The How-We’ve-Always-Done-It Mentality

Manufacturing Engineer Receives Pushback from Ops

It’s the dreaded phrase we hear in manufacturing all the time – the bane of change management types.  Even when it’s not actually spoken aloud, the mentality can be pervasive with Plant Managers, Operations Directors, and Owners.

Even with leaders who see themselves as “forward-thinking” or “fully engaged with the shop floor” the tendency to get caught in a rut is high.  To avoid a stagnating culture, leaders need to surround themselves with people who will challenge them.  In manufacturing, the leadership team needs automated data-collection systems to support the improvement effort.

Twenty years ago, I was working for AMS Controls as a technician.  We had won a big order with one of the largest metal buildings manufacturers in North America.  They wanted to put our controls on all their machines and tie our MES system into their ERP.  Their primary product was the corrugated painted steel panels that make up the walls of metal buildings.

In the planning, I had suggested tackling one plant at a time, giving the operators a couple weeks to get used to the new system, and then turning on the MES software.  I had personally upgraded all the controls in the first plant over the course of a month.  After a couple weeks I was back to setup the MES software and train their office folks on it.

I walked in, spotted the Shift Supervisor and asked if he’d grab the Plant Manager for me.  The Supervisor took off and I was left standing on the floor for about 10 minutes.

In the Metal Buildings Industry, it’s common to run a stack of parts at a given length, and then to run one more panel on top of the stack.  This top panel is called a “cover sheet”.  These bundles of corrugated panels might sit at a job site exposed to the weather for several days and the cover sheet protects the rest of the bundle from damage.  They are treated as normal production Scrap by the manufacturer.

As I’m waiting for the Plant Manager to meet with me, I see an Operator finish a bundle and he lays a cover sheet on top.  He grabs his notepad, a pen, and a tape measure and he measures the cover sheet to record the length.

As the Operator finishes his measurement and begins to write, another Operator walks over and they chat for a couple minutes.  Finally, the second Operator goes back to his machine, and I see the original guy standing there with a frown as he looks at the bundle and then to the pen and paper in his hand.  After a couple moments thought, he shrugs and writes something down before moving on with his day.

At this point, the Plant Manager comes up to me, shakes my hand with a smile, and says, “Hi, Jaycen!  Man, everything has been working really well.  The guys are getting used to the new controls and our lengths have actually been more consistent!  I know you’re here to install the MES.”  At this point, he shakes his head, “You know, the owners want the new system in here so they can track scrap, but we don’t need it.  I know every inch of scrap that comes out of my building!”

It turned out their scrap numbers were off by tens of thousands of feet per year in every plant.



When the Operator shrugged, I knew in that moment he was giving the universal sign for, Eh, close enough!  I’m sure he was well-intentioned.  He probably did a good job most of the time, but human beings are incentivized to fudge numbers in their favor.  That’s why you automate – not necessarily to eliminate human labor, but to make that labor more efficient and to collect data without the bias of the person doing the work.

More to the point, the Plant Manager was a highly-motivated individual who really had his finger on the pulse of the business unit, but he had blinded himself to his own limitations.  Even the best Operator can be distracted.

No matter how good you are, you have to rely on your Operators to run the machines day-to-day.  In most cases, Operator Training consists of following a more experienced person around for a few weeks, learning to to do things as they’ve always been done.  Once you’re properly trained, you are turned loose to do your best to keep things working as they’ve worked for years.

Walking the floor and “talking to the guys” isn’t enough.  This method tends to establish a minimum threshold for performance and the bar rarely gets raised.  Without impartially-collected information, it’s very difficult to know where to even start when it comes to making improvements.  Scattershot attempts to improve things can result in unexpected and unpleasant results, which just reinforces the stick with what works attitude.

In roll form manufacturing, you cannot get a tight handle on performance in your operation if you don’t automatically collect data related to length, time, and speed.  Even if you collect that data, it’s meaningless if you aren’t looking at it every day and using it to hold people accountable – for keeping the machine running, for keeping the machine in a state of production readiness, for cutting corners and working unsafely to keep up with demand.

If you’ve stuck with what works, and now it’s how you’ve always done it, reach out for a consultation on how you can implement meaningful change based on data-driven management of your facilities.  I’ve spent over 20 years gently nudging leaders out of their comfort zone and helping them to guide their organization through lasting improvements in performance.

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