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More Boxes, Fewer People

By AICC Staff

July 7, 2022


The funny thing about change fatigue is that it is getting pretty difficult to surprise manufacturers. World events have lined up crisis after crisis, and we continue to figure out how to keep making boxes. At this point, if the temp agency started sending zombies, we would give them a try.

CEOs are concerned that the experienced people who keep production running will grow weary of extended shifts and weekend work. Even with increased wages and ample overtime pay, the workforce has never been more mobile. Many have experimented with new schedules (e.g., four 10- or 12-hour shifts per week). They have consolidated three shifts into two, with a day shift and a graveyard shift. This allows them to rotate maintenance personnel to do PMs during the traditional second shift so most employees can spend evenings with family.

It is encouraging to see the creativity and flexibility that has come out of the struggle, but even with robots and zombies, we are not yet able to make boxes without people being involved. It is time to break one more mindset and begin running through breaks and lunches at key machine centers.

We need to make more boxes with fewer people. Look at it as a math problem. For comparison’s sake, let’s agree that we have a lineup that includes multiple jobs of 7,000 pieces, and our average machine speed is 5,000 kicks per hour. Please hold the “yeah, buts” and go with me on this. We average 20-minute setups. In a standard eight-hour shift, an employee takes two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch. Now, in most plants, these periods stretch by a couple of minutes each, but we will leave that out of the equation for now. It is also typical that we stop for the shift handoff, ostensibly because software has not been able to assign product to the shift that made it. So, in a 480-minute shift, we will squander one hour to breaks and lunches, 80 minutes to setups, and 15 minutes to cool-down at the end of the shift. Considering that we have no mechanical downtime and never wait for materials, we have 325 minutes to make boxes. Given the constraints imposed above, we will set up four jobs and produce 27,084 boxes.

The backlog of jobs tempts us to add another shift, and that may be necessary. In labor cost alone, adding another shift will incur supervision, indirect labor, and an additional crew. Before taking that step, consider adding an additional operator to the first-shift crew. The job of this person is to cover for all other crew members as they stagger their breaks and lunches. Everyone gets their breaks, and the machine stops only to change over jobs. We are not running faster yet, we are not doing quicker changeovers, and we just don’t stop making boxes until the job is complete. By this method, we will be down a total of 100 minutes, because we complete an additional setup and hand off the machine without a pause. We will produce for 380 minutes and complete 31,667 boxes—more boxes with fewer people involved, with less overtime incurred, less employee burnout and turnover, and more accountability for timeliness in returning from breaks.

Productivity is addictive and contagious, so there is a cost. Support labor will have to adapt to keep continuous-run machines stocked. In some states, the crew will need to agree to waive the “uninterrupted lunch” and sign a form similar to those required on a corrugator. In one instance where this was implemented, we needed to add a break room near the machine. Once the schedule is stable, we will work to reduce our setup time, and we will spend whatever it takes to supply the crew with materials and tooling that will win back productive and profitable minutes. We will examine our design and routing practices to allow the crew to run at even greater speeds. As uptime, speed, and quality increase, we will wonder why it took us so long to break that old mindset.

Then we can fire all the zombies.


Scott Ellis, Ed.D., delivers training, coaching, and resources that develop the ability to eliminate obstacles and sustain more effective and profitable results. He recently published Dammit: Learning Judgment Through Experience. His books and process improvement resources are available at AICC members enjoy a 20% discount with code AICC21.