Category Archives: Old Lean Dude

Too Happy Too Soon

[Editor’s Note: This post is part 2 of a post from March 1, Do Your Job. If you haven’t already read it, reading it will help to provide context.]

The level of excitement was high in our machine shop as we approached closer to our goal of less than nine-minute changeovers on the BNC lathe.   Set-up improvements had so far reduced changeover time to 20 minutes, cutting the economic order quantity from weeks to days of stock on hand. Our pull system now more closely resembled a supermarket with several containers  on hand for each of the 66 parts in our pilot.  After decades of viewing set-ups as a problem and inventory as a protection from stockouts, this new process was still confounding for many persons.  But, it was working,  which was most apparent to the operators on the BNC and to their internal customers in assembly:   

  • No more expedites and angry demands.  
  • No more breaking down a set-up in mid-run to run a hot part.  
  • No more juggling jobs between machines.
  • No more fiddling with tools and programs to get a good part. 

The BNC improvement team had, as my friend and mentor Steve Spear likes to say, “proven theory through practice”.  The concepts from Shigeo Shingo’s books actually worked.  All that was required was a little coaching from our TSSC consultant and a whole lot of brilliant ideas from the operators. 

Funny thing about good ideas: they tend to spread.  Operators were champing at the bit to take some of what we’d learned from the BNC and spread it to other machines.  I don’t recall how it started or if I  may have selectively forgotten part of  the charter Mr. Oba had given to us for our setup project:

“All of the parts for your model line assembly will be made on this machine and changeover between any two parts must be less than 9 minutes. Work only on this machine.  That is your target”

We were making so much progress with the BNC that I probably rationalized Mr. Oba would be pleased to see us sharing the ideas across other machines.  This turned out not to be the case.

On Mr. Oba’s next visit to the plant, I enthusiastically greeted him with the news, “changeovers on the BNC are already down to 20 minutes and we’re now working on improvement at the LE22 . . . “ (the machine next to it.)   Before I could finish this sentence, Mr. Oba stopped in his tracks and turned for the door.   Incredulous, I followed him outside to the parking lot apologizing, but for what I was not sure.   I recall asking in desperation,  “What did we do?   Oba stopped walking, turned to me and, with a shrug of disappointment, replied “You’ll never be better than 20 minutes.”  I think he was most disappointed that I hadn’t figured this out for myself.   I apologized again, now with understanding. “We’ll work only on the BNC until we hit our target.”   As the two of us re-entered the plant,  I reflected: “Don’t spread mediocre results.  The target was single minutes, not double-digits.”   Six months later we hit 9 minutes on the BNC, and began to spread best practices to other CNC’s. 

My lessons: 1) Don’t be too happy too soon, and 2) Focus your scarce resources to build capability before branching out. 

O.L.D.

Speaking of building capability, here are a couple of upcoming events I hope you’ll be able to join:

My monthly webinar, Teatime with the Toast Dude, on March 15 will respond to the current labor shortage by sharing ideas for maximizing the productivity of the folks you already have. It’s free.  Sign up here: Teatime

Our 2nd Annual Virtual Lean Showcase on April 1st will highlight best practices from seven great organizations in one day!   Here’s the lineup:

  • Bausch + Lomb’s Journey to Increase Daily Throughput
  • Comtran Lean Strategy Deployment & Alignment
  • Nuvera Fuel Cells: Using Lean to Transition from Development to Production
  • Abiomed: TWI Creates an Exceptional Training Experience
  • Axcelis Technologies: Improving Every Day for its Customers
  • UMass Memorial Health: 100,000 Ideas Implemented… & Counting
  • SnapCab: A Lean Recruitment System

You can get more info and register here:  Spring Showcase

Do Your Job

We had been working with TSSC for two years to build a model line in our assembly department.  As we moved from small batch production to one-by-one, the results had been astounding: customer lead-time reduced from 2 weeks to one day, crew size cut in half and over-time reduced from 40 hours per week to 10.  Literally hundreds of small changes made by assemblers to the assembly process had made this possible.  Everybody everyday, GBMP’s slogan, was born from that experience.

