Give Control Back to the Operators

Give Control Back to the Operators

In 2013, I was doing some consulting for a very large US manufacturing company. The company needed our help with a particular site that had been experiencing a lot of downtime, so naturally my colleagues and I paid the location a visit to see what was going on.

As part of our assessment, we requested to sit in on one of the daily operations meetings. We were midway through the meeting when we overheard the area leader casually reprimand his team of operators for producing 8 rolls of product off-spec. Allen, one of my colleagues, then jumped in to ask how much one roll of product costs, and to our astonishment, no one in the room knew the answer…

It wasn’t until an engineer looked up the value, that everyone learned a single roll costs a whopping $20,000! The team had botched 8 rolls, and had cost the company a total of $160,000 that day… Worst of all they’d had no idea!

The Problem

Unfortunately, it’s very common within the manufacturing industry to find complacent operators who are for the most part completely disengaged from operations. They have very little sense of accountability, and rely heavily on engineers for solutions rather than trying to find a solution themselves.

This type of environment is detrimental to both the culture of the factory and the factory itself. According to Gallup, disengaged workers are showing up to work, but their lack of interest or inspiration is costing US businesses anywhere from $450-$550 billion a year in lost productivity.

So Who’s to Blame?

It’s easy to point a finger at the operators, and chalk up their lack of motivation to laziness. However, their behavior is actually the bi-product of an environment that we as leaders and engineers create. We tell them exactly what to do and how to do it, and in doing so we take their brains out of the equation.

Engineers and specialists enable the operator’s dependence by continually fixing common problems the operator is perfectly capable of solving. Leadership then further reinforces this behavior by rewarding the engineers or specialists for solving the one-off problems that should belong to the operator. By underestimating the operator’s capabilities, we prevent them from achieving their full potential.

Training these operators to be more self-reliant is an obvious solution, but the traditional method only fails them further. This is because training and instructional techniques are typically a one-size-fits-all, step-by-step recipe that do not focus on critical thinking or problem solving in the event that things are not 1, 2, 3.  

Operations Business Teams

The methodology for Operations Business Teams (OBT) is a departure from traditional training methods in that it focuses on clearly defining roles, responsibilities and expectations where the Operator is at the center of the organization. OBT goes beyond teaching the fundamentals by empowering operators to take full ownership of their line.

The training begins by designating six specific roles to key employees per manufacturing line. This new team is structured around the operator with each role serving as a form of “servant leader” or coach. As the training progresses the operators on the line gradually take on direct ownership; which encompasses everything from equipment care, yield, quality, safety, reliability and cost. 

Over the course of several weeks, the floor-dynamic shifts. Although, operators still have a support system of engineers and specialists, they no longer lean heavily on them like before. The habit of tuning out and relying on other individuals for solutions is replaced by an attitude of ownership and confidence.  

The success of the training relies as much on engineers and leadership as it does on the operators themselves. The whole organization must be on board with the implementation.

Key Takeaway

An efficient factory means every brain is engaged versus being on autopilot.

Leadership and engineers are responsible for empowering their operators to perform at their full potential, and Operations Business Teams is an excellent means through which this can be accomplished.