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Why Manufacturing Workstation Design Matters

When I walk into your plant, the attitude of the people and their interaction with their work environment is a quick indicator of your company’s attitude. Too often there are frustrated people struggling in a poorly designed environment with equipment poorly suited to their tasks.

Would you accept the same circumstances in a restaurant? Would you enjoy your meal after seeing a chef cutting food on a splintered board, using dirty and rusty knives, examining food quality in a dimly lit room?

Yet the same situation that would be outrageous in your local diner passes for “acceptable” in multi-million (and billion) dollar manufacturing operations every day.

So why does workstation design matter? Workstation is actually the wrong word for what I’m trying to say. Work environment, work envelope, work cell, something along those lines is more accurate. There really isn’t a good word or phrase that I’ve found in manufacturing that correctly describes what needs to be done and its priority.

Chefs call it “mise en place”, which like all the best French phrases doesn’t translate exactly to English. It’s something like “to put in place” but it combines the action with the area and context. It’s not taken lightly in a kitchen. You don’t want to be on the wrong end of a chef’s knife after messing with their “mise”.

So this area, this zone, needs to be a place where the operator (chef) can be comfortable, safe, in their zone, and in the flow of the work. Everything they need is within a predictable and easy reach. All of their movements flow in a smooth rhythm. The entry and exit of material and information flows in coordination with the other processes. The operator needs to both totally own the area and feel connected to the rest of their group.

Flow, safety, and productivity are core elements of lean that come together in good work area design. An operation’s effectiveness of cost, capital, and human effort has a direct relationship with how well specific work areas are thought out and how they relate to the rest of the process. That relationship means there is value to the time and money put into correct, flow oriented operations.

Today when you walk the floor look at the work zones around your operators. See where things flow, or stop. Watch for excessive effort and frustration. Don’t just try to “right-size” workstations or move things together. Think about how a different approach could be used to create flow and improve the work.


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