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Industrial engineering“The branch of engineering that is concerned with the production of industrial goods, especially by the design of efficient plants and procedures and the management of materials, energy, and labor.” (Source – The Free Dictionary)

The Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma best practices movements in our industry are becoming well known, or at least spoken about quite often. What is not spoken about is the “where and why” these tools were developed; in truth, they were started by industrial engineers. Industrial engineering is not widely understood or known in our industry, which is truly a tragedy because ours is a manufacturing industry.

The origins of lean manufacturing start with Shigeo Shingo, an industrial engineer at Toyota credited with being the principal force behind developing lean manufacturing principles. His work was based on the works of previous industrial engineers, but he applied his process to every level of the manufacturing process. It was Shingo’s work which showed that every aspect of the work environment should be viewed with a critical eye.

Today Toyota is one of the most admired and most profitable automobile companies in the world. But back in the late 1960s, Toyota was a floundering company; it was blatantly obvious to everyone that the company needed to make changes or it would be out of business. What had been done in the past was no longer good enough. Hence, it embraced the philosophy of kaizen (good change), better known as Continuous Improvement.

Now ask yourself: does this sound like the Toyota that exists today? Of course not.

Todd Drummond, Consultant and Lean Manufacturing expert
Todd Drummond

As someone who is trained in industrial engineering, I was shocked to learn that the largest and most well-known players in our industry do not have industrial engineers on their payrolls. One in particular that comes to mind is considered a leader in our industry with many locations across the country; the company is using Six Sigma extensively, but there is not a single industrial engineer on their staff. It performed a six-month Six Sigma study to improve the loading of their delivery trucks at one of its lumberyard locations. Six months of study to understand that moving the trucks closer to inventory, rearranging the inventory, and a few other things would improve the process by about one third. Any industrial engineer, including myself, could have performed a time study observation in a single day to come to the same conclusion that took this company six months. Metaphorically, sometimes people use a sledge hammer when all they need is a framing hammer.

Back to Toyota. In the late 1960s, it wasn't just floundering but virtually bankrupt. And as happens so often in human nature, that's precisely the time that businesses make serious behavior and practices changes. When things are going well, we are virtually blind to areas that could be improved upon. It's a tragedy that so many of us wait until we are in an impossible position before we take action.

These quotes from Shingo are especially pertinent for us:

  • “The most dangerous kind of waste is the waste we do not recognize.”
  • “We have to grasp not only the ‘Know-How’ but also ‘Know Why’ if we want to master the Toyota Production System.”
  • “When you buy bananas, all you want is the fruit, not the skin, but you have to pay for the skin also. It is a waste. And you, the customer, should not have to pay for the waste.”
  • “A relentless barrage of ‘whys’ is the best way to prepare your mind to pierce the clouded veil of thinking caused by the status quo. Use it often.”
  • “Improvement usually means doing something that we have never done before.”
  • “The best approach is to dig out and eliminate problems where they are assumed not to exist.”
  • “Are you too busy for improvement? Frequently, I am rebuffed by people who say they are too busy and have no time for such activities. I make it a point to respond by telling people, look, you’ll stop being busy either when you die or when the company goes bankrupt.”

Here is just one small example of why industrial engineers should be valued within our industry. During my studies in industrial engineering, I performed time studies to develop proper time units for roof truss manufacturing. Any industrial engineer will tell you that the units of board foot, linear foot, or piece count for truss manufacturing do not stand up to true industrial engineering principles of task-specific, normal deviation criteria and repeatability of results. Proper units of time for time standards units are referred to as man-minutes, man-hours, realistic expectancy (R.E.), or scheduled units (S.U.). They all are the same thing and are normally displayed in units of 100. Therefore, 1 ½ minutes would be viewed as 1.50 not as 1:30.

Industrial engineers are also taught that if a company were to take the next step of proper implementation of time standards for tracking and monitoring, most companies would experience a 42% increase in productivity. In the past, this was known as the John Houlihan method in the truss industry. Houlihan was an industrial engineer who simply implemented industrial engineering practices. I am shocked by how few people in our industry understand or implement these very basic principles of industrial engineering practices.

I cannot state this enough: Save your company a great deal of time and money by getting professional help with the training and effective implementation of lean manufacturing. Even a one-point gain far exceeds the investment of time and money.