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GBMP Program Manager & Blog Administrator

My First Lesson

Just a little over a year ago we lost Hajime Oba, one of the great pioneers of TPS learning in the US.  In 1992, he was the founding manager of the  Toyota Production System  Support Center (TSSC), a non-profit affiliate of Toyota Motors of North America (TMNA), established to share TPS knowledge with North American organizations that showed a sincere commitment to learn and apply what he referred to as “true TPS.”   My company, United Electric Controls, submitted a request to TSSC for assistance in 1995, and it was our good fortune to begin our TPS journey with Mr. Oba. In the next several weeks, I’ll share a few stories to honor his rare leadership. Here’s the first, which represented my first meeting with Mr. Oba, just before TSSC agreed to work with us:

On the day of Hajime Oba’s initial visit to our site, I had arranged for a short meeting with our owners to discuss the nature of TSSC’s service and to reaffirm our commitment to actively support the process.  Next, we went to floor to observe.  “Can you take me to shipping,” Mr. Oba requested.   This location, I learned sometime later, was selected because it was the point closest to the customer.   As we stood in an aisle next to the shipping department, Mr. Oba’s eyes traveled to persons working, then to pallets of material and then to the shipping dock.  After a minute, he turned his glance to me for a moment and then back to a scan of the shipping area.  He was sizing up the situation both as a whole and as a series of operations.  I heard a faint murmur as he watched: “Hmm.”

Then, he turned back to me and asked this question:  “Where’s the shipping?”   I responded, “It’s right here, we’re looking at it.”   Unimpressed with my answer, Mr. Oba murmured again as he turned away as if to invite me to watch with him.  As we observed, he declared, “I don’t see anything shipping.” 

“Oh,” I thought to myself.  He was not referring the department.  He was asking why no products were leaving the shipping to dock en route to the customer.  “It’s still early in the day.” I explained, “Our first shipment is not until 10:00 a.m.”   Even as I uttered these words, I realized this was a bad answer.  “Why 10:00 a.m.?” Oba inquired.  “Because that’s when UPS picks up,” I said.

Mr. Oba looked at me with an expression of mild impatience, but as I was waiting for another “why”,  he shifted his line of questioning.  I suspect he felt he’d already made his point.  Instead he walked to a pallet of goods sitting next to the aisle and, pointing to it, asked , “When is this shipping?”  A little frustrated at my ignorance, I explained that I’d have to check with the shipping supervisor to answer that question.  Mr. Oba waited while I went in search of information. 

I returned with an answer that I felt would conclude this line of questioning:  “The supervisor says this order is on credit hold.”  In my mind, the order status was beyond the purview of operations.   But Mr. Oba persisted.  “How long has it been sitting here?”  Once again, I had no answer and had to rely on my shipping supervisor who advised that that order had been sitting complete for nearly a month!  As I related that information to Mr. Oba, his gaze seemed to ask “What kind V.P. of Operations would let a customer order sit in plain site for a month?”  I was embarrassed, but foolishly persisted, “It’s on credit hold and we can’t do anything about that.” 

“Why is it on credit hold?”  Mr. Oba asked.   Flustered, I replied, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”   A call to our accounting department yielded a “We’ll have to check into that” response.  I promised Mr. Oba I would find the answer.  

About an hour later, I received an explanation that was both humiliating and illuminating.  The order was on credit hold because one of largest distributors, ABC Sales, had exceeded their credit limit.  “Are they a bad payer?” I asked, Bob, our accounts receivable associate.  “Oh no, they’re just  buying a lot this month,” he said, “and that puts them over their credit limit.”   “Then why don’t you release them from credit hold?”   I asked.   Bob responded, “We will, absolutely, if we are authorized by sales management.”  

My credit hold odyssey continued to the sales department.  “Why haven’t you released ABC Sales’ order from credit hold?”  I asked Charlie, the sales manager.   Charlie explained, “We have no internal visibility of orders on hold.  Unfortunately, we usually find out when customers like ABC Sales call us to complain about a late shipment.” 

Several hours had passed.  Mr. Oba had already departed, but was aware of my investigatory efforts if not the final answer to his question.   Ultimately, that answer led to a process change that would trigger a credit hold inquiry immediately rather than after a customer complaint. 

I asked myself, why had I not seen what Mr. Oba had uncovered in a glance?  I missed the details and I also could not see the big picture.  Perhaps that was Oba’s first lesson for me.

