May 18, 1999 Factory Lifts Productivity, But Staff Finds It's No Picnic

CHICAGO -- Every two minutes and 26 seconds, a shrill buzzer erupts over the heads of workers inside Westinghouse Air Brake Co.'s small factory here. It signals that the conveyor that carries parts down the line is about to move. "If you don't hustle, you surely won't keep up," says Jeffrey Byrom. Gliding between machines, the 35-year-old worker is a blur of motion, snapping up a finished part and plopping it on the conveyor as it lurches forward. If he doesn't feed the conveyor each time it moves, he risks hindering the next worker down the line.
    Speed is just part of it. In traditional factories, workers often are assigned to run single machines, churning out huge batches of parts. But this is no traditional plant. Mr. Byrom's job requires him to juggle the operation of three different machines simultaneously while also checking regularly for defects in finished items. The idea is to fill every moment of his 10-hour workday with only the most effective motion. The result is a hyper-productive workday.
    By using the long-established Japanese approach known as kaizen, which means "continuous improvement," Westinghouse Air Brake tries to squeeze top performance out of aging plants like this one on the south side of Chicago. Thanks to a combination of radically streamlined processes and sheer speed, each worker on Mr. Byrom's line now produces 10 times more per day than in 1991, the company says. But viewed from the perspective of the kaizened, it's no picnic.
    Mr. Byrom works on a line that produces "slack adjusters," big pogo-stick-like devices used to keep the distance steady between the brakes and wheels on trains, and his job is an elaborate juggling act. Operating in a tight U-shaped work area known as a "cell," he first uses a big blue metal-cutting device to shape both ends of a long bar, which he then puts into a second machine that cuts a threading into one end. From there, he places the bar in a third machine that welds a metal ring onto it. Yet he can't just walk one piece at a time through the operation and hope to keep up with the conveyor. Rather, he must zig and zag between the machines, which run at different speeds, working on several pieces at the same time.
    Race Against the Clock This morning, Mr. Byrom taps the glowing computer screen mounted on the side of the first machine and shakes his head. The screen shows fewer than 40 pieces done. He knows that means the day is off to a sluggish start. If a machine breaks down or some other glitch develops on the line, he can forget meeting the daily goal. Only if the line reaches its daily production quota do workers get an additional $1.50-an-hour bonus. To make the quota, everyone in the factory has to pull together, since the extra pay is awarded for overall production, not just the output from each of the areas along the line. The company estimates it meets its goals about five out of every seven workdays.
    Signaling across the corridor to coworker Michael Peoples, Mr. Byrom shouts, "It's time to pour it on." Mr. Peoples shrugs. "Don't tell me, tell them," he says, motioning vaguely up the line.

Better Pay
    The bonus is important to Mr. Byrom, who rankles at his base pay of about $12.55 an hour. He figures he should be making at least $17; many unionized plants pay considerably more than what he is making to workers who operate a single machine, he notes, adding that he spends most of his time off hunting for a better-paying position and working on the side doing home remodeling. (Managers at the plant, which employs 178 people, say raises have averaged about 4% over the past few years, a nice gain considering the era's paltry inflation.) "I'm looking at a '63 Thunderbird," he says. "You have to work for those little extra toys; you can't get it just working here."
    Nonetheless, Mr. Byrom, who has worked in many factory jobs, says he prefers the fast pace at this plant because it makes the day go by more quickly. Even though he has been here less than a year, he is already known as one of the better workers on the floor. That, he boasts, is why he is assigned to this particular cell -- one of the most difficult for a single employee to master. The intense pace allows workers little time to interact with each other, outside of their regular breaks and anything necessary to get the job done. "You pretty much have to stick to your own thing," Mr. Byrom says. This is a big downside for the naturally loquacious and cheerful father of two teenage boys, and he often struggles to find ways to chatter with co-workers between tasks. "That guy there, he won't talk to me; I don't even know his name," says Mr. Byrom, pointing to Raul Ramirez, who is laboring alone in one of the cells farther down the line. It doesn't help that about 70% of the workers at the plant speak Spanish.
    Paul Dawson, one of the men who gets called in when a worker needs help fixing a machine, says the speed of the work changes an employee's personality. "It affects the way people behave, because they're always stressed out." Maybe they are stressed. But most also say that the work is far more interesting than at a regular plant. It certainly beats being stuck behind one machine, doing the same boring task over and over.

