon

Focus scarce resources to build capability before branching out

Published: Monday, April 4, 2022 - 12:02

The level of excitement was high in our machine shop as we drew closer to our goal of less than 9-minute changeovers on the BNC lathe. (See Part One of this story for how we got there.) Setup improvements had so far reduced changeover time to 20 minutes, cutting the economic order quantity from weeks to days of stock on hand.

Our pull system now more closely resembled a supermarket with several containers on hand for each of the 66 parts in our pilot. After decades of viewing setups as a problem and inventory as a protection from stockouts, this new process was still confounding for many persons. But it was working, which was most apparent to the operators on the BNC and their internal customers in assembly:
• No more expedites and angry demands
• No more breaking down a setup in mid run to run a hot part
• No more juggling jobs between machines
• No more fiddling with tools and programs to get a good part

The BNC improvement team had, as my friend and mentor Steve Spear likes to say, “proven theory through practice.” The concepts from Shigeo Shingo’s books actually worked. All that was required had been was a little coaching from our Toyota System Support Center (TSSC) consultant and a whole lot of brilliant ideas from the operators.

Funny thing about good ideas: They tend to spread. Operators were champing at the bit to take some of what we’d learned from the BNC and spread it to other machines. I don’t recall how it started or if I may have selectively forgotten part of the charter Hajime Oba had given to us for our setup project:

“All of the parts for your model line assembly will be made on this machine, and changeover between any two parts must be less than 9 minutes. Work only on this machine. That is your target.”

We were making so much progress with the BNC that I probably rationalized Oba would be pleased to see us sharing the ideas across other machines. This turned out not to be the case.

On Oba’s next visit to the plant, I enthusiastically greeted him with the news, “Changeovers on the BNC are already down to 20 minutes and we’re now working on improvement at the LE22...” (the machine next to it). Before I could finish this sentence, Oba stopped in his tracks and turned for the door. Incredulous, I followed him outside to the parking lot, apologizing, but for what I wasn’t sure. I asked in desperation, “What did we do?” Oba stopped walking, turned to me and, with a shrug of disappointment, replied, “You’ll never be better than 20 minutes.”

I think he was most disappointed that I hadn’t figured this out for myself. I apologized again, now with understanding. “We’ll work only on the BNC until we hit our target.” As the two of us reentered the plant, I reflected: “Don’t spread mediocre results. The target was single minutes, not double-digits.” Six months later, we hit 9 minutes on the BNC and began to spread best practices to other CNCs.

My lessons: 1) Don’t be too happy too soon; and 2) focus your scarce resources to build capability before branching out.


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.