An EPIC (Engine Plant In Cleveland) story


Working at Ford in the early 1990’s, I had the privilege of learning about lean manufacturing from some of the best lean thinkers at the time.  Looking to develop and implement a production system, Gifford Brown, our plant manager, sought the assistance of key ex-Toyota Georgetown powertrain leaders.

Russ Scaffide, John Allen, Dwight Clark and Bill Costantino joined the Cleveland Engine Plant 2 (CEP2) team as consultants and helped author and implement what was then called the Cleveland Production System.

The Cleveland Production System (CPS) became the forerunner to the modern Ford Production System (FPS), and its implementation at CEP 2 led to the plant being recognized with the Shingo Prize for Excellence in Manufacturing in 1996.

My role (as a cost analyst at the time) in the development of the CPS, in addition to taking the handwritten model and creating the slide above, was to proof-read the documents that were created.  I was new to manufacturing, however, my prior background at what was then Ernst & Whinney‘s National Marketing headquarters in Cleveland, included conducting secondary market research on potential client companies, their industries, officers, directors and our competitors.  We used this data to support the writing of major audit and management consulting proposals, which we were also responsible for proof-reading – a valuable skill that I’ve used to learn as much as I can throughout my career.

Proof-reading the early documentation of the CPS gave me the opportunity to learn about this new way of thinking in manufacturing and because I had less to un-learn, I was able to pick up on the concepts quickly and contribute to the discussion.

The model – and its implementation – with Ford and UAW leaders responsible for jointly championing and teaching the individual elements, served as a visual reminder of our responsibilities.  Our role was to take all of these lean tools, systems and principles and create value for the customer through continuous process improvement and the identification and elimination of waste.

Attending the initial training, then eventually becoming a trainer for the system, there was one thing that always bothered me about the model.  The model placed itself at the center, rather than the customer.  Our model seemed to put all of its weight on top of the customer and never seemed quite right.

I sought to reconfigure the model as a “Focus within a Framework”.  I placed the customer at the center of the model, and then built the framework with the “pillars” of the system – People, Added Value, Just-in-Time, and Performance Measurements.  Once the focus was placed within the framework, I then used the elements of the production system to create the web.  As our plant was a supplier to Ford assembly plants around the world, I used the (new at the time) catch phrase “Worldwide Web” to attract the attention of attendees at a joint Ford / UAW quality conference in Dearborn in 1996.

My Magnum Opus

My use of a spider’s web as an analogy for a production system came from several places.  First, my favorite bedtime story to read to my kids was E.B. White‘s Charlotte’s Web.  In the story, Charlotte, a spider, weaves words into her web to describe Wilbur, a runt pig who is in constant fear of being slaughtered as he fattens up.  Charlotte seeks to save Wilbur by pointing out his better qualities in such “web posts” as “Some Pig“, “Terrific”, “Radiant” and finally “Humble”.  I started to view a production system much like a spider’s web. (I’ll discuss the irony of the word “Humble” being the word that finally saved Wilbur in an up-coming post.)

The other influence on my spider thinking came from a student who I was supervising in my first job out of college at a major retail store.  She was working in the evening and when asked about getting stock out of the storeroom and onto the shelves, commented  “if it wasn’t for the customers, I would be able to get my work done.”  This view of the customer as a nuisance fit nicely with the transformation in thinking required to move from mass (where the customer is sometimes viewed as a nuisance) to lean, (where the customer is nourishment).

In my web analogy, the contrast between the way that humans view flying insects as a nuisance and the way that spider’s view flying insects as nourishment emerged.  In fact, a spider’s existence is dependent upon its ability to capture and hold onto insects that move in and out of its “Window of Opportunity”.  Much like customers’ disposable income should be viewed as the lifeblood of any organization.

If the spider’s web doesn’t cover the entire opening, potential nourishment can fly through without being captured.  If the web breaks, the ability of the spider to quickly react and fix the problem directly impacts the spider’s future viability.

An organization’s leaders are responsible for identifying the organization’s Window of Opportunity, providing a focus on the customer, and creating the systems that enable employees to create value to capture and hold onto customers.  Quick reactions to breakdowns and weaknesses in the systems when identified, are necessary to maintain organizational stability and provide continued growth.

Principles – the focus and the framework of any organization –  linked through systems and tools enable employees to create and provide increasing value to customers.  Thus, our “Window of Opportunity” defines  how well our Principles connect to our customers and our ability to create value through the continuous improvement in our systems and tools and the identification and elimination of waste.

Continual assessment of the effectiveness of our systems and adjustments when and where necessary will determine the amount of nourishment we receive.

Unfortunately, the model, which I found attractive and intuitive, never caught on as the CPS morphed into the FPS.  However, the learning I obtained from creating it and thinking through all of the various messages it conveys have helped me as a frame of reference when assessing other lean organizations.  It was especially helpful the following year when I moved to Cleveland Engine Plant 1 to implement the new Ford Production System in a plant that was in a slightly different emotional state.  I’ll share that story in my next post.

Are you capturing your customer’s disposable income that is moving in and out of  your Window of Opportunity?  Are your systems complete and connected?  Do you react quickly to signals your customers are sending,  indicating their presence in your window?  When your systems are weak or broken, do you respond immediately to minimize the loss of potential customers?  Do you view your customers as a nuisance or nourishment?

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