Category Archives: Old Lean Dude

Tribute to a Coach

Football is a tough sport; tougher than most who play it. Almost everyone who plays will eventually sustain at least a minor injury.    It certainly took a toll on my body.  At 15, I broke my leg in two places during a scrimmage, and was out for the season.  Then, another season passed me by, when as a sophomore, I broke my shoulder on a tackling machine after just a couple days of summer practice. But in 1964, the summer of my junior year, I decided to give it one more try.  Twice daily August practices in full gear in the Pennsylvania heat and humidity were brutally draining, even for a sixteen-year-old.   But, the toughest struggle of all for me was the testosterone-laced, macho-intimidating competition from my fellow players.  There is a point early in the season when many players are vying for just a few positions, where it’s every kid for himself.   While finesse, precision and teamwork are ultimately essential to win football games, in the heat of summer practices the emphasis was mainly on toughness.  For a 16-year-old boy who had already been beaten down in two previous seasons and was now singled out as someone who couldn’t take the toughness, the August drills were a test, both physically and psychologically like I’d never experienced before or perhaps since.

Notwithstanding the brutality of the sport, there are considerable football skills to be learned and internalized.  By the end of the summer sessions I was fighting harder than ever to show my skills and make the September cut.  After an especially hot Friday practice, I showered and headed for home.  Trudging along a sidewalk that ran parallel the practice field, I wondered if all the effort would pay off.  Was my playing okay?  Would I make the team?   In the heat of battle, it’s hard to know who’s winning.   Suddenly a car approached from behind, and a reassuring voice called out, “Would you like a ride, Bruce?”   It was my coach, Bill Mackrides.   I was happy he even knew my name.  “Sure,” I said and climbed into the car. 

“I know,” coach Mackrides said, “the seniors are being pretty rough on you, but you’re doing fine.”    The words hit me like a shot of adrenaline.  He’d noticed my play on the field.  “You’re making a good effort,” he continued. “If you stick with it you could be a starter.” The word “starter” burned into my mind.  But the coach’s encouraging tone, in sharp contrast to the daily barbs I got from my juvenile teammates, was far more significant to me.  His behavior informed mine.   In that moment, my doubt and uncertainty were transformed to resolve.

There is a no doubt that coach Mackrides’ game knowledge on the practice field, enabled me and others to venture beyond our technical comfort zones.  He knew the science of football and he led from personal experience – leading passer in college football and former member of the Philadelphia Eagles   — two facts that never came up while he was my coach.   He was all about the team, which did win a few games in a tough Pennsylvania league.   Yes, William Mackrides had a superior understanding of the technical part of football, which he selflessly shared; but far more memorable, he had the ability to inspire and enable kids like me to reach higher.  The aches from long-ago breaks and bruises are now amplified by time, causing me periodically to wonder if perhaps there might have been some less corporal way to spend my youth.  Football is, after all, a sport where the players intentionally run into each other at full-speed.   Nah!  No way I would have missed the chance to play for coach Mackrides!   

Can you think of a coach in your past that caused you to reach higher?  Please share a story. 

O.L.D.

P.S. Just a reminder that GBMP is a licensed affiliate of the Shingo Institute – offering all six of the Shingo Model workshops, including the brand new Systems Design course. Not sure if the Shingo Model is right for your organization? Here’s a brief introduction which might help you to decide. We’d love to see you on March 25 & 26, 2020 at the foundational workshop, Discover Excellence, at The Gem Group in Lawrence Massachusetts.

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!