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Job Shop (+ Lean PDF)

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.

Read more about this topic below.

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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.

About Job Shops

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.

  1. Machinery in job shops is typically general purpose whereas in repetitive operations it is more likely to be customized. Customized equipment tends to be optimized for a specific product, producing it quickly and with good quality.
  2. Tracking orders is more complicated in job shops than in typical manufacturers due to the larger number of items and the non-standard routing they take. It is much harder to walk through the facility and observe how things are going.
  3. Job shops typically have less raw material on hand than other manufacturers, simply because they don’t know what they will be building next. The purchase orders are placed when the contract is signed. The exception is when there are many recurring orders that the job shop stocks for. For some industry specialists, though, there may be a substantial amount of standard materials such as bar stock kept on hand to be able to respond to short lead time orders.
  4. Job shops keep little finished goods inventory on hand. Once a job is completed, the product is immediately shipped to the customer.
  5. Demand variation creates an extra layer of difficulty, as it is not just the frequency of orders that changes. The work content of the product is variable, and the size of the order will be less consistent. Furthermore, the inability to store finished goods makes it harder to manage.

Lean in the Job Shop

There is a cost to being Lean. There is a lot of effort to get a dedicated production line set up. Developing an effective kanban system requires commitment. Documenting processes take a lot of time.

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. 

Tips for Applying of Lean in a Job Shop

  1. Improve office operations. Don’t just focus on the production process to improve a job shop. There are many processes that only exist to a limited extent in typical manufacturers. Bidding, scheduling, and monitoring jobs are all unique. And the more jobs the shop handles, the more complicated these processes become. Daily management helps monitor pace and plan staffing. Cross training provides the ability to flex to handle spiked. Standardization and documentation make it easier to bring new people in to help.
  2. Review the job shop layout. Machines are often arranged by function. Try to identify any repetition in the flow of work to see if product families jump out. If they do, consider arranging a few machines to focus on those product lines. It will reduce setups and transportation, eliminating substantial waste.
  3. Focus on setup reduction. Small lots on shared machines means numerous setups. SMED is a key tool in the job shop. The faster a machine can shift to a new item, the more profitable the job shop will be. A big part of this is 5S, but it also involves a fair amount of changeover strategy. Floaters can be assigned to help prep for the next changeover. Setup reduction can decrease time by doing things like shifting from bolts to clamps or making interchangeable fixtures with one-touch changeovers. Internal setups (done when machine is stopped) should be turned into external setups (done while the machine is running) whenever possible.
  4. Standardize the process of managing spikes in demand. Cross-training and daily management are part of the toolset used to manage variations in demand. Because the workload varies dramatically in a job shop, leaders need a tool to be able to staff appropriately and to be able to adjust when things are not going according to plan. Flexible work teams, meaning that they will shift from one job to another as demand dictates, are another tool that should be used to manage variation.
  5. Visual management is especially important in a job shop. Tracking jobs as well as knowing the status of machines is crucial to keeping work flowing. Kanban squares on the floor, andon lights, and visual methods to indicate whether jobs are on track or not all contribute to making a job shop run smoothly.
  6. Standardize repetitive processes. While the work itself may vary, the work to support the value-adding work is often very repetitive. Changing tooling, finding and storing fixtures, looking up jobs, transmitting status, transporting materials, placing orders, doing machine maintenance, start-up and shutdown procedures, cleanup, packaging, and probably many other processes all provide opportunities for waste reduction.
  7. Make ample use of bumpback production. When pull systems are established, work only flows when there is a downstream signal. That speeds up through put, as there are no piles for jobs to get lost in. It also has the potential, when work is imbalanced, to create lulls in workload for operators. They should be trained not to just wait for work. Instead, they should learn to flex. If they have not pull signal, they should go downstream to help. If they have no work in response to their own pull signal, they should go upstream to help. This sort of system compensates for the difficulty in balancing the production areas when workload varies substantially.

  • Price a job too high, and the business will be lost. Price it too low and money will be lost. Excessive variation and waste in processes makes the pricing window extremely small. Unlike an ongoing contract that can be re-negotiated down the road, once a job is completed, there is no second chance to recoup losses.
  • Focus on living by Lean principles rather than applying tools.
  • If you are operating from a long backlog, order materials based on when the work is scheduled rather than when the order is received. It will reduce inventory. Even if the customer is paying for the materials in advance, the inventory still has to be managed. Note that once the backlog is reduced due to improved flow, though, that this warning becomes moot.
  • Don’t scrimp on tools or tooling. Shortages create waste. An up-front investment reduces years of paying people to walk around and talk to each other trying to find items to get their jobs done. This is particularly unforgivable when the items in questions are things like lifting straps, carts, hand tools, etc.
  • Consider whether the flexibility benefit of two smaller machines outweighs the speed benefits of one larger machine. It might be better to occasionally run a big job on two machines vs. consistently having many small jobs queued up waiting for the big machine. The benefit of this will be compounded when setups are made external.  
  • Don’t get discouraged as you try to apply Lean in your job shop. It is still in its infancy, so it will be hard to find good examples to emulate. It is a further challenge in that many local job shops are competitors and will be reluctant to share knowledge. Finding another job shop willing to share Lean ideas may mean looking further afield.
  • Make sure all repetitive jobs are documented. It will make them easier to improve and will shorten the learning curve as cross-training picks up.
  • When people think of Lean in the job shop, they tend to focus on the differences between jobs and the way its application differs from Lean. Instead, look for the similarities in the work. There is more repetition in daily activity than it seems on the surface. And there are many functions that can be improved even if the value-adding work is unique to job shops.

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.

Lean Leadership Tips for Job Shops

  • Track how reality deviates from the plan. Removing the reasons for the deviation will improve the accuracy of times estimates, leading to better customer service. Pay special attention to preventable delays such as searching for parts & tools, checking on information, setup problems, etc.
  • Implement and track metrics. When things are hard to measure, they often don’t get measured. Make sure that the challenge of measuring doesn’t overshadow the need to measure.
  • Reach for a deeper understanding of Lean. Job shop leaders need to understand Lean better than their counterparts in repetitive manufacturing. They can’t use the Lean tools ‘off the shelf’. Many tools will require tweaking, which takes knowledge.
  • Make sure you have a training plan. Lean often creates a bit of turnover as people choose not to be a part of a continuous improvement culture. Successfully integrating Lean thinking to a company also tends to lead to growth which requires new employees. Finally, being a flexible organization will result in a lot of people moving around. In short, if you don’t have a training plan, you are in for a lot of long nights.
  • Map out your processes. Value stream maps and process flowcharts (especially the swim-lane variety) both highlight areas that you should focus your improvement effort.

  • Applying Lean in job shops is more difficult than in organizations with more repetition, but there are still some impressive gains to be achieved.
  • Lean job shops should focus more on Lean principles and systems than on the tools.
  • The support functions, office areas, and repetitive tasks provide prime opportunities for improvement.

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