Excelize Me: 4 Myths & 4 Realities of Racing to Automate

On the eve of our celebration of the American Revolution, here’s a post about another revolution: Industry 4.0.

excelizeITWho remembers VisiCalc, often referred to as the first killer app?  In 1978, this first spreadsheet software ushered in the personal computing boom.  Although it only ran on Apple’s priciest computer (the one with massive 32K RAM), its ability to calculate and recalculate arrays had much to do with the explosion of information automation. By 1985, a next-generation product name Excel conquered the market with significantly more computing capability than its predecessors, eventually adding macros, graphics, nested arrays and easy interface with many other applications.  Today Excel is reportedly in the hands of some 1.3 billion users.  It’s a fascinating tool with more features than almost anyone can use.

But fascination with information automation can be problematical.  In 1996, while TSSC was assisting my company with improvement to machine set-ups, I used Excel to devise an A3 improvement plan complete with graphical VSM current and target states, problems and countermeasures, and milestones and results (documented in a 2012 post, “Value Stream Wrapping.”)   When I proudly showed the document to my teacher, he scoffed “You should spend more time observing, and less time making it pretty.”

I’m reminded of this advice every day during my work with customers.  Why do we feel the need to digitize everything?  From strategic planning to training to project management to idea systems to problem-solving to pull systems, we race to automate, believing that these are improvements.  Here a few myths from Lean implementers, quoted verbatim that I’d like to debunk in honor of my teacher from TSSC:


Myth 1:  “We cascade our strategy online to every department creating a line of sight from corporate down to individual department metrics.”
Reality:  Too often this multi-level bill of activities replaces the kind of human discourse needed to effectively communicate and deploy strategy.  An X-type Matrix, for example, nested to multiple levels does not illuminate, it hides connections that would be immediately apparent on a physical strategy deployment wall.


Myth 2: “Putting our Idea System online has increased the visibility of ideas.”
Reality:  Online Ideas System software hides ideas.  A factory employee recently referred to her company’s Ideas App as a “black hole.”  Also, when ideas are digitized, the visual nature of a physical idea board is lost to myopia.  We view ideas one at a time rather than components of a system.  And, even though computer literacy of the average employees is improving, the thought of using an app still scares many employees away.


Myth 3: “Electronic huddle boards provide real-time standardized information.”
Reality:  Sure, LCD’s are cheap today – maybe even cheaper than a decent whiteboard – but electronic huddle boards suck the life out of creativity and ownership from the front line.   One supervisor complained to me, “It takes me much longer to enter information to the huddle board application than it did to simply write on the whiteboard.  I update it when I can find the time.”   Hardly real-time.


Myth 4:  “We are conducting our Lean training online to save time and money.”
Reality:  No doubt, there is an explicit component to Lean learning that may be accomplished sitting a computer screen, and there are slide shares for this, some available through Groupon for peanuts; but real learning only occurs through hands-on practice and coaching.  This is especially true for Lean learning where concepts are counter to conventional thinking.  While the Internet offers an incredible resource for learning, it’s not a substitute for tacit learning — learning by doing.  Organizations that think they are saving time and money by using only online training are actually wasting both.


Implicit in all of these myths is the replacement of manual management of information with a machine function – call it the Internet of Things or Industry 4.0, our next industrial revolution.   But what will be the benefits?  Will the killer apps really make industry more flexible and efficient, or will they merely dehumanize the workplace.  What do you think?  Can you cite any other IoT myths?  Please share.


Happy 4th.  For iPhone and iPad users only, here’s a fireworks app J


PS I’m hosting a free “Tea Time with The Toast Dude” webinar and a discussion about Idea Systems, next week after the holiday. Are there gaps that hold you back? Ideas Systems are one of the most powerful and impactful means to engage “everybody everyday” in your improvement process. Yet many fall short of their potential for lack of participation. Join me on Tuesday, July 10 for a “Summer check-up of your idea systems”. What’s working, what can be improved? See you then! Register here.

6 thoughts on “Excelize Me: 4 Myths & 4 Realities of Racing to Automate

  1. Dan Fleming

    Myth # 5 – Let’s replace our Face to Face Meetings with an Online Meeting and Cool Software that feels like we are actually having a meeting! We can all sit in our comfortable homes and offices and save money on travel and time. We’ll cut the meeting time by 50% and everyone will be happier for it. Think of the many ways we could use the extra time! Reality: Online Meetings may be useful in a pinch but eliminating face to face meetings has its drawbacks. 1) They are dependent on an Internet Connection 2) They require decent technology both HW and SW 3) Personal Interaction is minimized or lost and 4) Agendas are quickly covered and then we wonder why progress has stalled.

  2. Larry McKinley

    Funny. I had almost the exact same feedback about “pretty data” from one of my early mentors.

    Myth: Our new centrally located, standardized data store will ensure everyone uses the most recent information to compare performance to expectation to benchmark. We will rapidly spread the best solutions across all company locations.

    Reality: Given the volume of information actually pushed at them demanding attention, managers rarely have time to reflectively visit a data mausoleum searching for alternatives. Without an interaction with the data among human managers and peers barriers to change are rarely overcome.
    What the boss measures matters regardless of format.

  3. gary lucas

    We just started using PAPER to collect labor making parts. Everyone wanted to use a phone app. Having seen how hard it is to collect labor data I instead am putting a timesheet right on the shop drawings. Those are supposed to be marked up and returned to engineering so any changes can be made. Putting the time right on the drawing allows it to get captured during revisions made from markups, and maybe even shock the hell out of the engineer at how long it REALLY takes to make his simple part!

  4. Lesa Nichols

    This is terrific Bruce. I’m a believer and big fan of your messages. It strikes me that a Learn by Doing experience would create personal “lightbulbs” about the real world truth of what you say.

  5. Jim Benning

    Hi Bruce, I really enjoyed the webinar yesterday afternoon. You asked if anyone had a positive experience with suggestion boxes and we have. Our boxes are labeled and communicated as, “Wild Ideas!”

    Our management could be better at jumping on ideas right away so the culture of bringing them up is lacking. We are working on improving this but it is slow-going. But we also know some people do not feel comfortable bringing ideas up so we sold the idea of having this new way to communicate…and it is working.

    In the past 9-months we have had 78-Wild-Ideas throughout our 3-locations…and most are pretty wild. And regardless of how wild, the ideas and responses are sent out and posted for all to see…many of which are, “we cannot do this because…” So the key to success is responding quickly and to each one.

    Looking forward to seeing you in RI in October!


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