Category Archives: Old Lean Dude

About Time

Twenty-twenty marks the 35th anniversary of a remarkable and unfortunately also singular event in my career:  In 1985, my employer, United Electric Controls (UE), elected to remove time clocks from the factory.  

At the time of this unusual decision, I had already been employed at UE for fourteen years in a variety of office jobs.  I worked in a building a couple blocks away from the factory, and “punching the clock” had never been a part of my day.  From my first day of employ, my attendance was tracked by exception – sickness, personal time or vacations – pretty much on the honor system.  But in 1985, coincidentally around the time I transferred into manufacturing, the idea to remove the time clocks was floated.  I weighed in as member of the management team on this idea, but I was pretty much a bystander, a new kid on the block, still unaware of significance of the change.   

The proposal raised concerns with many managers and supervisors that some workers would cheat the company by fudging their hours or simply not showing up for work.  From factory workers there were suspicions that without the clock they might be coerced to work extra hours without pay.   Both of these concerns were, as I understand, the historical reasons for the implementation of time clocks as a common factory practice.  Time clocks have been fixtures in factories since the turn the 20th century, installed to provide an objective measure of attendance.  They persist today as a management system example of “the way we’ve always done things” as well as a symbol of mutual distrust between management and labor.   

Back in 1985, a business owner reflected on the time-clock proposal and listened to the concerns raised by others in the company.  Ultimately, he decided, hourly employees should be no less trusted than office workers. (Thanks, Dave.)  Forty hours of attendance would be assumed except as noted by each employee.   No more double standard: a twenty-year factory employee no longer had to prove he or she was present while an office worker hired last week did not.  The most obvious result of this system change was the absence of lines at time-clocks.  Subtler yet more significant was the change in working relationships. More of us, less of them.  In 1990, United Electric was recognized by the Shingo Prize for Enterprise Excellence, a coveted award based largely on the engagement in continuous improvement by employees, but arguably influenced by a singular management decision made years before.  (And, by the way, attendance actually improved.)

Today, whenever I visit factories and witness the stampedes of employees to time clocks and hear the complaints of time lost to waiting in line to punch in out, I wonder why no one questions the practice.   On the contrary, in the last 50 years an entire industry has grown up around punching the clock, adding software even to automatically track an employee’s whereabouts as well as his/her attendance.  

Is this an improvement or are we, as Shigeo Shingo liked to say, just automating a waste – the eighth waste – and taking mutual distrust to a new level?   

A quote from Peter Drucker is ringing in my ears: “There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.”

What do you think?  Is it about time to reconsider time clocks? 

O.L.D. 

PS Speaking of time, at this particular time of year, myself and my colleagues at GBMP would like to wish everyone a very happy, healthy and bright New Year. We look forward to seeing you, members of our Lean community, at events we sponsor throughout the year – from benchmarking plant tours and Shingo Institute workshops to Lean Certificate programs and our annual Northeast Lean Conference. We are especially excited to be able to offer Systems Design, the newest Shingo Institute workshop, this February at Vibco in Rhode Island. We hope you can join us.

Talking Turkey

The English language can be confounding. For example, the word turkey is slang for “a person considered inept or undesirable” while the idiom cold turkey describes the actions of one who abruptly gives up a habit rather than through gradual change. Finally, talking turkey means “to discuss a problem in a serious way with a real intention to solve it.” For the upcoming holiday, let me frame these idioms in terms that are very important to the social science of Lean. First the turkey’s:

A long time ago, after a short stint as a materials manager, I was promoted to vice president of manufacturing. It was, in fact, my good fortune to enter production knowing nothing about it, lest I might have fancied myself an expert. Instead, I relied on people who were already there to help me learn. Having begun my career in the ‘creative’ world of marketing, a block away from the factory, I had previously been given to believe that manufacturing was ‘cut and dry’; a repetitive, mindless environment. What I soon discovered after my promotion, however, was that the production floor was filled with innovative if not spiteful employees who managed to build products despite errors in drawings and bills of material, despite malfunctioning equipment and despite a lack of respect for the irons they pulled out of the fire everyday. When I shared my early concerns with other managers I was cautioned not to spend too much time with malcontents from the factory floor.  

I was floored. “What are these guys thinking?” I asked my welding supervisor, Lenny, as I related the malcontent story. He gave me wry smile and replied, “You’re heading in the right direction. Don’t get discouraged.” I thanked him and thought to myself, “This is different. I’m the manager and he’s coaching me.” Later in the week, I found a gift on my desk (the coffee cup above) from an anonymous friend. The thought and particularly the background behind it helped me through a few struggles. 

