Placing the operator at the heart of the business

Placing the operator at the heart of the business

The traditional organisation hierarchy is based on the military model. In the military, orders are transmitted down the chain of command, from a responsible superior such as a colonel, to lower-ranked subordinates such as a captain. In this way the order is either executed personally by the captain or transmitted down the chain as appropriate, until it is received by those expected to execute it. Typical threats that organisations using the military management model face when retaining their operator population include:

  • Boredom in the job due to low level of skill required, which makes operators easy targets for both external and internal job migration, and
  • A feeling on the part of the operators that they are under appreciated, leading to low morale in the team.
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The top-down military chain of command approach to management has been effectively turned on its head by lean organisations. Managers in lean organisations recognise that the operator is usually the only value adding person in the organisation. If the customer is the most important person outside the plant, then the operator may just be the most important person within the plant as s/he makes the products or services that the customer buys, which pays the wages of all organisation employees. With such an important role to fulfil, the operator is deserving of every support to ensure that he or she can complete each job, right first time, every time.

How is this transition in thinking and doing achieved? Managers often believe that they will be unable to motivate or retain the operator group, after considerable investment in time and effort to train them. This attitude is often rooted in a belief that money is the only motivator that will ensure operator motivation or retention. However, this belief is somewhat exaggerated. Certainly, money is very important, however it is not the only motivator. A feeling of being ‘in on things’, and having some control over the job and the workplace are very powerful motivators. This can be achieved through a number of formal well-planned interventions. These include:

  • Establishing a proactive 5S programme that rewards innovation in relation to workplace layout and process effectiveness;
  • Training all operators in formal team based problem solving;
  • Having a formal cross-training plan for operators, such that they experience different areas, and train on different machines across the site;
  • Establishing of a mentoring programme where more mature operators nurture the talents of new recruits;
  • Organising best practice visits to other lean sites to learn by observing others;
  • Training operators as site visit hosts for visiting groups;
  • Appointing operators as subject matter experts (SME) in programmes such as quick changeover and standard work;
  • Implementing Training Within Industry (TWI) to standardise the operators’ approach to machine set-up, tear down and all aspects of product and service supply;
  • Implementing Total Productive Maintenance, to enable operators to perform basic maintenance on machines;
  • Apprenticeships for operators at supplier sites of manufacture of machines used in production, and
  • Ensuring operators are participants in the regular department and site communications updates.

The above list is far from exhaustive and no doubt there is a shift in thinking required of both managers and operators. The management hierarchy (managers, supervisors and line leads) needs to be fully engaged in managing the transition from expecting operators to do, to expecting operators to think and also do. This transition needs careful planning; active engagement with the operator group in open discussions, and a change in lifelong habits for all concerned. However, the rewards make up for the transition effort, several hundredfold. Advantages of actively enabling operators include:

  • Confidence on the part of managers that operators will be enabled to deal with incidental process problems as they arise without escalating to line leads and supervisors;
  • Confidence on the part of operators, line leads and managers alike that the process will run smoothly;
  • Higher productivity and higher product quality;
  • Greater engagement and participation by the operator workforce;
  • Higher morale throughout all operations departments and their support services such as maintenance and warehouse;
  • Higher operator retention;
  • Longer machine life, and
  • An appetite to contribute more to the future of the organisation.

All of the above can be achieved to create to an environment that runs smoothly, at an even pace, and at a lower cost to the organisation.

Although all of the above article refers to operators in the context of manufacturing sector, the truths carry over to administrators and entry level employees in the services sectors. I leave you to ponder the operators’ and administrators’ engagement in your organisation and with the words of Taiichi Ohno.

“The Toyota style is not to create results by working hard. It is a system that says there is no limit to people’s creativity. People don’t go to Toyota to ‘work’ they go there to ‘think’.”

– Taiichi Ohno

© Bernie Rushe, BSc, CPIM, Dip SA, MSc, Black Belt
Bernie@LeanIreland.ie, +353-87-2837810

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