Make your plant floor time productive

The amount of time spent working the floor and what is accomplished is not always proportional to each other.


I frequently pose this question to managers: “How much time do you spend on the floor?” I get responses that run the gamut from “I don’t need to go to the floor” to “I’m on the floor all the time.” Of course, the amount of time that you spend on the floor is directly proportional to where you sit in your organization’s hierarchy.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “go to the Gemba.” From what I can ascertain, this means go to where the work is being done. I absolutely, wholeheartedly, agree with this concept. However, the amount of time you spend there and what you get accomplished are not always proportional to each other.

So, how do you make your time in the work area more productive? First, let’s talk about the inverted pyramid. This is not a new concept, and it can be used in a myriad of ways. The pyramid that I am talking about stands on its point, and like the traditional pyramid, the head of the organization resides at the point. The difference here is that now the point supports the entire organization instead of the rest of the organization supporting the point.

Ask yourself a question, no matter where you sit on the pyramid. How much time do you spend making sure that daily customer demand is met? And how do you know that it is being met? Can you walk into the workplace and understand where you stand in meeting daily customer demand? In most places that I have worked, it is not easy to determine. That information is usually communicated at the morning production meeting. And where do these meetings usually take place? If you said “the floor,” you are in a small minority. 

Meeting customer demand

Whose job is it to meet daily customer demand? The operators who are in the trenches every day making the equipment/processes operate. About 90% to 95% of the time, they need to be focused on meeting daily customer demand. And what should they do with the other 5% to 10%? Teach them to solve problems in order to create greater stability and increase efficiency. With the operators taking on the biggest burden in order to meet customer demand, what does everyone else do? Everyone else supports the operator; thus the inverted pyramid.

A typical structure could include operators, team leaders, group leaders, assistant managers, and managers, with each lower level of the pyramid supporting the level above it. Visual controls are what will allow you to see what is happening on the shop floor. It is how the operator communicates to the management team what is happening in their process. Things like Progress Control Boards, color coding, and having specific locations for tools, work in process, raw materials, and finished goods will help you to identify the current condition of satisfying customer demand for that particular day. Even if you are producing an item that gets completed only once every 45 days, it can still be broken down into weekly, daily, and even hourly targets.

One of the foundational visuals is the Progress Control Board. It can display everything about an area that is required to understand what is being done to satisfy customer demand. It will always contain a temperature of where the area stands in meeting customer demand. Some will call it an hour-by-hour chart; I call it a feeling. When you look at it, you get a feeling for whether the process is performing well or not.

Another integral part of the Progress Control Board is the Pareto of reasons for missing target (or capacity). As the operators understand what is causing the line to be unstable, they will take action to constantly reduce the variation. This could be problem solving and implementing the solutions themselves, thus the 5% to 10% dedicated to improving the line, or it could be listing items on an action item log for someone else to handle.

This brings us to the final mandatory item on the Progress Control Board—the action log. When the operators run into an item that they themselves cannot solve, they will put it on the action log. It is then the responsibility of the people that are lower on the pyramid to review these action items and act on them. 

Allocating time

How much time should you spend on the floor? If you can adhere to the 90%-95% rule for the operators, the team leads (or supervisors, or assistant general foreman) will spend 70%-80% on daily demand and 20%-30% looking ahead. They will look one week to a month out and see what is coming up. What do they have to do with manpower? Are temps required? Are there any tests that will need to be run that require special attention? What is required of the team lead to support the operator in making the line more stable and efficient?

The next level down (group leader, assistant manager, foreman) should spend 50%-60% of their time satisfying customer demand and the remainder of the time looking ahead at what is happening this month or this quarter. Each level needs to ask what it can do to support the operator.

As we progress another level down, managers should allocate 25% of their time to meeting daily demand, and 75% to planning for the year. Are you starting a new line? What needs to be done in the holiday shutdown? How are we going to staff for the summer peak, what do I need to do to satisfy the targets and objectives for the year and, of course, what can I do to support the operator? At the bottom of the pyramid (CEO, COO, plant director), leaders focus 5% to 10% on daily demand and 90% to 95% on looking ahead.

When we look at these percentages more closely, if the bottom of the organization were to spend 10% of their day making sure that customer demand is met, that would be one hour per day (assuming that most management teams usually work a 10-hour day). This would entail walking the floor, observing the Progress Control Boards, and seeing what items on the action list require their attention. This would also include walking the floor with the team members that report to you. Peer pressure is a great way to get things done.

The content on the rest of the Progress Control Board is up to you. Remember, you have the daily progress sheet, Pareto of reasons for not meeting plan (or capacity), and the action list of what is being done to solve the issues. Be careful that the action log does not become a whine sheet. There should only be about two to three actions on the list. This is because in large plants with a lot of Progress Control Boards you need the ability to make sure that the actions identified are being solved.

Other items that you could place on the board are items that will roll up to the overall metrics of the company. These usually fall into the categories of quality, cost, safety, and, of course, delivery. All metrics should roll up and down to support policy deployment.

So while the question, “How much time do you spend on the floor?” is very relevant, because no one is excused from spending time on the floor, maybe the real question should be, “How productive is the time that you spend on the floor?” 

Kimo Oberloh is a Lean manufacturing subject matter expert at Life Cycle Engineering. Kimo can be contacted at

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