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Bruce Hamilton


Burning Platform

Next stop, The Twilight Zone

Published: Monday, October 5, 2015 - 17:12

A favorite Twilight Zone episode that played during Labor Day weekend put me in mind of the stressful “push production” environment that many organizations still endure today.

In a technical sense, push production refers to launching orders into production before customer requirements are known and then pushing them along, some faster than others, as requirements become clearer. Shigeo Shingo referred to this production method as “speculative,” which is a euphemism for guessing. With a forecast and a master production schedule at the front end of the push, perhaps this could be elevated to educated guessing.

In my materials resource planning days, I witnessed the ugly consequences of the automated push: Computer-assisted attempts to tweak the push (e.g., exponential smoothing, safety stock, pan size, shrinkage, yield, order point, n-days supply, fixed and variable lead times, transit times, minimum lot size) that were intended to optimize the guessing, but ultimately resulted in overproduction, overtime, and overburden.

The first two “overs,” overproduction and overtime, chewed at the bottom line. The mental and physical stress of push production, however—the overburden—ate away at the soul of the organization. Work days were defined by expediting, bumping queues, threats, accusations, finger-pointing, poison-pen letters, and CYA reports intended to deflect blame when customer deliveries were missed. Overburden created a social condition worse than push. It was push-push-push! Watching that Twilight Zone clip rekindled memories of the divisive and counterproductive behaviors engendered by push production.

Once a job had been launched to the factory, for example, it was typically impractical to de-kit it and return it to stock. In fact, having just-in-case work orders in the plant provided a false sense of security: there was always something to keep machines and people busy. With this reservoir of make-work orders, measures like machine utilization, overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), absorption, and labor efficiency could all be manipulated to paint a rosy picture of productivity. Excess orders on hand became habitual.

Too often, those unneeded work orders would be cannibalized to fill part shortages for urgent customer orders. A sales manager once blasted me by saying: “Production does nothing until my customer’s need becomes urgent.” In fact, although that appeared to be the case, the factory was almost always busy building something, just not the right thing. Production by heroics worked for a few key customers, but to the customers bumped back in the queue, we were bums, not heroes.

As we neared our month-end push, a frustrated assembly supervisor remarked, “You know, we pump all kinds for work into the factory during the month, but almost nothing comes out until the end of the month. It feels like constipation.” The crowning blow, however, came from a customer visiting our factory shortly after I transferred to manufacturing: “Congratulations on your new job, Mr. Hamilton,” she said. “Perhaps you can explain why it takes 16 weeks for your company to produce a product that’s smaller than my fist.”

That was 1985, the year I resolved that there had to be better way. The push system was bad for our customers, but my burning platform for change had as much to do with the stressful, dehumanizing environment of push, push, push.


About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change; and he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an on-going reflection on lean philosophy and practices with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.