Tear Down This Wall

Twenty-two years ago, a symbol of huge ideological differences was demolished.  Ronald Regan’s now famous speech at the Berlin Wall, given two years before the actual demolition, confirmed a shift in thinking that had begun well before his visit.  By the time of the President’s visit to the wall, the tides had pretty much turned.  As James Carse notes, major shifts in thinking occur when concepts are no longer taken seriously.  This is a gradual process where differences lessen in small steps, not overnight,  sort of like continuous improvement. 

I have a small chunk of the Berlin Wall given to me by a German friend.  But another chunk of wall (seen below) is more pertinent to today’s blog.    In 1996, the stockroom wall at my company was knocked down to improve workflow.  Our maintenance supervisor, Manny Sousa, grasped the significance of this event and presented me with the souvenir.  In fact, the actual stockroom was dismantled years before this and stockroom employees became production employees.  But the wall remained as a relic. 

There was a time about a decade earlier when the wall stood for something.  It created a large fortress to protect our considerably valuable assets.  Leaving the assets unprotected would have violated the ideology of the time.  In those days, no one would have dared to suggest that we tear the wall down. 

But by 1996 when the wall came down (over a weekend) the only complaints by anyone were about the dust left behind.   The wall now stood for an ideal that very few employees took seriously anymore.  What the keepers of the inventory  — the schedulers, the buyers  – had come to realize was that by eliminating the reasons that inventory was needed, they could live happier, more productive lives with far less.   How did they reach this understanding?  Through the tacit learning that accompanies many small changes for the better:  continuous improvement.  

Recently, I had an opportunity to join a group of consultants for a tour of a large local company.  The organization had made some nice improvements, but was looking for additional sets of eyes on the process.  From the start of the visit there was a slight uneasiness in the group interaction.    There were differing ideologies:  push versus pull, batch versus one-by-one, local efficiency versus system efficiency, leverage versus collaboration.   When these topics arose, heels dug in, postures stiffened, words became curt.  There was the wall.  I wanted to say “Tear down this wall” but the time was not yet right.    There were still too many persons in the group who took the wall seriously.  More tacit learning required.

What are your walls, real or figurative?  Who still takes them seriously?  What’s your plan to relax that posture?  Let me hear from you. 


7 thoughts on “Tear Down This Wall

  1. Pete Wilson


    As always you are step ahead. We had our own wall to protect our inventory until 2004. Prior to then, we had our shop supervisors literally stand in line to receive their “ration” of inventory. No one was allowed access to inventory except inventory personnel, and we even locked the store room when it was unattended. As we studied the effects of our decisions in 2003 and 2004 through Rapid Improvement Events (analogous to Kaizen events) and later some larger projects, we implemented two bin replenishment systems, point of use storage and an elegant kanban system. It all started with realizing we needed to break down our mental walls then later the physical barrier that stood as a symbol of poor systems and, honestly, a lack of respect for the individual. As those systems evolved we eliminated an incredible amount of non-value added activity, lowered the frustration levels of manufacturing team members due to frequent stock-outs and freed up about 25% of the floor space in our plant which had previously been used for inventory storage.

    Thanks again for your continued concise insight and wisdom.

    Pete Wilson
    Pyromation, Inc.

  2. Larry


    Thanks againg for providing such great thought provoking stories.

    Another “wall” that I see over and over again is that imaginary wall between Quality (the department) and Production. The mindset that the Quality department can ultimately be responsible for the quality (small q) of the product going out the door and that production personnel are not qualified to take on such weighty responsibility.

    I have found this “wall” to be equally as difficult to tear down but certainly not impossible with results that are just as rewarding.


  3. Andrew Bishop


    We just tore down a wall, too! It was a small one, but instructive nonetheless. No, we don’t want to get stuck on “lean tools”, but the sledgehammer is sometimes a good one.

    See: Comment #3

    As the manager at our site in Bogotá said in a followup note to me: “Now I know that ‘knock down the wall’ is not so difficult.” Literally or figuratively, I’ll take it either way.

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