Up until about two years ago, employees working the assembly lines at HON Industries showed up for work each morning wondering whether theyd be building office furniture and fireplaces, or wasting their shifts on make-work projects such as pushing a broom around the shop floor.
The latter had become a common occurrence thanks to an archaic information system—if you can call a cobbled blend of serial cables, dumb terminals and disparate specialty software programs a system—that would routinely crash before, during and after production runs of desk chairs or shelving units or gas fireplaces.
This frustrating pattern of fits and starts had not only hamstrung HONs manufacturing capacity and, in turn, its ability to deliver furniture and equipment to wholesalers and dealers on time; it also had an unfortunate impact on the line-workers pocketbooks.
When the line went down because of technical problems, the employees didnt get their production bonuses. And many times these men and women were all sent home until the information technology staff could resolve whatever bug or glitch was responsible for yet another silencing of the assembly line.
"You can imagine how this became a very emotional issue," says Malcolm Fields, the companys CIO and the man charged with fixing the problem and getting the assembly lines operating at full capacity. "These people get paid based on their production. When they cant work, their bonuses suffer. From a financial perspective, paying people overtime to not work or to sweep floors is just not acceptable."
From a bottom-line perspective, taking a hit on wasted payroll because of technical problems was really just a symptom of a larger problem. Inefficiency and inaccuracies on the production lines—even if it was only on one production line—reverberated throughout HONs organization.
When the system broke down in the middle of a production run, the line workers wouldnt always have an accurate job order to refer to. Desk chairs that were supposed to have black fabric on the seats and backs would go through the line and come out gray. Worse, because HON wasnt able to identify where the chairs or the cabinets were supposed to be shipped, theyd collect in a disorganized heap at the end of the line. Delayed shipments, misplaced orders and lost products were commonplace.
"Wed get to the point where we didnt know what order was going where, and how many of this were supposed to go with that," Fields says. "It was a very low-tech situation that sort of ganged up on us all at once. It wasnt manageable and the downtime was simply too high."
Despite its decidedly low-tech roots, HON has always aspired to have a production-line process as flexible and efficient as the automobile industry. The idea is to be as lean and nimble as possible. One day youre cranking out metal shelves on the floor and the next day youre turning out chairs in the same exact spot. However, when your operation is dependent on serial cables connected to terminals and then to a Unix server, your flexibility is severely hampered. In HONs case, the accidental severing of a single serial cable would bring down multiple production lines.
"That would happen all the time," Fields says. "It got to the point where, frankly, it was embarrassing."