Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Lean Manufacturing and a Cheese Sandwich


This week I was invited to participate in a two day conference on lean manufacturing. The conference included three (3) plant tours and a healthy dose of classroom and presentation time. The Fabricators & Manufacturing Association (FMA) organized the event in St. Louis. More than 30 people attended from as far away as Tennessee and upstate New York. The tours and the discussions (formal and informal) reminded me of a cheese sandwich. Not just any cheese sandwich, but the very specific one my wife used to order. The sandwich that confounded restaurants all over the country. 

Here is the request: “May I please have a grilled Swiss cheese and tomato on rye, toasted well with Russian dressing on the side.” Sounds simple enough right? But, like lean manufacturing there are many ways to get it wrong and hundreds of ways to do it better. Ways to get it wrong for the customer (my wife): 1. Wrong cheese (not Swiss) 2. Not grilled well 3. Mushy tomato  4. Wrong bread (not rye) 5. Russian dressing on sandwich (instead of on the side) or not in on-time (later than other orders).  The list goes on and on.

The hapless waitress in any one of these unfortunate scenarios is only the end of a production line. Prep includes careful staging, assembly and presentation. Materials must be selected and prepared. In a busy restaurant the ingredients must be sorted. The work-space must be straight and shiny-clean. The process to be efficient must be somewhat standardized. Customers have a right to expect a sustainable level of service on repeat visits. Of course, food safety is critical too.

This cheese sandwich is a custom order so the lean manufacturing challenges include elimination of waste to assure a profitable transaction. Here are some kinds of waste the restaurant owner needs to avoid. Overproduction. (Don’t assume another customer is going to ask for the same thing - although that could happen.)  Waiting time. (The sandwich needs to be prepared in a timely fashion and delivered with the other meals at the table.) Transportation. (Food needs to be on hand to deliver this product. If you have no tomatoes ready for slicing you aren’t going to make it.) Processing. (Build the sandwich with confidence.) Inventory. (Make sure you have rye bread, tomato, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing.) Motion. (Stage the elements so there isn’t a lot of inefficient running around.) Product Defects. (It’s food. It needs to be fresh and handled properly.)

The manufacturing facilities we visited for tours made products  as diverse as retail display racks, industrial heaters, structural trusses for a football stadiums - each on an order of magnitude significantly more difficult than building a cheese sandwich. (So clearly there is a lot to think about.)

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