“Catalog engineer” is a derisive term used to describe someone with a lack of creativity when it comes to process improvement. The term describes those who immediately attempt to purchase an existing solution to a problem rather than try to figure out a method in-house.
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Process improvement will, of course, require materials and equipment as part of a solution. Buying off-the-shelf items, though, should be a last resort.
Start off continuous improvement efforts by coming up with a solution first, and then looking to see if someone already has something similar available for purchase. If it is an exact fit, and costs less than your team could make it on its own, by all means, purchase it.
But if you start off your problem solving efforts as a catalog engineer by going straight to a catalog or internet search, you will likely come across a close match, but not a perfect one. In those cases there is a tendency of people to alter the process they came up with to match the equipment rather than get the right equipment to match the best process.
Of note, the first few times you (and by ‘you’, I mean you with the help of a qualified person) designs a tool or fixture, it will be tough. But it will get easier with practice.
Finally, in some cases, you will find that a stock solution that is pretty good is better than a perfect one that you come up with. Your ideas may be unfeasible, unsafe/untested, or simply too expensive. It is OK to go to the catalog in those cases, but it should always be with informed consent. It should never be the first option.
If you want to prevent catalog engineering and have your teams create great equipment and fixtures for their processes, you have to give them great resources. That means a place to work creatively, with appropriate tools and materials, and access to the expertise they will need to turn ideas into reality.
And don’t forget the Lean office. Make sure that you have enough programming staff on hand to write scripts for teams without having to go through a long, drawn-out support process.