Beyond Sensors and Scopes

Use lean tools to see the solution that’s right in front of you

by Annie Dodson

Technicians working in a testing lab at Solutia Inc.’s facility in Pensacola, FL, had access to some of the most powerful microscopes and analytical technology available. But they still couldn’t see the solution to a problem that had challenged them for years.

One of the tests performed in the lab required that samples be kept in a freezer for a specified period of time and then tested while they were still cold. Unfortunately, the freezer was at one end of the room, and the testing apparatus was at the other. The reason? Years before, the test was added to the work being performed in the lab, and the freezer was put in the only open space large enough to hold it.

The technicians simply couldn’t cross the room with the samples and keep them cold enough to comply with the standard. They tried several tactics, from transporting the samples in ice chests to snatching the samples from the freezer and sprinting across the room—right across the paths of other researchers working on other projects.

I encountered this problem as part of my work as a quality engineer at Solutia, a worldwide specialty chemicals and engineering plastics company. Headquartered in St. Louis, Solutia employs 5,700 people around the world at more than 60 sites, including the one in Pensacola.

As part of an effort to improve efficiency, we wanted to consolidate two similar labs. But we didn’t want to pick up the lab and set it down as it had always been, so I was assigned to help the technicians examine the lab’s layout and their procedures to ensure we had a lean, efficient workflow prior to relocation.

In an improvement project such as this, my role is not to walk in to someone’s lab and dictate solutions. Instead, I try to stimulate people to think about their work in new ways. Helping them see the waste for themselves leads them to their own solutions. And people are more likely to embrace change if it is their own idea.

When I began work with the technicians, I led discussions using lean tools, which we had begun using as part of a divisionwide initiative in 2003. We conducted a paper kaizen before any equipment was moved or a location was selected. The goal was to design the ideal lab on paper first and then make that idea reality. We followed four simple steps:

1. Create a process/equipment matrix: This defines what work will occur in the lab, highlights duplicate or rarely used equipment and overlapping of tasks with other groups and reveals groupings that will help the team make decisions on the layout of the lab.

2. Identify equipment dimensions and special needs.

3. Create the ideal layout: Use the work cell concept to minimize walking or motion and draw spaghetti diagrams to visualize the workflow.

4. Identify and rank potential locations: For each new location, determine compromises from the ideal layout and consider separating groupings of tasks.

I also asked them: "If there were no limits on money or space, if this was your lab and you could do anything, what would you do?" It can be difficult for people to embrace that mode of thinking, because of their desire to minimize costs. In the same way, people can have trouble looking objectively at their work setup. They’re used to where everything is, even if things are not in the best places.

The lean tools quickly revealed to the techs how inefficient their processes had been. When they started drawing spaghetti diagrams, their feet started to hurt because they realized for the first time how much extra walking they had to do every day.

When we got to the question of how to get products from the freezer to the testing apparatus without letting them get warm, the light finally came on: Why not move the freezer? The technicians started laughing. "We’ve been struggling with this for years," one said. "It never occurred to us to move the freezer!"

The benefits of our lean exercises went beyond efficient freezer placement. The technicians saw value in the process and began applying this thinking to other areas of the lab. They also spoke highly of the process with their peers and supervisors. That made it easier for me to go to other labs and do the same thing.

As a result, I was motivated to do even more, because as the lab technicians discovered, sometimes quality can help you see things sensors and scopes can’t.

Annie Dodson is a quality engineer with Solutia Inc. in Pensacola, FL. She earned a master’s degree in mathematics and statistics from the University of West Florida in Pensacola. Dodson is a member of ASQ and an ASQ-certified Six Sigma Black Belt.

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