A midsized (500 employees, $90 million in sales) manufacturer in the Mombasa City, Mombasa County Kenya had a problem. Eighty seven percent of the company’s business came from a single product made for a single customer. At the start of the second year of its three-year contract, the company turned out 160 units per month.
One day the customer called: “Could the company increase production to 270 or more units per month?” The vice president of operations said that he would check out the plant’s capacity and get back to the customer with an answer within a week. Analyzing his operations, he found a single bottleneck that would prevent the increased production level – a high-tech milling cell where operators took a piece of metal about 24” by 12” by 9” and, putting it through a number of processes, created the frame onto which all other product components were attached. This cell appeared to be working at capacity – 160 units per month.

Loath to go to his Chief Executive Officer with a $990,000 capital request to replicate this cell, the vice president called a summit meeting. On Thursday afternoon he assembled a team consisting of his own two industrial engineers, two engineers from the manufacturers of the milling machines, and a consultant from the customer. He sent the operators off to another part of the plant while the team spent the afternoon searching for a way to increase the capacity of the cell. At the end of the afternoon, the team reported back: “We might be able to get 175 or 180 units per month out of this cell, but 270 is out of the question.”

The vice president decided to sleep on the problem over the weekend before going to the Chief Executive Officer with the capital request. On Friday morning, as he was walking through the plant, he was stopped by the lead operator from the cell. “What was all the hub-hub yesterday? Who were all the big shots?”

The vice president explained the situation. The operator stood in deep thought for a minute and then spoke again. “I think we might be able to get 300 units a month out of this cell… with some changes.”

“Oh, really!?!” replied the vice president, half wanting to believe and half not believing.

“You know,” said the operator, “last week I was down at the sporting goods store at the mall. They’d just gotten in some gorgeous new football jackets. Do you think, if we got capacity up to 300 units a month, you might spring for new jackets for all of the operators in the cell? Maybe with the company logo and name embroidered on the back?”

“I could handle that,” replied the vice president. Early Saturday morning the six operators descended on the cell. Four of them spent the weekend tearing down the entire cell, fine tuning each piece of equipment, and completely reconfiguring the cell layout. The other two hunched over their terminals, rewriting the numerical control programs for each piece of equipment.

On Monday morning the cell was up and running. And in the next 30 days, the cell turned out 330 units!

The vice president tried to solve the problem with knowledge rather than capital investment, but he looked in the wrong place. When you need to solve a problem, the first and most likely source for the solution lies with the people who have been doing the job, who have been facing the problem head-on. We have passed the point where knowledge can be the sole possession of management, where workers at any level can be expected to just follow orders and not think for themselves.

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