Everything I Need to Know about Processes, Productivity & Lean I Learned in a Bomb Factory
Updated: Apr 25
I know that title might have given a few of you pause, but the truth is I've honestly wanted to write a book titled 'Everything I Need to Know about Life, Leadership & Parenting I learned in a Bomb Factory'. Not only because it sounds cool -- but because it's true.
Let me back up for a moment though. Just to clarify.
Several years ago, I was a newly minted Chemical Engineering graduate who had realized in her senior year that she had no desire to work in the Chemical Engineering field. I know, I know, I probably should have figured that out sooner, right? I spent an entire year seeking out a job that I would be happy doing that would still utilize my education. A year, to the day, after graduation, I accepted a position as a 'Project Engineer' at Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson. I knew nothing about manufacturing or missiles, but with a belief that I could probably figure it out, I packed up, got myself an apartment and headed out into the 'real' world.
What followed was 6 1/2 of the most formative years of my life. It was my first time away from my parents, my first real job and my introduction to the world of Manufacturing. To say I learned a lot in those years is a complete understatement. As I've looked back on those years, I can honestly say that most of the foundational understanding I have about humans, society, leadership, and teamwork came from my experiences there. In and among all of that stuff I learned a little something about process, manufacturing and productivity as well.
We were building highly advanced, tactical missiles -- an essential part of our country's military defenses. However, when our day didn't go quite as well as we had hoped, our common joke was, 'well -- it's just another day at the bomb factory!' I guess the nickname stuck. Besides, let's be honest, it sounds WAY cooler to say 'I work in a bomb factory' as opposed to 'I work in a missile manufacturing facility'.
So.. while I probably learned a million things -- big and small -- for our purposes here, I'm just going to talk about the ones I think apply to all of us as we try to create positive change in our businesses.
While I planned on writing this blog post a little further in the future, I finally decided that this really is the foundation of my philosophy -- for continuous improvement and productivity in all aspects of our businesses -- and would be a great introduction to my way of thinking and how I approach ‘Lean’ and ‘Process Improvement’.
Without further introduction, here are 5 great lessons I learned while working in a bomb factory:
1. Challenge the Status Quo
When I first arrived at this crazy new job, I knew NOTHING about manufacturing or what my job really entailed. After a couple of weeks of getting all kinds of confusing direction and not really understanding how I could be of assistance, I decided to go to the source. I started sitting with the team on the manufacturing floor actually doing the work. I spent a lot of time with them and they explained everything they were doing step by step -- and they started telling me all the little things that frustrated them every day.
So.. I started asking questions. Why are you doing it that way? It looks like that tool is making it harder, why do you use it at all? What is this for? Does it help you at all?
At first, they didn't really like my questions. Who was I to ask all these things? I was brand new and they'd been doing it 'that way' for years. Not deterred by their skepticism, I just kept asking them, and then started to make changes. Some were pretty small and some were a bit bigger.
At first they thought I was crazy. However, as I kept implementing change and refusing to accept ‘but we’ve ALWAYS done it that way’ as an answer, things did start to improve. In fact, by the end of my time in that area we had solved most of the frustrations and had improved our productivity by leaps and bounds.
As I’ve gone on through life I’ve tried to remember this lesson. Whenever it seems like I’m trapped in a situation or I’m frustrated by things that ‘just are’, I try to remember to ask questions and challenge long held beliefs. When I do this, I have realized time and again that I have far more control over my situation than I had previously supposed.
2. It’s OK to Make Mistakes
As a brand new (and young) engineer, I can honestly tell you in retrospect, that I didn’t really know much. This didn’t stop me from making changes and doing things anyway. However, it did mean that many of those changes did not make a positive impact. In fact, some were just plain wrong.
I remember, after one of the more costly mistakes that I made, being called into the office of the Factory Manager. I was pretty scared at what the outcome of that meeting was going to be -- he held his factory personnel to a pretty high standard and I knew that I had come up short. He asked me about the situation and we chatted about what had happened and what the consequences were. He then looked at me and said, “So, Kathryne, what did you learn from this?” I answered the best I could and he said ‘Ok.. good enough’. He then made the mistake disappear and never spoke about it again. I left his office and carried on.
He taught me a powerful lesson that day. Everyone makes mistakes -- it’s part of life. When you ask questions and challenge the status quo, sometimes you will be wrong and sometimes you’ll make mistakes. However, the only way those mistakes are truly failures is if you fail to learn from them.
As a recovering perfectionist, I have to remind myself of this truth every day. No one expects me to go out and do things perfectly every time. However, they do expect me to go out and do SOMETHING.
3. It’s Normally Not a PEOPLE Problem, But a PROCESS Problem
Let’s talk for a minute about corrective action. In manufacturing, when you have significant failures, you have to get curious, ask questions, figure out what caused the failure and then determine how to fix the problem so it never happens again.
