If you haven’t started applying lean construction techniques to your sheet metal shop, it’s not too late to start and get ahead of your competition. A few years ago, many ductwork fabrication shop owners wondered if lean manufacturing techniques actually could apply to job shops (high mix/low volume).

It does. And now many owners are asking how to start. There is no one single way to start applying lean and no exact equation. Each shop is unique and at different stages of productivity and acceptance of change. Each shop manager must start with what fits his or her shop’s needs and abilities. Some approaches will work better than others. Here are five simple actions one can take to get started. 

1. Clean it up

Get rid of the duct pieces you have saved for years just in case you might have a job that will need them. If you haven’t used it within a year, and see no use in the future, get rid of it.

Get rid of the old tools and equipment you are saving and hoping someday to fix them up again. If you have had no time in the last year to fix it, what makes you think you will in the future?

Toss scrap metal sheets piled along the side of your tools or in stacks horizontally throughout your shop. Ask yourself, “When was the last time you used the pieces of metal on the bottom of the horizontal piles or in the back of the vertical stacks? If never, recycle it all and make yourself some room.

2. Determine where things go

Put tools and hardware at its point of use. Make it easy and quick for your workers to reach for and get the tools they need to do the work.

Put tools and hardware used frequently close to the worker, such as on the table, on a shelf in front of the fabrication area, on bungee cords, etc. Apply the 45-degree work area rule and strike zone rules for what is used most often. That means put the items within the 45-degree arc from the center of the body to the left and right arms. The strike zone is the same as playing baseball from shoulders to knees.

Tools and equipment used less often should be located further away from the work zone. One shop had an old 10-foot hand brake machine right in the middle of the shop floor. Workers didn’t use it but maybe once a year as they had a new power machine. When they moved the old one out of the way it opened up the shop flow and improved productivity.

Put tools on mobile carts or on wheels if they are needed at different stations in the shop. 

3. Mark it

Make it easy to see where any tool goes or if it’s missing. Organize every tool and instrument needed to fabricate, and mark it with colors, labels, and shadows so anyone can find it, or easily see it is missing.

Apply the 30-second rule. If a worker cannot find what he or she is looking for in the parts storage or tool crib within 30 seconds, it is not organized well. Improve it.

4. Implement systems and standard methods

You will need a system to keep the shop clear of clutter and unused tools. Identify who does what, and when. It is best if these tasks are rotated so everyone including the shop manager and superintendent takes his or her turn to keep things clean and organized.

Assign color codes to different areas of the shop, such as red tools belong to the beader, and blue tools are with the notching machine. With your shop workers, determine the tools to assign to each station, and what color to apply.

You will need a system for auditing the progress or soon after you organize the shop it will fall back into its old disorganized evil ways. Weekly or monthly, have one or two shop workers walk the shop and observe the progress based on an audit check sheet. Review the completed sheet with the shop workers in a daily huddle and identify what still needs work or consistency. When you reach a certain level of maintaining an organized shop, bring in lunch.

You may wonder if all this organizing will really help your shop. A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that the mere appearance of neatness and organization improves work performance. The study showed workers demonstrated a 167 percent improvement in persistence and attention span in well-organized work areas. Workers in organized areas improved productivity by 10 percent over cluttered work areas.

Organizing your shop will save workers at least five minutes every hour. That’s an 8 percent productivity improvement. Would that be useful in your shop?

5. Make work flow 

Being organized is a good start on applying lean in your shop, but there is still more to do. Go often to observe — not spy on — the shop operations. We want the work to flow through the shop so it can be delivered to the customer for installation. Specifically look for:

  • Bottlenecks where the work bunches up.
  • “Treasure hunts.” Often, tools used in the workplace are poorly located, and treasure hunting for tools eats up workers’ time.
  • Batches of work being pushed through. It is better to fabricate in small lots so the work can flow and avoid all the picking up and sorting pieces. Moving metal around adds no value and wastes effort.
  • Waiting. You don’t want workers waiting for work or work waiting for workers.

You will need to observe for more than a casual walk through your shop. You need to see how the work goes. A snapshot look will fail; it must be like a video that runs long enough to see the real situation as it unfolds.

When you see a problem, don’t yell at workers. Ask questions in a respectful and an open-to-learning tone. This is not about blame but about finding and removing the barriers to improve flow. You will only be successful at lean in the shop by working with the workers to be organized and to remove barriers. The shop workers see productivity barriers every day; you only see them if you go and study the operations.

Lean is not complicated or expensive. It does work and pays dividends to those forward thinking enough to apply it. It’s not too late for your shop but you may be playing catch-up with your competition. Nothing improves unless something changes, so start trying lean to improve your shop.

Dennis Sowards is a lean consultant and guest writer for Snips. His company is Quality Support Services Inc. He is the author of The Lean Construction Pocket Guide, which has sold more than 7,000 copies. He can be reached at dennis@YourQSS.com or (480) 835-6048.