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Not Your Normal Child’s Play: Lean Thinking: This Game Can Cut Your Costs and Improve Operational Efficiency
The Lean Game: Production and management expert, Henry Quesada, explains how a simple lean manufacturing game can help your workers see how they can do a better job and impact production, quality control and operational cost.

By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 9/4/2018

Kids learn by playing games, so can adults. When it comes to lean manufacturing and process improvement, a proven strategy to help employees see the value in lean thinking is playing games designed to mimic real-world scenarios. Also, known as lean games, these exercises use competition to help employees recognize general factors that can drive up cost, affect quality control and overall make a process more efficient.

One of the challenges is getting employees to see the value in these lean exercises according to Henry Quesada, PhD and associate professor at Virginia Tech. Quesada is a lean manufacturing expert who regularly works with forest products companies to identify waste and remove it. He follows a procedure where he educates a group of employees on common wastes in a manufacturing environment. Then he covers basic lean tools like 5S, visual control, standardization, plant layout, team work, Kanban signals, and value stream mapping (VSM). For more information on any of these tools, look for more information online. Finally, he uses a basic lean game designed to demonstrate how these lean tools and principles can be used in a real manufacturing scenario to eliminate waste.

The game has two fictitious companies or more who compete for the best times, best quality and lowest production costs. Each company is composed of production workers, quality control manager, materials engineer, and a general manager. This example uses a fictitious sawmill with three basic work steps – manufacturing/sawing, drying and packaging. Employees are not actually running equipment, instead they are working with paper to create pretend orders. The idea is that they have to produce a package of lumber that has a certain amount of units every 90 seconds.

Quesada admitted, “Competition is a key part of the exercise because the various teams always want to beat the other guy.”    

There are three work stations, and applications are processed in batches of three. The manufacturing station involves folding the paper that follows a certain pattern. Workers in the the drying station place post-it notes on the four corners of a piece of paper to simulate this operation. The final stage is packing where completed orders are put in envelopes and customer numbers and destinations are written on the outside. Orders are rubber banded together in groups of three. Those orders are handed to a quality control manager for final inspection and sealing. The auditor roles a dice and every time he/she hits a 1, those individual orders are inspected. If an order is determined to be incorrect, it is discarded and considered a reject. Otherwise it goes to the finished inventory area  and it waits for delivery to the customer. See Diagram 1 for instructions.

Normally, the first time you run a production cycle of 90 seconds for 10 times. Then, you would stop and analyze the run. The number of orders delivered on time are counted same as missed orders, rejects, and inventory accumulation (raw materials, work-in process, and finished inventory). Other costs such as space, staff and production workers salaries are also accounted for. Quesada commented, “This game replicates real-world production environments and helps them learn how to apply lean tools before, during and after working to complete orders. Every time you run a simulation, there will be improvements.”

At the end of a full series of cycles, you tabulate the production to see which team obtained a higher profit, was able to deliver more orders, have less rejects, etc. The facilitator would then ask the participants to identify ways that they can use lean tools to improve their performance. For example, was there a way to organize the work station to maximize production and reduce wasted motion? Did people have items in the way that impeded production speed? Were there visual controls to make it easier for workers to know what to do at each station? How much waste was there in the inventory pile and what was the cause of the errors?

Then, you run a second series of 10 cycles but now the companies are challenged to deliver an order at 60 instead of 90. Look for ways that workers improved by correcting mistakes. Was this done successfully across the board? As people tried to rush and work faster, were new mistakes made? Is there a way to stage material to help the production flow? How about communication about the time during cycles?

There are workers at each station. In addition, the game has a Material Engineer for each team. This person is responsible for providing raw material to workers at each station. He or she makes sure that pieces of paper, post-its and envelopes come in the right quantities. The Auditor conducts quality control at the end of the process. A Score Keeper tallies the totals for each team at the end of each cycle.

So, how do you keep score? All processed orders count toward the score. Inventory is subtracted. There is also a cost assigned to every worker on a team. So, if you find a way to improve quality control and don’t need an inspector in a later round, that is allowed. The Score Keeper will provide periodic updates on the time every 10-20 seconds depending on the cycle time.

In the third series, see how well companies do if they only have 30 seconds in a cycle time. Some people will think this is too fast. But, you always want employees to see how much they can push themselves. In this phase, workers may use higher level lean skills to prep their process to reduce motion required for each task. Sometimes, a facilitator will run a fourth and final series to see how the teams can achieve maximum production at 30-second cycle times.

Some companies will reward winning teams with a small gift, such as a free lunch, movie tickets, a t-shirt, reserved parking spot for a month, etc. At the end of all the series competitions, the facilitator will use the game as a way to transition workers to talk about the real production environment they face everyday at the pallet shop or sawmill. The facilitator will solicit input in how tools or concepts that came alive in the exercise can be used in the real-world process. If the fastest times were achieved by teams that optimized workstations in such a way, how could this concept be applied to a typical pallet repair station? If too many mistakes were made in orders when the cycle times were cut to 30 seconds, what do you learn about setting up a good work rhythm? How can this translate to a typical automated new pallet run?

Quesada said, “These games show employees how all the various components of production speed, cost, manufacturing, inventory management, and order accuracy work together to achieve the best plant possible. We do this in a classroom and not an actual shop so that employees can really learn the concepts first before trying to apply them to their real production environment.”

Employees learn through competition and play and may give lean thinking a shot when they might otherwise reject it if first applied to their real job. The games also help supervisors to see how different teams work together and communicate. Quesada summed it all up, “These exercises are important to get workers to buy into the real value of lean tools and concepts.”

For more information on Virginia Tech or its lean manufacturing consulting services, call Henry Quesada at 540-231-0978 or e-mail quesada@vt.edu.

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The Lean Game