Talk Before You Sweep!

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By Greg Mattson, RTPO

Welcome to the first installment in a series of articles presenting real-world solutions to production problems in the O&P fabrication lab. As insurance reimbursements shrink and the cost of doing business grows, it's hard to ignore the potential profits hiding in simple ways of fixing production issues.

The overall focus of this series is the implementation of "lean manufacturing" (zero defects, completing one job at a time, and just-in-time inventory) as it relates to components and methods of lab organization, such as improved company communication, tool organization, inventory functionality, and efficient workspaces. Lean manufacturing can produce improved profit and cost savings, more production with less effort, higher-quality patient care, and better employee teamwork.

We all probably agree that solving production problems in the lab starts with getting organized. Seems simple enough, right? Organize one area of the shop, apply some rules to keep it clean and functioningand your job is done. However, when organizing the fabrication lab, some changes can actually hinder employees not associated with fabrication. For example, changes made in the fabrication job flow process can affect the whole company.

First, Communicate!

So before you pick up that broom and order those storage bins, be aware that cleaning up is not the first place to start in the organization process-communication is. So let's start talking about improved company communication.

Step back and look at the business we're in. There are three distinctive parts: patient care, front office, and fabrication. All three groups need to communicate efficiently so that all affected employees understand the organizational changes. The most important element to remember is that every change, no matter how small, affects every employee to some degree. This is why inter-departmental communication is so important. Everyone needs to understand where, why, how, and when the change will be implemented.

Since meeting as a whole company may be impossible for some businesses, departmental meetings can be more effective. When starting the organizational meeting, the primary mission is to figure out what your overall goal is. This is much harder than it soundsand is unique to each company.

Standardizing and organizing the process of communication between departments is a good place to start. I recommend meeting once a week at the same time and for the same scheduled amount of time. If meetings are not structured this way, they are a waste of time and your employees won't take them seriously.

Here is an example of a fabrication meeting structure. Keep in mind, however, that you should develop your own meeting structure to satisfy the needs of your company. At my company, meetings are held every Friday morning for one hour. All fabrication employees are expected to meet on time in the designated meeting area. The first 15 minutes are spent going over old business, and the second 15 minutes are spent on new business. The last half-hour is spent on organizational issues and developing quick solutions to any problems. All meeting minutes are recorded in a notebook. This is crucial to your lab organizational success because, as a company, this is your tracking device for answering the where, why,  how, and  when  questions. These minutes also enable you to track where your organizational plan started from and where you plan to go with it in the organizational process.

Each employee is expected to voice an opinion. If issues get heated and the meeting starts to lose focus, stick to this important rule: Attack the problem, not the person. This simple edict can save valuable time and keep meetings on track.

Guidelines for Problem-Solving

When solving organization problems, my group also follows ten strict guidelines of organization:

  1.  Abandon fixed ideas. Get creative. Don't be afraid to change the way you think about a particular problem or way of doing something.
  2.  Think of ways to make your changes possible. If you decide it can't be done, abandon that roadblock and find a way.
  3.  No excuses. Be accountable, make it happen.
  4.  Go for the simple solution, not the perfect one. Don't waste time seeking the perfect solutionit doesn't exist. Let the simple solutions evolve.
  5.  Correct mistakes immediately. Do it now, not later. If you wait, chances are it will never get done.
  6.  Use your wits, not your wallet. The best solutions are simple and don't require money. Remember, there is no perfect solution: you may be changing something again and again.
  7.  Problems are opportunities. Once you see the value in trying to solve problems, you won't look at them the same way ever again.
  8.  Say "why" five times. Asking "why" will help when breaking a problem down into its various aspects.
  9.  Seek ideas from many people. No one person has all the solutions.
  10.  There is no end to improvement. One thing in life you can count on is that there will always be problems that need solutions and areas that need improvement.

Our meetings are fast. We solve problems and get to the point. At the end of each meeting, any organizational change that needs to be implemented gets written on a work order and scheduled. This enforces rule number five.

Total company communication is where the organizational culture will start to grow. When people are kept updated and understand why things are being changed, they get involved and become educated in the process. All efforts to organize processes or just clean up make each employee's job easier and more enjoyable.

Good communication is the hardest part of the organizational process, so take your time, learn from your mistakes, and keep it alive.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series, where we will tackle the problem of all that hard-to-get-rid-of clutter in your fabrication lab, so you can start sweeping!