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Robot Day

I responded recently to a LinkedIn post regarding AI-assisted robotic recycling.  The sorting speed is so fast, we almost miss each sort in the blink of an eye.  Having observed this same activity attempted by humans —  and overlooking the upstream potential to avoid this kind of recycling mess at the source (the wasteful consumer) — I’m all over the potential to pass off these kinds of tasks to machines.  Humans doing this work must operate at a much slower pace, risk injury, and are not so precise as the AI robot.   And of course, humans must also deal with the stench of garbage; these robots, at least, have no sense of smell to distract them from their work. 

Today, smart robots are economically feasible for even small companies, and are increasingly deployed to work in concert with human counterparts.  Referred to as co-bots, collaborative robots, these machine counterparts share the work in factories, restaurants, warehouses, operating rooms and offices. Given the advancement of artificial intelligence, robotics and multi-sensing technologies, it seems that eventually, no job will be beyond the capability of robots; science fiction is becoming science fact.  With the recently apparent shortage of humans to fill jobs this Labor Day, the role of smart robots is on my mind and leading to some whimsical questions; not so much about doing the work, but improving the work:

Will smart machines, for example, become smart enough to solve problems?  Will their designers build into them what Frank and Lillian Gilbreth called “a motion mind,” i.e., will they examine their own motion, or perhaps the motion of other robot team members, to reduce waste?  Robots are subject to the same wastes as humans; e.g., in a poor floor layout a robot must travel the same distance to do the job as its human counterpart.   Will AI be imbued with algorithms to identify  better flow?  Will smart robots analyze and improve their standardized work?  Will they collaborate with humans and with each other to brainstorm (sort of) and test ideas?   Collaborative improvement presumes a harmonization of different perspectives to create a more robust solution than would be available from any single  contributor.  Referring to Masaaki Imai’s definition of Kaizen (my favorite), can it evolve into this?

In the absence of hands-on human experience of the people who do the work, what context will this definition have?  And, what facility can be given to smart robots to create the will to improve, the most basic condition,  according to Shigeo Shingo, for improvement.  So-called human qualities such as “constructive dissatisfaction with the status quo” are not necessary to do the job, but are fundamental to improving the job.  Joseph Weizenbaum, an early AI pioneer, argued that such qualities are not transferrable to machines.  While his AI psychoanalyst simulation, Eliza (Circa, 1966), was designed to mimic a therapist’s response to human discourse, Weizenbaum warned that “no computer, can be made to confront genuine human problems in human terms.”  This warning has been echoed ever since in dystopian science fiction literature and cinema.   How much longer will this be fiction? 

These whimsical questions may not be immediately relevant.  In a world where there is currently  a shortage of humans to fill jobs, robots offer a practical solution.   As I write this post, there are currently twice as many job openings in the U.S. as job applicants.  While much attention has been given to the acute shortage, the rate of U.S. population growth (Fig. 1)  has decreased steadily since 1990 and is nearly flatlined, with many states showing a net decrease in population.  No doubt, the people shortage has been exacerbated by COVID-19, but the issue is chronic.  

In view of this persistent need, what might we expect from the inexorable evolution of science fiction to science fact?  With the current pace of technical advancement and likely long-term labor shortage, what will dissuade employers from replacing most human labor with robots?  Rosie the Robot, after all is an investment, while Rosie the Riveter is a variable expense;  they each hit the bottom line very differently. The allure of a productive resource that is apparently tireless, reliable and requires no benefits may simply be overwhelming – almost too good to be true.  In the words of pioneer systems thinker Russell Ackoff,  

“Managers are incurably susceptible to panacea peddlers. They are rooted in the belief that there are simple, if not simple-minded, solutions to even the most complex of problems. And they do not learn from bad experiences. Managers fail to diagnose the failures of the fads they adopt; they do not understand them.”   

While AI and Robotics are surely not panaceas, applying them as a total solution may just be. I visited a company recently, for example, that utilizes smart robots to move inventory miles between multiple storage locations rather than improving layout to consolidate stockrooms.  An engineer bragged to me “We even programmed it to ride the elevator.” Dr. Shingo called this superficial improvement, automating waste rather than eliminating it. 

For those of us who subscribe to Taiichi Ohno’s idea that “95% of the elapsed time between paying and getting paid” is waste, the current labor shortage presents a huge impetus to develop an army of problem solvers to eliminate it – a workforce with the will and creativity to reap greater benefits from Lean. While the vision of TPS is human development, certainly this includes thoughtful use of IoT, just as it has included mechanization and automation.   But will Lean thinking inform the designers of AI?  Will they go to the Gemba to learn? Will they regard employees as the most valuable resource?  Will they be systemic thinkers?  Or will they, as Shigeo warned, just be table engineers or catalog engineers,  distant from the process and perhaps a little too enamored of the technology?    That story is not yet written.   Will it be as dystopian as the science fiction predicts, or a golden age for productivity and human development?   And how can Lean thinkers influence the latter?

What do you think?    Please share some thoughts.

O.L.D.

