On Reddit: “I am a Manufacturing Consultant, Ask me Anything!”

Reddit has a “subreddit” called “IamA,” where an individual posts information about himself or herself, and all members are allowed to ask questions. I gave it a try last night, posting the summary of my LinkedIn profile. The questions were more like those students ask about career choices and strategies than the more technical ones I receive through this blog or through LinkedIn.  On Reddit, you only see usernames, so I don’t know whom I have been responding to.

Following is the Q&A:

    1. oreesama: What can you say has made you the proudest out of all your career achievements?

       

      There isn’t one thing that stands out over everything else. I am proud of my books, on which I worked hard, and particularly the last one, Working with Machines, because it covers ground that no other manufacturing book does, and because readers find it useful. As a consultant, you have succeeded when your clients feed back your recommendations to you as if they had come up with the ideas themselves. It means the ideas work for them and they have taken ownership, and it keeps you going.

    2. crash9814: Hey! Thank you so much for doing this AMA. I am an industrial engineering major with a green belt in six sigma and I love it but I have trouble finding opportunities. How do you find projects with different clients and how would a student go about getting his foot in the door? Are the lean principles easily transferable between industries? I am starting an internship with lean manufacturing in health care. How difficult would it be to transition to a field like manufacturing?

       

      Some people go straight from school to consulting, by joining a large consulting firm. It’s an option, but I wouldn’t recommend it. You would not understand your clients enough to really help them. Instead, I recommend taking a job as an engineer or a production supervisor in a manufacturing company and sticking with it for 5 years. Then you can make the choice. If a career in a large organization is for you, you have the option to pursue it. Otherwise, you can become a consultant.

      Everybody follows a different path into that profession. An experienced consultant took me under his wing, brought me projects, and trained me.Then I started teaching courses, giving seminars, writing books and articles, speaking at conferences, and contributing to discussion groups on the web. And this attracted clients. It also helped me develop relationships with other, like-minded consultants, some of whom brought me into their projects, and some of whom I brought into mine. I have always meant to return favors, but it somehow never worked. It’s more like a pass-it-forward mode. Some people will help you, and you will help others, but they won’t be the same.

      I have found Lean to be adaptable across industries, but it requires hard work. In each industry, you have to understand the business, technical, and managerial challenges your clients face. Then you have to figure out a strategy to help them.

      An internship won’t commit you. I started out doing research on earthquake prediction, and it didn’t stop me. Once school is out, however, if you want to go into manufacturing, do it then. Other people may tell you that you can switch easily between health care and manufacturing. I don’t think they are right, but, to be honest, I have not attempted it.

    3. crash9814: Thank you again for doing this AMA and giving me a chance to pick your brain. Consulting is my overall goal but like you said I am looking towards getting industry experience as well as my MBA first. The projects you were brought by the consultant that took you under his wing; was that someone you met through your job? Developing professional relationships is key and I commend you for making so many of them. When in your career did you feel qualified to write books and perform seminars?

       

      In a nutshell, yes, I met my consulting mentor through my work, but it’s a long story. I was in Japan then, working on my first book, about production scheduling, and I was looking for someone who could give me useful feedback on it. I reached out to a Japanese university professor I had met in other circumstances years before, who was an expert on quality. He told me he couldn’t help me but he had a friend who might, and he gave me an introduction to Kei Abe, who wasn’t interested in my book but wanted to take on a new junior partner.

      In professional relationships, for a consultant, the quality matters more than the quantity. First, you want partners with integrity, who won’t steal your clients or your ideas, and pay what they owe you as promptly as you pay what you owe them.Second, you want compatible personalities and working styles. When you are on a consulting job with one or more other consultants, you are together for close to every waking moment, so you need people with whom you can work intensely without getting on each other’s nerves.Having complementary skills helps.

      I made myself useful to Kei Abe by preparing briefing presentations on various tools that we would use with teams when kicking off projects. And I gave the presentations. This is how I accumulated the initial materials for my courses and seminars, and for my books in the “nuts and bolts” series on Lean Assembly, Lean Logistics, and Working with Machines.My first book, about production scheduling, was a different story. Back in the US I had been in charge of a software development project that was cancelled. I had worked hard on it for a number of months, and salvaged the results by making it the basis of a book. It took me about 5 years to write, by which time I had learned how to write a book.

    4. Turdsworth: What’s the worst industrial accident you know about?

      There are industrial accidents that have been in the news, and ones that happened in plants I know. Several years before I worked in one aircraft assembly plant, not in the US, one cargo plane leaving the plant with two fighter jets in it crashed on the city, destroying an entire housing block. The crash site is now a park, with a church in it.

      Why do you ask?

    5. will_code: I was thinking more along the lines of Chernobyl because they were unprepared for the mishap and decided to cover it up (not in the literal sense; I mean they wanted to withhold information about the severity). In the end, they covered it up (in the literal sense) to contain the radiation.

      Chernobyl was not a manufacturing facility. In terms of large industrial accidents in manufacturing plants, the names that come to mind are Bhopal, Seveso, Minamata but, again, these are events I have no personal knowledge of.

      I have been in plants that were accidents waiting to happen, with oil on the floor for you to slip and fall on sharp objects. I have seen diecasting operators with missing fingers, walked past open tubs full of green, foul-smelling liquids, and smelled the fumes where an operator was spray-painting a star of the magician’s hat of a Mickey Mouse figure every ten seconds for 10 hours a day.

