Streamline, Then Automate
Lantech's plant runs on technology that could have been installed 40 years ago. Instead of a shop humming with numerically controlled lathes and automated assembly machines, workers are wielding drill presses and hand tools. In place of computers generating specialized work orders, conspicuous "whiteboards" diagram the assembly process. The managers of Lantech, in Louisville, Ky., use cue cards and strips of tape to track supply levels and production flow.
Founder Pat Lancaster dragged his company from heavy computer use back to the dark ages. Why? He wanted to step back and get a handle on disorganization? the computers had actually thrust the company into an era of faster waste. "Previously we were just automating chaos, buying expensive machines to do wasteful things at higher and higher rates of speed.
"We were lying to the computer all the time," Lancaster recalls. "If we had trouble getting deliveries as fast as a customer wanted, we'd tell the computer the order was two weeks older than it actually was. The computer would reschedule that job, but then all the rest of the orders would be held up.
"The numbers the computer was working on were never right. It might say there were 10 items in inventory when we could see there were eight. We'd just enter the right number over the wrong one, which guaranteed that the error would show up again. You could almost never track down where the error occurred."
Stepping back from automation enabled Lancaster and his employees to understand company processes before moving back to the high-speed world of automation.