Eye of the Beholder

kanbaMany moons ago when I was just getting started on my lean journey, I visited a large automotive supplier to benchmark pull systems.  My own factory had started a pilot kanban between two work centers and I was hoping to gain some insight from a more experienced source.  To my disappointment, when I was escorted to the factory, the aisles were crowded with pallets of kitted orders.  “What is this inventory?” I asked my tour guide.  “That’s Kanban,” he said.  “How so?” I asked. “Every day the stockroom pulls stock for the floor,” he explained, emphasizing the word “pull.” I thought to myself that this particular material looked just like traditional factory orders, launched before they were needed.  The floor of this benchmark facility was more crowded with inventory than my own.   Not wishing to be rude, I tactfully inquired, “Isn’t the kanban supposed to stay near to the supplying work center?”   The factory manager confidently responded, “Oh yes, we have a central Kanban area.  I’ll show you.”  With that, he led me to large storage area that looked just like my stockroom only larger. “We pull from here,” he reiterated, once again emphasizing the operative word, “pull.”

“Amazing,” I thought to myself, “the factory has just swapped its STOCKROOM sign with one that reads “KANBAN.”  (Thirty years later, by the way, that factory has been closed.)  The point here is not to focus specifically on the tool, in this case kanban, but rather to highlight the difficulty that arises when the concept behind any tool is misunderstood.  If we don’t understand “what good looks like,” we could be doing exactly the wrong thing.

Two days ago, for example, I heard a machinist jokingly describe his factory’s use of Andons:  “When there’s a problem with my machine, I set the Andon to red and that signals everyone that I’m away from the machine hunting for the maintenance department.”    Unfortunately, while the front line employee knows this not how Andons are supposed to function, the details are less well understood elsewhere.  There is not a single Lean tool I can think of which is not burdened by misconceptions.  Here are six common ones.  Perhaps you can add to the list in the comments section below and we’ll keep a running tally (think we can get to 50?):

  1. Ganging up shop orders with similar set-ups regardless of due date in order to amortize set-up time, and then calling it “set-up reduction.” This is set-up avoidance. The whole idea of reducing set-ups to “build the customer’s exact order immediately” is lost when orders wait their turn for the right set-up.
  2. Creating dedicated “cells” which sit idle 80% of the time. People tell me, “We don’t have room for cells.”  No wonder.
  3. Moving the stockroom to the factory and then referring to months of stock on hand as “point of use inventory.”
  4. Referring to work instructions as “standard work.” In fact, having a clear work standard and job instructions build an important foundation for standardized work but too few sites understand standardized work as a dynamic choreography matching supplier capability to customer rate.
  5. A subset of the above, confusing Takt time with cycle time.
  6. One of my favorite misconceptions came from an engineering manager who let me know that he appreciated the “8th waste” (loss of creativity) because he was tired of his engineers wasting their creativity on production problems.

Confronted by these kinds of mis-perceptions, I’m reminded of an old Twilight Zone episode, Eye of the Beholder.   Watch the two-minute clip to see how ugly things can get when we don’t have a good understanding of the concepts behind Lean tools.  In the last several years, a great deal of attention has been given to creating a Lean culture rather than just implementing the tools.  This is an ideal I subscribe to wholeheartedly so long as we define culture as an environment favorable to continuous improvement, and recognize that a proper understanding of the tools by both workers and managers is a key part of the culture.


PS I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind folks that the Early Bird price for The 12th Annual Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference  – “Lean-By-Doing: Accelerating Continuous Improvement”– ends May 31. It’s a great event and all the better if you can save your company some dough when you register your group. (It’s still a really affordable event even if you wait until the summer to register, no worries.) I am really looking forward to it and hope you are making plans to join us. There will be keynote presentations by John Shook, Steven Spear, Art Byrne & Dr. Eric Dickson, plus more than 30 interactive, educational, inspirational and fun breakout sessions rounded out with networking socials, yokoten in the Lean Lounge and much more. Here’s the agenda. See you in October, I hope!

As an added incentive to add to my kanban misconceptions list, one commenter will receive a free registration for the whole event! Good luck! BEH




12 thoughts on “Eye of the Beholder

  1. chielesa

    Hi Bruce, Terrific blog—absolutely dead on. I noticed your note at the end about this year’s conference. It looks great. – Lesa

  2. Kelley Buckentine

    I’ve run into many organizations that use 5S interchangeably with Lean. For example, did you lean out that closet and the cart? There’s also a great misperception that one major effort to implement 5S is all it is, kind of a once and done mentality. These are the same companies that say lean didn’t work for them.

    1. Bruce Hamilton

      Kelley, I hear that as well — often. Perhaps the stability that comes with decent workplace organization feels so good by comparison to chaos, we may be inclined to think that’s as good as it gets.

  3. Kelley Buckentine

    Probably my greatest pet peeve with misperceptions is the misunderstanding of Six Sigma and Lean. I feel they are completely different tool kits-one to help identify and eliminate waste, while the other helps identify quality issues and addresses repeatability and reproducibility.

  4. Jess H

    Thanks for the article! I wonder if nearly every implementation misses the mark in some way or another? One lean tool that seems to be misperceived often is the daily line meeting, where not only the disasters from the day before are brought up and lamented over, but which also consists of discussion, planning, and action item setting for the next 24-hours.

  5. Pingback: Traditional Lean? | Old Lean Dude

  6. Carl Tracy

    I notice the shortening of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle into a Do-Check-Act cycle because it is easier to try something rather than invest the effort to understand the problem and try for a root cause solution. Unfortunately, the Do-Check-Act cycle becomes iterative as the symptoms return because the problem was never properly addressed in the first place.

  7. Rich Bubb

    At a _very_ TPS-centric former employer, they had about 180 inventory turns per year. That works out to about 1.39 days per inventory turn. I’m using that as an example of what was measured. They had also decided their major customer (TMMK, TMMI, TMMC, and a few others, e.g., Texas, Mexico, etc.) wanted 100% OTD and single digit ppm defects. (We were at 99.7% to 100% OTD, and 5.4 ppm when I left.) And the former employer’s HQ didn’t want to have weeks of inventory sitting around. But they didn’t start out that way, and they were still having the occasional glitch/es after being in-operation for about 15 years.
    I’d been in manufacturing for over 35 years at this point, and the pressure was so intense, but mostly from the managers who would rarely lift a finger to help. That was truly the worst part of the work experience there. And no matter what one did, it was Never Enough. Soon after I left, I heard the ppm levels skyrocketed to the levels that most of the managers were demoted, while others were asked to “reduce staff by one”, meaning specific managers were asked to not come back.
    So The Eye of ‘this’ Beholder (me) saw the inside of a toxic work environment, and was glad to leave.
    Since starting to study the Shingo Model, I’ve realized that their internal failures mostly stemmed from not Respecting Every Individual. They measured previously mentioned metrics on a daily basis, but forgot (to) respect. They eventually paid for that lapse by being Not Respected themselves. Karma is real.

  8. jtgormley

    Other misconceptions I’ve found in healthcare:
    – 5S means to clean up your work area (like when my mother told me to clean up my room, more of an aesthetic emphasis), rather than organizing and maintaining the work area to enable flow and quality, eliminating wasted time looking for items.
    – the common executive level view of lean as another program to delegate quality and safety and productivity to the front lines, rather than a management philosophy to be learned and then passed on to staff
    – going to the gemba is another opportunity to go and see and tell the staff what they’re doing wrong and how to improve


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