      My heart goes out to the people who have to endure these conditions all day long every day, and are occasionally injured by the accidents that are waiting to happen. While I am not a safety expert, I often saw common-sensical countermeasures.

      Safety is often viewed in terms of regulatory compliance, but it’s really not what it’s all about. Regulations, when rigorously enforced, can help prevent some excesses, but they are never enough to ensure a safe workplace. Beyond complying with regulations, management needs to actively look for what could go wrong and take steps to prevent it happening.

    6. will_code: What equipment maintenance strategies do you suggest? Do the manufacturing plants actually maintain a record of the time and material that goes into the maintenance or do they simply approximate it or cook the books?

      That is too broad a subject to answer in a few paragraphs. Each situation needs its own analysis. The appropriate approaches often, but not always, include the following:

      • Delegate the smallest, most routine maintenance tasks to production operators. It’s called “autonomous maintenance.”
      • Assign technicians as “general practitioners” to a production line or geographical zone within the plant to perform periodic maintenance and deal with the first level of problems that operators can’t, whether they are mechanical, electrical, or electronic.
      • Keep a small group of higher level specialists, who may be mechanics, electricians, or control system experts, to back up general practitioners.

       

      There are, of course, all sorts of other issues, from choosing appropriate metrics for maintenance, scheduling the work, managing spare parts, and sizing the maintenance department to be able to perform routine, preventive tasks while responding as needed to emergencies.

    7. mepreuss: How would you rate the general state of manufacturing in the U.S. from an “opportunity for improvement” standpoint? I assume you’ve seen businesses at all ends of the spectrum, but how would you rate things overall?

      I have never seen a plant with a shortage of improvement opportunities. In the best companies, the managers know of these opportunities; in the not-so-great ones, they think they have “optimized” operations. The plants I have seen in the US, however, are a tiny sample of the existing plants, biased by the fact that they have invited me in.

      One good thing about the US economy, however, is that good statistics about its performance are collected by organizations like the US census bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. What these statistics show is that the manufacturing sector is holding steady as a share of GDP, while employing a shrinking share of the work force, down from about 40% in 1960 to about 11%. It looks headed towards the same fate as agriculture: an important economic sector, but not a massive source of jobs.

      I think it is an evolution that can’t be stopped and that we should plan for, by thinking through what kind of jobs manufacturing will offer in the future, making sure the required skills are available in the work force, and helping those who work in manufacturing today manage the transition, either by acquiring the requisite skills to stay in this field, or migrating out of it.

    8. tempest323: First of all it’s really nice to have an insider like you here on AMA. I’m a process specialist in one of major automotive OEMs, where lean tools are being used to make our processes efficient and defect free; however through my experience I find it really hard to fully implement them. Take autonomous maintenance for example, it requires extra time to clean, lubricate etc. the machine and usually the management doesn’t like extra costs that come with it. Can you share some tips to beat that resistance? Thanks.

      Assume a particular change is worth implementing. It is technically feasible and it will improve performance. How do you get it done? I have written an article on LinkedIn about this, entitled Your project is approved, now what?
      Obviously, it must be supported by direct line management, the affected organization must have the technical skills to do the project and the will to do it.

      Getting all the required ducks in a row requires paying attention to project sequencing. Autonomous maintenance, for example, requires participation by everyone, which makes it possible only in organizations with a record of success at smaller projects, that can be carried out locally by a minority of enthusiasts.

      Work force engagement cannot go straight from 0% to 100%. Once smaller projects have engaged, say, 20% of the work force and have demonstrated success, you may be able to leverage this into 100% involvement. That’s when you can take on Autonomous Maintenance.

2 comments on “On Reddit: “I am a Manufacturing Consultant, Ask me Anything!”

  1. As a helper/consultant with 33 years experience. I feel our main job is not to answer all the questions our clients could ask; but to teach the management teams to consult and work with their own people to answer the questions for themselves. —

    A good consultant/helper should not be measured by their own knowledge of the subject they teach; but by the understanding, enthusiasm and skills they give to those they teach —

    ‘The good consultant gives the client confidence in the consultant. The best consultants give the client’s people confidence in themselves and each other.’ —

    I have always insisted that the only redundancy that can result from any programme I am involved with is my own. When the consultant’s job is done the people should say, “We did it ourselves.” —

    Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.

    • When you say “our main job is […] to teach the management team to consult and work with their own people to answer the questions for themselves,” it could be taken two ways:

      1. Using the socratic method, you lead client employees to rediscover answers that you know. In Protagoras, Socrates leads a disciple to discover that a square with a side that is the diagonal of another square has twice its area. Socrates could just have told him but, by drawing figures in the sand, the disciple not only understands it in his head, he groks it.
      2. You facilitate brainstorming and communications among client employees, and your contribution is exclusively on the human process of problem solving. It includes no technical content.

      The problem with the socratic method is that it is excruciatingly slow; with pure facilitation, that it may not be what the client hired you for. Some consultants are hired for information they have, for example, to provide guidance on complying with the local fire code. They are expected to provide directions like “You must have six feet between these two machines.” Others are hired for their ability to come up with new ideas. Say the engineers are at wits’ end on preventing picking errors in assembly, so they bring in a consultant to look at the situation and make specific recommendations. There, the consultant is not expected to just regurgitate information but, in collaboration with the engineers, to think up new solutions. Of course, if the problem is managers inability to work with their own people, it may be the object of the consultant’s engagement.

      The “guide on the side” is still a guide

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