Organizing the Work at Vehicle Maintenance

When lead mechanic Jesse Parrott started working at Ryerson Base in 1988, the shop stock was out on the shop floor, where the mechanics fix the buses. (“Shop stock” is shorthand for the nuts and bolts and odds and ends that almost every vehicle maintenance job requires.) That made sense, says Parrott. “The guys working walk 5-10 feet and it is right there for them.”

But more than a decade ago a decision was made, without talking with the mechanics, that shop stock should be moved off the shop floor and into the parts room.

That seemingly small decision added a thousand miles of walking, annually, to the work the mechanics at Ryerson were doing. A couple times every shift, each mechanic would have to walk from the shop floor to the parts room to load up on those little pieces that they routinely use. At average walking speed (approximately three miles per hour), the journey alone takes about 40 eight-hour working days per year.

Seattle to Death Valley mapA thousand miles is the distance from Seattle to Death Valley.

That’s time that mechanics were walking to and from buses instead of working on them. Granted, they spread the thousand-mile hike among all mechanics, so each mechanic only walked a chunk of it, and that chunk spread out piecemeal over a year’s worth of shifts. But the sum of the waste and frustration remained the same.

Organizing the Space According to the Work

Shop stock wasn’t unique. In the past, many parts at Ryerson had been organized more or less without consideration of how often the mechanics and parts specialists needed them from the parts inventory. For example, certain gaskets and filters, which get used every couple days, were 70 feet or farther from the shop desk where parts specialists receive and fulfill requests, whereas seldom used engine mounts were located only 15 feet from the desk.

Vehicle Maintenance wants a dynamic approach to organizing parts because the system’s approach to ordering and warehousing parts is changing rapidly.

Jeri Rollison

As part of the ongoing work, Purchasing Specialist Jeri Rollison has been returning some older unused parts back to the suppliers, recouping more than $6,000 in just a few weeks. Clearing out the unnecessary parts will also help ongoing inventory management.

“As we get this cleaned up it will be much easier to keep on top of it,” she says. “This will make it a faster and easier process.”

Recently, though, the mechanics, parts specialists, and others at Ryerson have started redesigning their workspace in order to save time, cut their frustration, and make the space better serve their work.

One of the first things they did was move the shop stock out of the parts room and onto the shop floor. That alone sliced almost 2/3rds of the annual walking that mechanics do to get shop stock, from the 1000-mile haul to Death Valley down to a 350-mile walk to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Still lots of steps, but a big improvement. (They also added purchasing controls in order to address the security concern that had brought the shop stock off the shop floor so long ago.)

In the parts room, the team moved the ten most-requested parts to the space nearest the receiving desk. Moving these parts will save the parts specialists a lot of time and energy. For example, diesel filters, which are used frequently and very heavy, used to be 90 feet away. So every other day, they’d be lugging these filters the length of a basketball court. Now those parts are just few feet from the desk. Having these parts closer also means less wait time for the mechanics who need these parts to complete their work.

As a corollary, the parts specialists and mechanics have also now moved all of the parts that hardly ever get requested system-wide to an out-of-the-way “supermarket” (upstairs at Ryerson) so that more of the prime real estate can be used for high priority activities and parts.

Outside-the-Box Trying

These moves are part of a broader effort to make dynamism itself the organizing principle for parts. In other words, the people at Vehicle Maintenance are trying to create an environment where it is easy to move the parts whenever a different arrangement would work better (continuous improvement), rather than trying to find the single best arrangement that they’d then never change again.

This is part thanks to Sensei Nakao, who suggested putting the parts bins on wheels. But even before Sensei’s visit, the kaizen mindset had the team spitballing layout ideas and tinkering with room mockup dioramas.

Big opportunities remain:

  • shop stock has been moved, but mechanics still have stop what they are doing and walk to the parts room to request the specific part(s) needed for each job, a motion/transportation and waiting waste that dwarves the Seattle-to-Death Valley jaunt;
  • kitting and co-locating all the parts needed for certain jobs (e.g., putting all the items needed for a brake job together and in the same spot) could save time for parts specialists and mechanics alike;
  • mechanics are hoping to develop a better system for organizing tools, so they can spend less time hunting for a wrench only to find it is broken or gone;
  • better visuals (like the aisle signs in grocery stores) could make it easier to communicate when and where parts have been moved among employees who work different shifts.

Other tweaks could also perhaps make the work easier and more productive. For example, mechanics George Mori and Mike Paulsen point out that online maintenance manuals are a double-edged sword: looking things up is easier, but mechanics spend time running back and forth to the computer on certain jobs. They suggest a printed “library” of these jobs that entail lots of back and forth.

In the maintenance bases across the county, the budding kaizen mentality to continuously overhaul the way the work gets done will be invaluable in addressing these and other opportunities.

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