Leader Standard Waste: Part One

leader standard wasteThree years ago I wrote a post entitled “The Emperor’s New Huddle Boards,” in which I expressed concern about the trappings of improvement without actual improvement.  Since then, my concern about the application of Leader Standard Work and Gemba Walks has deepened as these potentially valuable practices have too often degenerated into obligatory scripted play acting.

Ten years ago, when I first heard David Mann presenting these concepts, I thought to myself, “Hmm, it’s about time that someone gives thought to the best use of manager’s time in support of kaizen.”

Most managers, in my opinion, needed some guidelines in this regard.  A hesitancy to go to the floor for direct observation was a pervasive manager shortfall.  Many persons who have viewed GBMP’s video, Toast Kaizen, may not know that in fact, its genesis was in trying to persuade senior managers to get out of their offices and go to the floor to observe.  So the idea of establishing a standard that included visits to the Gemba was appealing to me.

Unfortunately, good ideas are sometimes unintentionally abstracted to the point that they become pointless.   For each of the three parts of David Mann’s model, I have observed a proliferation of shortcomings that invalidate the intended Lean management system.   For the next three weeks, I’ll cover these one-by-one.

Today it’s Visual Controls:

Call me old school, but I grew up in a factory where visual controls mainly meant building visual information directly into the work.  For example:

  • A standardized work chart posted at the workstation so an observer could compare the actual process with the standard.
  • A production-activity log in the production cell, updated on each work cycle with particular emphasis on problems that occurred so that problems could be fixed instantly.
  • A visualization of standard work in process, for example, a chute that held only four pieces – no more or less – to clarify the balance of operations.
  • An Andon that, if flashing, signaled an immediate need for production support.

When I was a kid, the opportunities like these to build information directly into the process in a low-tech way seemed endless.  They provided excellent opportunities for workers to share information about their work, and a manager who understood these visual devices could understand the health of the process at glance.

Today I see far less visual information at the point of use.   It’s been replaced by ubiquitous huddle boards and kiosks and video displays, often situated on a wall far from the actual work.  The ideal of “frequent focus on the process” has been become an infrequent focus on visual displays updated once per day just before the huddle meeting.  The ability to visually compare actual to standard has been lost.  Recently, in fact, I visited an organization that proudly announced they were replacing all manual huddle boards with digital displays that could be viewed remotely.  I’m sorry if this seems harsh, but when these types of standalone visual devices become the sole standard for visual controls, managers learn little or nothing about the Gemba.  “Grasping the current condition” is replaced by counting the red and green dots.  One manager announced to me that he could tell the condition of the factory merely by glancing at the huddle board for several seconds.  “No,” I responded, “you can only tell the condition of the huddle board.”

One final rhetorical question regarding the red and green dots:  In an environment where reviewing a huddle board is understood to be going to the Gemba, how many red dots would you expect to see?   A colleague related to me a comment he received from a shop floor employee.  “Have you heard of the color watermelon?” the employee asked, and then answered.  “We have watermelon dots on our huddle board.  They’re green on the outside, but red on the inside.”

In fact, I do think huddle boards and kiosk displays can be an impactful part of a visual factory or office; but they are only a piece, and probably not the most important piece.  And as stand-alones, they create an additive activity that makes management’s visits to the floor a standardized waste of time and an insult to the front line.


PS Did this get you hot under the collar?  Then please add a comment.  And watch for the continuation of this post next week when I’ll be sharing some concerns about the second part of the Lean Management System: Accountability.

BTW For a terrific story from one senior leader who understands management’s role to create a transparent workplace that incorporates visualization of the work, I recommend Jim Lancaster’s The Work of Management.  Or better still, sign up for our 14th Annual Northeast Lean Conference to be held in Providence on October 10-11, 2018 and hear Jim Lancaster’s Lantech story directly from him at his October 11 conference keynote.


14 thoughts on “Leader Standard Waste: Part One

  1. Michael Codega

    Years ago while working for Denso, our team visited a supplier facility that had installed a “visual control room.” It had a myriad of monitors against one wall which indicated the status of various work cells. How proud they were. A couple of years later we re-visited and the room had been closed down. We were informed they had learned that watching monitors was not nearly as effective as going to gemba and that this monitoring “put off’ their associates who no longer willingly contributed ideas. Interacting with the associates doing the work directly was the means to really engage folks and determine the problems.

    1. toastguy

      Thanks for the comment. The visual control room reminds me of this scene from Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”

  2. Juan Peeceflow

    There’s so much nonsense related to people standing and staring at boards (or looking at their shoes while leaders talk).

    This is called “Lean Daily Management.” It’s not Lean. It’s barely management.

    Here’s what happens way too often in healthcare:

    1) Leaders visit ThedaCare
    2) Leaders say “let’s copy the ThedaCare boards”
    3) Board get put up
    4) Staff and leaders say “the layout of the board is totally unintuitive”
    5) Leaders say “shut up and do it the ThedaCare way, as they are Lean”
    6) People go through the motions with the boards… their leaders aren’t acting like ThedaCare leaders (or as they used to do)

    The joke is on them… reports say ThedaCare doesn’t use these boards anymore. You can’t go visit them anymore.