Now it was time to move upstream from assembly to our internal supplier, machining, a resource that despite efforts to improve was still overproducing and delivering late. Setups on our CNC lathes averaged 90 minutes despite an improvement project supported by graduate engineers from a notable Massachusetts engineering school.  In fact, at the end of a one-year project, while we had learned a lot about new cutting materials and had purchased two new machines, there was hardly any improvement in set-up times. We were forced to group like set-ups together to amortize set-up time and even come close to maintaining a reliable parts store.   So, with some disappointment we thanked the graduate engineers, sent them on their way and instead requested assistance from TSSC.

Our Sensei (a term I use very sparingly), Hajime Oba, responded to our request with a visit to our machine shop.  “Hmm,” Mr. Oba  muttered as he walked around one of our old  CNC lathes.  “All of the parts for your model line assembly will be made on this machine and changeover between any two parts must be less than 9 minutes. Work only on this machine.  That is your target”  I squelched an urge to guffaw and politely replied “Okay, we’ll do it.”  Privately, I thought, “I’ve seen die changes on presses done in minutes, but how will we accomplish this on a lathe?”

Three weeks later, TSSC, sent a consultant to help us begin the improvement process.  This young, 20-ish industrial engineer, Ann, was the daughter of the owner of a Toyota supplier.  I’m pretty sure she’d had no previous experience with CNC lathes.  But, off we walked to the machine shop with nothing more than an easel for recording observations.  As I introduced her to the operators, there were rolling eyes and grins.  They’d just finished a year with another group of engineers who were, let’s say,  snobs.    This looked like the same old stuff to the shop.   

Ann introduced herself and said she just wanted to watch the process and might have a few questions.  As the day wore on, I stopped by periodically to check-in.  Ann was watching the work and the operators were mostly ignoring her.  At the end of the day, nothing was written on the easel.  We’d start again the following morning. 

I noticed on day two that there was a little bit of communication.  Operators were sharing.  Ann did not talk much.  She just watched and listened.   I expected a report from her at end of day to sum up her first visit to our plant.  Working with TSSC in assembly, I’d come to expect a list of must-do’s before her next visit. Oddly, the easel was still blank at mid-day on day two.

As day two wrapped up, Ann asked for a meeting with me.  As we stood by the BNC, the lathe where the improvement was to be made, Ann said, “This lathe needs an overhaul.  It’s not repeatable and improving changeovers will be impossible.  I’ll be back in three weeks.”

“Three weeks!”, I exclaimed.  “There’s no way I can get that done in three weeks.”  I should have expected the next words out of her mouth:  “Ok then. If you can’t do your job, then I can’t do mine.”  This ultimatum yanked me back to reality.  “I’ll get it done, then.  I’m not sure how, but we’ll make it happen.”  And it did. 

Three weeks later, Ann returned.  “I’m glad you could get this done,” she told me.  “Now we can get to work.”  At the end of her two-day visit there were eight pages of notes on the easel with my next list of must-dos highlighted.   There were no monumental tasks this time, just a whole lot of requests  from the operators.  As we went over the list, I saw a gleam in eyes of a couple operators.   Would I follow up on these ideas?    Absolutely!

By Ann’s third visit, with the help of an employee Kaizen support team, CNC set-up reduction was now accelerating: set locations for tools and inserts, materials near to the machine, programs standardized, downloaded and ready to go.  Just as in assembly, CNC operators were inventing hundreds of small improvements.  In a short time, most changeovers were close to 20 minutes  – or, as we started to say, 1200 seconds – and on-time delivery to assembly was near to 100%. 

I couldn’t set-up or even operate a CNC machine, and all of the improvements had come from the operators.  But there was a job for me and in this case I did my job.    Still, we had not reached the goal of 9 minute changeovers.  Stay tuned for that in my next post. 

O.L.D.  

Hey!  We’re just one month away from Second Annual Spring Roadshow.  On April 1st, thanks the magic of Whova and Zoom , we’ll be showcasing best practices at 9 different organizations from Florida to Massachusetts.  You can join in for all or part to go-see virtually and then ask questions of employee teams.  And we’ll be recording, so there’s an opportunity to watch again later at your leisure.  What a great way to kick of the Spring season.  Here’s the link for more information:  Lean Spring Showcase.