What do you see when you go to the floor?   Please share a comment or story.

O.L.D. 

BTW —  TSSC will be joining us on October 6-7 at our 17th annual Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference, as will the Shingo Institute, the Lean Enterprise Institute, MEP’s from New England, AME, SME, MHLN and a host of great presenters.  What a great opportunity to get out in a safe CDC-compliant environment to re-energize your Lean journeys and establish new relationships with other passionate Lean organizations. 

But – if distance or company policy prevent you from traveling this year, we’ll not only be live and in-person we’ll also be live streaming for virtual attendees – and recording  all sessions for all attendees!  Check out the outstanding agenda at this link:  Getting Back to the Future.  Hope to see you at the MassMutual Center in Springfield MA this October. 

When PDCA Meets Silos

PDCA – Plan, Do, Check, Act (or Adjust) — is one of those acronymic concepts that regularly finds its way into Lean discussions. Descended from Francis Bacon’s scientific method (hypothesis, experiment, confirmation), PDCA has become a ubiquitous catchword for business process improvement.   From standardization and problem solving on the front line to iterative product and process design to Hoshin,  this approach is the engine for continuous improvement.  But like many Lean concepts, when layered over a traditional organizational structure, PDCA can fall far short of its promises.

My initial exposure to the concept, Shigeo Shingo’s Zero Quality Control: Source Inspection and the Poka-Yoke System offered an unusual, non-technical insight into PDCA.   Referring to the concept in the context of quality improvement as “informative inspection,” Shingo posed a  couple of critical questions:

  1. How rapid is the feedback? and
  2. Who is involved?  

Traditional feedback loops were gated, according to Shingo, by a Quality Control function,  a group of subject matter experts “enshrined on a lofty mountain” far away from the “Production Village.”   Several outcomes of this approach were:

  1. Checking (inspection) was a batch process, separate from production, with all of the batch’s attendant delays.  Information was yesterday’s news by the time it reached the lofty mountain.  Whatever conditions may have caused a non-conformance were lost in time.
  2. The person’s doing the Checking were remote from the workers, both physically and interpersonally.   Division of labor became implicitly unequal: thinkers and doers.  
  3. The Doers in Production Village, no longer had responsibility for quality and often no longer had even the capability to Check.   

Regrettably, these outcomes noted by Shingo in 1985 are still commonplace today. As a consultant, I regularly observe long delays to set-ups caused by remote first-piece inspections and worse – forensic root cause analysis initiated long after defects are created.  But worst of all, the folks closest to the  problems are not at the table.  When PDCA meets silos, it too becomes siloed.  Information from production to QC flows through a semi-permeable boundary,  one-way at best and subject to bias and conjecture.  Not a very favorable environment for problem-solving.

Similar boundaries between production and engineering also obscure opportunities for process improvement. In a social model where production workers are doers and engineers are thinkers, the most critical process information is often lost.  An engineering manager once remarked to me “If all employees were engineers, we wouldn’t need mistake-proofing.”  Shingo spoke to this kind of silo as well, coining the term “table engineers” to describe engineers who just sat around a table to solve problems – no interaction with the floor.   These kinds of social barriers dwarf the technical challenges to effectively applying PDCA. 

At the executive level, strategy deployment often only feeds forward only and then typically only to middle managers.  In this case, the silos are vertical as well as horizontal.  Eli Goldratt likened this approach to a game of chess where the players were in a different room from the chessboard and can not see their opponents’ moves.  Check and Adjust steps are not even possible.  And the Doers — employees who must implement  — are frequently not even aware of the big picture. Small wonder that the deployment aspect of strategy deployment is frequently lackluster. 

In fact without acknowledgement of traditional organizational boundaries and application of intentional feedback loops,  PDCA can be short-circuited between any two disciplines yielding only the appearance of science.    The problem to solve is not technical.  As Steve Covey noted,

“A cardinal principle of total quality escapes too many managers: you cannot continuously improve interdependent systems and processes until you progressively perfect interdependent, interpersonal relationships.”

Where are your PDCA boundaries?  Are they barriers or intersections?  How are the interpersonal relationships?   Do pecking orders short-circuit PDCA?  What systems do you employ to foster the free flow of information?    Please share a  thought.

O.L.D.

