The customer sets the pace
April 6, 2018 | 1:12 pm CDT
Jim Lewis has worked in the furniture industry for 40 years with a special emphasis on facilitating the transformation process for businesses embracing the Lean Business Model.

In the April 2017 issue, I wrote about feeding your production and engineering processes based on “pull-thinking” rather than the typical push process where work is pushed from one process to another when the internal supplier has it ready rather than when the internal customer is ready to receive it. If you missed that article please search the FDMC archives. It will be helpful to tie it with this series to understand more about why pull is important and how you can set the stage for it to work successfully at your company.

As noted in the first article in this series, it is important for the business owner to understand that he is only in control of the process of transforming inputs to outputs that conform to the external customer requirements, not what the customer will demand. The customer is ultimately in control. If the owner fails to meet the customer’s expectations, the customer will likely not be creating more demand for the business to meet.

Necessary resources

The business owner is responsible to ensure that all necessary resources are available to meet the demand created by the customer, whether that be simply making parts for another application, or designing, engineering, fabricating, and installing the entire output. Meeting the customer’s expectations is always priority #1. However, most company leaders don’t set their resources up to succeed and thus operate in perpetual crisis mode as a result. If that is where you find yourself today, rest assured that you don’t have to remain in that rut.

Distinctive Custom Cabinetry (DCC) is a full-service millwork company providing solutions for their customer’s dream home. Working through architects and designers, while relying on all of the other contractors to complete their required work in a timely manner, can make meeting install dates challenging. Part of the continuous improvement culture at DCC is the implementation of protocol for gathering job-site readiness information so the shop can better plan to meet demand. Another key to success is being able to sequence work through the shop in alignment with install dates. Creating alignment between the install team and the production team helps to fulfill the four tenants of lean - making processes easier, better, faster and cheaper.

Measuring capacity

Every shop has capacity limits. Do you know the capacity of your shop? If you don’t, you need to establish a measurement. At DCC, we simply had each team leader track parts and assemblies for two weeks. That gave us an average of the current condition. Then we looked at demand history, current orders, and projected growth for 2018.

Fortunately, shop capacity wound up being aligned with demand. That is not always the case. To increase capacity for future growth, team leaders have been challenged to continually remove waste, but that is another story.

Prior to embarking on a strategy of alignment between production and install, the shop manager endeavored to run whole jobs. That meant a lot of over-production was intentionally being forced into the shop. Since the manager didn’t know what rooms would be installed when, he attempted to have the whole job ready when needed. With five install teams working on different jobs simultaneously, having all product ready at the same time was overwhelming for the production team. There had to be a better way.

Room by room

The better way consists of defining buckets of rooms for the shop that match its capacity. The buckets are tied to install dates and are released into the production process one week before planned install. The install team monitors job-site readiness and updates projected install dates at six weeks before install, again at four weeks before install, and, finally, two days before the bucket is to be released to the shop. This coordination between the install team and the shop will eliminate or greatly reduce burdening the production process with work that isn’t needed, so more work that is needed can be produced.

Reducing the amount of work vying for limited shop resources increases flow and reduces lead time. Although there is alignment between demand and shop capacity currently, lead time is four weeks through the shop due to the excess work-in-process. When the shop runs the bucket system, work-in-process will be reduced, as will lead time.

A spreadsheet was developed to depict the flow of buckets through reporting processes

Team effort

Developing a plan for sequencing buckets was a team effort. Team leaders identified the amount of time required for a bucket to move through their process steps. The time window was populated to a spreadsheet to provide a graphic of the sequence of events and the total lead time through the shop.

Another spreadsheet was developed to depict the flow of buckets through reporting processes. The bucket graphic continues to be populated as rooms are assigned to future buckets. Every day a new bucket is introduced to production. Even though the finish, custom, and build processes require multiple days to complete a bucket, buckets will flow through their various steps one after the other. Once those processes have a full array of buckets, a bucket will exit daily.

The shop created a spreadsheet to provide a graphic of the sequence of events and the total lead time through the shop.

The process looks complex, but it is rather simple.

1.            Determine the current capacity of the shop.

2.            Review demand history, booked orders and projected growth.

3.            Align demand and capacity.

4.            Determine the required time for a bucket to flow through reporting processes.

5.            Assign rooms to buckets based on the best intelligence from the job site regarding install dates.

6.            Plan the purchasing process to ensure on-time delivery of materials required for each bucket.

7.            Validate bucket contents as they progress along the overall lead time continuum and adjust the contents as install dates change.

8.            Determine a date when changes will no longer be allowed. At DCC that date has been determined to be one week before anticipated install. Once the trigger is pulled to release the bucket to the shop, the bucket flows as planned and any product not needed at the job site when completed will be stored for later delivery.

9.            Hold team leaders accountable to complete buckets as per the timeline they establish.

10.         Adjust bucket capacity as waste is removed from the processes so more demand can be produced in the same available time.

11.         Let the install team “pull” product from the production process, but prepare the shop to respond by establishing buckets of work based on anticipated pull.

Don’t allow yourself to continue to fall victim to the volatility of job site conditions. Take control of the situation, put a lid on the capacity bucket and make the work easier, better, faster, and cheaper for all concerned.



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About the author
Jim Lewis

Jim Lewis has worked in the furniture industry for 40 years with a special emphasis on facilitating the transformation process for businesses embracing the Lean Business Model.  Jim’s company, The Center for Lean Learning, is headquartered in Grand Rapids, MI, with an office in St. Thomas, ON, Canada.  He is a consultant, author, and writer.  Jim’s books include, “The Journey to Excellence – Successfully Applying Lean Thinking in Your Business,” “A Testament to Lean Thinking – Cases for Change,” and a series of ebooklets under the main title “Applying Lean Thinking.”  The books are in ebook format and are available through all major ebook retailers and through