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Home > About Us > News and Articles > Cellular Manufacturing


By Gary Conner
THE FABRICATOR - Article reprinted with permission from the June 1996 issue of The Fabricator

Selecting a Team Coordinator
Training the Team Members Coordinator
Insights About Successful Teams

Each weeknight started the same. Rick and I arrived early to work, armed with the tools of the trade—calipers, protractors, and bend allowance formulas. We each brought years of experience to the task at hand, well aware that knowledge was power and sharing with others little more than needed to get the job done, holding back subtle details which could provide the needed edge in this daily competition.

In another time, it might have been high noon, but we squared off at 5:00 p.m. waiting for our chance in front of the machine for the opportunity to show up the other shift. With our livelihoods at stake and our family futures in the balance, the 5:30 shift change signaled the end of one daily serial and the beginning of the night shift's version.

To succeed in our mission, we would have to jointly outperform our day-shift counterparts while maintaining the delicate balance and competitive distance that would afford us operator autonomy and a record of individual performance, ensuring that we would be long remembered in the mythical Press Brake Hall of Fame.

The Olympics of sheet metal began anew each night, where we were only as good as the last pallet of parts off our machines.

Where the parts came from or where they were going made little difference in this process-driven facility layout. A departmental press brake goal of four bends per minute overshadowed any concern about line balancing, small lot sizes, pull systems, or Kanban replenishment levels.

Each day we attempted to better the competition, both within and outside our company. The goal was clear: earn our stars on the "Fabricator's Walk of Fame." This was friendly competition at times, but with serious undertones.

In what now seems like an instant, our situation changed. We found ourselves promoted and placed in charge of directing the efforts of other people, making decisions, setting schedules, and determining priorities.

I was first charged with leading a team of "weekend warriors," a crew working 12-hour days on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Rick was placed in the role of supervisor for an entire fabrication facility.

Over time, Rick and I had opportunity to set up a number of work teams together. We learned through shared experience the value of losing departmental single-mindedness; we had to change our patterns and habits associated with functional process flows (departments set up around specific equipment or processes). We soon came to recognize the folly that is internal competition, and we became aware of the myopic focus so prevalent in traditional manufacturing job shops.

Our roles came with a number of serious drawbacks. We were charged with directing teams of un-crosstrained individuals who showed up every day and produced relatively adequate product. While we were happy to be promoted, at the same time we were also keenly aware of a drop in productivity as we stepped away from the machines. It was easy to fall into the trap of just doing it ourselves rather than coaching others to be more capable.

Rick became the production manager for an entire facility, and I was assigned the job of "in-house coordinator" for a company's "world-class" manufacturing program. Spending our time training and setting up new teams, we had a number of successes—as well as a few failures.

Where we experienced failures, we learned, and a recurring lesson was that when teams are bossed instead of coached, or when they are left on their own instead of being provided a clear vision and measurable goals, their success is limited, if not nonexistent. We had to help the teams overcome many of the same negative patterns and habits we had been encouraged to lose.

This process was at times slow and frustrating. Wanting to see change rapidly, we ran the risk of driving people away rather than fostering an environment of positive momentum. However, when the adoption of these concepts moves too slowly to show management that progress is being made and that productivity improvements are just on the horizon, the tendency is to call the exercise a failure of the team, rather than to look at the training, vision, and level of coordination provided to the team.

I have come to appreciate that this is the scenario many new managers who see the positive enefits associated with Just-In-Time (JIT) technologies and so-called "self-directed" work teams will face.

Selecting a Team Coordinator
To assist teams in making an effective transition, some coaching and assistance is required. The first in many critical steps is the process of selecting a team coordinator. Closing the gap between being a great machine operator and a competent team coordinator takes time and patience. It is also critical for management to acknowledge the fact that a great machinist does not necessarily make a great coordinator in every case.

With the advent of cellular manufacturing teams, it is becoming more commonplace to have skilled machine operators placed in the position of team leader or coordinator. Even self-directed work teams need a coordinator or spokesperson.

The methods used when selecting a coordinator often determine both the short-term success of the person selected and the long-term success of the team. Choosing a coordinator is often a task performed by management—a decision that they expect the teams to endorse.

Why? From management's perspective, the team is paid to follow orders, and the ability of the team to make good decisions about such matters is in question. In the infancy of the team's development this may truly be the case, but as a team (or steering team) matures, with proper direction, the team can be helped to understand the importance of making good business decisions.
With proper coaching, a team will often be able to leave personal feelings aside long enough to base decisions on facts and data. A helpful strategy is to have a skilled facilitator lead the team through the following steps. This process can be used when selecting a team coordinator or leader (or for weighing out the value of any decision):

  1. Have the team list the great leaders in history.
  2. Have the team identify the positive characteristics of each leader listed.
  3. Have each team member then assign a value (from 1 to 5) to each characteristic, relating to how important it would be for the coordinator to have this attribute.
  4. Have the team identify and list those personnel nominated or interested in being considered to serve as team coordinator. Include any suggestions by the management team.
  5. On a grid, list the attributes in valued order of importance (see Figure1). One by one, have each team member objectively discuss the candidates' qualifications in regard to each attribute.
  6. Avoid voting, but allow each team member to have points totaling two times the number of candidates to use as a rating/weighting tool. Example: If there are 3 candidates, then each member is allowed 3 x 2 points, or 6 points total, to assign to the three candidates. No more than half (in this example, 3) can be assigned to any one person.

