The $8 Million Replacement for a $20 Dollar Fan

By on April 16, 2013
The $8 Million Dollar Fan

Close to ten years ago, a line worker in a plant in which I was doing consulting came up to me after a 5S team meeting. With tears in his eyes, he told me that it was in these 5S team meetings that for the first time in twenty-five years of working in the plant someone asked him: “Kevin, what do you think?” What was the impact of Kevin finally being asked this simple question? He shared a process improvement idea that, as I recall, saved the company about $10,000.

Why did it take twenty-five years for Kevin’s creativity and expertise to be used by his employer? There are many reasons but I believe the core driver of this kind of irrational behavior on the part of managers is the residue of elements of Frederick Taylor’s theories of scientific management. Consider this statement Taylor made before a congressional committee in the late teens of the last century:

“I can say, without the slightest hesitation, that the science of handling pig-iron is so great that the man who is physically able to handle pig-iron and sufficiently stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron.”

Fast forward to 2013. Very rarely would disdain for the abilities of line workers be expressed with such brutal clarity as we see in Taylor’s statement. Most people have become far too “politically correct” to say what they think in this regard. “Political correctness” aside, in my experience, many managers act as though they believe what Taylor said. And what happens when managers act as though line workers are too stupid to really comprehend the “science” behind what they do?

A week ago an old friend of mine sent me the following story. It may be a modern myth, perhaps it never happened as written, but I’ve seen the situation it describes played out far too many times in real life.

Consider the story of the $8 million replacement for a $20 dollar fan…

A toothpaste factory had a problem. They sometimes shipped empty toothpaste boxes without the tube inside. This challenged their perceived quality with the buyers and distributors. Understanding how important the relationship with them was, the CEO of the company assembled his top people. They decided to hire an external engineering company to solve their empty boxes problem. The project followed the usual process: budget and project sponsor allocated, RFP, and third-parties selected. Six months (and $8 million) later they had a fantastic solution – on time, on budget, and high quality. Everyone in the project was pleased.

They solved the problem by using a high-tech precision scale that would sound a bell and flash lights whenever a toothpaste box weighed less than it should. The line would stop, someone would walk over, remove the defective box, and then press another button to re-start the line. As a result of the new package monitoring process, no empty boxes were being shipped out of the factory.

With no more customer complaints, the CEO felt the $8 million was well spent. He then reviewed the line statistics report and discovered the number of empty boxes picked up by the scale in the first week was consistent with projections, however, the next three weeks were zero! The estimated rate should have been at least a dozen boxes a day. He had the engineers check the equipment; they verified the report as accurate.

Puzzled, the CEO traveled down to the factory, viewed the part of the line where the precision scale was installed, and observed just ahead of the new $8 million dollar solution sat a $20 desk fan blowing the empty boxes off the belt and into a bin. He asked the line supervisor what that was about.

“Oh, that,” the supervisor replied, “Bert, the kid from maintenance, put it there because he was tired of walking over to restart the line every time the bell rang.”

How often have you seen money lost because no one took the time to talk to Kevin or Bert? Twenty-seven years ago I saw $6 million misspent on equipment in an automotive plant because the engineering group that ordered the equipment didn’t take the time to talk with line workers. And I’ve seen Taylor’s thinking played out far too often since then.

The good news is that gradually, one step at a time, the beliefs and practices of Lean manufacturing are taking hold and companies worldwide are listening to Kevin and Bert.

Two requirements have to be met to stimulate the robust flow of line worker ideas to the organization’s management team. First, Kevin and Bert have to believe their ideas are wanted and valued. Second, it has to be easy for their ideas to be captured and processed. Many of the companies we’re working with now have found that a tool called the Idea Board very effectively meets both of these requirements.

When the expertise of line workers is fully utilized the only losers are consulting organizations selling $8 million replacements for $20 dollar fans. Don’t feel sorry for them.

What do you think about this issue? Are companies generally moving toward taking full advantage of the creativity and knowledge of all of their employees? If they’re not, what do you think the barriers are?

Finally, if you haven’t seen the Idea Board at work, please take a look at this video.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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