P.S. Speaking of human development,  I hope you’ll be able to join us on September 28-29 in Springfield, Massachusetts,  for the 18th Annual Northeast L.E.A.N. (Lead, Enable And Nurture) Conference.  Four great keynotes, four tracks of breakout sessions, a Lean Lounge with poster presentations, and a Lean After Dark networking session.  AND – if you can’t make it in person, all sessions will be live-streamed on Whova and recorded for later viewing.  You can check out the agenda here:  Conference Agenda

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Everyday Collaboration

With GBMP’s 18th Annual Northeast Lean Conference on the horizon, I’m reflecting on our theme, “Amplifying Lean – The Collaboration Effect.”   The term ‘collaboration’ typically connotes an organized attempt by unrelated, even competitive, parties to work together on a common problem; for example, the NUMMI collaboration between GM and Toyota or the international space station.   In a sense, these types of organized collaboration are analogs to Kaizen events and significant organizational breakthrough improvement.   

Being a longtime proponent of ‘everybody everyday’ type Kaizen, however, I think the greater amplification to our continuous improvement efforts lies in our ability to work together in the moment to solve many small problems.  But, just as intermittent stoppages on a machine may be hidden from consideration, so too these on-the-fly opportunities for collaboration may pass without notice.   An example from my own career as a manufacturing manager sticks with me as I consider the importance of everyday collaboration:

Walking through my factory one morning, I overheard a heated discussion between John M. a product designer and Ann C.  a team lead from our subassembly department.  Both individuals had deep experience in their respective areas – perhaps 25 years each.  John was waving an assembly drawing for a particular part as they argued, and Ann was holding the component parts and an assembly fixture.  All the elements of production were present: man, method, material and machine (4M’s).  What was missing was collaboration. 

“If you’d just follow the assembly drawing, there’d be no problem,” John argued.  

“What?”, Ann shot back. “Do you think I’m stupid?  Why would I call you out here if that were true?” 

This was the general tenor of the discussion, each party defensively talking AT the other.  Specialization, necessary as it is, often creates invisible boundaries we commonly refer to as silos.  When any party ventures beyond those boundaries, it’s viewed as an invasion of turf.  As the argument continued, the resolve of each party only increased. 

I inserted myself into the discussion.  “Why don’t we observe the assembly process and drawing together?  I’d like get a better perspective on the problem.”   John and Ann reluctantly agreed.   What seemed to me like an obvious opportunity to understand was, for each of them, possible exposure that one of them would be wrong and lose face.  Philosopher James P. Carse refers to this interaction as a ‘finite game.’  Somebody wins and somebody loses.   I recall saying something trite like, “Aren’t we on the same team here?”   Truth be told, we weren’t.  At least, however, we were all in the same space observing the 4M’s together.

Ultimately, John and Ann began to attack the problem rather than each other and, in fact, pulled a parts buyer and a tool maker into the investigation.  Working together they uncovered a series of contributing factors involving each of the 4M’s.  No single perspective would have been nearly as effective.  The errant assembly problem was solved.    But more importantly, collaborative relationships were created.   James P. Carse would call that an infinite game; everyone wins. 

O.L.D.

PS This year’s Northeast Lean Conference will examine collaboration from every angle.  Top-down, bottom-up, horizontal, networked, virtual, intercompany, governmental and societal.  The “Collaboration Effect” touches every system and every interpersonal relationship.  I hope you can join us on September 28-29 (face-to-face or live-streamed) as we explore better ways to work together.  It’s just six weeks away – sign up today

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Uncommon Sense

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  This advice, attributed to Nicolo Machiavelli, and later cited by Winston Churchill at the conclusion of WWII, resonates once again in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.   Widespread shortages of products, services, raw materials, fuel, equipment, transportation and people have shocked the system in our land of plenty, creating an almost universal burning platform. From manufacturing to healthcare to service and even the public sector, providers can’t deliver – this while costs are rising, unemployment is at record lows and customer demand is through the roof.   Could it be that this tsunami of challenges is driving providers to experiment with ideas that just a few short months ago were light years from top of mind?

One factory manager noted recently for example, “It’s just a no-brainer that when you can’t find workers, you can increase productivity by removing waste from the job.” Funny that this should be considered a no-brainer now, when the supply of employees is limited.  But I’ll take it.   The pandemic, it seems, has elevated the role of the frontline while casting a brighter light on the shortcomings of off-shoring.  In 2011, when the theme of GBMP’s Northeast Lean Conference was “Made Lean in America,”  several supply chain pundits shared with me in no uncertain terms that this was wishful thinking. It would never happen, they said.  Times change. 

For organizations that have traditionally responded to growth by acquiring more equipment,  telescoping purchase times for equipment have turned our attention also to making the best use of the machines we already have.   Practices like preventative maintenance and quick changeover address the scarcity of equipment and equipment operators. 

And, then there are the omnipresent material shortages.  At the start of the pandemic, many providers took the commonsense step to actually reduce supply, even as consumers horded whatever was available.  The resulting deficits have now placed keen attention on what’s made and when.  “Certain alloys are super scarce right now,” a manager of a machine shop related to me, “so we can ill-afford to produce any material that we cannot ship.”  

Referring to the window analysis in figure 1, in times of plenty, Lean improvement efforts fell more into the “known-but-not-practiced” category.  Let’s call it the mediocrity zone.   As a VP of Operations confessed recently, “Yes, we attended the Lean 101 workshops in the past, and dabbled with some experiments; but in reality, these methods are not a part of what we do.”  I hear the same message in every industry.  The props may change, but the half-hearted practice is the same.  

