Looking at Lean in a new way accommodates unique workers

What do you do when many of the standards of Lean cannot be applied to an organization that otherwise needs to streamline its operations? For Paul Gormley and his colleagues at Iowa State University Extension, Center for Industrial Research & Service (CIRAS), it meant looking at Lean through a new lens.


What do you do when many of the standards of Lean cannot be applied to an organization that otherwise needs to streamline its operations? For Paul Gormley and his colleagues at Iowa State University Extension, Center for Industrial Research & Service (CIRAS), it meant looking at Lean through a new lens.

The Contracts Division of Goodwill Industries in southeastern Iowa works with 200 individuals annually. The division provides area business partners with a variety of manual services, including assembly, collating and inspection. The individuals who work on these projects have disabilities, a lack of marketable job skills or other barriers to employment. Goodwill provides these individuals with paid training and job experience to build the skills needed to attain permanent employment.

“Usually when we help a company implement Lean manufacturing principles, we build a process that assumes standard worker capabilities,” said Gormley, an account manager with CIRAS. “We focus on the process and not as much on the unique individuals working on the line. But with Goodwill, we had to work around the variability of Goodwill’s clients’ abilities. It was an interesting and rewarding challenge for us.”

Animal deterrent manufacturer RepelIt in Cedar Rapids, IA asked Goodwill to take on a major role in the assembly and production of its Deer Fortress deer repellent. “While we work regularly with manufacturers, this was the first time we were asked to make a product from start to finish,” said Jessica Schamberger, business development manager for Goodwill’s Contracts Division. “We were excited to take on the challenge, and became one of just a few Goodwills across the country which have done it.”

Promising early sales results led RepelIt to expand production of Deer Fortress. In order to ramp up Goodwill’s production capabilities and meet RepelIt’s needs, Schamberger realized she would need to get some outside assistance. For that, she turned to CIRAS.

Gormley knew Goodwill’s manufacturing line would need to be dramatically revamped in order to meet RepelIt’s quantity projections. A standard Lean manufacturing process would have to be adjusted to compensate for the needs of Goodwill’s disabled workers.

Typically, Lean practices focus on process and not individual people, and they assume standard worker productivity throughout. At Goodwill, Gormley and his colleague, CIRAS industrial specialist Mike Willett, concluded that they would have to combine Lean best practices with real-world accommodations for workers with disabilities.

“State regulations require that one worker’s earnings cannot be affected by variances in another worker’s productivity,” said Schamberger. “As a result, most of our work in this assembly process was being done in cells, so that our clients could work at their own pace.”

Finding flexibility

Gormley and Willett used the input of the supervisors from Goodwill to develop a current-state computer simulation model. Through analyzing their present process and discussing options for their workforce, Willett helped the supervisors pinpoint the constraint on the system.

He then helped the supervisors develop a computer simulation-based future state that would both streamline the process and provide opportunities for the Goodwill clients to excel. In the end, it was determined that four labor-intensive processes in the system needed to be automated and condensed into two steps. In addition, another process was split into two parts, one of which was handled in a cell separate from the line’s flow.

“Taking some of the assembly functions off the line to pre-produce some of the components in independent cells helped lower-producing Goodwill clients to continue to work at their own levels without impacting the productivity of the line,” said Gormley. “Goodwill really needed flexibility in the process to allow all their clients to be able to participate in this exciting project.”

In addition to the productivity assistance, CIRAS connected Goodwill with an Iowa manufacturer that could provide pre-cut bent wire, a critical component in the assembly process. Securing the pre-cut wire pieces was actually cheaper and kept the production pace moving.

Gormley and Willett also suggested automating the steps, but it was RepelIt and one of their many resources that developed the final production tools. “I came back two weeks later and they had brought in a retired Rockwell-Collins engineer to design and build a terrific repellent dispensing machine,” said Gormley. “The Goodwill people took our advice and ran with it.”

As Schamberger reports, “We got so much out of the support we got from CIRAS, and with their help were really able to take our assembly process to a whole new level.”

With the changes in the process and the development of the repellent dispensing device, Goodwill met RepelIt’s inventory needs. Each retail box of six RepelIt units was produced, packaged and fulfilled from the Goodwill facility at a rate of 12,000 units per day for four months.

More than 130 Goodwill clients worked on some part of the project, “and gained tremendously valuable training in the process,” said Schamberger. “Learning and implementing Lean is just the kind of work experience that will help them in other jobs that we hope they move on to from here.”

“Hats off to RepelIt for bringing this opportunity to Goodwill, and to CIRAS for helping us meet the challenge,” Schamberger said. “This project and our clients’ familiarity with Lean led to great interest in our services from other potential partners. In turn, we hope to provide even more workers with the kind of experience this project gave us.”

Author Information

Tim Sullivan is program manager for Iowa State University Extension, Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS). Since 1963, CIRAS has been helping Iowa State University Extension and the College of Engineering carry out their land-grant university mission to improve the quality of life in Iowa by enhancing the performance of Iowa industry. CIRAS is an affiliate of the National Institute of Standards and Technology The Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), located in Gaithersburg, MD. Information can be found at its Website: mfg@nist.gov .

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