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.


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

13 thoughts on “The Natural

  1. John

    Thank you for this post. It is definitely important to know that “we can all become better through practice”.

  2. Charlie Mey

    Great post! I’ll definitely have to check out “The Natural” sounds like a great film. I agree many people have the gift to point out wastes easier than others and that we all see the job place differently. For many it’s their purpose and others a means to an end. Like Bob C, the employees who value their work expose these wastes and find ways to improve constantly.

  3. Benjamin Cote

    I enjoyed this post as it connected Six Sigma into the sport of baseball. Bob C was definitley a natural at the pull system and employees who figure out this kind of knowledge are immensely valuable to the company, thanks for the insight!

  4. Nathan Townsend

    It always amazes me when I hear stories of sports teams, coaches and players using the same methodology that we use today in six sigma. To hear about successes in sports through this, it makes me think, are there practices that happen in the shadows that in the future we will be able to point out like we do today.

  5. Isaiah Kittel

    This is a wonderful post and comparison between what a film was portraying and the events of real life. We all certainly have our own strengths and weaknesses, some strengths can be learned but others come naturally. For some, they are driven to improve and succeed for an intrinsic gratification, but for others they simply do what they are tasked with. It’d certainly be a perfect world if everyone was constantly trying to improve the world around them. Unfortunately, it isn’t that way and people have to be coerced into completing tasks.

  6. Mahima

    I really enjoyed reading this post in how sports relate to Six Sigma. I find it fascinating how some are naturals compared to others. Especially when it comes to removing waste, it can be really tough to find those small pieces that need to be removed or added to make a process for efficient. It’s always great to have people like Bob C, someone with natural abilities that encourage others.

  7. Greg Boisvert

    Interesting view point, personally speaking I am a big believer that most people are born with the same innate abilities and it is their cultivation of experiences that teaches them how to think and what to look for. In my every day life, one thing where I see this idea of the “natural” fall short is in my mixed martial arts training, especially with grappling. Without first being taught what to look for and how to think while you are fighting, everyone, and I mean everyone, struggles greatly when they first start. This is where I think the value of college degrees comes in throughout today’s workspace; it is not necessarily the material that you learned in school, but how your education helped adapt your reasoning and problem solving.

  8. Ethan Berg

    So far, this post has definitely been the most appealing to me because it related to sports. Honestly, I was a bit surprised when I saw that the coaches and players utilize the same types of lean technique. It was also eye opening to see who Bob removed small waste amounts. Overall, this was great to see a more relatable example to understand who the process of removing waste works.

  9. Annie Sember

    I very much enjoyed reading this post! I have never heard sports be related to six sigma in this way. I agree that some people are a “natural” but practice does make perfect. I also enjoyed how you mentioned that individuals can excel in different areas and come together to solve a problem. I believe that it is important for industry professionals to realize that not everything will come easy to everyone but it does not mean that they cant accomplish their goals with practice.

  10. Helena Melchiori

    This post was very interesting to me. I amazed me seeing how a sports team used the same thinking as we do within our Six Sigma processes. Bob C was so crucial because naturally his normal thinking was lean. It differs between people which was really pointed out in this post that Bob C had these thoughts but others really struggled with understanding why he was doing the process the way he was. Very interesting post, I will have to watch the Natural soon.

  11. James Day

    My favorite takeaway was the complexities with questions such as,

    “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? ”

    Every supply chain operation is unique and for me open mindedness is huge when it comes to the discovery any specific error. Finding errors is just one part of the improvement process. Finding out the cause and then implementing a solution requires a team effort; strengthening the need to utilize all personnel and employee talents and working around their weaknesses.

  12. Nichole DeAngelo

    Great post!
    I enjoyed reading this blog because of the comparison you made. I think it is so cool how a sports team shares the same thinking and processes that we do while utilizing six sigma. Everyone has their own talent and putting all different talents together can make a perfect team. I found it fascinating how Bob’s thinking process was naturally a lean process.


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