Rochelle is a boiler-maker, fitter who operates an automated welding line at Galintel, a steel products manufacturer in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales. Rochelle had driven 12 hours straight from Melbourne to the factory when she heard that there was a job on offer. She met Kevin, the factory supervisor, who had never hired a woman to a factory role before. After a tour of the factory, Rochelle told Kev that she was absolutely committed to living in Coffs Harbour and working for Galintel. She was so passionate that Kev offered her the job on the spot.
About six months in, Rochelle was working on one of the two automated welding lines, the other shut-down for routine maintenance. Rochelle had learnt how to operate the machine from standard work documents and on-the-job training. One of the standard work procedures required that the welding gas bottle, connected to both machines, be changed out when the gas pressure fell below a particular reading.
Operating on her own that day, and early on into her shift, she noticed that the gas pressure was at that reading but the weld quality seemed to her to be as good as always and so she decided to keep going despite the gas pressure reading. She continued to monitor the weld quality and the gas pressure and finished her shift without changing the gas bottle.
What Rochelle had done that day is applied scientific method, or to use a phrase she was more familiar with, continuous improvement. She used her standard work to check the gas pressure, hypothesised that, while the gas pressure would normally have been considered low, there was sufficient pressure to keep welding because only one machine was working at that time and, monitoring the weld quality, she had been able to test her hypothesis by continuing to weld for the rest of her shift.
The next morning, she explained to Kev what she had observed. She suggested that the gas bottle pipework be split so that each welder was fed individually from its own bottle. Kev listened to Rochelle’s suggestion and without his manager’s approval asked maintenance to modify the gas supply to allow each welding line to be individually fed. With the gas systems now split, the gas pressure and weld quality were monitored with a resultant 30% increase in gas utilisation and a new standard work document was prepared by Rochelle with the new low pressure reading.
So, what’s so special about this story? It’s the link between scientific method and company culture that allowed the hypothesis to be tested and applied. The PDCA cycle - Plan, Do, Check, Act.
Rochelle had attended the company’s Blue Bus cultural change training where she had learnt that small changes collectively lead to transformational business change. She had also learnt that if she tried and it didn’t work it would be an “excellent failure”. Having seen her idea work, she knew that when she went to speak to Kev, he would leave “rank, authority and ego outside the door”, and both Rochelle and Kev new that they were empowered and had the authority to make the improvement change without referring it to management.
Scientific method alone, while essential to achieving business improvement, is not sufficient without a culture which allows it to happen.