Signs of Spring

Every February  around this time, there are welcome reminders that Spring is on the way.  The first for me is a witch hazel bush in my front yard that  defies sub-freezing weather to produce fragrant yellow flowers.  Then, a few weeks later crocuses and winter aconites will emerge from the snow.   The cycle continues through Spring and Summer as each species awakens, blooms and then rests.  Some plants, like the witch hazel, develop with very little support. Others, like a late-Summer blooming Rose of Sharon, require special protection from blight and insects.

There are several metaphorical lessons I take from the witch hazel and its co-inhabitants of my yard:   

  • The first is that there will always be early bloomers and later bloomers – people, as well as plants.  People, in particular, learn and grow at different rates, so celebrate the early bloomers but don’t expect them to last forever. The deserve a rest.   And have patience with those of us late-bloomers who will come along eventually. 
  • The second is that some of us require more care than others.  Lacking that individualized attention, only the hardiest, most self-sufficient souls will flourish – not a good condition for  gardens or human organizations.  
  • The third is that maybe, for both plants and humans, this is the they way things should be: a continuous cycle of growth, each in its own time with its own unique contributions – awakening, blossoming and resting.    Call it a continuous improvement culture.

O.L.D.

By the way:  Here’s another sign of Spring: Our
2nd Annual Spring Showcase is just 50 days away.   Through the magic of Whova, attendees will virtually visit 9 great companies with creative employee teams each sharing sharing a best practice or two from their continuous improvement cultures.  Hope you will join us.  You can register here.

Lean Lessons from COVID

You may recognize the quote from Friedrich Nietzsche – or more recently from Kelly Clarkson 🙂  “What doesn’t kill you makes your stronger.”   I’ve thought about this often in the last 22 months in context of the horrible pandemic and more parochially in relation to the efforts of many client organizations to sustain continuous improvement in a period of great uncertainty.  There are more than a few parallels.  Here are some  that occur to me:

Burning platforms are finite.   17th Century playwright, Samuel Johnson said, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”   The sense of urgency generated by immediate threats, commonly referred to as burning platforms, has kick started many a Lean transformation including at Toyota where, as Taiichi Ohno noted  “The oil crisis opened our eyes,” as the event that kicked TPS into high gear in the 1970’s. Similarly, the existential threat of COVID-19 enabled an intense period of historic collaboration between government and industry to produce vaccines in record time.    But what happens when the  perceived crisis is past?  We celebrate and take little break, which too often becomes an indefinite backslide.  Shigeo Shingo warned that complacency is a killer of improvement. Too many organizations get comfortable after an initial burst of improvement.  Contrary to the popular “critical mass” metaphor, I think there is no such thing in continuous improvement.  Organizations that are able keep the continuous improvement flywheel turning are blessed with leaders who work tirelessly to renew a shared sense  of purpose that extends beyond the burning platform.

Myopia is Normal.  W. Edwards Deming described ‘lack of long   term thinking’ as a management sin. But, I’ve regrettably concluded after 50 years in the workforce that long-term perspective is just a very rare capability.  I don’t expect it any more than I expect everyone to have 20/20 vision.   Many executives talk a good game about vision and strategy,  but their actions are more tactical, reactive and transactional.  And, unfortunately, no amount of tactical gyrations can overcome a lack of strategic thinking – a painful lesson from the last two years.  Speaking at a conference in 2003, my teacher, Hajime Oba, was asked why American  companies did not see more benefit from TPS.  He responded, “Two reasons: 1) American management does not understand what TPS is, and 2) they are driven by quarterly earnings.”  Fact is, we look to our executive leadership for that view over the horizon.  While most of us are busy in the trenches, those super-normal visionary leaders are looking out for our futures. 

We are ruled by emotion.   Shigeo Shingo noted “People take action only after they are persuaded, and persuasion is achieved not by reason, but through emotions.”  Even if you’re the boss, according to former Toyota exec, Gary Convis, it’s essential to “Lead as though you have no authority.”  This advice has been helpful to me in my career, but it is easy to slip into a disrespectful and disengaging  ‘just-do-it” mode.   Leaders are charged with bridging the disconnect between reason and emotion.  We count on them to make reasoned decisions based on science and then persuade the rest of us to buy-in and collaborate. 