PS I don’t know about you, but I personally am looking forward to “Getting Back to the Future” and seeing old friends and new, at the 17th Annual Northeast Lean Conference – LIVE & IN PERSON – in Springfield MA on October 6-7, 2021. Registration is open and there’s an early bird rate in effect until the end of July. Trust me, it’s a bargain. There will be four tracks, four super keynotes, dozens of presentations that will educate and inspire you and your whole team, plus benchmarking in the Community of Lean Lounge and networking at our Lean After Dark social event. Will you join us?

Improvement Begins with I

One day, shortly after entering grade school, my daughter, Alison, asked me “Dad, what do you do for a living.”  An odd question, I thought, coming from a six-year-old, to which I flippantly and thoughtlessly responded, “I go in search of the almighty dollar.”  I actually really enjoy my work; it’s much more than a paycheck and I don’t recall what pangs of cynicism gripped me that day.    But I will never forget what happened the following day.   Returning home from school, Ali, declared that classroom discussion had centered around what parents did for a living, and she had proudly announced that her father went in search of the almighty dollar. 

Embarrassed, I apologized that I had been joking and that my real job was sharing my process improvement experience with others.  Try explaining that concept to a six-year-old.  “What’s a process and why does it need improvement?” she asked.   This line of questioning continued for a while with examples and anecdotes that were more relatable to a grade-schooler. “So, you help them to make things better,” she finally said.  “Yes!” I exclaimed, “that’s it.”

Not completely satisfied with this answer, Ali inquired, “Why do they need your help to make things better?”  This thoughtful question made me chuckle.   “I help them see where things can be better, just like I did with you.  It’s called Kaizen.” 

“Oh, Kaizen,” she said, “seeing where things can be better.”  The idea had connected in a significant way   Shortly thereafter, Alison informed me that she’d let her class know that my job was Kaizen.   

Years later, I’m struck by the need to have a similar dialogue with full-grown adults.  I hear comments like “If people just did their jobs . . . “  or  “Things are okay as they are . . . “  Shigeo Shingo noted that “99% of objection is cautionary.”  In other words, if we are to accept a new idea – in this case, Kaizen — we need to be convinced.   It’s a personal thing.   Kaizen, as Shingo noted, is more about individual will to improve, and that derives from a “constructive dissatisfaction with the status quo.”   Call it Kaizen spirit.  For every person, the process to develop that spirit is unique, in the context of anecdotes and examples that are relatable to them.  As businessman and author Arnold Glasgow once said, “Improvement begins with I.”  This poster hangs in my office. 

What’s your Kaizen story?  Were you an early adopter or a late bloomer?  How did improvement begin with you?  Can you share an example? 

O.L.D.

Speaking of sharing,  we just announced that our 17th Annual Northeast LEAN Conference will be IN-PERSON at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, MA on October 6-7, 2021.  Featuring four inspiring keynotes, four educational break-out tracks, and our frontline sharing space, the Community of Lean Lounge.   Register early for a super deal.  Hope you can join us.  More info and registration here.

Extra Space

This time of year the abundant ads for junk removal and cheap storage units remind us that it’s time for Spring cleaning, an annual pastime that has perhaps been bolstered by the need to unlock extra space in the home during the pandemic.  Businesses too have managed to find space to accommodate safe distancing, either by pushing unneeded items to dark corners or back-lot containers or occasionally by chucking them.   It’s the typical 5S lament:  Sorting and setting in order, but not sustaining the improvement.  Which, of course, is why Spring cleaning is an annual thing.  

Removing clutter from our lives is a good thing, be it personal or professional.   But there’s a huge, often missed opportunity that is unique to business:  inventory. We buy it, machine it, fabricate it, assemble it, paint it or process it in some other way and then we store it for eventual use (or obsoletion.)  According to Zipinventory.com, the ideal inventory turnover for a company is 3 -6 times per year.  Wow! The things we can learn from the Internet. Seriously, in our personal lives we would never consider maintaining those levels of household inventory – not even in a pandemic.   But it’s normal in business.  After 50 years in manufacturing, my unscientific estimate for ratio of inventory storage space to production floor space is 1:1, maybe worse.  Businesses mask this ratio with high-bay, high-density storage; perhaps a fairer ratio would be cubic feet of storage. I suppose the ratio for that would be worse.  And these storage optimization solutions come with their own set of problems. 