The result of each poll (which can be anonymous) is averaged, and the process is repeated for each characteristic. The candidate's score is then multiplied by the value of the attribute. The columns are then totaled, resulting in a weighted grand total for each candidate. The team is thus able to logically, instead of emotionally, select a team member through a consensus-based process.

Once a person is appointed as coordinator, an adjustment period to the change begins. Both the coordinator and the team will be making some adjustments.

The level of commitment to the newly appointed coordinator is usually greater because no votes were cast, so feelings of "loss" or that "our choice was not elected" are minimized. Decision-making by consensus takes a little longer, but the "buy-in" and implementation periods are greatly reduced.

Training the Team Members and Coordinator
Here, a measure of coaching for both coordinator and team will prove very beneficial. Short cutting the training of coordinators and teams is a little like the guys who used to cut across the track when the P.E. teacher had his back turned. Their performance never got better, and they had only themselves to blame for cheating themselves out of greater achievement.

Educating the team members to work together and to think as a business unit requires them to adopt a new set of values. Some of these values are learned behaviors, so adopting these values will not happen by osmosis. Just the discussion of these values can be a potent opportunity for enhancing open communication and the speed at which teams work through the group dynamics associated with becoming a high-performing team. No matter how well the management team understands and embodies the values, communicating them clearly and distinctly to the team is critical.
Figure 3 shows a small sample of the values which are critical for teams to examine, both from a before and after perspective. Understanding how each member plays a role in adoption of these values places accountability for success squarely with the team.

This is not rocket science. Instead of looking for a quick fix to our manufacturing challenges, this author recommends a measured, logical, well thought-out, time-phased project within which teams and team coordinators are allowed the opportunity to experience the implementation of such new values firsthand, along with training which allows them to be successful.

Some of the recommended training includes technologies for implementation of cellular manufacturing:

  1. Fast setup
  2. Small lot sizes
  3. Pull systems
  4. Focused layout
  5. Load balancing
  6. Process and product simplification
  7. Error proofing
  8. Handling and packaging
  9. Preventive maintenance
  10. Automation
  11. Collecting and analyzing data
  12. Effective problem-solving techniques

For team coordinators to be most effective, some additional training may be required on topics such as:

  1. Learning the importance of effective leadership.
  2. Understanding the challenges leadership requires.
  3. Developing skills in offering and receiving feedback.
  4. Appreciating the value of group diversity.
  5. Overcoming resistance to change.
  6. Learning how to conduct effective meetings.
  7. Setting performance expectations.
  8. Dealing effectively with disciplinary issues.
  9. Understanding conflict resolution techniques.
  10. Learning to create an environment that fosters initiative.
  11. Learning the value of coaching versus bossing.
  12. Understanding adult learning and communication styles.

Insights About Successful Teams
Rick and I have since had the opportunity to assist dozens of teams on a number of different projects. In every case, the level of success was directly proportional to the level of training provided to the team.

Without a clear definition of what the desired outcome is, and without adequate training and tools provided to meet the challenge, the teams' results will always fall short. This then sets up a vicious circle in which no one wants to be a part of future attempts.

Spend the time, then, to pave the way for teams to be successful—first in methods of selecting leadership for the team, then in educating the team on what the objectives are, and then in how they can quantify (measure) their success in meeting these objectives. Celebrate their successes with them along the way. Encourage them to collect their own data and to solve problems together for those issues that do not work so well.

People have an inborn desire to succeed, to be viewed as competent. Provide people with the right set of tools, and they will generally exceed the expectation. The success of a high-performing team is contagious, and the synergy generated by a number of high-performing work groups can set a company apart from its competition.

Management's willingness to apply adequate training resources and to let go of responsibility will determine how successful the teams are in meeting these objectives. The term self directed work team is a misnomer. There is no such thing. Management has the responsibility to guide and provide clear vision for teams so that they are not left to flounder. If management does its part and fosters an environment of positive change, there can be near-miraculous improvements in productivity, employee involvement, team cohesiveness, and job satisfaction.

Gary Conner is with Technical Change Associates, Ogden, Utah. Rick Price, who is mentioned in the article, is Production Manager for Neilsen Manufacturing Inc., Salem, Oregon.

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