A job shop is a flexible production operation that builds to order. They specialize in (but are not limited to) low volume, high-mix work. They often do custom production rather manufacture than standard parts.
A job is a discrete unit of work—same product, same setup—of a specified quantity. A job order is the instruction that tells the job shop what to produce.
Because of the nature of one-off type of work, the operators in a job shop tend be more skilled at running their machines than operators in repetitive processes.
Conventional wisdom says that because of the high mix of products and the lack of repetition, Lean is not very effective in job shops. Part of this belief comes from the preponderance of publications focused on the success of Lean in high-volume manufacturing.
But despite that emphasis, many Lean tools are actually more effective and important in a job shop. The variation in the work means operators seldom walk exactly the same path twice. 5S helps keep tools from being misplaced at random locations. The ability to streamline setups is likewise a big driver of job shop cost reduction.
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The ‘job’ in the term job shops refers to the work instruction that manages the specifications, BOM, and routing of a unit of work. It may run the gamut from a single item to a large lot.
A job shop differs from a contract manufacturer in that the latter tend to have an agreement for ongoing orders, where the former tends to negotiate each order separately. The distinction is not absolute, though. Each may delve into the realm of the other on occasion.
There are some basic differences in job shops vs. traditional manufacturing. The latter is more suited for a straightforward application of Lean; job shops have some factors that make it harder to apply.
It is even harder to do this if there are only a few units of each product being produced before the production team moves on to something else. This is the situation in a job shop. Any effort spent that is specific to an individual product is often wasted, as it is unlikely to pay off again.
Consider a job shop that produces specialized tooling and fixtures. They work might primarily be one-off jobs. It would be incredibly inefficient to create Standard Work for each item. The document would sit on a shelf, never to be used again. It would also be particularly challenging to set up work cells around highly-variable products. The arrangement might work great for today’s production, but might hamper tomorrow’s.
That said, there are still great opportunities to do continuous improvement in job shops. The key point is to focus on the fundamental principles of Lean rather than the cookie-cutter application of any particular tool. Emphasize waste reduction, problem solving, policy deployment, and the other cultural drivers of Lean.
The operators in job shops tend to be more skilled than their counterparts running similar machines in repetitive production environments. The good part is that those skills mean more flexibility in what can be asked of them. The bad part is that there is often a correlation between skill and resistance. The more a person knows about their job, the less they tend to believe someone else can come in and help them improve it.
When you start seeing people coming in to help make your processes better, try to be open to the change. It’s easier said than done, of course, but keep a few things in mind. The fiirst is that nobody is challenging your expertise. They are, in fact, trying to remove the barriers to you applying that expertise. Secondly, once the leadership team decides to become a Leaner organization, resisting puts yourself at risk in the long term. In the short term, you’ve got two things going for you. A fair number of companies abandon Lean when they realize it is not a quick fix and don’t see immediate dramatic results. Secondly, you also are likely your boss’s only option right now.
In the long-term, though, resistance will hurt you. As processes improve and more people are cross-trained, your skills will become less unique. Lean skills will be the distinguisher, not fabrication skills. Your boss will remember if you made his or her job hard in the early goings, and that will have an impact on personnel decisions. Promotions, assignments, raises, and the leeway you get later will depend on how you act in the early goings.
You will likely see three main changes in how you operate as Lean makes its way into your job shop. The first is that you will be asked to add structure to the work you do, and be more consistent with others doing similar work throughout the whole operation. You’ll be asked to do many things the same way as people operating other machines. That leads to the second big change. You’ll be asked to move around more. With smaller backlogs, people will have to adjust to where the work is. Your days will never look the same.
Finally, you’ll be asked to add problem solving to your workload. That will mean recording issues that slow you down or cause quality problems, and participating in the problem solving efforts to eliminate them. You’ll likely start out doing this as part of a team or with coaching, but eventually, you may be asked to take these things on by yourself.
Most leaders tackle the challenge of handling a highly complex organization the wrong way. They try to manage the day-to-day operations and throw all their leadership effort at fighting the fires that invariable pop up when there are a lot of moving parts. The problem with this approach is that no matter how strong you are as a leader, you have a limited bandwidth. Eventually, you’ll run out of capacity and balls will start dropping.
Instead, leadership in a Lean job shop should, first and foremost, center on developing processes and people. Create the structure in which the operation can thrive, and then teach people how to make strong decisions within that structure. You will amplify your leadership talent when you approach you work this way. Everything you do will have impact on future operations, not just today’s crisis.
Leadership in a job shop also requires trust in employees. They operate far more independently than those in repetitive production do. Those employees also have to be engaged in their work, and that comes through job satisfaction. Having a workforce that likes and appreciates their work is important in any company, but more so in one that requires initiative, independence, and imagination to get work processed effectively.
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