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Jon Miller

What is the true value of a work cell?

By Jon Miller, - Last updated: Monday, December 16, 2013 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

“Twenty years later, have workplaces moved to multi-process cells or do you still find many isolated operators?”

The answer to this question is not either-or, but a “Yes” to both. Progressive workplaces are moving closer to cells, and we still find many isolated processes a.k.a. islands. Agile development, scrums, sprints and so forth engage in cell-like continuous flow within non-production environments. Hospitals and clinics are being designed for patient flow, moving the care to the patient continuously rather than delivering islands of care among oceans of waiting time. Discrete manufacturing processes are increasingly being reconnected to flow like it’s 1913. But I believe the physical adjacency and co-location of processes, or lack thereof, misses the point about the value of flow within lean.

Over the past couple of decades, the increasingly multi-national nature of many back office, transactional and creative processes has reduced the incentive to create physical u-cells. This is because information technology has created another false economy of scale by allowing disconnected processes to work at lower individual costs. Move the processing of invoices offshore, save money. Disconnect them from the rest of the rest of the organization, and few companies truly understand the total cost of doing this. The same re-shoring that is happening to extended manufacturing supply chains may happen to these back office processes. The forces that drive suboptimization are still strong in management accounting.

If it’s not a unit cost game, what’s really the point of creating cells? We can tick off the obvious benefits such as reduced space, reduced WIP, reduced lead-time, improved productivity resulting from less walking and motion. When batch sizes are reduced (not always a given when u-cells are made) this speeds up detection of errors and reduces cost of quality. The co-location of processes also makes it easier to check incoming and in-process quality. If the u-cell is built within an ecosystem of daily management, psychological safety, problem exposure, problem escalation, problem solving and engagement of people in improving their work, quality of the product and the work life improves. But this is a BIG IF. The physical u-cell is not always matched with the quality feedback loop, or even performance feedback system that is needed to put soul into body. I’d rather just see a closed-loop problem solving ecosystem in place across a disconnected flow than to see a u-cell without.

One of the greatest benefits of u-cell, continuous flow or sprint work is a sense of completion. This comes up often from team members as an unexpected benefit during gemba walks weeks or months after the u-cell conversion. People feel better because instead of spending their working life putting a user guide in a box, now they start package an entire box with the product and all of its accessories. This might seem silly. Why are people happier putting 12 different items in a box rather than just putting in 1 thing over and over again? Try it sometime. Let colleagues prepare the RFP, attach it to an email, write the message, and your job is just to hit “send”. Over and over. This is an oversimplification, but too often the reality on the high speed assembly line. Chop them up into smaller, slower u-cells where people can work to completion alongside other people and quality of life soars.

“Chunking vs. sprinkling” is an interesting phrase from the book Give and Take by Adam Grant. The example was that volunteer workers were happier when they “chunked” or gave a continuous period of 5 hours of service to a soup kitchen or after school program or whatever, rather than “sprinkling” 1 hour over 8 weeks. Those who group the acts of giving into one day were happier than those who gave a little each day, in one experiment.  We should not think of this as batching but rather as giving enough to achieve a sense of completion, of making a difference, of seeing the result of one’s work, of getting positive feedback on one’s efforts. This is the true value of the work cell, regardless of shape or proximity of processes.

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