Now for the idiom cold turkey.  This is a model referred to in the Lean world as “blitz kaizen,” a big, sudden change.”  These events are typically characterized by major layout changes. Machines and people are moved close together to facilitate material and information flow – both great objectives. Problem is, the machines are fine as objects of improvement. We can push them around as often as we like. Not so much with people. We struggle with change even when it’s self-initiated, and we really don’t like being pushed around. We like to be the agents of change, the innovators, not the objects. Our habits don’t change on a dime. Gradual, continuous improvement works better for us than cold turkey. 

If we want to engage “everybody everyday” we need to talk turkey to get the root cause of real problems – especially managers. Recently during a factory tour at potential customer, a manager proudly shared his huddle board strategy with me: “We require each department to identify and solve a problem every day”, he said, “just like your slogan “everybody everyday.”  

Gazing at the huddle board I asked an employee, “How important are the problems on your huddle board?” Her reply: “Sometimes they’re important, but one way or another we have find problem to solve every day.”    “How’s that working for you?” I asked. “Okay,” she responded tentatively, “but we seem to have more problems than solutions.” Seemed like they were counting problems not solutions – not talking turkey. 

 Finally, for the holiday I want to share a frivolous clip that was the inspiration for this idiomatic post: me talking to a turkey. Just a reminder that to everyone that we all need to lighten up some times and be grateful for the good people in our lives. To all my Lean friends, Happy Thanksgiving.

Tours R Us (aka Why Sharing & Teaching are the best way to Learn)

After being recognized in 1990 by the Shingo Prize, my plant became an overnight hot spot for benchmarking.  Hardly a week went by when there was not a visit from a distinguished visitor, Fortune 500 company, professional organization or college class.   Initially we accepted the visits because of the good publicity for the company; good news sells products. 

But very quickly we discovered that the process of sharing our continuous improvement story had a powerful effect on our employee and management commitment to Lean.  This was not an outcome that I had anticipated.  Sharing with visitors encouraged us to learn more; quoting a Latin proverb, “Docendo discimus,” the best way to learn is to teach.  Anticipating a tour, employees were motivated to polish their efforts; to find one more before-and- after anecdote about changeovers or mistake-proofing or kanban or some clever idea they had implemented to make the job easier.  Front line workers, many of whom had never previously been asked about their work, spoke eloquently about reducing waste and creating value.  It was exciting for them to share knowledge and to be recognized for their grasps of topics that still eluded many of our visitors.  “The engagement of your employees is an inspiration to me,” noted a visitor from a well-known automotive manufacture.  “So many good ideas; how did this happen?”   There was no single answer to that question.

One day, after a double-decker bus carrying students and faculty from a well-known business school pulled out of our parking lot, an employee from our welding department commented, “You know, Bruce, it’s fun having these tours and being able to tell our story to visitors, but how about holding a tour for our own employees?”   He continued.  “I’ve been building parts for our assembly department for many years, but have never really seen how those parts are used.”   

The efficacy of this idea hit me instantly.  It was an enormous missed opportunity.  Shortly thereafter, the first of many employee tours was scheduled.  Long before the terms “value stream” or Yokoten ever became part of the Lean lexicon, we were practicing and gaining the benefits.  In the process, departmental boundaries were blurred and many more ideas stimulated and shared from the opportunity to see the whole rather than just the parts.  A long-time employee commented to me after an employee tour.  “We’re ‘Tours R Us.’  It’s a good thing.”  

What are you doing to remove the silos and stimulate idea sharing in your organization?   Let me hear from you. 

O.L.D. 

BTW – Don’t miss the opportunity to connect with your Lean community and share ideas about involving all of your employees in continuous improvement.  Our 15th Annual Northeast Lean Conference is all about engaging your entire workforce to create value for your customers.  We hope you will join us October 23-24 at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford.  Listen to this important message from the Old Lean Dude to learn more. 

What is a Thinker-Doer?

Several years ago, I was asked to address a startup meeting at a new client, a large manufacturer of medical devices.  The company was resource rich, but after several years of trying had not yet gained significant traction with their Lean efforts.   

There were perhaps forty persons in the room, half from line management and half from their continuous improvement staff.  I addressed the group, first describing my organization GBMP and then sharing a little bit about my own previous experience as an operating manager. Specifically, I described the challenge to shift from a bounded-thinkers-and-doers paradigm to one where every employee is a thinker-doer.  (GBMP’s slogan, Everybody Everyday, is derived from that experience.)  “Managers can’t take on this Lean challenge all by yourselves,” I cautioned my audience. “There’s just too much to be done. It’s crushing to have just a few problem solvers.”   I glanced around the room and saw some nods in agreement.  “And anyway,” I continued, “while the persons operating the machine or entering the work orders may not be PhD’s, I promise you they know more about the problems in their jobs than anyone else.”  This remark elicited a skeptical frown from one attendee. I then further asserted, “The best improvement ideas actually come from the people who do the work.”  That statement pushed my now-agitated skeptic over the edge.  “We don’t encourage the low-value ideas here,” he blurted out. 