My teacher, Hajime Oba, used the word “commitment” to describe the difference between Lean dabblers and organizations that seize the opportunity to gain significant benefit from TPS.   With cautious optimism, I believe that commitment potential may never be greater than today. I have observed in the last six months the greatest resurgence of my career in interest to learn and practice problem solving and continuous improvement methods. This crosses every industry, but shares a similar burning platform, one that no one would have predicted before 2020.   Writing in 1988 about the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno stated “The oil crisis opened our eyes . . . “   Or as Shigeo Shingo noted around the same time, “the biggest obstacle to improvement is the will to improve.”   Here we are more than three decades later.  Let’s not let a good crisis go to waste. 

O.L.D. 

P.S. Speaking of… GBMP’s 18th Annual Northeast Lean Conference is coming up in less than two months. Have you checked out the agenda yet? We are so excited about our theme – “Amplifying Lean: The Collaboration Effect” and sincerely hope you will join us for the 2-day event which will feature four terrific keynote presentations plus more than 30 breakout sessions, a dozen benchmarking organizations in The Community of Lean Lounge and the chance to network with hundreds of Lean practitioners just like you! Read all about it.

By the way – if you can’t make it to Massachusetts, don’t worry. All of the sessions will be streamed – LIVE – so you and your team members can attend from anywhere in the world! Register Today.

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The Natural

In 1985, about the time I was discovering there was a better way to produce products, The Natural, a film about an aging baseball player with extraordinary talent, was garnering multiple Academy Awards.   The archetype concerning natural ‘God-given’ abilities is common in western culture – in sports and the arts and even in business.  Early in my journey as a student of TPS,  I observed the very same archetype on the factory floor, this time applied to specific Lean tools.  In a very natural way, certain employees revealed uncanny focused abilities to reduce waste.  While there was broad interest in continuous improvement, leaders self-selected themselves to excel in specific Lean tools. 

Bob C, for example, a twenty-plus year veteran took a leadership role with pull systems.  He realized before the rest of us that reducing production order quantities for his component parts (leadwire assemblies) and placing them on kanban enabled him to provide on-time delivery for hundreds of configurations.  He set up racks, set container quantities, created a triggering system and trained his internal customers to “go shopping” when they needed parts.    In the process he mothballed a superfast but noisy and finicky wire stripper, opting instead for an older, slow but steady wire stripper that kept up quite nicely once production quantities were reduced to actual customer need.  Bob’s kanban rack, the first in the factory, stood in stark contrast to the previous stores: a full bay of ASRS storage.  Bob C’s  effort was a bold proof of concept that caught on quickly in other assembly departments.  Why launch manufacturing orders for subassemblies months before they are needed, and waste capacity that could be used for parts we actually needed?  Why not put every item on a pull system?  

The answer to these questions was that what Bob C had made look easy, was actually not easy. The concepts came easy to him, but not to others.  Other departments struggled to make the pull system work.  They did the obvious things, like setting up racks, containers, locations and cards; but creating a level flow eluded them.   Many less obvious changes made by Bob C made his pull system work:  floor layout, equipment reliability, tool and material locations, machine changeover improvement, visual clarity, mistake-proofing and good communication with his internal customers.    He integrated these practices so effortlessly, that their importance to the pull system was transparent.   Bob C had what Shigeo Shingo called a motion mind.   Every step he took, every reach and bend, even the smallest motions, he analyzed in search of the one best way to produce leadwire assemblies.  While Bob C was reducing his Kanban quantities from days to hours on hand, other departments worked overtime to keep their over-sized Kanban stores full. 

Luckily, Bob C shared his motion mind with other employees.   He became our internal consultant factory-wide and even extending to external suppliers and customers.  Over time, while the entire factory became pretty capable with the Kanban game; Bob C was the Natural.   He brought out the best in everyone else.

The lesson here for me is that we can all become better through practice, but the archetype “The Natural” is a real thing.  I discovered over time employees who excelled similarly, but with other best practices.  One employee had an eye for mistake-proofing,  another for visual control and still another for quick changeover.  These Naturals collaborated, each relying on the other for depth of understanding that had an amplifying effect on our continuous improvement efforts. 

Who are the Naturals in in your organization?   Can you spot them?  Are you enabling them to develop and share?  Share a story.

O.L.D.

Speaking of sharing, don’t miss the 2nd Annual Spring Lean Showcase – this Friday, April 1, 2022.  Eight teams of employees from eight different organizations will share best practice examples virtually via video –  all in one day.  “Go see” from the comfort of your home or office. You can join from anywhere. Ask the team questions. And it’ll be recorded, so if you miss a presentation you can view it later. Register today here

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Too Happy Too Soon

[Editor’s Note: This post is part 2 of a post from March 1, Do Your Job. If you haven’t already read it, reading it will help to provide context.]

