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How Manufacturing Is Changing to Make Associates the Stars

Dec. 7, 2017
Use these lessons from the factory floor to shape a leaner, stronger enterprise.

Marcia Brey is Lean Enterprise Leader, GE Appliances, a Haier Company.

I’ve seen manufacturing change considerably in my 24-year career, especially when it comes to lean practices. This concept of identifying and eliminating waste in the production process, while at the same time adding value the customer is willing to pay for, has become a critical component of success. Waste can be waiting to move the assembly line along or spending hours searching for parts. Sometimes it’s excessive transit times. Other times waste appears when we produce the wrong part or we make too much of a product when there are no orders. Waste can manifest in many ways, meaning businesses must employ multiple strategies to combat these inefficiencies.

Today, some manufacturers are transitioning from a lean manufacturing company to a company that thinks lean in every aspect of the business, every day. Our journey has just begun, but we are confident the learning that started on the factory floor can transfer to every function in our business and elevate our entire organization to new heights. In sharing a few of these lessons, we hope to inspire other leaders who would transform their own operations, starting with the associates who make success possible.

Involve Every Person in the Process

One of the biggest changes I have observed in my career is how we involve every employee in the factory during the manufacturing process. It used to be management and equipment that drove our operating rhythm to a large degree. Now, it’s common to walk the plant and see associates collaborating in teams—groups working to identify and understand problems together.

It’s not a job anymore where people are just putting parts together. The manufacturing process is something the whole team takes pride in—even functions not technically “in the factory.” Today, our technology, designers, sourcing, and even sales and marketing employees are involved in the factory processes with our manufacturing teams. We support each other to help make today a success and we collaborate on how we can make tomorrow even better. I think it’s exciting where manufacturing is headed and how cooperative the environment can be when every person feels he or she is making a real contribution to the superior product and ownership experience we’re bringing to consumers.

Give the Operator Every Advantage

A tremendous amount of technology has entered the factory over the past 20 years in the form of machine assists to support the operator. With this comes the importance of taking the ergonomics of the job into account and setting operators up for success.

For instance, we pay a lot of attention to the proper placement of parts, so operators don’t have to reach for tools or travel around the floor as much. Think of the operator as a surgeon—you certainly wouldn’t want a surgeon searching for a scalpel or a scrap of cotton in the middle of an operation. You want everything he or she needs to do their job at arm’s length, and an operator is no different. Sometimes our operators have only 20 seconds to complete a task—their piece of building the appliance—and our job is to ensure they can do it in a safe way with the highest quality. It starts with the way we configure job stations and how our operators have their own input there. It continues with how we deliver parts to them as well as the kinds of high-tech equipment they might use, such as a lift-assist for picking up heavy parts.

All these factors go into making the operator more effective, because when you talk about lean manufacturing, the operator is one of the few people in the process who is literally creating the value the consumer is willing to pay for. As a consequence, it’s essential that person has every opportunity to accomplish his or her job the best it can be done every time.

Find Your Purpose

Manufacturing must also have a purpose. At GE Appliances, our purpose is to bring happiness and well-being into every home. Everything we do is connected to that mission, and manufacturing is no different: create products that make a difference in how the owners experience their day. Keep the owner in mind on the factory floor that every refrigerator, dishwasher, or whatever device it is that you make will go into the heart of a family’s home—often the kitchen—where families congregate. That’s why today—this day—is the one that matters because you’re building with a purpose. You're building for the family who's going to use that device for the next 10 years.

Seek Multiple Perspectives

I have seen people with the best ambitions go after a problem but fall short because they only observed the problem from “one dimension,” only from their point of view. An engineer looking at a technical issue will take a scientific approach, naturally. Cross-functional teams, however, allow us to see problems from multiple perspectives.

For example, maybe a dishwasher latch just isn’t closing correctly. Our engineers start problem-solving by looking at the drawings and examining how the parts stack up, but it’s not until you bring in the salesperson who has seen this issue through the eyes of their customer that the problem starts to take on dimension.

That salesperson can say, “Yes, this latch feels funny, but it’s really the clicking noise when you pull it that bothers people.” Now we’re not just solving issues on paper, or with data alone, but supplementing that knowledge with a “go-and-see” attitude that ensures the problem we’re working on is the same one the consumer is experiencing.

It’s this articulation of the problem, or identifying where the problem originates, that can be challenging to identify. That’s why we’re walking the factory floor, listening to consumers in their homes, and bringing job functions together, because it’s up to us to understand and solve problems from a broader perspective that leads to more effective and optimal solutions.

Help Others Own the Vision

When we think about factories, many people still picture a brick building circa 1950 with black clouds billowing out and workers pouring in, and that’s not the reality today. Manufacturing is still about groups of people working together to build a product, but it’s not the same environment, nor the same tools. Manufacturing technologies have come such a long way.

If you look around the world we live in, the structures and items we use were all made by someone. Nothing just happens or appears. Everything is made with someone’s, or likely many people’s, ingenuity and skill. There are real people behind the objects we interface with every day. Working relentlessly to engage the heart and mind of every employee to bring out the best of what we can do together to create the best appliances possible. We are creating a sense of community in our plants, and to show that manufacturing jobs can lead to fulfilling, full-time careers.

If we rely on other countries to constantly produce what we are purchasing in the United States, this equation will not last. It’s our job to make manufacturing sustainable, and it starts with giving people reasons to believe in the factory of the future and a true sense that the work they do will support their families and communities for a long time to come.

Is your company collaborating across departments? Are you finding novel ways to energize employees and rally associates to a common cause? Discussing different ideas is how we grow stronger together—continue this conversation by connecting with me on LinkedIn! I love to learn about original approaches to the problems we all deal with.

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