In one of my last factory visits of 2020 just before Covid, I asked to see the stockroom, as I always do.  It’s like the heart of the business,  with inventory flow analogous to blood flow. So, the health of the stockroom says a lot about the overall flow of value to the customer. The factory manager who was hosting my visit pointed to a 5S evaluation posted in the area and apologized:  “This is a 5S mess. The aisles are cluttered and it’s impossible to find anything. We can’t get these guys on board.”   

I chose my response carefully: “Perhaps the stockroom cannot organize because they cannot count on stability of material flow.” 

The factory manager answered defensively, “We’ve already doubled the size our stockroom to account for variability.  We gave them extra space and it’s still a mess.”   

“Why do you suppose?”  I asked him. 

Fact is, it’s tough – impossible — to organize inventory when you have no idea of what’s coming and going.   In this sense, the stockroom is a reservoir reflecting every policy and habit that authorizes inventory.  Increasing the reservoir’s size only enables that. I’ve lost track of the number of posts I’ve written about the punishment inflicted by outmoded policies and bad habits which may, in fact, achieve the dismal goal of 3-6 turns per year but at the expense of profits, cash flow,  and customer service.  Here are a few 3-minute reads from past years about inventory-related policy snafus that may help you to regain some extra space for production in 2021:  

One to read per day for next week. 

Happy Spring.  Stay safe and protect those around you  – get your shots. 

O.L.D.

PS Like this post? Did you know you can actually hear from Bruce live during his free webinars presented on the second Tuesday of every month? On May 11, he’ll discuss “Bad Handoffs“. Save your seat today! And on top of that, did you know you can see recordings of all the webinars he’s ever given on Leanflix, GBMP’s streaming Lean Training Video platform? (THERE ARE MORE THAN 60 OF THEM!) With topics ranging from “The New Gemba” to “Lean Self Assessments”, “Responding to Managerial Objections to Lean” and “Making Huddle Boards Work”, there are at least a few that will “speak” to you and your Continuous Improvement challenges. Check ’em out today!

Accidental Excellence

Sometimes, reflection on a great discovery will reveal that its invention was actually a lucky accident that just stuck.  Take for example French engineer George de Mestral’s discovery in the 1940’s that the thistle seeds he pulled from his dog’s fur could be synthetically replicated as what we now call Velcro.

On a less grand scale, several pivotal chance events in my Lean journey have managed to stick in ways I would not have predicted or planned.  One was a chance meeting in 1989 with Norman Bodek, founder of the Shingo Prize which led to my interest in the Shingo Model and my plant’s successful challenge for the Shingo Prize in 1990.  In a short Tribute to Norm on his passing last December, I related the serendipitous circumstances that ultimately thrust a small New England manufacturer into the limelight. 

While publicity from the Shingo Prize was not unexpected, the sudden volume of requests for factory tours was.  Suddenly, we were the hot spot for visitors from Fortune 100 managers and executives.   More significant than the publicity from these benchmarking visits, however, was the positive impact it had in developing our frontline employees as teachers.  I wrote a post a couple of years ago about this unexpected benefit, entitled Tours R Us (aka Why Sharing & Teaching are the best way to Learn).  The concept of executives learning from the front line is still novel today, but 30 years ago it was revolutionary! 

In fact, the most significant outcome of the “Tours R Us” saga came from the idea of a shop floor team member:  Front line employees should be sharing regularly with each other – peer to peer, across departments. They were, after all, the persons closest to the action and most responsible for improvements that had been made.  They were the experts.  We didn’t know the Japanese word for this at the time (Yokoten), but the significant improvement to alignment as silos were removed was yet another happy accident. 

A final episode in this tale began with yet another idea from the floor:  Request reciprocal visits to any site requesting a tour of our facility.   And, as our front-line employees had been an integral part of training visitors, reciprocal tours to other sites would include both front-line and management from our site.  Why not create “A Community of Lean?”  

Fast forward to 2010, when GBMP borrowed this concept, introducing the “Community of Lean Lounge” as an integral part of our Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference.   Fingers crossed, we’ll be back again in person on October 6-7, 2021, but in the meantime, GBMP is offering one more way to share as a community: Next week, on April 1 I hope you’ll be able to join us on a rapid-fire virtual road trip, a Community of Lean Showcase, to visit and speak with ten different frontline teams from manufacturing, healthcare and service.  We’ll do the driving!  You just log on, watch, listen and ask questions. Here’s the link.  I hope you can join us next week, on April 1, for this “everybody, every day” experimental expedition.   And, by the way, I hope you’ll send front line employees as well as managers. 

Happy Spring,

O.L.D.