Analyzing Cabinetmaking Processes to Improve Productivity

Here's a cogent explanation of how breaking your work processes down into detailed small steps can help you save time and labor cost. October 26, 2007

I get emails pushed to me from different blogs about Lean Thinking. Here's one from a guy named Joe Ely. He has some interesting things to say from time to time and his site is a good jumping off spot for anybody that's interested in learning more about Lean thinking. He wrote:

"On Tuesday, one of our supervisors asked me if I could join her team as they struggled to find the root cause of a process concern. 'Could you show us how to do 5 Why?' she asked. She didn’t have to ask twice.

We gathered at a large white board near the workplace. I started with the observable problem at the top left of the board and asked why. They answered. I wrote both the statements (“We did X process incorrectly”) and then each Why ("Why did we do X process incorrectly?”). I followed that with another written statement ("We did X process incorrectly because…") and we followed where it led. At Why #3, we described three distinct branches of cause and effect. We pursued each branch and came up with 3 root causes and 5 simple, doable, action steps. All in about 30 minutes.

I covered the whiteboard with writing. The team caught what we were doing. Simple questions with clear answers; no trickery involved, no complex story problems about trains leaving Boston. They engaged and owned both the problem and the solution. Three of them wrote extensively as we talked.

And the team will fix this problem. Quickly. We found root cause.

Why write? I think writing clears out waste in the brain. It forces one to distill random thoughts into cogent drawings or clear sentences. It forces one into useful logic and away from speculative dreaming. "

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor S:
You can think and plan and strategize all day long every day. If you don't put it down in writing, it is only a dream. Once you put it in writing, you have a plan. To achieve success, all that is left to do is to act upon that plan.

From the original questioner:

Here's an example of how to lower your costs by writing steps down. We are in the process of producing training videos to teach entry level workers how to build drawer boxes, doors, etc. As part of this effort we have to produce story boards to outline the step by step sequence of events. The same things that the videographer needs to know are the same things the new worker needs to know.

There are certain steps that are obvious, but there are also nuances that are not so obvious. (It is interesting, for example, to watch the film and see what portion of the movie is about adding value and what portion is just about material handling).

When you write it down you will be amazed at just how many actual steps there are. To mortise a butt hinge, for example, requires:

1) Straighten hinge stile
2) Edge sand hinge stile
3) Install door into vice
4) Establish hinge location
5) Dial in mortise jig for 2nd hinge offset location
6) Mount mortise jig to door blank
7) Rout first mortise
8) Rout second mortise
9) Remove mortise jig
10) Chisel corners for first mortise
11) Chisel corners for second mortise
12) Detail sand blowout from mortise exits
13) Pilot drill holes for hinge screws
14) Install hinge leaf to door
15) etc, etc, etc

Delineating these tasks may seem overly bureaucratic, but every one of these points needs to be touched on during the training process. Several of these processes would benefit from some scientific analysis. If you are going to start a new person down any path, it would be beneficial to start them down the correct path.

Look at steps 10 and 11. A craftsman might just square up these corners with a couple of raps with a sharp chisel. Since he is a craftsman, I am probably going to have a pretty hard time wrestling that chisel out of his hand. The job we have coming up is a flush inset with square face frames. The hinge will be fully mortised into the door and face frame. This kitchen has 31 doors.

Using the craftsman's method to square these corners will require 8 chisel cuts per hinge X 62 hinges or 496 discrete procedures. A greenhorn will be happy to use one of those corner chisels that you smack with a hammer to make both passes. This fellow will be able to accomplish the same amount of work with 248 procedures.

Strategy 1 has skilled craftsmen doing 496 processes while the entry level guy is saying "put me in, coach!" Strategy 2 pushes this process down to a lower cost guy and he gets it done faster. Strategy 2 allows your talented people to focus on things that require talent. It also helps to keep new people from developing ineffective habits.

If you think about it, most of the things we build involve a dozen to twenty processes. Some of the processes are merely moving things from one location to another. Some of them are merely clamping fixtures into place. Not very many of them are, when you strip them down, terribly complicated.

If a widget has twenty processes, there are probably one or two that can go away altogether. There are probably a couple more that could be simplified. There are probably a few that don't need as much talent as is usually applied. You can't ask any of these questions unless you write the steps down.

It's not a big leap to agree that something that used to take a $20 guy 60 minutes could be done as well by a $15 guy in 45 minutes. Sixty minutes X $20, cost $20. Forty five minutes X $15, cost $11.25. This is the benefit of systems. The difference between a good craftsman and a great craftsman is speed. If you give your best people some decent systems, you'll be able to give them some more money too.

From contributor D:
Wow, that was a really clear, concise distillation of the business side of the job. Even though I know these things, it is great to see it written out by someone other than myself. You could teach, with the clarity that you just shared. Hope your employees are listening.

From contributor B:
I enjoy your Lean posts. You motivated me to read more about Lean Six Sigma and see how I can work smarter. With the aid of your posts, some other reading at web sites, and some materials provided by an associate that is a Black Belt, I was fairly well prepared for a Kaizon that I participated in last week (trying to fix a government maintenance contracting process - not fun).

From contributor M:
Excellent post! Very informative and educational (eye-opening). Besides holding a cabinetmaking degree, and a masters in business management, I take an extreme interest in leading edge technologies and manufacturing cost analysis breakdowns, just as you have demonstrated here.

My management style (the one I want to instill in every American woodworking business) firmly believes in getting every task done at the lowest possible level. Many mid level managers, and most mechanics, fail to see the advantages of this strategy as you and I can scientifically and mathematically prove that it is advantageous to a company’s bottom line. It is the behind-the-scenes advantages that make the most impact. The pros to this strategy outnumber the cons by 10.

It is so obvious to me, and you, that when a young, aggressive apprentice is given a chance to work on a task that requires skill and talent, the morale of the lower level associate skyrockets because he is challenged, and is lead to believe that you have confidence in him. (This alone is priceless.) Even if it takes the new man 3 times longer, and he damages 2 pieces of new material on this first go around, it is still worth it for the learning experience and the confidence he is graced with.

There is nothing that ticks me off more than a 58 year old mechanic refusing a young apprentice a chance to route a countertop or something else important. My favorite part is when the 58 year old guy says, "If I have to spend time showing him every little step, I had just as soon do it myself." What the (not so bright) 58 year old mechanic fails to realize is that he has been saying that same old line for 38 years. That is precisely why he is 58 years old and still having to do everything himself!