Editor’s Note: This is the fourth article in a year-long series about how seven common types of waste in manufacturing can create unprofitable activity and how to address them in your plant.
By Shari Held
It’s a sight precast plant owners and managers dread – seeing workers waiting around. The reasons for wasted time are many: workers don’t have what they need, employees need clarification on a process before being able to proceed or a machine is either down or in such high demand that team members must take turns. Whatever the cause, waiting creates a bottleneck in the process and it’s costing you time and money.
Waiting waste in practice
When Henry Ford put the assembly line concept into action, he was addressing one of the seven wastes lean manufacturing works to reduce or eliminate. When there is a steady flow down the line, nobody is waiting around and any inaction is obvious because it impacts those before and after you in a domino-like effect.
Wade Pink, president of Pink Precast in Dorchester, Ontario, identified three things that contribute to the majority of waiting time for his company: waiting for the overhead crane to become available, waiting for the mixer and waiting for the concrete bucket to return to the production area to pour the next forms.
Earlier this year, the company expanded its plant, making it three times its original size. Today, it’s one long building with the mixer located in the front third of the facility. This creates a long distance between the mixer and crew at the other end of the plant. Optimizing the plant layout for efficiency is essential for decreasing waiting waste.
“We knew when we expanded that we’d have a bit of a challenge because of the distance we were ending up from our mixer,” Pink said. “We’re now in that exploratory phase, trying to figure out solutions we can implement to help get the concrete down the plant. When everyone is standing around waiting, it can really erode employee morale.”
Megan Kitchner, owner of Atlantic TNG in Sarasota, Fla., has noticed an increase in waiting for materials from suppliers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When materials are promised and they don’t come, we have to reschedule or go back to the drawing board, maybe even take something out of production for the day,” she said.
Kitchner said another hang-up can occur during quality control checks. If a detail is missing, production stops until the plant receives the necessary information. But wasted time by no means is limited to the production floor. It is a daily occurrence in the office setting as well.
“We can waste time just going back and forth on a particular email because we can’t get a clear answer,” she said. “It’s really frustrating, and you can only see it in hindsight.”
Even more troublesome is the negative effect waiting waste has on the bottom line since it impacts how much a manufacturer can pour, produce and ship in a day. The cost of waiting comes out of precasters’ pockets. In many cases, plants end up paying workers overtime to make up for wasted time, causing profit to take an even bigger hit.
There are also indirect impacts to the bottom line. An issue in your plant that results in a late delivery to a customer could delay the job, potentially damaging a relationship, which could cost you a job in the future.
Much can be done to mitigate the impact of waiting waste. One approach is to design processes so there is a continuous flow from one step to the next, like an assembly line. Another strategy is to develop standardized work instructions to ensure the job is always performed consistently. This step should be a precursor to designing a continuous workflow.
Pink Precast has implemented several procedures to increase plant efficiency and reduce or eliminate waiting waste. Products that are produced less frequently or that take longer to pour are manufactured at the far end of the building. Areas closer to the mixer are reserved for standard or more frequently manufactured products. Typically, forms are stripped in the morning and concrete is poured in the afternoon. Now, workers start pouring earlier in the day. The implementation of a “bucket-to-bucket” pouring process – where a bucket is filled and dropped off in one section of the plant and the crane is taken back to the mixer to fill a different bucket – has reduced waiting time and resulted in a higher production volume as well. Workers also get a head-start on clean-up tasks and organization for the next day while waiting for the mixer or crane.
Atlantic TNG helped reduce waiting waste by updating plant equipment, including new software for the mixer. Updating plant equipment offers improved speed and efficiency and shorter cycle times.
“Everything you can do to get the plant up to date is going to save on waiting time,” Kitchner said. “But if you improve one thing, you have to look ahead and be sure you’re improving the next step and the following step, because all steps are interdependent.”
Incentive and award programs for coming up with new ideas to improve processes can also assist. Additionally, walking through the plant and asking employees about different processes and what slows them down is a low-tech, low-cost way to find a solution to waiting waste.
“Every day you have to focus on all the moving parts,” Kitchner said. “It’s important to have an open mind to ideas and concepts, because there’s always a way to do something better.”
Tips for precasters
Based on his recent experience, Pink’s advice to other precasters is to ensure that all employees from new hires to veteran personnel are always thinking about ways to reduce downtime and increase efficiency. Everyone in a precast operation plays a critical role and their effectiveness is key to the functionality of the entire plant operation. This not only includes the actions of personnel, but also the layout and organization of the plant and its operations.
Kitchner cites educational programs, including National Precast Concrete Association programs, and the methodology in lean manufacturing, as ways to improve processes and decrease waiting waste.
“The more educated your employees are, the better off the company is as a whole,” she said. “Keep educating yourself and those around you.”
Shari Held is an Indianapolis, Ind.-based freelance writer who has covered the construction industry for more than 10 years.