In our missile world, our parts and assemblies were built by people. This meant that VERY often when we had failures, the support engineers would lay the blame for those failures at the feet of the folks building the product.
It didn’t take me long to realize something though -- while SOME failures could be attributed to human error, 98% of the time folks were doing the best that they knew how with the processes and tools they had been given.
So if it isn’t the people, what did we need to look at to solve future failures? The TOOLS and PROCESSES.
This lesson was driven home when we had a significant failure in our area. It was causing 10% of our assemblies to fail at the next level assembly area. When they failed, we had to bring them back, tear them down and do a complete rebuild. This was EXTREMELY expensive -- especially when we had to do it to 1 out of every 10 units we built!! When I first asked the question ‘what’s going on with that?’ the response was, “oh.. we think that the people just aren’t bonding it together correctly, so now only 2 specific people are allowed to do it”.
Funny enough, that didn’t fix the problem.
I’ll save you from my long story about all the problem solving we did on this one, but in the end it turned out that it was actually a problem with the parts and the tools. We fixed the parts, designed new tools and implemented a much more robust process. Guess what? We dropped from a 10% failure rate to less than 1%. Problem solved -- and it had NOTHING to do with the people.
Since that time, I’ve heard a lot of people comment, “I just can’t get good people. No matter what I do, they just don’t do what I need them to do”. As I’ve listened to this complaint over and over, I have tried to remember that 98% of the time our employees (and us) are doing the BEST we/they can with the tools and processes that we are working with. I have then focused on fixing PROCESSES instead of fixing people.
I have seldom been proven wrong.
4. Organization is the Foundation of Productivity
In the world of Lean Manufacturing we call it ‘5s’, and out here in the real world we call it organization. However, no matter what we call it, without it we cannot be as productive as we would like to be -- whether that’s in the office, in our warehouses, in our work trucks or in our digital spaces.
While working in manufacturing, I became a bit of an expert on what we call ‘balance and flow’. In order for parts to ‘flow’ through a factory, you have to ‘balance’ the work by dividing it into equal ‘chunks’. This allows every worker to do their ‘chunk’ of the work and pass on their parts to the next assembly at nearly the same time the worker before them passes a part onto them. Makes sense right?
But here’s the thing -- if Worker B spends 10 minutes looking for their tools, parts or paperwork then when Worker C sends his part on, he’ll be waiting for 10 minutes with nothing to do. Subsequently, when Worker A passes on his part, it will sit and not be worked by Worker B for 10 minutes. This frustrates the entire system and causes EVERY SINGLE PART after this to be 10 minutes late leaving Worker B's station. Unless, of course, Worker B decides to ‘work faster’ to catch up, but that plan invariably ends up causing issues with quality, stress and burnout.
For this reason, ‘A place for everything and everything in its place’ has paramount importance in manufacturing.
Shockingly enough, I’ve found it to be just as important when I’m talking about ANY physical or digital workspace. The more time we spend looking for things the less time we can actually perform productive work. Without a foundation of organization, any attempts to become more productive or do more in a day will be less than successful.
Benjamin Franklin said, “For every minute spent in organizing, an hour is earned”
Turns out he was pretty wise.
5. Change is Hard but it is Definitely Worth It
Change is hard. We humans are creatures of habit, and even when we see that change can help us, we still resist. If you don’t believe me, try and implement a big change in a work or office team. I coached change on and off for 10 years. It never got easier.
But here’s the thing -- if my first manufacturing team hadn’t been able to eventually embrace and implement the changes we made in the time I worked with them, our manufacturing and productivity goals would have never been met. We wouldn’t have become the highly efficient work team we ended up becoming and we would have gained far less from the experience.
Change is hard, but it’s what leads to personal and professional growth.
This is something else I try to remember as I look around me and realize that change is needed. I’m not going to lie -- it’s still hard, but I know the reward at the end of the road is definitely worth it.
While there are many many more lessons I could talk about, and inevitably many more will pop up in the future, these are the ones I think are most important for building a foundation of positive change in our businesses.
I hope that anyone out there struggling with their current 'status quo' (myself included) can take these lessons and motivate ourselves to constantly ask questions and challenge the status quo, make changes in spite of the fear of making mistakes, focus on TOOLS and PROCESSES and not PEOPLE, make sure we have organized our physical and digital spaces for easy retrieval, and embrace change. As we do this and focus our efforts -- whether that be on organization, business processes, productivity or anything else that needs ‘fixing’ I know we can make positive changes in our lives and in our businesses.
Afterall, it worked in the ‘ol bomb factory. Surely it can work for us too.
Stay tuned.. in the weeks ahead I'll be taking the actual Lean Manufacturing tools and philosophies and talking about how to use them, in conjunction with this philosophical foundation, to help us accomplish our organizing and productivity goals.
Let’s make change happen!