That Damn Forklift Driver

By on September 29, 2015
That Damn Forklift Driver

I was walking through a large bottling plant. When I approached a point on the line where cans of soda that had been improperly packaged were put back on the line for repackaging, I heard a worker named Jim say, “That damn forklift driver.” I approached him and asked what the problem was.

Jim replied with great annoyance, “I’ve asked Tom over and over again to put the pallets with cans to repackaged right here,” pointing to a spot next to the line. He continued, “Does he do it? Hell, no. Sometimes the pallet is here, sometimes it’s there; it’s wherever he feels like putting it down.” He continued with gusto, “It needs to be right here. Exactly here.”

Jim asked me, “What’s so hard about understanding this?”

I hesitated for a moment before answering him, realizing that all he really wanted to hear was my confirmation that the forklift driver was indeed an idiot.

I responded, “Do you think it’s possible that Tom just forgets where you ask him to set down the pallets?” Jim replied, “C’mon, give me a break, how could he forget something so simple?”

I said, “How about we make it even simpler and put some yellow lines on the floor, clearly outlining the spot where Jim needs to position the pallets and that we label this space ‘Cans for repackaging.’ Do you think that’d help him remember where to set down the pallets?”

His response, “Seems kind of silly but, yeah, it couldn’t hurt anything. Let’s do it.”

Problem solved. The pallets with cans for repackaging are now always in the exact spot they need to be in.

A question. Why didn’t Jim come up with this idea months ago? The solution is incredibly obvious. Incredibly simple. Yet Jim had spent months, maybe years, cursing Tom the forgetful forklift driver while he wasted time and motion and money walking to retrieve cans of soda that weren’t where he needed them to be.

Here’s my take on what was happening. For years, Jim’s behavior had been shaped by managers and supervisors who had made it clear that what they valued in Jim was not his ability to think, to come up with creative solutions to work process problems. Rather, they had taught him that his job was to move cans from this spot to that spot or whatever other jobs he was assigned to and nothing more. In other words, Jim had been taught to be a passive participant, not an active, engaged, problem solver.

Passive participants do exactly what Jim was doing when I observed him cursing Tom, the forgetful forklift driver. They play out the role of victim just perfectly. And who pays the price for their passivity? The company that pays their salary.

Had Jim and Tom been working for a company that practiced Lean management, a company whose employees had been told over and over again that their intelligence and creativity were highly valued and needed by the company, Jim and Tom would be very different workers. They would be proactive problem solvers engaged in the continuous improvement of all the work they do.

In Lean language they would be Kaizen (“Continuous Improvement”) Thinkers.

Some people will look at this “let’s put yellow lines on the floor” solution as very minor league, relatively inconsequential compared to all of the other challenges management faces. They’d probably view it as the icing on the cake. Nice to do if you have the time.

Interpreting the Jim and Tom story in this way would be a major mistake. Yellow lines on the floor aren’t the icing on the cake, they’re the cake. Of course, “yellow lines” are just one example of the application of continuous improvement thinking to a work process. “Yellow line” thinking on the floor drives up productivity, increases profitability. Not having it drives down productivity and profitability. Multiply this one “Jim and Tom” example of wasted time, motion, and money a hundredfold and extend it over time and we’re talking about very significant amounts of lost money.

And who needs to decide where the yellow lines should go? Jim and Tom.

Our Corporate Services Group has a wide variety of Lean resources that can transform your Jims and Toms into engaged drivers of increased profitability. When this happens, your company will be a much stronger competitor in its marketplace. Jim and Tom will have a much more secure future. And so will you.

I’d very much value having the opportunity to review these resources with you. I think you’d find this to be time very well spent. You can reach me anytime at 314-303-0612. Let’s talk.

Jim and Tom deserve great futures. So do you and your company.

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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