The agricultural extension services that were created in the 1930s taught farmers techniques to improve their crop yields — contour farming, crop rotation, and different irrigation methods, among others. To provide manufacturers with techniques to reduce waste and use manpower effectively, the federal Department of Commerce funded the first manufacturing extension partnerships about 20 years ago.

Joseph D’Urso, resource manager for the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NJMEP) in Morristown, describes the federal government’s purpose in creating these organizations. “They recognized that we need to help the small to medium-size manufacturers, which are the innovators, the job creators for an industry.”

While these partnerships aid manufacturers in three significant ways — distributing technologies developed in federal laboratories, providing workforce development, and providing resources in specific areas of interest — the biggest focus is on process improvement using lean manufacturing techniques, which identify waste and look to reduce it.

According to D’Urso, by helping businesses to run more efficiently and reduce waste, these partnerships also contribute to sustainability and improving the environment. “A significant part of lean manufacturing is eliminating waste, whether on the production floor or in an office environment,” he says. “It reduces the waste that goes out the door. First, if we can improve the quality of a product on the production floor, you throw away less. Second, if you increase the productivity, you use less resources and energy to produce the same product and produce it in a cleaner manner.”

NJMEP, which started 14 years ago, uses 15 lean functional experts, trained and certified through the national center, to transform clients into faster, cheaper producers by teaching them to identify and eliminate waste. “These techniques are not revolutionary, or rocket science,” says D’Urso. “Henry Ford recognized that the longer product stayed in the factory, the more it cost to make.”

The process begins by identifying how much time product stays within the manufacturing operation. To evaluate a manufacturing operation, the lean experts ask questions like the following: Can we reduce inventory? Can we reduce the amount of transportation — how many times the product is moved and how many people touch it? What is the product’s quality? How many errors occur?

Estimating that lean manufacturing and process improvement constitute 70 to 80 percent of the New Jersey partnership’s activities, D’Urso describes several of the techniques used by these experts:

#b#Creating checklists#/b#. As an example of this simple technique, D’Urso notes the six points of identification required to get a driver’s license. Right after you walk in the door, the concierge identifies whether you have those six points. “It’s a simple way to stop waste,” says D’Urso, explaining that it saves your going through the line and having others do additional work, only to have you fail at the end of the process. “So a quick checklist is a good way to do quality improvement,” he says.

#b#Lowering the managerial level required for a simple signoff#/b#. A large construction company with which the partnership worked had sheet rock delivered to a construction site, where a worker would sign the invoice. Then the invoice would go up through five levels of the organization to the vice president who had the authority to sign off.

The lean consultant asked this vice president, “Have you ever stopped and not signed one? Don’t you feel a little like a rubber stamp?” To improve this process, this organization did what many do: it gave exceptional approval to the second-level manager. “So she signs off; and it doesn’t go through an extra three levels,” he explains. “You are looking at a waste of people’s time to elevate it three more steps — with no value added.”

#b#Make a two-step process into a single step#/b#. In plants that require cable to be cut to a certain length, often a person will measure each cable and mark it for cutting, a two-step process. A better approach is to set the cable on a pipe of fixed dimensions with a stop at one end, and then always cut in the same place.

#b#Use the two bin kanban technique#/b#. Suppose you purchase a case of paper towels at a big-box store. Likely you will put one roll on the on kitchen counter and another under the kitchen sink or in a cabinet. The rest will be stored farther away, perhaps in the garage or basement. When you finish one of the rolls, you grab the one stored in the kitchen and then leave the empty roll on the stairs as a visual reminder to bring up another roll.

This process — called two-bin kanban, after a Japanese factory efficiency technique — is often used in manufacturing operations. “In a business you are never going to run out of material at the workspace because you have one at the ready and one in use,” says D’Urso. He offers nuts and bolts as an example. When those in the front bin are used up, the production line uses second bin, and the empty bin is a signal to reorder.

Similarly in an office, suppose that you want to use a two-bin kanban approach for your paper tablets. You might stack them in such a way that the bindings of half the pads face the front and the others face the back, with a laminated slip sheet between; this slip serves as a reminder to reorder and includes a description of the pads. When all the pads facing in one direction have been used up, you drop the slip sheet into the bin of the person who makes orders.

The national office of the manufacturing extension partnerships, which is in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and operates under the National Institute of Standards and Technology, provides advice and serves as a funding vehicle. The funds are not given away. They come with what D’Urso describes as “a bunch of golden handcuffs.” “Every dollar you get in investment from the feds must be matched with two dollars locally.”

D’Urso’s father was a machinist who worked in tool and die at IT&T Electronics. His mother, Rosie, also worked in the tool room there, taking measurements from incoming blueprints and feeding them to the guys who were cutting the metal. Although she did not operate machinery, to D’Urso’s knowledge, she did work there during World War II, and he likes to refer to her as “Rosie the Riveter.”

D’Urso has a degree in mechanical engineering from Texas Tech and an MBA from Rutgers-Newark. He worked for 32 years with the Bell system, starting out with Western Electric designing conveyors. He then managed the corporate library for AT&T. Next he moved into facilities management and was responsible for facilitating the closing of AT&T’s headquarters at 195 Broadway in New York and the opening of its new headquarters at 550 Madison.

His last corporate position was with Lucent, where he helped design the facility and layout of a plant in Mount Olive that designed and built space stations for cellular communications. He retired as that plant’s operations director.

The lean techniques that D’Urso describes can be implemented on a manufacturing floor, in a service business, or in an office environment. Whereas work on product improvement in manufacturing operations has been going on since Ford, not much has been done in office environments and service businesses. “We are seeing that as the next biggest way we can help clients,” he says.

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