The level of excitement was high in our machine shop as we approached closer to our goal of less than nine-minute changeovers on the BNC lathe.   Set-up improvements had so far reduced changeover time to 20 minutes, cutting the economic order quantity from weeks to days of stock on hand. Our pull system now more closely resembled a supermarket with several containers  on hand for each of the 66 parts in our pilot.  After decades of viewing set-ups as a problem and inventory as a protection from stockouts, this new process was still confounding for many persons.  But, it was working,  which was most apparent to the operators on the BNC and to their internal customers in assembly:   

  • No more expedites and angry demands.  
  • No more breaking down a set-up in mid-run to run a hot part.  
  • No more juggling jobs between machines.
  • No more fiddling with tools and programs to get a good part. 

The BNC improvement team had, as my friend and mentor Steve Spear likes to say, “proven theory through practice”.  The concepts from Shigeo Shingo’s books actually worked.  All that was required was a little coaching from our TSSC consultant and a whole lot of brilliant ideas from the operators. 

Funny thing about good ideas: they tend to spread.  Operators were champing at the bit to take some of what we’d learned from the BNC and spread it to other machines.  I don’t recall how it started or if I  may have selectively forgotten part of  the charter Mr. Oba had given to us for our setup project:

“All of the parts for your model line assembly will be made on this machine and changeover between any two parts must be less than 9 minutes. Work only on this machine.  That is your target”

We were making so much progress with the BNC that I probably rationalized Mr. Oba would be pleased to see us sharing the ideas across other machines.  This turned out not to be the case.

On Mr. Oba’s next visit to the plant, I enthusiastically greeted him with the news, “changeovers on the BNC are already down to 20 minutes and we’re now working on improvement at the LE22 . . . “ (the machine next to it.)   Before I could finish this sentence, Mr. Oba stopped in his tracks and turned for the door.   Incredulous, I followed him outside to the parking lot apologizing, but for what I was not sure.   I recall asking in desperation,  “What did we do?   Oba stopped walking, turned to me and, with a shrug of disappointment, replied “You’ll never be better than 20 minutes.”  I think he was most disappointed that I hadn’t figured this out for myself.   I apologized again, now with understanding. “We’ll work only on the BNC until we hit our target.”   As the two of us re-entered the plant,  I reflected: “Don’t spread mediocre results.  The target was single minutes, not double-digits.”   Six months later we hit 9 minutes on the BNC, and began to spread best practices to other CNC’s. 

My lessons: 1) Don’t be too happy too soon, and 2) Focus your scarce resources to build capability before branching out. 

O.L.D.

Speaking of building capability, here are a couple of upcoming events I hope you’ll be able to join:

My monthly webinar, Teatime with the Toast Dude, on March 15 will respond to the current labor shortage by sharing ideas for maximizing the productivity of the folks you already have. It’s free.  Sign up here: Teatime

Our 2nd Annual Virtual Lean Showcase on April 1st will highlight best practices from seven great organizations in one day!   Here’s the lineup:

  • Bausch + Lomb’s Journey to Increase Daily Throughput
  • Comtran Lean Strategy Deployment & Alignment
  • Nuvera Fuel Cells: Using Lean to Transition from Development to Production
  • Abiomed: TWI Creates an Exceptional Training Experience
  • Axcelis Technologies: Improving Every Day for its Customers
  • UMass Memorial Health: 100,000 Ideas Implemented… & Counting
  • SnapCab: A Lean Recruitment System

You can get more info and register here:  Spring Showcase

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Do Your Job

We had been working with TSSC for two years to build a model line in our assembly department.  As we moved from small batch production to one-by-one, the results had been astounding: customer lead-time reduced from 2 weeks to one day, crew size cut in half and over-time reduced from 40 hours per week to 10.  Literally hundreds of small changes made by assemblers to the assembly process had made this possible.  Everybody everyday, GBMP’s slogan, was born from that experience.

Now it was time to move upstream from assembly to our internal supplier, machining, a resource that despite efforts to improve was still overproducing and delivering late. Setups on our CNC lathes averaged 90 minutes despite an improvement project supported by graduate engineers from a notable Massachusetts engineering school.  In fact, at the end of a one-year project, while we had learned a lot about new cutting materials and had purchased two new machines, there was hardly any improvement in set-up times. We were forced to group like set-ups together to amortize set-up time and even come close to maintaining a reliable parts store.   So, with some disappointment we thanked the graduate engineers, sent them on their way and instead requested assistance from TSSC.

Our Sensei (a term I use very sparingly), Hajime Oba, responded to our request with a visit to our machine shop.  “Hmm,” Mr. Oba  muttered as he walked around one of our old  CNC lathes.  “All of the parts for your model line assembly will be made on this machine and changeover between any two parts must be less than 9 minutes. Work only on this machine.  That is your target”  I squelched an urge to guffaw and politely replied “Okay, we’ll do it.”  Privately, I thought, “I’ve seen die changes on presses done in minutes, but how will we accomplish this on a lathe?”

Three weeks later, TSSC, sent a consultant to help us begin the improvement process.  This young, 20-ish industrial engineer, Ann, was the daughter of the owner of a Toyota supplier.  I’m pretty sure she’d had no previous experience with CNC lathes.  But, off we walked to the machine shop with nothing more than an easel for recording observations.  As I introduced her to the operators, there were rolling eyes and grins.  They’d just finished a year with another group of engineers who were, let’s say,  snobs.    This looked like the same old stuff to the shop.   

