Using Lean Principles to Improve Safety and Productivity in the Welding Shop

October 2023

Adam Lawrence of Process Improvement Partners LLC, Lancaster, Pa., relates how by using lean business principles, he helped a welding shop cut its response time to major equipment issues from over two hours to under three minutes.

As a practitioner of lean business principles for many years, I have led and facilitated hundreds of Kaizen (continuous improvement) events. The success of these efforts depends on engaging and empowering people to solve problems that matter to them. Then, using strong leadership commitment and a system I call “The Wheel of Sustainability,” I help them sustain their solutions.

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This image represents “The Wheel of Sustainability.”

One of my favorite Kaizen stories involved a team of welders. Two months before a Kaizen event, I toured the welding shop of a global consumer goods manufacturer. They serviced the factory of 900 employees who produced three distinctly different products. When equipment required a significant repair that included welding, it would take more than two hours to respond. This downtime was extremely costly.

As I toured the shop, I noticed a tremendous amount of clutter and disorganization. There were locks on the welding machines. The supervisor told me they needed locks to assure equipment didn’t go missing, but only he had the key, so he had to be tracked down to unlock the equipment. I told him we’d have to take off all the locks. He said that was impossible. I knew better.

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The weld shop before the Kaizen event, cluttered and disorganized.

On the first day of the Kaizen event, I shared the 5S methodology with the team:

  • Sort. Remove any clutter from the area.
  • Set in Order. Place remaining items in the most productive and safe location. Design the area for those who use it the most. Optimize the flow of people, information, materials, and equipment.
  • Shine. Everything must be in top condition. Clean to inspect and prevent problems from occurring.
  • Standardize. Build audits to assure everything stays as it should. Create accountability for the organization -Sustain. Leadership drives continuous improvement to the system.
  • Sort. We walked through the shop and identified equipment, tools, and materials that either didn’t belong or didn’t work. Three 30-yard dumpsters were filled with clutter. We removed 90% of what was in the shop. Now we had room to move around and operate.
  • Set in Order. We analyzed the flow of work around the shop and identified the welding tables as the productivity center. We placed the tables in the center of the shop and located all supporting materials, tools, utilities, and equipment around them to optimize the work space. We moved lighting, air, and outlets above the center of the tables. Before we finalized any changes, team members simulated their work, and we followed their movements on a spaghetti diagram. This simple technique allows you to follow a worker with a pen or pencil on paper and see if they can get to things easily and efficiently. Once we determined locations, we put tape outlines on the floor and labeled everything.
WD Oct 23 - Using Lean Principles - Photo 3
The weld shop after removing clutter, optimizing flow and labeling critical materials, tools, and equipment.

That was when the supervisor told me he was taking the locks off the equipment. I reminded him that it was “impossible” to do so. He glared at me and laughed.

Shine. Now we had to make sure everything worked properly. Some of the dust collection wasn’t working and hadn’t been for quite some time. The team members made repairs, and the shop became much cleaner and safer to work in. They also removed any rough edges on the sheets of steel stored in the shop. The shop seemed brighter, as was the team’s mood.

Standardize. The team had no interest in creating a daily checklist of activities to keep everything as designed. I knew we had to create visible accountability if these changes were going to stick. They weren’t convinced, so I showed them examples of checklists that other teams had created. Thomas, our lead welder, said, “Adam, we’ve had enough of your paperwork. We’re going to the Smoke Shack and you’re not invited. We’ll figure it out, and then we’ll tell you what we’re going to do.” They stormed off. I had facilitated an emotional event. Although this was my plan, I wasn’t sure they’d come back. But only 20 minutes later, they returned, looking proud of themselves. Thomas declared, “Adam, we’ve come to a decision. We’ll talk, you type.” They listed 11 requirements for their audit. Although it was similar to what I’d presented earlier, it was in their words. I challenged them to develop the system to ensure it would be used properly.

Sustain. Now enthusiastic and focused on the win, the team developed an area owner board with required documents that were easy to find and use. They included a photo of Thomas to drive their ownership and accountability message. They developed a three-layered audit with requirements for the area users, Thomas, and members of the leadership team. The team was taught about The Wheel of Sustainability and applied it to their efforts.

More than four years later, welding shop improvements have continued and response time to major equipment issues has dropped below three minutes.

This article was written by Adam Lawrence (managing partner of Process Improvement Partners LLC) for the American Welding Society.