May 2005

Lean Set-Ups the NASCAR Way

Woodworkers can learn to be more efficient by studying pit crews.

By Tom Dossenbach

In the old days, a typical furniture factory waited to accumulate several hundred orders of a particular grouping before making a "cutting." It was common for customers to be in a holding pattern for eight or more weeks until their orders were filled. If the quantity of orders for a new group did not measure up to the minimum quantity to manufacture, either the customer was told that the group was being discontinued or the product was outsourced to a smaller manufacturer.

The reason? It took so much time to change the setup of machinery when switching from one product to another that the number of these setups needed to be kept to a minimum by making larger quantities of these products and by producing them fewer times during the year.

Professors of industrial engineering in the 1960s often focused on the "economic lot size" for manufacturing an item by calculating the set-up time, and cost and lost production while the machinery sat idle during changeover. That thought process is old school.

Today's consumers want what they buy now and not later. After all, there are hundreds - if not thousands - of competitors around the world eager to do whatever is necessary to take your customers from you; and they will do it with quick delivery and lower prices, if necessary.

Thus, it is not as essential to keep a machine busy all of the time as much as it is to have it available exactly when it is needed to fill a customer's orders. You must do whatever is necessary to set up the machinery in your plants and shops as often as necessary to fill the various orders you process on time.

How? Scheduling the factory to meet product demand without excessive changeover is one way. This necessitates having constant visibility of orders and due dates so that you can schedule the production of those orders to maximize their on-time completion throughout the factory.

However, there is an additional way - the focus for this month's column: Lean Setups.

Lean Setups

I have written often about lean manufacturing principles and reminded you that lean is the absence of non-value-added activities. If an activity does not add value as the customer perceives it, it is wasted time, motion and resources. Is the setting up of a shaper a value-added activity? No. Is it necessary? Maybe, but it does not add value to the product.

You may challenge me on this and say that if you did not set up the shaper and shape the edge of the rail, the item would look plain and not sell. You are partly correct, but it is the shaping not the setup that adds the value. Agreed?

What can you do about necessary, but non-value-added, activities? Whether you run a small cabinet shop with 15 employees or a larger plant with 150 employees, you must minimize the negative effect of changeovers on the cost and throughput of the item being manufactured.

You could accomplish this by purchasing a lot of CNC equipment, but we will touch on this subject in July when we discuss the cost justification of new equipment.

Every woodworking company can choose other methods to shorten the time it takes to ready its machines for the next operation so that these changeovers become lean setups. If it takes one second longer than necessary to set up a machine or change the tooling, then an unnecessary delay results in the loss of production and the creation of waste. In creating lean setups, you want to have zero change delays. The following is a great example I want to share.


In my mind, there is no better example of lean setups or lean changeovers than the NASCAR "over the wall" pit crews who change the tires and refuel the car during a race. The driver is the most important individual on the track, but the pit crew is often the difference between winning and losing. When the car pulls onto pit road, the crew immediately springs into action to "set up" that car with lightning speed.

The seven-man crew consists of: one front and one rear tire carrier, a front and a rear tire changer, a jack man, a gas-can man and a catch-can man. Today's technology and fierce competition have reduced a pit stop to less than 20 seconds. To slice seconds from the process, the crews continually review the tire-changing and refueling processes for a better way to eliminate unnecessary activity. They look for quicker acting jacks and special tools that will allow for quick tire removal and replacement. They practice, practice, practice in order to become more proficient and to test new methods.

Some crews undergo fitness training to prepare for their important role in a race. Eye/hand coordination is essential, as well as strength to hoist 80-pound fuel cans as if they were no more than a two-liter bottle of Pepsi. Greg Miller, the head trainer for Hendrick Motorsports, says that a strong and fit crew can cut as much as a second off a pit stop by being able to move faster.

I am not advocating that you hire personal trainers to rid your operators of the spare tires around their waists, but training is essential if you are going to get your woodworking crew operating at peak performance.

It's Your Move

Lean manufacturing and continuous improvement begin with a thorough audit of all plant operations. You need to look at how changeovers are made at every machine in your factory today. Then, as the NASCAR crews do during a pit stop, find a better way to eliminate every non-essential activity during setups in your plant.

I have heard it said, "We just don't have time for that sort of thing. Joe has been on that machine for years and knows the fastest way to make the changeovers!" Really? Well, if you have this attitude, it indeed will be the best way to do it until Joe retires.

If you want your company to be more successful and competitive, then you must actively look for better ways and train Joe and every other machine operator in your factory to make changeovers like a NASCAR over-the-wall pit crew - lean and fast.

Since you understand the difference between value-added and non-value-added by now, look at lean setups as those where all of the non-essential (or non-value-added) activities have been removed from the changeover process. If the activity does not directly contribute to the changeover, or if it is not a necessary element of the changeover process - eliminate it.

Is the workplace clean or does it take five minutes to clean up before the changeover can begin? Are your tools really convenient and easy to find for the set-up person? Are you using 1?4-turn pins to lock motors into place or are you still using bolts that take a socket wrench? Are you still using open-end wrenches? Are you preparing for the next changeover before it is time for the actual change? Are you training your people? Are your machines in good mechanical working order? Have you standardized tools for quick changeovers? Have you eliminated all non-essential tasks during changeovers? Are you using the principal of continuous improvement in changeovers at each machine?

The next time you go to a NASCAR race or see one on TV, take the time to study the pit crews at work and think about applying what you see to your woodworking operation.

Tom Dossenbach is the managing director of Dossenbach Associates LLC, a Sanford, NC-based international consulting and research firm. He can be reached at (919) 775-5017 or at


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