Ann introduced herself and said she just wanted to watch the process and might have a few questions.  As the day wore on, I stopped by periodically to check-in.  Ann was watching the work and the operators were mostly ignoring her.  At the end of the day, nothing was written on the easel.  We’d start again the following morning. 

I noticed on day two that there was a little bit of communication.  Operators were sharing.  Ann did not talk much.  She just watched and listened.   I expected a report from her at end of day to sum up her first visit to our plant.  Working with TSSC in assembly, I’d come to expect a list of must-do’s before her next visit. Oddly, the easel was still blank at mid-day on day two.

As day two wrapped up, Ann asked for a meeting with me.  As we stood by the BNC, the lathe where the improvement was to be made, Ann said, “This lathe needs an overhaul.  It’s not repeatable and improving changeovers will be impossible.  I’ll be back in three weeks.”

“Three weeks!”, I exclaimed.  “There’s no way I can get that done in three weeks.”  I should have expected the next words out of her mouth:  “Ok then. If you can’t do your job, then I can’t do mine.”  This ultimatum yanked me back to reality.  “I’ll get it done, then.  I’m not sure how, but we’ll make it happen.”  And it did. 

Three weeks later, Ann returned.  “I’m glad you could get this done,” she told me.  “Now we can get to work.”  At the end of her two-day visit there were eight pages of notes on the easel with my next list of must-dos highlighted.   There were no monumental tasks this time, just a whole lot of requests  from the operators.  As we went over the list, I saw a gleam in eyes of a couple operators.   Would I follow up on these ideas?    Absolutely!

By Ann’s third visit, with the help of an employee Kaizen support team, CNC set-up reduction was now accelerating: set locations for tools and inserts, materials near to the machine, programs standardized, downloaded and ready to go.  Just as in assembly, CNC operators were inventing hundreds of small improvements.  In a short time, most changeovers were close to 20 minutes  – or, as we started to say, 1200 seconds – and on-time delivery to assembly was near to 100%. 

I couldn’t set-up or even operate a CNC machine, and all of the improvements had come from the operators.  But there was a job for me and in this case I did my job.    Still, we had not reached the goal of 9 minute changeovers.  Stay tuned for that in my next post. 

O.L.D.  

Hey!  We’re just one month away from Second Annual Spring Roadshow.  On April 1st, thanks the magic of Whova and Zoom , we’ll be showcasing best practices at 9 different organizations from Florida to Massachusetts.  You can join in for all or part to go-see virtually and then ask questions of employee teams.  And we’ll be recording, so there’s an opportunity to watch again later at your leisure.  What a great way to kick of the Spring season.  Here’s the link for more information:  Lean Spring Showcase.

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Signs of Spring

Every February  around this time, there are welcome reminders that Spring is on the way.  The first for me is a witch hazel bush in my front yard that  defies sub-freezing weather to produce fragrant yellow flowers.  Then, a few weeks later crocuses and winter aconites will emerge from the snow.   The cycle continues through Spring and Summer as each species awakens, blooms and then rests.  Some plants, like the witch hazel, develop with very little support. Others, like a late-Summer blooming Rose of Sharon, require special protection from blight and insects.

There are several metaphorical lessons I take from the witch hazel and its co-inhabitants of my yard:   

  • The first is that there will always be early bloomers and later bloomers – people, as well as plants.  People, in particular, learn and grow at different rates, so celebrate the early bloomers but don’t expect them to last forever. The deserve a rest.   And have patience with those of us late-bloomers who will come along eventually. 
  • The second is that some of us require more care than others.  Lacking that individualized attention, only the hardiest, most self-sufficient souls will flourish – not a good condition for  gardens or human organizations.  
  • The third is that maybe, for both plants and humans, this is the they way things should be: a continuous cycle of growth, each in its own time with its own unique contributions – awakening, blossoming and resting.    Call it a continuous improvement culture.

O.L.D.

By the way:  Here’s another sign of Spring: Our
2nd Annual Spring Showcase is just 50 days away.   Through the magic of Whova, attendees will virtually visit 9 great companies with creative employee teams each sharing sharing a best practice or two from their continuous improvement cultures.  Hope you will join us.  You can register here.

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Lean Lessons from COVID

You may recognize the quote from Friedrich Nietzsche – or more recently from Kelly Clarkson 🙂  “What doesn’t kill you makes your stronger.”   I’ve thought about this often in the last 22 months in context of the horrible pandemic and more parochially in relation to the efforts of many client organizations to sustain continuous improvement in a period of great uncertainty.  There are more than a few parallels.  Here are some  that occur to me:

Burning platforms are finite.   17th Century playwright, Samuel Johnson said, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”   The sense of urgency generated by immediate threats, commonly referred to as burning platforms, has kick started many a Lean transformation including at Toyota where, as Taiichi Ohno noted  “The oil crisis opened our eyes,” as the event that kicked TPS into high gear in the 1970’s. Similarly, the existential threat of COVID-19 enabled an intense period of historic collaboration between government and industry to produce vaccines in record time.    But what happens when the  perceived crisis is past?  We celebrate and take little break, which too often becomes an indefinite backslide.  Shigeo Shingo warned that complacency is a killer of improvement. Too many organizations get comfortable after an initial burst of improvement.  Contrary to the popular “critical mass” metaphor, I think there is no such thing in continuous improvement.  Organizations that are able keep the continuous improvement flywheel turning are blessed with leaders who work tirelessly to renew a shared sense  of purpose that extends beyond the burning platform.

