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The deep downside of engineered labor standards

ISE October 2017 Most of us industrial engineers cringe at the prospect of developing engineered labor standards. In my early career as a wet-behind-theears practicing IE, I lucked out by never having to engage in stopwatch work, though I did participate in setting standards by the less despised (by the labor force) work sampling method. Today, contrary to points made in "Good Eats with Engineered Labor Standards"(ISE, October 2017), I would like to point out why most uses of time standards have, or should have, fallen by the wayside.

The main reason is that today's process improvement concepts and methodologies give us much better ways to manage the labor force and to improve operations, including raising labor productivity. A more specific reason, which I'll address first, is that judging operator performance through the use of labor standards is unfair.

That is simply because most of what goes wrong in the workplace cannot, fairly, be pinned on workforce members. W. Edwards Deming's well-known proviso is that 85 percent of problems are attributable not to the employee but to management- system failures: poor tools and equipment, poor maintenance, poor materials, poor instructions – and poor training of the hapless operator whose performance would be evaluated against labor standards.

Rather than blindly laying blame on the employee, today's best practices harness that employee's common sense, process knowledge and natural bent toward doing good work – in the cause of process improvement. Industrial engineer Allan Mogensen, father of work simplification in the 1930s, offered one useful pathway.

But today the very best way to bring the workforce to bear on system failures is for employees to be outfitted with marking pens or other simple devices on which to record everything that isn't right or is going wrong – and making sure the workers do so every shift, every day. Recording can consist of a tally mark on suitable media (white board, computer terminal) for repeats and in words for one-off problems.

The accumulated data are a trove of pointers (e.g., on Paretos) as to what needs attention. The employees who are doing the recording become team members, along with IEs, for finding and mitigating root causes. You can find examples in my book Let's Fix It: Overcoming the Crisis in Manufacturing, even though it was published at the turn of the century.

The "Good eats"article does refer to one very valid use of labor standards: evaluating the labor content when costly new equipment options are under consideration. Other valid uses include decisions on a major make or buy, whether to outsource or insource, bids on an important contract and pricing of products in the catalog. Those situations, however, are infrequent, and supportive analysis of labor standards should be by audit and not built into a database of standards.

In sum, the labor force should be treated as an active element of process improvement and not as an abstract resource to be manipulated by after-the-fact measures of performance against standard times.

Richard J. Schonberger
Independent researcher/author/speaker
Bellevue, Washington

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