A Salesman’s Gemba

Bob was an outside salesman in from the field for a sales meeting at the plant.  We asked him to stop by to participate with a problem-solving team assigned to one of his customers, ABC Company.   We’d tried everything, so we thought, to correct a defect in a product that we produced for ABC.

  • The product was a temperature sensor with three Teflon-coated leadwires.  The leadwires were, in turn, covered with a protective copper overbraid.
  • The defect involved a small nick in the Teflon insulation on one of the wires.   We knew the nick was caused by a stripping operation that removed a section of the copper overbraid from the sensor.

By the time of our meeting with Bob, we had made many adjustments to the process including involvement of the wire stripper OEM who advised that, given the eccentricity of the three wires, the stripping process would never be defect-free.  Undaunted by that assessment we persisted to make adjustments to the machine settings.  We’d heard those kinds of no-can-do comments from equipment suppliers before, and were determined to prove him wrong.  Unfortunately, on this occasion the supplier was probably right.  None of our experiments to fix the problem were 100% successful.  As designed, the sensor would be prone to defects.

Next, we appealed to ABC Company to ask if modifications could be made to the design.  The request was fielded first by a buyer at ABC who, quoting the strict specifications from ABC’s drawing, denied our request saying any modifications would require a design change on their side, and would obsolete sensor inventory they already had.   She indicated also that she had forwarded our request to their quality department who also had, after reviewing the part specifications, concluded that a design change might compromise their product’s quality.  In effect, they were saying, “Don’t bother us, you figure it out.”

Back at the problem-solving team meeting with our guest, Bob, we explained that our only countermeasure at that point was excessive inspection.  Bob listened to our reports from the customer and then offered this question: “Why do they need the overbraid?”  We reiterated the responses we’d received from ABC.   Bob retorted, “I know where this sensor goes on their product and I don’t see why the overbraid is needed.”  Members of our team were surprised.  “Are you sure?” I asked.  Bob replied, “Only one way to find out: Road trip.”

Two weeks later, Bob and I visited the customer together.  Bob asked for a meeting with managers from ABC’s engineering, quality, production and purchasing departments.  The meeting was polite, but there was a consensus from all at ABC that the sensor design could not be changed.  Bob persisted: “Can we go to the floor and see where the sensor is installed.”   Reluctantly, the production manager agreed to the tour.

On ABC’s floor we were able to watch an assembler snake the braided sensor wire through a serpentine path.  I commented to the team member, “That assembly looks tricky.”

“Tricky?” he responded, “It’s ridiculous!   This braided sensor was used on another product where no snaking was required, and then they got the bright idea to standardize on it for both products.  It takes me three times as long now to assemble it, and it cramps my fingers!”  He wasn’t finished: “And you know what?” he continued, “The product that it was really designed for, we don’t sell anymore!”

Bob seized the moment to address the assembler and his production manager: “You know, we could very easily remove that copper braid which would not only make your job easier, but would significantly reduced the cost of the sensor.”

And that was what we did.  The defect was eliminated, the cost was reduced, our profit on the product increased, and Muri at both ends of pipeline was eradicated – all because a field salesman had been to his Gemba.

Field salespeople can “go see” in places where the rest of us usually can’t.   Are your salespeople a part of your continuous improvement effort?  Let me hear from you.


This entry was posted in old lean dude on November 13 , 2012.