Myopia is Normal.  W. Edwards Deming described ‘lack of long   term thinking’ as a management sin. But, I’ve regrettably concluded after 50 years in the workforce that long-term perspective is just a very rare capability.  I don’t expect it any more than I expect everyone to have 20/20 vision.   Many executives talk a good game about vision and strategy,  but their actions are more tactical, reactive and transactional.  And, unfortunately, no amount of tactical gyrations can overcome a lack of strategic thinking – a painful lesson from the last two years.  Speaking at a conference in 2003, my teacher, Hajime Oba, was asked why American  companies did not see more benefit from TPS.  He responded, “Two reasons: 1) American management does not understand what TPS is, and 2) they are driven by quarterly earnings.”  Fact is, we look to our executive leadership for that view over the horizon.  While most of us are busy in the trenches, those super-normal visionary leaders are looking out for our futures. 

We are ruled by emotion.   Shigeo Shingo noted “People take action only after they are persuaded, and persuasion is achieved not by reason, but through emotions.”  Even if you’re the boss, according to former Toyota exec, Gary Convis, it’s essential to “Lead as though you have no authority.”  This advice has been helpful to me in my career, but it is easy to slip into a disrespectful and disengaging  ‘just-do-it” mode.   Leaders are charged with bridging the disconnect between reason and emotion.  We count on them to make reasoned decisions based on science and then persuade the rest of us to buy-in and collaborate. 

Life is an infinite game.   From philosopher James Carse comes the idea that the status quo will only change when we fail to take it seriously.   He cites the Berlin wall as an example. Decades of fighting only proved to galvanize the differences between two sides.  The wall was symbolic of a finite game – one that succeeded only because it pitted two sides against one another.  When we talk about win-win propositions in business we are proposing an infinite game.  In fact, one of the biggest obstacles to continuous improvement is business factionalization: sales versus operations, marketing versus engineering, factory versus office, customer versus suppliers, winners versus losers.   These are our Berlin walls.  The leader’s job is to help us to not take them seriously.  Call that transformational.

As we say good-bye to another plague-riddled year, I’m hopefully subscribing to Nietzsche’s aphorism; that our collective experience from the last two years will only make us stronger in 2022.  Here’s to resilience!  And also, here’s to leaders everywhere who will:

  • Share a sense of purpose and direction.
  • Think long-term – over the horizon.
  • Persuade us to follow.
  • Bring us all together – one team. 

Happy New Year!

O.L.D.    

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You’re My #1 Customer

I sat on the phone on hold this morning,  serenaded by Christmas music, interrupted periodically by a recorded message, “Your call is very important to us . . . “  As I waited, I mused on that scene from the Christmas classic, “Jingle All The Way,” where Howard Langdon (Arnold Schwarzenegger) frantically tries to power through the queue of waiting customers.  At the end of each call, he reflexively concludes with the expression “You’re my number 1 customer.”    The scene makes me chuckle because I’ve been on both ends of that queue many times.  I do believe that most of us really want every one of our customers to feel like #1, just as we would like to feel that way when we are on the receiving end.  We want perfect quality and zero hassles; and in the information age, we order today because we want it today.

Alas, while most organizations aspire to create that level of customer experience, their systems and policies make it very difficult.  Like factory inventory, customers must be placed in queues when they cannot be served immediately.   Lines at supermarkets, traffic jams, waiting rooms, and, yes, phone queues.  The invention in 1989 (not so long ago) of the auto-attendant was intended to improve efficiency by automatically directing calls; a job that older folks like me will recall was once done by a person.  Where the desk of receptionist once stood, there is now just a phone with a sign above it:  “If you know your party’s extension, please dial it now.”  

If you are calling from outside there are  further enhancements to improve the waiting experience:

  • A clarifying greeting. (“Please listen carefully to the following options, as our menu has recently changed.”)
  • An explanation. (“All representatives are busy serving other customers.” Or, “ Due to high call volumes. . . .”)
  • An apology. (“We’re sorry.  Someone will be with you shortly.”)
  • Music. (Who chooses that?  Improvement idea: Give the caller the option to choose.)
  • A marketing pitch. (“Rated #1 in service by . . . .” )
  • A message to let you know where you are in the queue.  (“There are 14 callers ahead of you.”)
  • An offer to call you back. (“Dial 1 if you’d like us to call you back . . .” )
  • Or the old standard. (“Please leave a message . . . )

An advanced auto-attendant may, in fact, intermix all of these responses – or you may be encouraged to use an app (“For faster service please contact us at www. . . .”)  Of course, the nano-second capabilities of the Internet do not guarantee an immediate response.  Here’s a screen capture of an online inquiry I made in February 2021 🙂

Shigeo Shingo referred to these enhancements as “superficial improvements” because they automate the waste of waiting rather than eliminating it.   All of the embellishments exist only because the connection is not available.  Ultimately, if the proper party does not pick up, as Eli Goldratt might have noted, we have just moved the bottleneck.    