Life is an infinite game.   From philosopher James Carse comes the idea that the status quo will only change when we fail to take it seriously.   He cites the Berlin wall as an example. Decades of fighting only proved to galvanize the differences between two sides.  The wall was symbolic of a finite game – one that succeeded only because it pitted two sides against one another.  When we talk about win-win propositions in business we are proposing an infinite game.  In fact, one of the biggest obstacles to continuous improvement is business factionalization: sales versus operations, marketing versus engineering, factory versus office, customer versus suppliers, winners versus losers.   These are our Berlin walls.  The leader’s job is to help us to not take them seriously.  Call that transformational.

As we say good-bye to another plague-riddled year, I’m hopefully subscribing to Nietzsche’s aphorism; that our collective experience from the last two years will only make us stronger in 2022.  Here’s to resilience!  And also, here’s to leaders everywhere who will:

  • Share a sense of purpose and direction.
  • Think long-term – over the horizon.
  • Persuade us to follow.
  • Bring us all together – one team. 

Happy New Year!

O.L.D.    

You’re My #1 Customer

I sat on the phone on hold this morning,  serenaded by Christmas music, interrupted periodically by a recorded message, “Your call is very important to us . . . “  As I waited, I mused on that scene from the Christmas classic, “Jingle All The Way,” where Howard Langdon (Arnold Schwarzenegger) frantically tries to power through the queue of waiting customers.  At the end of each call, he reflexively concludes with the expression “You’re my number 1 customer.”    The scene makes me chuckle because I’ve been on both ends of that queue many times.  I do believe that most of us really want every one of our customers to feel like #1, just as we would like to feel that way when we are on the receiving end.  We want perfect quality and zero hassles; and in the information age, we order today because we want it today.

Alas, while most organizations aspire to create that level of customer experience, their systems and policies make it very difficult.  Like factory inventory, customers must be placed in queues when they cannot be served immediately.   Lines at supermarkets, traffic jams, waiting rooms, and, yes, phone queues.  The invention in 1989 (not so long ago) of the auto-attendant was intended to improve efficiency by automatically directing calls; a job that older folks like me will recall was once done by a person.  Where the desk of receptionist once stood, there is now just a phone with a sign above it:  “If you know your party’s extension, please dial it now.”  

If you are calling from outside there are  further enhancements to improve the waiting experience:

  • A clarifying greeting. (“Please listen carefully to the following options, as our menu has recently changed.”)
  • An explanation. (“All representatives are busy serving other customers.” Or, “ Due to high call volumes. . . .”)
  • An apology. (“We’re sorry.  Someone will be with you shortly.”)
  • Music. (Who chooses that?  Improvement idea: Give the caller the option to choose.)
  • A marketing pitch. (“Rated #1 in service by . . . .” )
  • A message to let you know where you are in the queue.  (“There are 14 callers ahead of you.”)
  • An offer to call you back. (“Dial 1 if you’d like us to call you back . . .” )
  • Or the old standard. (“Please leave a message . . . )

An advanced auto-attendant may, in fact, intermix all of these responses – or you may be encouraged to use an app (“For faster service please contact us at www. . . .”)  Of course, the nano-second capabilities of the Internet do not guarantee an immediate response.  Here’s a screen capture of an online inquiry I made in February 2021 🙂

Shigeo Shingo referred to these enhancements as “superficial improvements” because they automate the waste of waiting rather than eliminating it.   All of the embellishments exist only because the connection is not available.  Ultimately, if the proper party does not pick up, as Eli Goldratt might have noted, we have just moved the bottleneck.    

The original auto-attendant concept was intended to improve the flow of the customer’s inquiry by quickly directing it to the proper party.  If we were to consider only the operational time, that might be true.   But, for a customer faced with a nested process of choices based on 10 phone digits, there are plenty of opportunities for mistakes, rework, and frustration.  For me, there is nothing more surprisingly delightful than to reach a real person like Howard Langdon immediately.  But I will confess, if you try to reach me by phone, you may hear: “That mailbox is full.”  (A little 5S problem.)

In any event, have a Merry Christmas and remember: YOU’RE MY #1 CUSTOMER.  🙂

O.L.D.

Looking for a last minute gift for the passionate Lean practitioner in your life? Look no further than ShopGBMP and our annual Holiday Sale!