My blood pressure rose suddenly at his implication:  Ideas from the front line are low in value; not an especially enlightened viewpoint.  My first instinct was to leap across the table and strangle this gentleman, but I gathered my composure and responded.   “Many so-called small ideas quickly accumulate into big improvements for your customers.   More importantly, the transformative power of many small improvements converging from all points transforms your organization to a thinker-doer culture.  When that happens, your improvement process truly becomes continuous.”   Once again, some heads nodded in approval, but my skeptic stood his ground: “We have subject matter experts,” he said smugly. 

When the meeting was over, I quietly asked my host, “Who was that skeptic?”  Turns out he was the Vice President of Continuous Improvement — and a PhD.  Maybe too smart for Kaizen.   

What percent of your employees are thinker-doers?  What percent of your employees are too smart for Kaizen?  Please share a comment. 

O.L.D. 

P.S. GBMP’s 15th Annual Northeast Lean Conference in Hartford CT gets under way in less than 30 days. Consider attending – and bring your thinkers, your doers and your thinker-doers – for two enriching and inspiring days featuring four exceptional keynote presentations, 60+ breakout sessions, valuable benchmarking and fun networking with 500+ passionate Lean practitioners just like you. I would love to see you and your team there!

Woodstock – Peace, Love & Lean

To close out the summer of 2019, here’s a lighthearted reflection from the summer of 1969: 

Today, I’m riding back from Florida bringing my new graduate home from college.  Listening to tracks from Woodstock as we cruise along in our Penske truck, I’m reminiscing about a summer 50 years ago when an understaffed production crew made a noble attempt to keep a now famous concert afloat.   (Yes, I was one of those crazies who braved the mud and overflowing portable toilets for an opportunity to listen to great music.  Definitely worth the inconvenience.)

Right from the get go, the concert was an exercise in problem solving.  The event venue was confirmed less than a month before showtime, leaving very little time for site preparation.  The main stage for the concert was built of wood just a few days before the concert at the base of a natural amphitheater on Max Yaskur’s farm.  Heavy rains and wet soil added a special challenge to construction of the 20x15x15 meter stage;  and because of time constraints, the original roof design was not completed, limiting stage lighting.  A large canvas tarp was employed to cover the performance area, much like an over-sized dining fly used for camping.  Ultimately, concert producers were forced to shift all staff to finishing the stage on time, leaving gaps in venue fencing.  Customer first thinking:   It was now a free concert with a working stage.  The entire set-build from stage to lighting and sound was an exercise in ingenuity and problem solving with scarce resources. 

One such ingenious device was a rotating platform designed to speed-up the changeover between acts.  The idea was to use the front for playing and the back for setting up the equipment of the next band so time between acts was minimized to the time required to rotate the platform. Externalize the set-up, as Shigeo Shingo would say.  Unfortunately, while the innovation worked during testing, it was not up to the task of repeated loading and unloading. By day 2, casters crumpled under the weight of musicians and equipment, and the crew had to go back to traditional set-up and tear-down. (I’m reminded of many shop carts with broken casters that I see today on my factory visits.)   Perhaps a bit more preventative maintenance could have saved the platform, or maybe the process was just not capable.  Regardless of cause, the effect was to extend the event into the wee hours of Saturday night and thence to sunrise on Sunday.  My sense is that the laid back customers were not bothered by delays.  

On Sunday, after a brief respite from the night before, Joe Cocker opened day 3 with a rousing 90-minute set while dark clouds rolled in above the stage.  As he sang his final number, “With a Little Help From My Friends,” high winds caused the stage’s canvas cover to flap and oscillate above the stage, also producing Joe’s iconic windblown hair style.  He finished the tune as the skies once again opened in a torrent.  While the crowd futilely chanted “No Rain,” concert staff scurried to secure stage and towers.  As we concert-goers sat soaked to the bone on a mountain of mud, the concert resumed after a three-hour delay almost to noon on Monday.  If ever the phrase “the show must go on” rang truer, I am not aware. 

O.L.D. 

PS In a way, isn’t that what Lean is all about?  “The show must go on.” Solving problems and getting by with a little help from our friends?  I sincerely hope to see you for more “Peace, Love & Lean” at GBMP’s upcoming 15th annual Northeast Lean Conference in Hartford on  October 23-24.  Admittedly, it won’t be another Woodstock – a little Karaoke perhaps – but it will be educational and inspiring, sure to ignite great sharing of ideas among our awesome community of passionate Lean practitioners. Read all about it, view the agenda, session abstracts, speaker bios and get registered today here: www.NortheastLeanConference.org See you there!