The original auto-attendant concept was intended to improve the flow of the customer’s inquiry by quickly directing it to the proper party.  If we were to consider only the operational time, that might be true.   But, for a customer faced with a nested process of choices based on 10 phone digits, there are plenty of opportunities for mistakes, rework, and frustration.  For me, there is nothing more surprisingly delightful than to reach a real person like Howard Langdon immediately.  But I will confess, if you try to reach me by phone, you may hear: “That mailbox is full.”  (A little 5S problem.)

In any event, have a Merry Christmas and remember: YOU’RE MY #1 CUSTOMER.  🙂

O.L.D.

Looking for a last minute gift for the passionate Lean practitioner in your life? Look no further than ShopGBMP and our annual Holiday Sale!

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The Power of Commitment

As promised in my last post, here is another tribute to Mr. Hajime Oba:  

In 1996, TSSC (Toyota Production System Support Center) began working with my company to create one-by-one production capability in our product assembly. Previous to TSSC’s assistance we’d moved the furniture and machines into cells creating the appearance of flow production, but we  lacked the problem-solving know-how and management discipline to create real flow. Remarkably, after several months of focusing on our pilot line,  it appeared that all of the pieces of the puzzle had been identified and matched, and that impediments to flow had been remediated.  Our Kaizen support team and assemblers had worked daily to simplify, standardize, levelize, balance and mistake-proof assembly operations. Conveyance routes were also standardized, providing material just-in-time at a rate of three kits every twelve minutes to match a customer takt time of four-minutes per assembly.  It was now time for our first live trial of a full production day with a production goal of one product every four minutes – or 120 products by day’s end. 

Background. As an organization that had only several years earlier produced to stock in batches five to ten times greater than customer need, this trial run was a remarkable and exciting milestone.   We had previously been, as we joked, “the kings and queens of over-production”, always busy expediting to fill customer stockouts.  Over-production, sometimes referred to as the worst of the 7 wastes because it creates more of the other six, had once been viewed by us as a hedge against long lead-times.  Now, however, we’d become aware that excess production was actually the cause.   Little by little, with daily Kaizen, we’d whittled down the production queues from twelve weeks to two-weeks. 

Commitment. Then we requested and received TSSC’s assistance.   “We’re satisfying customers’ delivery requirements now,” I told Mr. Oba, TSSC’s General Manager,  “but only through excessive overtime.”   Observing the process, Mr. Oba responded,  “TSSC will assign a consultant to assist you to address your overtime condition.”  “Great,” I said, what do we need to get started?”  “Commitment!” Mr. Oba said.  “Our role at TSSC is to provide information and inspiration to your team, and your role is to be committed to improvement.”    Not entirely clear on what I was agreeing to, I nevertheless nodded affirmatively. 

New Lenses. Working under the guidance of a consultant from TSSC, we (and I) found the process of surfacing and removing problems with flow both energizing and exhausting.  The assemblers emerged as stars – the real knowledge workers.  The rest of us were there to support.  So many “little” problems surfaced every day, and every day we did our best to remove them.  This, I think, was the commitment that Mr. Oba was referring to.  A key learning point for me was that commitment requires understanding; the more I understood, the more committed I was to improvement. 

Hypothesis. During this focus on our model line, we kept extra resources available – people and inventory – to meet customer demand.  Experiments or tinkering that occurred on the model line could not adversely affect customer service.   So, up until our full-day go-live trial, everything was still a hypothesis.  As a hedge for our pilot, we scheduled a full-day on Saturday to “get the kinks out.”   On Friday night, we set up the line with a mixed-model sequence list levelized for best flow, and standard work in process levels for one-by-one assembly.  The inventory safety net was removed.  Nevertheless, I was confident that we would execute one-by-one production, in sequence, at about 80% of plan.  I envisioned a carefully choreographed flow of material, smooth hand-offs and quick remediation of problems.  Our assemblers were less optimistic. 

The Big Day. On Saturday morning, with a full assembly crew and support functions we set out to test our hypothesis.   To this point we had operated with the protection of excess inventory between operations; now there was just one piece of standard work in process between assemblers.  As the test began, we watched with anticipation.   Work was balanced and assemblers were experienced; what could go wrong?  

“Wrong part” declared the group lead, Jose L. about nine minutes into the day.   The line stopped for three minutes while we searched for and replaced the part.  During the day, the same problem recurred with other parts.  Each time, as the line stopped, the assemblers grew more agitated.   Next there were problems with information.  Jose showed me, “The customer drawing does not agree with ours.”    Then the order of jobs on the in-chute did not agree with the sequence list the assemblers were to follow.  The list of problems grew faster than the rate of production.  Missing parts, defective parts, tolerance issues, mistakes, computer glitch, broken tool.  We stopped each time to try to solve problems, but not all could immediately be traced to root cause, and for each problem solved it seemed that two more were discovered. 

Moment of Truth.  By day’s end, after eight-hours of production, out of one-hundred and twenty products planned for assembly, only seventeen had been produced.  One assembler commented, “This the worst system ever. Anytime something goes wrong, we all stop.”  Another declared “We knew this was going to happen; so many little things go wrong and there’s just no way to keep assembling without a few pieces of extra stock.”  Then the material handler spoke up:  “You know, because of all the extra material you have squirreled away, most of the problems with parts delivery were invisible to me until today. Harvey C, former factory foreman and now a member of our Kaizen support team, chimed in. “Our problem is not that we can’t fix problems.  It’s that with all the inventory protection we haven’t been able to see all of them.” I agreed.  “We learned more today about problems with our process than in the previous three months.  We’ve got keep moving forward.” 

