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Chris Menning

Mr. Bodek,

I'm a machine operator for a fast-growing printing company in the Upper Midwest. In the past few months we've been making the hard transition into Lean Manufacturing, implementing JIT, Kaizen methods, etc.
But first, let me tell you how I got here. Forgive me for the long prelude to my questions, but I believe it's all well worth it, and you may enjoy it.
In my senior year of high school I was 18, rebellious, and wanted freedom so bad I could taste it. My dad obliged by kicking me out of the house, and for a short time I was living in my van. Then, my friend's attic. With reality staring me right in the face, I decided it was time to develop some work ethic so I studied hard, graduated a semester early, and promptly enlisted into the Army Infantry.
The Army gig lasted just under a year due to a training-related injury, resulting in a total loss of benefits. But what I gained from those experiences gave me a fierce work ethic. I found employment at a local printshop operating a high-speed inserter. My duties were basically to fill the feeders on the machine with product, enter some info into a database, and sort mail. I, like other inserter operators at the time, was trained to run the machine, do some basic setups, and if anything broke, turn on the red light to signal that I needed help.
Time and time again, I'd turn my red light on, and sit. That's all. Just sit. That's how we all did it. Luckily enough, the guy who's job it was to fix the machine had a real attitude about his job, so rather than bother him I eventually learned to fix it on my own. Then when parts were broken or missing, I learned how to put together purchase requisitions. I was hungry for knowlege and taught myself everything I could about how almost every component of production worked in that facility. After being there for only a year I was offered a job running what we call "CLIDE." That's an acronym for Custom Line for Imaging and Data Engineering. The duties in that job were not to just run a piece of equipment, but to design a different assembly-line of modular printing equipment for each job. I would get all the info on what the customer wanted, including the signoffs, and other info put together by the job planners. From there it was up to me to figure out what combination of feeders, inkjets, folders, camera systems, and barcode readers it would take to produce hundreds of thousands of personalized self-mailers. Upon completing my setup, it was then my job to once again engage in the menial labor of running the equipment. If anything broke, it was still up to me to fix it. We had a maintenance department, but I only relied on them for the types of problems that take a team. Even though the title was Operator, I always liked to think that the E in CLIDE didn't just stand for Engineering, but Engineer.
In my first experience utilizing machine vision for automation, the company brought in some techs to train me and the other CLIDES. The part that stuck with me was when the tech said, "And that's all for the operator's screen. Now I'm going to show you how to log into the engineering menu."
This was a far cry from being a pocket-filler, and I loved it. But once a job was set up, I was back to being a pocket-filler.
To the hundreds of other operators who only had to setup and run one basic machine at a time, I appeared to be just like them. But I didn't have the convenience of sitting around with my red light on, waiting for support. Inserters had a support. Lasers had a support. CLIDE was our own support. Day after day I would deal with problems on levels that the other operators couldn't fathom, and I'd watch them sit with their red lights. Or wander around talking when they could be trying to learn how to fix something themselves. They were creating more waste.
Then, after a less-than satisfactory review, I lost my temper with my supervisor, "If you can't appreciate what I do, then you're not paying any #&@!ing attention," and I walked out. The next day, I went back in, begged to keep my job, and I told my boss all about how I work, how if you want to carry on a conversation with me than you better follow me around as I work. And I beat the horse to death on the fact that people just sit with their red lights on. Then I had to explain it all to my Department Leader, and then my Business Team Leader. My boss, his boss, and his boss. The three of them all hung out on the shop floor for the next few weeks, and no one but me knew what was going on. Within two months I recieved the raise that I asked for. It was a risky move, putting it all on the line, but I knew that it came down to a basic fact. I keep working while I'm on the clock. The leadership's eyes had been opened.
Then one day, I discoverd how we could automate the mail sorting, eliminating the need for employees who's sole purpose was to sort mail. I was frustrated by a missing equipment spec sheet, and voluntarily violated company policy by going on the internet (lucky enough to find a computer on the shop floor with open internet access!) and stumbled upon manuals for some of our existing equipment, and figured out how it could be used in ways we had never used them before.
I proceeded to compile a thick three-ring binder full of information (while I proceeded to run my equipment) and brought it to my supervisor. He was very pleased, took the binder, and I never heard about it after.
A few months passed, then one of our VPs announced that we would be going LEAN. I felt vindicated in the fact that now, finally, all other employees will be held to the same working standard that I was already practicing. During the Q&A, I asked if we would be implementing much in the way of more machine-vision for automation, fully well knowing the answer; just my little way of fishing for credit. But no bite. He was stumped. He turned to my department leader, and business team leader, and they informed him of what I had told them, giving me none of the credit. I was humbled, and figured I would just let it slide.
Once the automated sorting equipment was scheduled to set up, it didn't come to CLIDE, but instead went to the offline inkjets. Sure, it was a reliable place to test it out. But I was completely out of the loop.
In the restructuring of our business, a new position was added. Direct Mail Specialist, the DMS is the assistant to the shift-leader/supervisor/foreman. My boss recommended me for the job. The position came with a raise, but if I ever wanted to get off the night crew and get onto the day crew, I would be taking a step backward. Lots of Pros, but one Con that I wasn't so sure about. Following my nature, I made the crucial mistake that most people my age do. I decided to wait until I could talk to my parents about it and get their advice. I'm not saying parental advice is a bad thing, but us Millenials/Gen Yers/Echo-Boomers achilles' heal is waiting to make a big decision until we consult our parents. By the time I returned from visiting my parents out of state, the position was filled. I'm still a CLIDE. Company-wide we're working on implementing 6-S, kanbans, JIT, learning everything from Toyota that we possibly can. And as far as production positions go, I'm in the one that tops-out with the highest pay. I'm still sitting in a good spot. Damn good for the fact that I'm only 22. I've only been with the company for three years.
But here's where I'm worried: I have an unusual work ethic. I can't sit still. When I run out of things to do, when I have down-time, I start having a panic attack. It's so deeply engrained in me that I just naturally stay busy and try hard as if I don't know any other way. I don't have the same faith in my coworkers. They've eliminated the support positions and nearly eliminated maintenance in an effort to force all the employees to approach their work in the way that I did from the start. So far, production is suffering from that move.
Management is open to suggestions on improvement, and during any round-table discussions, other employees do nothing but voice their discourse on the lack of recognition. Management appeased them with a board that recognizes achievements in exceeding run-time estimates. And in an effort to encourage some friendly competition, a board measuring crew performance based on production output. I've been exceeding estimates by far, for a long time, and could care less about having my name up on a board for that. Everyone already knows that when it comes to putting out numbers on a machine I can rock it steady like no one else. I don't crave recognition. I crave involvement. True Involvement.

So here are my questions:
Toyota supposedly trained their operators to fix their own machines. Did these employees retain the title of "Operator?" Did they get an increase in pay? Even if it increased production, what effect did it have on morale? Is it even healthy for someone to work non-stop for 12 hours with only two fifteen minute breaks?

I hope you enjoyed reading this, and I'm open to any feedback you have, however I'd appreciate if you didn't post this on your website and instead reply directly to my email at [email protected]
~Chris Menning

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