By Gunther W. Anderson, UFCW Local 617
Author’s note: the majority of the examples cited in this article reference the Packaging Department. This is not meant to imply that these sorts of problems exist exclusively or even primarily in Packaging. I am simply more familiar with the issues in my own department, as I see them on a day-to-day basis and can therefore more readily bring them to mind.
1Several years ago Pinnacle began discussing and attempting to implement a variety of lean manufacturing programs such as Kaizen, 5S, 6S, and 6 Sigma. The amount of finished goods going out the door has certainly increased at this plant, there’s no denying that, but is it really down to lean manufacturing or is it simply a matter of the company piling more and more work on fewer and fewer people while cutting every corner possible? Mike Thelen, a continuous improvement leader at Wells Enterprises writes, “taking the time to work with the employee, learning to identify necessary tasks, removing unnecessary work, and discovering more available time to do more valuable work (without increasing the overall workload) will result in better understanding between employee and manager, more trust, communication, and overall employee performance.” This is what lean manufacturing is supposed to be about, but I can’t see where that’s happening within Pinnacle. In fact, plenty of unnecessary work was added to our workload when 5S first rolled out. As an example, when Spreads Packaging was not running, or was running 24 packs rather than 48 packs, the pallet of pads was to be taken off of the Spreads packer and replaced in the pack floor staging area. Why? Nothing else goes in that spot on the Spreads packer. Stage it here or there, what’s the difference? All the company did there was create the useless task of taking the pads away from where they’ll be needed soon enough only to have to put them right back when that time comes, never mind the increased clutter in an already congested staging area. Thelen further states, “businesses committing to lean transformation should not use the time benefits gained as an excuse to pile more work onto their employees. Simply adding more work to the pile only lowers productivity, morale, and both the physical and mental health of the staff.” Now that sounds more familiar, doesn’t it? Our smokehouse is putting out more product than ever, but there are still only four unloaders. In Vienna Packaging, the labeler operator is now expected to run (and on third shift, sanitize) two labelers at once, which virtually doubles that operator’s workload. Thelen also says, “nor can a business use lean manufacturing as a tool for headcount reduction.” Packer operators in Packaging are running more cases through their machines than in previous years, but instead of being permitted the time to focus on being sure that task is done properly and efficiently, they now have the added chore of performing the duties of the Monitor as well so that the company could reduce the number of people staffed in the Warehouse. The problem of increasing workloads is only getting worse; there is a grievance in progress right now over the company trying to force employees to fill two separate job positions at once for an entire shift. Then there’s the ongoing problem with open flaps every Packaging line is seeing. The company has changed corrugate suppliers and has switched out brands of glue more than once. But simply buying the cheapest stuff available is not true lean manufacturing. Cheaper materials cost more time and manpower to run. You get what you pay for, as the old adage goes. Downtime is accrued and maintenance personnel must be called away from other projects just to fight with a machine that would be humming along perfectly if it only had decent materials to work with. Done properly, the cost savings of long-term lean manufacturing are meant to offset the cost of using quality materials.
But it’s not just the overworked employees, pointless menial tasks, and the shoddy materials that keep Pinnacle a far cry from being an actual lean manufacturing company. David Meier, the Senior Lean Manufacturing Consultant for Total Systems Development writes, “During a review of one facility an engineer proudly stated that he had ‘eliminated the machine downtime’. When asked how the problem was corrected his answer indicated a very common misconception regarding the core philosophies of lean manufacturing.” He replied that he had installed a large in-process buffer after the troublesome machine so that the NEXT process would not incur any downtime.” Meier goes on to say, “First of all, the addition of buffers obviously adds inventory and cost (waste), as well as the variety of problems associated with buffers (increased potential for defects, reduced flexibility to changing demands etc.). More importantly is that the use of buffers opposes the concept of the customer directly signaling the need to produce. The direct connection with the customer process is lost. Buffers by nature encourage ‘push’ thinking. The buffer must be kept full at all times regardless of what the customer process actually needs.” In our plant the equipment itself has always been and continues to be, even after the so-called “Kaizen events” meant to prevent this very thing, designed from the ground up to prevent downtime not through the efficiency of lean manufacturing but through the deliberate creation of waste. Wasted space, wasted materials, wasted time, wasted effort. All one need do is look at the veritable labyrinth of conveyor belts on the pack floor to see this present in our own facility. A tremendous amount of space and energy is dedicated to giving one machine enough cushion to continue running while the machinery before and/or after it is down instead of focusing those resources on ensuring that equipment doesn’t go down in the first place. Every packer and every labeler has accumulation conveyors in place at their infeeds and discharges. These conveyors serve the purpose of giving the product someplace to stagnate when the equipment around it fails to function. But what happens when the accumulation conveyors break down? Well, now you’ve got three pieces of equipment that can’t run: the machine feeding them, the machine filled by them, and the conveyors themselves. Not only is this the opposite of lean manufacturing, Pinnacle is actually designing their equipment to have an Achilles’ heel. Meier explains that, “perhaps one of the most avoided aspects of lean is that, if properly applied, lean will drive urgency to actually correct problems rather than cover them. Buffers and excess inventory are seen as indicators of weakness in the system. Diligent efforts are made to strengthen the system and improve reliability. If applied properly, the lean methods will make any shortcomings in the system appear quickly, and the shortcomings will have profound impacts. If operations are closely linked utilizing single piece flow and one of the operations fails, how long will it take before all operations are also stopped? Not very long! This will cause the problem to gain immediate attention, and a high level of importance will be placed on correcting the problem and installing permanent preventive measures.” But instead of taking steps to altogether prevent the frequent and repetitive issues that put our equipment down, Pinnacle ignores these issues entirely because their buffers allow the surrounding equipment to keep right on running. In fact, there is another grievance in progress at our plant concerning an employee who was disciplined for trying to resolve a reoccurring issue, which meant the line would have to remain down while the problem was taken care of. The company’s argument was that the employee should have ignored the root cause of the problem and commenced performing the faulty machine’s task by hand, even though the company knew and acknowledged that it would have been impossible to keep up with the rest of the line’s rate of production that way.
Pinnacle claims to be a lean manufacturing company. This is an image they wish to project probably because it gives them a selling point to attract their clients and customers. But the truth is that the Pinnacle Corporation ignores many standards necessary for lean manufacturing (which is entirely their prerogative) and only gives the illusion of following others. They are eliminating costs through decreased headcount and increased workloads instead of saving money through trim and efficient operations. There is a difference between lean manufacturing and just plain cutting corners. Pinnacle is attempting to achieve a similar end result (increased profits and productivity) without investing the time, effort, and resources necessary to achieve those results through true lean manufacturing practices, and they are doing so at the expense of their workforce.
Editors Note: This month’s newsletter features two articles critical of the company’s practices. This newsletter is our (the members of UFCW 617) newsletter. Although we neither require nor request approval from the company for our content, it is not the sole purpose of the newsletter to criticize the company. In past issues, we have given credit when the company has made decisions that we feel benefit the plant and its workers. However, this edition is an attempt to get the company to listen to our concerns. After all, it is our jobs, our Union jobs, that are affected. It is our right and our duty to make the company aware of issues that are important to us.
Managers come and go. The plant has had three owners in the last decade. But Local 617 is here for the long haul. –Robert Cale