Consequences.    The list of problems we discovered that Saturday was not only huge, it was also just the beginning of discovering delays that were only visible during one-by-one production.  Every day for the weeks thereafter we battled new problems, inching toward the goal of one-by-one production that Mr. Oba had assured me would occur if we showed a commitment to continuous improvement.  After six weeks, we hit the production goal along with other significant improvements to productivity.  But, more than that, we had developed a broad enthusiastic base of problem surfacers and solvers: everybody, everyday.

O.L.D. 

BTW – Hope you can make my monthly Teatime with the Toast Dude webinar tomorrow, November 16, at 3:00 p.m. Topic is “The Many Faces of Kaizen.”  It’s free.  Here’s the link to reserve your seat.

And please check out our upcoming GBMP and Shingo Institute workshops at www.shopgbmp.org.  2022 is almost here.  Time to re-energize your commitment to Kaizen.

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When PDCA Meets Silos

PDCA – Plan, Do, Check, Act (or Adjust) — is one of those acronymic concepts that regularly finds its way into Lean discussions. Descended from Francis Bacon’s scientific method (hypothesis, experiment, confirmation), PDCA has become a ubiquitous catchword for business process improvement.   From standardization and problem solving on the front line to iterative product and process design to Hoshin,  this approach is the engine for continuous improvement.  But like many Lean concepts, when layered over a traditional organizational structure, PDCA can fall far short of its promises.

My initial exposure to the concept, Shigeo Shingo’s Zero Quality Control: Source Inspection and the Poka-Yoke System offered an unusual, non-technical insight into PDCA.   Referring to the concept in the context of quality improvement as “informative inspection,” Shingo posed a  couple of critical questions:

  1. How rapid is the feedback? and
  2. Who is involved?  

Traditional feedback loops were gated, according to Shingo, by a Quality Control function,  a group of subject matter experts “enshrined on a lofty mountain” far away from the “Production Village.”   Several outcomes of this approach were:

  1. Checking (inspection) was a batch process, separate from production, with all of the batch’s attendant delays.  Information was yesterday’s news by the time it reached the lofty mountain.  Whatever conditions may have caused a non-conformance were lost in time.
  2. The person’s doing the Checking were remote from the workers, both physically and interpersonally.   Division of labor became implicitly unequal: thinkers and doers.  
  3. The Doers in Production Village, no longer had responsibility for quality and often no longer had even the capability to Check.   

Regrettably, these outcomes noted by Shingo in 1985 are still commonplace today. As a consultant, I regularly observe long delays to set-ups caused by remote first-piece inspections and worse – forensic root cause analysis initiated long after defects are created.  But worst of all, the folks closest to the  problems are not at the table.  When PDCA meets silos, it too becomes siloed.  Information from production to QC flows through a semi-permeable boundary,  one-way at best and subject to bias and conjecture.  Not a very favorable environment for problem-solving.

Similar boundaries between production and engineering also obscure opportunities for process improvement. In a social model where production workers are doers and engineers are thinkers, the most critical process information is often lost.  An engineering manager once remarked to me “If all employees were engineers, we wouldn’t need mistake-proofing.”  Shingo spoke to this kind of silo as well, coining the term “table engineers” to describe engineers who just sat around a table to solve problems – no interaction with the floor.   These kinds of social barriers dwarf the technical challenges to effectively applying PDCA. 

At the executive level, strategy deployment often only feeds forward only and then typically only to middle managers.  In this case, the silos are vertical as well as horizontal.  Eli Goldratt likened this approach to a game of chess where the players were in a different room from the chessboard and can not see their opponents’ moves.  Check and Adjust steps are not even possible.  And the Doers — employees who must implement  — are frequently not even aware of the big picture. Small wonder that the deployment aspect of strategy deployment is frequently lackluster. 

In fact without acknowledgement of traditional organizational boundaries and application of intentional feedback loops,  PDCA can be short-circuited between any two disciplines yielding only the appearance of science.    The problem to solve is not technical.  As Steve Covey noted,

“A cardinal principle of total quality escapes too many managers: you cannot continuously improve interdependent systems and processes until you progressively perfect interdependent, interpersonal relationships.”

Where are your PDCA boundaries?  Are they barriers or intersections?  How are the interpersonal relationships?   Do pecking orders short-circuit PDCA?  What systems do you employ to foster the free flow of information?    Please share a  thought.

O.L.D.

PS I don’t know about you, but I personally am looking forward to “Getting Back to the Future” and seeing old friends and new, at the 17th Annual Northeast Lean Conference – LIVE & IN PERSON – in Springfield MA on October 6-7, 2021. Registration is open and there’s an early bird rate in effect until the end of July. Trust me, it’s a bargain. There will be four tracks, four super keynotes, dozens of presentations that will educate and inspire you and your whole team, plus benchmarking in the Community of Lean Lounge and networking at our Lean After Dark social event. Will you join us?