By Jeff Sipes
Working for a large manufacturer early in my career, I knew a gentleman whose job was to fix problems, call to get late
materials in the door, and do whatever it took for
production to produce. His title was chief expediter. A company veteran, he was well-connected
and had a reputation for getting things done. Got a
problem? Call Harold!
To my surprise, I recently encountered another
person with the expediter title. This young lady
spent her days at a small manufacturer chasing
parts, creating rush orders, and being the go-to person during emergencies. Got a problem with an order? Call Mary.
Whether or not the person has the formal job title, an expediter is probably hard at work in many
of your plants. Why is that? Because the underlying
reasons for process weakness and deficiency still
exist. Until we fix the processes, emergencies will
continue to happen.
How can we make disruptions few and manageable? How can we turn an emergency into just another order, no chief expediter necessary? To answer that, we need to know what causes us to go
into expedite mode in the first place.
Expedites occur for a variety of reasons, and many
are specific to your situation. But for simplicity purposes, let’s put them into two general categories,
external and internal.
These occur when that pesky customer or unreliable supplier disrupts the process. This sure sounds
like whining, but let’s look at both ends of the value
chain to see what we can do to minimize the disruptions and sources of expediting.
The customer end of the value chain has some
events we can control and others we can’t. The “can
control” list includes finding specification errors or
ambiguity after too much of the planned lead time
has been consumed; the quote process takes so long
that the customer threatens to pull business; or the
customer loses confidence in our ability to fulfill the
order because of missed dates and promises. The
“can control” list may appear to originate with the
customer, but peeling away to the root cause shows
that solutions lie squarely with the fabricator.
The “cannot control” list has more to do with the
customer taking some action that drives a fabricator’s operation into expedite mode, such as when
the customer changes an order that’s already in
process. The customer has affected our comfortable business rules. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think
so; it is an opportunity to wow the customer. We just
need to develop processes that are robust enough
to handle short lead times.
A fabricator’s suppliers—be they machine shops,
powder coaters, heat treaters, or anything else—can
push us into expedite mode too. A supplier may deliver parts late; or those parts may be defective or
leave out a recent engineering change, and so need
to be replaced. Most of this may be outside our control, so our challenge is to develop procurement
processes that warn us early when these events
occur. Internal processes also need to be flexible
enough to handle disruptions.
The final inspection reveals that two pieces in a
10-piece order are defective. The order needs to
ship tomorrow. Sound the alarm and create the
The press brake is down. The fluid leak that has
been creating the constant puddle for the last few
weeks finally let loose. The hydraulic fitting failed,
and the press brake is inoperable. And the parts
need to run on this machine!
The order is lost midway through manufacturing. It
was not until the order became late that it got attention. And now everyone is out looking for that order.
How can it be lost?
Old prints at the machine were used to make the
product. Prints based on the new revision were created but did not come with the traveler packet.
The parts were damaged. A fork truck, running into
excess material stored in the traffic aisle, dropped
the parts it was carrying between operations.
What are we doing to ourselves? Do we accept
that “stuff happens,” or do we work to eliminate the
stuff? We can eliminate or at least minimize most of
these situations if we make our processes as robust
No one silver bullet can eliminate expediting. It takes
a concerted effort to address the major weaknesses
of your company’s processes, which probably are
different from another company’s weaknesses.
Most of the causes of process breakdowns are
within our control. Ultimately, it’s about creating
robust processes. This includes implementing 5S to
declutter and organize work areas. Workers no longer need to spend time looking for tools, product, or
instructions. This also opens traffic aisles to eliminate the risk of damage to products when they are
being moved around the plant.
We can streamline flow so that products travel in
a logical and predictable path through the series of
operations. This will make it easier to identify constraints. After quick observation, anyone should be
able to see the constraints as they happen.
We can reduce batch sizes (the ideal batch size
is one) so that people can see where products are
in manufacturing. Smaller batch sizes increase the
velocity of material moving through the plant and
shorten the dock-to-dock time (that is, from receiving raw material to shipping finished goods).
We can use quick changeover methods to increase
flexibility and free capacity. Universal fixtures allow
for the next product to run on the same fixture as
the last product, with minimal or no adjustments.
We can also move away from batch-and-queue.
Instead, we can use workcells to create one-piece
pull, making flow visible, shortening travel distances, and reducing work-in-process. This will allow us
to handle drop-in and rush orders in a less disruptive way.
These are examples of the lean body of knowledge at work. Done well, they will make expediting
a rarity. Thanks to short lead times and quick turnarounds, much of what was previously a recipe for
chaos is now just a normal day.
A Drop-in Is Just Another Job
Let’s visit Mary, one of the expediters I referenced
earlier. Before the company seriously implemented
continuous improvement, Mary’s day was stressful.
She dealt with one problem after another. People
essentially handed off their problems—shortages,
rush orders, redo work—to her. After all, she was the
Implementing lean processes created a level of
calmness and confidence that was missing before.
Every day seemed to be smooth and predictable,
even though unplanned events still occurred.
What happens now when a customer drops in an
order? Instead of a scene of questioning, a sense of
Read more from Jeff Sipes at
to just another job
How to prevent chaos
from ruling the shop floor