Do more with less: Thinking outside the wooden pallet

Mike Wroblewski, Batesville Casket Company
Tags: lean manufacturing

 Go to gemba (the place in your plant where it all happens) and look at your dock area material handling process. Follow your material handlers around the plant. Go to your warehouse area and watch. What do you see?

One thing that I see in almost every manufacturing facility is lots of forklifts moving lots of stuff, mainly on wooden pallets. But looking at the material before it is moved by the forklift and right after, what do I see? I see no movement, no flow – just waiting, waiting and more waiting.

If I go back more than 25 years ago to my first days in a manufacturing plant, I saw the very same process. I still remember our Japanese sensei going up to the board drawing a crude picture of a forklift inside a circle with a diagonal line though it, yelling at us in Japanese, “Muda! Muda! Muda!” It was pretty easy to figure out that he seriously wanted us to eliminate all forklifts and create flow. Sounds like a simple idea, but we did not take him seriously. We did not see forklifts as muda (waste) then and we really still do not see them as muda today. It’s just how we do things.

As far as improvements to our material handling process goes, this process has virtually remained unchanged since WWII when the modern day pallet first appeared with the use of forklifts. Sure, there have been a few improvements, but nothing that changes the basic forklift-pallet process of moving large quantities of stuff fast with minimal manpower. As far as doing more with less, this process works. While lean thinking supports doing more with less, we want to move smaller quantities of stuff only as needed with minimal manpower. We want velocity, we want flow. Does the process of forklift and wooden pallet really support our lean vision of flow?

One other thing I noticed is a strange phenomenon in the behavior of forklift operators. Once they sit down behind the wheel of their forklift, they stay there. For some reason, forklift operators absolutely hate to get up from their seat. It’s like there is this strong magnetic force preventing them from being able to get back up once they climb into their seat. Maybe their seat is Velcro padded preventing them from getting up? On rare occasion, I have seen forklift operators jump off their vehicles but only after first honking their horn a few times. Once they are forced to get off their forklift, they suddenly become grumpy. As a side note, I recognize this identical attachment behavior in other areas of the business, only it has to do with sitting behind a desk. Strange, huh?

A few things we must consider: How much does it cost to purchase/lease a forklift? How much time, energy and cost does it take to properly maintain a forklift? How much does a wooden pallet cost? What does it cost us in time and energy to deal with wooden pallets? How long do they last? Do we properly repair them? How many broken pallets have caused damage to our products, created a mess or caused injury to our associates? Do our associates have to manually move or lift wooden pallets? How much space does the wooden pallets storage take up? How environmentally responsible is the process of forklifts and wooden pallets?

Maybe we can’t 100 percent eliminate forklifts and wooden pallets, but can we drastically reduce the need for them? Can we confine their use to just at the end of our plant and receiving docks? Can we eliminate them from our interior plant processes? Can we think outside the wooden pallet and come up with a better way?

Think about it.

About the author:
Mike Wroblewski started his lean journey with instruction in quick die change from Shigeo Shingo. Mike is currently the lean sensei at Batesville Casket Company in Batesville, Ind. He also writes a blog called “Got Boondoggle?” featuring lean and Six Sigma topics. Check it out at Mike will be a featured lean track speaker at Noria Corporation’s “Lean, Reliable and Lubed” conference, May 20-22, 2008, in Nashville, Tenn. Learn more about this event by visiting