'Richer' Work
    "I think these people get a kick out of being able to do a lot of different stuff -- it makes the work richer," says William E. Kassling, the company's chairman and chief executive officer. Besides, many of these jobs probably wouldn't exist here if the company wasn't able to boost productivity: Most of the work would probably have gone overseas by now.
    Managers say there is a tradeoff that makes kaizen worthwhile for workers: While the employees are in constant motion, the individual tasks are usually less physically demanding than in a traditional plant. Consider the clumping together of machines. When Westinghouse Air Brake started making changes at the plant, production was spread out across a vast expanse of the factory floor. Workers produced parts at machines, then wheeled them into warehouses or to other machines far across the factory for further processing. By grouping the machines together, workers no longer have to move parts as far or handle them as much. In 1995, the factory installed the conveyor. Before that, workers took parts and loaded them on low carts, which they pushed up the line by hand. The conveyor is built so the pieces can be laid into baskets that hang from overhead at waist height, thus minimizing bending and lifting. The idea here isn't simply to automate; that is costly, and in some cases it can even end up slowing overall production. Mr. Kassling says most of the changes at the plant involved no investment in equipment, but simply the rearrangement of existing machines. In the case of the conveyor, it was purchased used from another factory. "It cost us $15,000," he says.

Rust Belt Classics
    Kaizen techniques were pioneered by Japan's Toyota Motor Corp., and they have long fascinated Mr. Kassling, who eight years ago hired consultants to introduce them to his company. The approach was a radical departure for Westinghouse Air Brake. Founded more than a century ago by George Westinghouse, the man who went on to create another company bearing his name, Westinghouse Electric Corp., now CBS Corp., the company produces mostly Rust Belt classics such as brakes and other heavy equipment used by railroads and mass-transit systems. Today, each of Westinghouse Air Brake's 20 plants world-wide holds a major annual "kaizen event," in which managers and workers pick apart factory processes to streamline production.
    For his part, Mr. Byrom has figured out many shortcuts to nip off seconds here and there in his job. Pulling open the door on the first machine in his cell, he demonstrates one. The bar clamped inside has just had one end cut, and he now needs to flip it over so the opposite end can be shaped. Many people just grab the bar as they would grip the handlebars of a bike. Big mistake, he says. Put one hand on top, one hand underneath, and flip, he says, demonstrating. This shaves a nanosecond off the time.

Precise Timing
    While speed is crucial, it isn't the primary focus on a line like this. Rather, the emphasis is on what managers call "single-piece flow," the idea that they want to make products only at the speed customers will buy them. That is why the conveyor moves every two minutes and 26 seconds: Managers have tabulated this is the rate needed to produce the right amount. Recently, that rate has changed a couple of times a year to reflect shifts in demand. The ideal is for each cell to finish a single part just before it must be put on the conveyor.
    But the reality is somewhat different. Most workers keep a buffer of at least a half-dozen finished parts to allow for unforeseen distractions, such as changing a cutting blade in a machine. Some produce even more spares, but keep those tucked well out of sight under tables or in boxes away from the conveyor. "Yeah, it's cheating," admits Mr. Byrom. "But it's the only way to be sure you can feed the line."
    Managers are constantly on the prowl for such transgressions. That is one reason Paul Golden, the plant manager, has decreed the shop floor should either eliminate all closed cabinets or install clear plexiglass doors on them. Since the changes at the plant are based on the idea of continuous improvement, there is always something more that can be done. For instance, after spending part of a day working alongside Mr. Byrom, Mr. Kassling -- who often tours his company's factory floors and gets personally involved in prescribing innovations -- came away convinced that the cell's welding machine was too tiring to operate because it required a fair amount of heavy lifting. Within weeks, the machine was rebuilt to eliminate much of the physical strain.

Changing the Script
    Which points up one of the ironies facing workers like Mr. Byrom. Although the concept of continuous improvement suggests constant change, workers are supposed to stick to the program once it is established. Plant managers say this poses a problem for workers like Mr. Byrom, who seem to thrive on the notion of developing their own personal "style" for the work. "To be true to these ideas, you're really supposed to dictate everything," Mr. Golden says. In a strict kaizen plant, that would include everything from which knee a worker is allowed to kneel on while doing a particular task, to how far the worker should move his or her right arm to perform another job. "We're really somewhere in between the Japanese approach, where the process drives the people, and the traditional American system, where people drive the process," he says. Either way, the system can be tough to learn.
    "After I was here three days, they showed up with a stopwatch; they timed me," Mr. Byrom says. "I didn't like that much." Nor did he care for the way his trainer, Long Van Vu, a 47-year-old immigrant from Vietnam, would poke him in the forehead and say repeatedly, "You're not listening; remember to do it the way I said." The two men have come to respect each other now that Mr. Byrom has proved he can handle the work. Mr. Byrom credits his colleague with helping him learn how to work fast and pay attention. That is why he still refers to his co-worker as "my master." "It's like a kung-fu thing," Mr. Byrom explains.
    But even though he learned well, it eventually becomes clear the line won't meet its goal today. The line is 27 pieces short. There were too many little slowdowns, beginning with the sluggish start in the morning. At 4:45 p.m., a chime sounds indicating it is time to start cleaning off the machines and putting the tools away in preparation for the 5 p.m. quitting time. "That's my mating call," Mr. Byrom says, "and not a moment too soon."

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