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The picture or the frame?
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The rules of Standard Work applied to sheep shearing – Perfect for Ewe

Standard Work

Sheep shearers would not consider themselves Lean Sensei’s, but they taught me a lesson of maintaining standard work despite of (or maybe due to) physically trying circumstances.

Recently we visited a friends’ sheep station to experience shearing. Over one thousand ewes a day by the four shearers. Impressive, standing bent over wrestling down a seventy kg ewe. Most mortals would ache after ten minutes. The shearers just kept going. Ten hours, averaging 250+ ewes each.

My three fellow students at the Gemba pictured on the right groaned that I, dorky dad, could not help but put a professional lens on the activities. I saw takt time, PDCA, one-piece flow and teamwork, but foremost standard work. The routine for the shearers and helpers was identical for each sheep. A good study for standard work. So, let’s apply Rule 1 from the Four Rules in Use (courtesy of Stephen Spear), to the practice of shearing.

  1. All work should be highly specified in terms of content, sequence, timing, outcome, with an in-built test.

Observing the steps – flip the sheep in the pen, drag it to the shearing station, repeatable clipper strokes, release it down the chute – the work content and sequence were clear and followed the same cadence. The tuft on the head was always clipped at the very same moment in the sequence, the counter pressed at the very same time as with the previous sheep.

Timing was routine as well, not just for the shearers but also the other workers who collected the fleece at exactly the right moment. The shearers were not interrupted and could work in an uncluttered workspace.

At face value, the outcome spoke for itself: the fleece removed from the ewe. Yet even for casual observers like us we could see some variability. Several ewes struggled and took longer. Some of the clipper strokes were angled and left a bit more wool on the sheep, while other angled strokes nicked the animal.

The last component of rule 1, the in-built test, appeared underutilised. Did the shearers themselves check whether the work was completed as designed with the expected outcome? Did someone else? How did they learn? How did they improve?

When I asked my friend the station owner, he clarified that the team leader of the shearers’ gang would periodically observe his team members and discuss improvements. As a customer he would observe and check as well; being a former professional shearer himself stood him in good stead. He therefore also appreciated the duress the workers were under – and the sheep!

 

About the author: Geerten Lengkeek is the Managing Director of Productivity People