Getting A Plant Tour

A couple of days ago I wrote about how to host a tour. Here are some thoughts on how to get one. As always, I’d love to hear your comments and experiences.

Don’t expect your hosts to change your “cement heads.” I have had requests from groups who wanted to send their “resistant managers” to our factory so we can show them things that will change their minds. Doesn’t work. Sorry, that is your job. My experience is that people who don’t want to see the benefits will always find all of the things that are “unique” about their circumstance, and special case reasons why the other place is doing so much better.

Go to learn, not to look. In my last post I made reference to “industrial tourists.” Those are groups that are more interested in the layout and clever gizmos than in the thinking behind them. They are, at best, looking for ideas and technical solutions to their problems. Copying others’ solutions is not thinking.

Going to learn is a different attitude. When you look at a layout, or other technical solution, ask yourself this: “What problem does that solve?” How does it save time? How does it remove variation from the process? What did the operation look like before they did that? Force yourself to think in four dimensions. Not just what you see now, but what it would have looked like in the past. WHY did they do this?

Although many people think lean manufacturing is counter-intuitive, I think that with this line of thinking you will find it actually is just common-sense solutions to the problems that everyone has, every day.

Nobody is perfect. Even a Toyota plant has obvious issues. If you end up fault-finding, you will miss the good stuff. I was touring a Toyota plant with a group a couple of years ago and it had obviously slipped. This is old news, and one of the reasons for their internal back-to-basics approach. But two things came to light: The rich visual controls made it easy for total strangers on the 1 hour tour to SEE the difference between “what should be” and “what is.” Wow. Try that in YOUR factory. And, reading the news stories, it was a problem they were taking very seriously and doing something about it vs. not noticing the deterioration and just letting things go.

Every plant has issues. Some have great material flow and pull systems, but only average problem solving. Others have a great technical base for home-grown tools, fixtures and machines. A few have great problem solving (They seem to be doing better than others.) Take in what is working, and what is holding them back. What would be the next problem they are working on?

Pay attention to the people. People are the system. How do they interact with the physical artifacts (layout, machines, etc.) An operation that has their stuff together will have people who are obviously comfortable with the pace of work. It will be obvious they get support when there are problems.

Don’t ask too many questions. What? Aren’t you there to learn? Yes. But try to learn with your eyes first. Even if you are moving, “stand in the chalk circle” and see the problems and the solutions. Sharpen your observation skills before you take the tour. Practice in your own plant. When I am hosting visitors and we have the time, my response to a question is to show them where to look for their answer, then ask them what they saw.

If allowed, make sketches. Most operations will have a prohibition against photographs. Even if they allow photos, however, you will capture much more if you stand and sketch what you see. You don’t have to produce a work of art. The purpose is to force your eye to pay attention to the small details. You will see much more through the eyes of the artist than you will through a camera.

Remember they are in the business of production, not consulting.
“Be a good guest” and remember that everybody there has a real job.

Edit 5 Sept: And Jon Miller correctly pointed out something I missed:

Give Back. You will bring “fresh eyes” to their environment and see things they do not. Everyone suffers from a degree of blindness to the familiar. If you are really going to see and learn, you will gain insights that can help your hosts in their own improvements. Ask them the questions that will help them see what you see.

One thought on “Getting A Plant Tour

  1. Hi Mark,

    The only thing I would add is “Give back.” If people open their doors to show you their kaizen efforts, as a visitor you should point out things that you see that they aren’t seeing or could improve.

    Jon

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