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!

The Power of Commitment

As promised in my last post, here is another tribute to Mr. Hajime Oba:  

In 1996, TSSC (Toyota Production System Support Center) began working with my company to create one-by-one production capability in our product assembly. Previous to TSSC’s assistance we’d moved the furniture and machines into cells creating the appearance of flow production, but we  lacked the problem-solving know-how and management discipline to create real flow. Remarkably, after several months of focusing on our pilot line,  it appeared that all of the pieces of the puzzle had been identified and matched, and that impediments to flow had been remediated.  Our Kaizen support team and assemblers had worked daily to simplify, standardize, levelize, balance and mistake-proof assembly operations. Conveyance routes were also standardized, providing material just-in-time at a rate of three kits every twelve minutes to match a customer takt time of four-minutes per assembly.  It was now time for our first live trial of a full production day with a production goal of one product every four minutes – or 120 products by day’s end. 

Background. As an organization that had only several years earlier produced to stock in batches five to ten times greater than customer need, this trial run was a remarkable and exciting milestone.   We had previously been, as we joked, “the kings and queens of over-production”, always busy expediting to fill customer stockouts.  Over-production, sometimes referred to as the worst of the 7 wastes because it creates more of the other six, had once been viewed by us as a hedge against long lead-times.  Now, however, we’d become aware that excess production was actually the cause.   Little by little, with daily Kaizen, we’d whittled down the production queues from twelve weeks to two-weeks. 

Commitment. Then we requested and received TSSC’s assistance.   “We’re satisfying customers’ delivery requirements now,” I told Mr. Oba, TSSC’s General Manager,  “but only through excessive overtime.”   Observing the process, Mr. Oba responded,  “TSSC will assign a consultant to assist you to address your overtime condition.”  “Great,” I said, what do we need to get started?”  “Commitment!” Mr. Oba said.  “Our role at TSSC is to provide information and inspiration to your team, and your role is to be committed to improvement.”    Not entirely clear on what I was agreeing to, I nevertheless nodded affirmatively. 

New Lenses. Working under the guidance of a consultant from TSSC, we (and I) found the process of surfacing and removing problems with flow both energizing and exhausting.  The assemblers emerged as stars – the real knowledge workers.  The rest of us were there to support.  So many “little” problems surfaced every day, and every day we did our best to remove them.  This, I think, was the commitment that Mr. Oba was referring to.  A key learning point for me was that commitment requires understanding; the more I understood, the more committed I was to improvement. 

Hypothesis. During this focus on our model line, we kept extra resources available – people and inventory – to meet customer demand.  Experiments or tinkering that occurred on the model line could not adversely affect customer service.   So, up until our full-day go-live trial, everything was still a hypothesis.  As a hedge for our pilot, we scheduled a full-day on Saturday to “get the kinks out.”   On Friday night, we set up the line with a mixed-model sequence list levelized for best flow, and standard work in process levels for one-by-one assembly.  The inventory safety net was removed.  Nevertheless, I was confident that we would execute one-by-one production, in sequence, at about 80% of plan.  I envisioned a carefully choreographed flow of material, smooth hand-offs and quick remediation of problems.  Our assemblers were less optimistic. 

The Big Day. On Saturday morning, with a full assembly crew and support functions we set out to test our hypothesis.   To this point we had operated with the protection of excess inventory between operations; now there was just one piece of standard work in process between assemblers.  As the test began, we watched with anticipation.   Work was balanced and assemblers were experienced; what could go wrong?  

“Wrong part” declared the group lead, Jose L. about nine minutes into the day.   The line stopped for three minutes while we searched for and replaced the part.  During the day, the same problem recurred with other parts.  Each time, as the line stopped, the assemblers grew more agitated.   Next there were problems with information.  Jose showed me, “The customer drawing does not agree with ours.”    Then the order of jobs on the in-chute did not agree with the sequence list the assemblers were to follow.  The list of problems grew faster than the rate of production.  Missing parts, defective parts, tolerance issues, mistakes, computer glitch, broken tool.  We stopped each time to try to solve problems, but not all could immediately be traced to root cause, and for each problem solved it seemed that two more were discovered. 

Moment of Truth.  By day’s end, after eight-hours of production, out of one-hundred and twenty products planned for assembly, only seventeen had been produced.  One assembler commented, “This the worst system ever. Anytime something goes wrong, we all stop.”  Another declared “We knew this was going to happen; so many little things go wrong and there’s just no way to keep assembling without a few pieces of extra stock.”  Then the material handler spoke up:  “You know, because of all the extra material you have squirreled away, most of the problems with parts delivery were invisible to me until today. Harvey C, former factory foreman and now a member of our Kaizen support team, chimed in. “Our problem is not that we can’t fix problems.  It’s that with all the inventory protection we haven’t been able to see all of them.” I agreed.  “We learned more today about problems with our process than in the previous three months.  We’ve got keep moving forward.” 

Consequences.    The list of problems we discovered that Saturday was not only huge, it was also just the beginning of discovering delays that were only visible during one-by-one production.  Every day for the weeks thereafter we battled new problems, inching toward the goal of one-by-one production that Mr. Oba had assured me would occur if we showed a commitment to continuous improvement.  After six weeks, we hit the production goal along with other significant improvements to productivity.  But, more than that, we had developed a broad enthusiastic base of problem surfacers and solvers: everybody, everyday.

O.L.D. 

BTW – Hope you can make my monthly Teatime with the Toast Dude webinar tomorrow, November 16, at 3:00 p.m. Topic is “The Many Faces of Kaizen.”  It’s free.  Here’s the link to reserve your seat.

And please check out our upcoming GBMP and Shingo Institute workshops at www.shopgbmp.org.  2022 is almost here.  Time to re-energize your commitment to Kaizen.

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.