Job Shops

“We are a job shop.”

“We never do the same thing twice.”

These are common truths spoken by people who are struggling with how to apply lean production principles to their operation. They want to do better, but don’t see how something that originated in the relentless repetition of an automobile assembly line can work for them.

This is a reasonable reaction in the face of an overwhelming amount of literature and advice that is geared to these repetitive environments. An example of this is the common “elements of standard work” that come right out of Toyota and Shingijutsu:

  • Repeating work sequence (standard work)
  • Balanced to the takt time (which implies repetitive demand)
  • Standard work-in-process (or standard in-process stock)

Another example is “Takt, Flow and Pull” as the key elements of just-in-time production.

All of these things are absolutely true, but as instances of more fundamental principles.

Can lean production principles be applied to a job shop? Absolutely. It just requires someone with a bit more experience who knows how to interpret the situation and apply the principles rather than dogmatically apply a standard toolbox. It’s like the difference between the author who applies the basics of creating a compelling story, and the performer who expertly interprets the script written by others.

I have run into a fair number of “job shops” over the last 20 or so years. This is what I have observed:

A fair percentage of them actually have underlying repetition. It is just obscured by the job shop mentality. That is, they run them like job shops, so they become job shops. Even if only a portion of the work is repetitive, slicing this off and stabilizing it creates that much more mental bandwidth for dealing with the rest of it.

But even the true job shops, the ones who do custom work never to see that customer again are experts at what they do.

Expertise comes from experience.

Experience, in turn, comes from having done it many times before.

There is something they are good at. Each job may be custom, but it is built up from basic elements – the things they are experts at doing. Identifying those elements can clear out a lot of the seeming complexity. True process then emerges as they focus on how those elements are executed and organized, and paying attention to the interactions between them, the people, the customer. Then they work on getting better and better at creating stable processes that may only be carried out one time. But even then, there is knowledge to be gained that can be incorporated into doing it better next time, and that is the essence of kaizen.

Key point: If you are struggling with how to apply these principles, and aren’t getting answers that make sense to you, then (bluntly) you are talking to the wrong people. Keep at it until you find someone who can look at your situation and ask the right questions.

4 Replies to “Job Shops”

  1. One of the plants I support is a job shop. It works there. Is it different than our volume plants, yes. The key is to look at the processes not the products. Make logical groupings to create flow. The job shop mentatlity is too convenient an excuse to use to not solve the problems that must exist in your company. Lean is still a people orientated thinking process to solve problems and make improvements regardless of what you do.

    Tim McMahon
    A Lean Journey

  2. Great piece. I am going to share this with my managers.

    We call our company a low flow, high mix opreration. I have some challanges in applying Lean.

    When I first started to map the value streams here where I work, it was a nightmare. As soon as I got a map finished, 80% of it was wrong. Because the workers had moved and the value stream (work area and equipment) was producing a different product.

    Most of our waste is hard to find and eliminate. It is always moving and hiding in new places. Most manufacturers fight the war on waste like WWII, 1942. I have to fight the war on waste like the War On Terror, 2010.

  3. Mark,

    I have developed an approach to the “job shop mentality” over the last few years that seems to work pretty well in getting folks to understand that at least some of what they do is repeatable and thus desireable to have some level of standardization. I ask the group if any two emergencies in a hospital Emergency Department are the same. The answer is always that they’re not. Then I generally let them run rampant for a few minutes on what kinds of “jobs / customers” and Emergency Department has just to let them really believe they’re onto something.

    Then it’s time to drop the hammer. I then note “So there’s absolutely nothing that can or should be standardized in an Emergency Department?” This generally opens a whole new line of reasoning in that it’s actually very important to standardize certain things in the ED – especially in the first few minutes after a patient arrives. I then let them discuss examples of what actually is standardized in the ED.

    Now it’s time to close the loop. I then suggest that even in an environment where all of us easily agree that no two situations are the same, we can and need to standardize as much as we can. That generally gets folks believing that they’re not as different as they think they are / were. We can then begin discussions on what we can start standarizing. I should also note that one can use a similar argument for calls to a 911 Call Center. No two emergencies are exactly the same, but without standards, how effective would the average 911 Call Center be? Hope that helps!

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