    So why are we still copying ThedaCare instead of developing a better way?????

  3. Tim Riecke

    Excellent points Bruce. You have to get down into the work to make improvements. It can be done from the peripheral of the factory floor.

  4. John Chacon

    How did we get here? Nearly all of our thought leaders for Lean / Continuous improvement (yup the O.L.D. is on my Mt. Rushmore of lean thinkers) consistently shit on the efforts of others on their journey. Yes, you made some great points where the subject company missed the purpose of the practice but i would have loved to hear how you coached them and gave them some thought provoking questions to help lead them in the right direction. I wonder if that would feel as good as poking holes in their process and then leaving being the smartest guy in the building. i have had a lot of these types of failures in my lean journey and for everyone of those failures there was a lean thinker that walked by allowed me to struggle (in the military we call those people “Blue Falcons”). Maybe they had an article to write about how I was missing the mark, or maybe there wasn’t a paycheck attached to that teachable/ coaching moment.

    For this very reason, everyone needs to recognize when you run into an actual sensei (teacher) of the lean and continuous improvement practices and philosophies; so you know who is trying to build you or build themselves. Bruce, i know you have forgotten more than i’ll ever know about continuous improvement but I hope you can take a step back and appreciate the perspective.

    1. toastguy

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. I do try to provide a little balance in my posts (e.g. my previous post celebrating Barbara Bush’s commitment to adult literacy), but I have my share of rants as well. The biggest obstacle to solving a problem, in my opinion, is first recognizing it. The earlier post, Emperor’s New Huddle Boards, to which I alluded in this week’s epistle, is a see-no-evil-hear-no-evil story about a management team that was interested to apply for the Shingo Prize but didn’t want to recognize that their continuous improvement system wasn’t working. I politely pointed out in about ten pages of detail, where there were gaps to address and I made specific improvement recommendations. They then politely told me to take a hike. Pride is the worst of the seven deadly sins.
      On the other hand, there are sites I’ve worked with who, as you note, have learned through practice that tools like Huddle Boards and Gemba walks are an integral part of a much larger and robust system. For those sites, like the one detailed in Jim Lancaster’s book, the practices are purposeful both for management and employees.
      So don’t give up on me. I’m not a Lean malcontent, but be warned my rants will continue in the future interspersed with a few more uplifting stories ☺.

      1. John Chacon

        Not giving up on you sir. I’m sure i didn’t look at the whole body of work and consider the uplifting to rant ratio! I appreciate the response and totally agree with your comment that “Pride is the worst of the seven deadly sins”. Keep challenging us to think, thanks.

        John Chacon

  5. Steve Rhoads

    Bruce – your comments are spot on. I am going to a meeting right now about the huddle boards that wreaks of the observations you have made. The last place I want to stop when I go to the gemba is the huddle board. So much more learned by viewing the real work and conversing with people doing the work. All the visuals will tell me about the current situation.

  6. Wes Wells

    Good article Bruce. I’ve seen many leaders that believe going to floor is simply a waste of time. Then under duress, they are told to put up hr by hr boards and do a gemba walk. The system design is to surface problems, and then a bias to solve them. Most plants want to do the visuals on large LED’s or “monitor” the plant from the office. I always say..the floor is speaking to you and is the truth…are you listening?

  7. Tom Gormley

    I had a similar reaction to this post as John above, and I know Bruce you are pretty balanced, so perhaps it was time for a rant. In healthcare, we’re not as far along as other industries or the would-be Shingo winner that inspired your rant, so often the best we can hope for early in our journey is some good trials of Idea Boards and huddles, even if it’s nearly a carbon copy of ThedaCare or someone else. In fact it can be a major, shining success in relative terms to just try it, learn something, then adjust in cycles. “Change behavior in order to change thinking”, rather than vice versa. In my system, that’s where we’re at. Now I wouldn’t put us forward for any awards, but I’m real proud of the fact that our idea boards provide many examples of small kaizens. When our senior leaders go on what we call “walkrounds”, I encourage them to go to these boards because they help give teams recognition of progress, and because it facilitates discussion which would otherwise be very quick and not very interesting. If this in a few occasions encourages further observation of the actual process — all the better. We’re on this progression now. So it seems to me this blog is geared to the more mature lean practicing orgs which should have further developed by now, and are missing the point. I think I’ll come back to this blog in another year or two to check on our progress.

  8. toastguy

    Hi Tom,
    Thanks for your thoughts – always appreciated. As I noted in my response to John Chacon, I do come across good examples of purposeful use of huddle boards and Gemba walks, including in healthcare that are engaging both managers and frontline. There are just too few examples, regardless of industry. The challenge is not with the tools but with practice of the tools. In your case it sounds like you are endeavoring to progressively connect the boards to the workplace. That’s part of the practicing. When organizations don’t promote that eventual migration, they are just practicing visiting huddle boards. Unfortunately, in those cases practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make permanent.

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  10. Devin McRoberts

    Having gone to the Gemba while working on my green belt I’ve seen the types of high tech visual controls talked about here. Most managers love them but when I talk to operators they mention the new technology has brought along a whole new slew of problems. Thanks for sharing Bruce.


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