Tag Archives: 7 wastes

Tools or Culture?

With our annual Northeast LEAN Conference just a few days away, I want to relate a personal story about the theme of this year’s conference,

The Integration of Tools & Culture:

The first two books I ever read about Lean were Zero Inventories by Robert Hall and Japanese Manufacturing Techniques by Richard Schonberger.  In 1985, these definitive academic works were among just a few sources of information about what was then referred to as Just-In-Time, or JIT for short.   As I was just starting to manage a factory at that time with inventory turns of less than one (really), these JIT “how to” books seemed like the solution to my problems.    I owe Hall and Schonberger a debt of gratitude for their early reports about technical aspects of Toyota’s incredible improvement system.  But, for me, the single most important shred of information from these academic texts was a footnote in Hall’s book that referred to a then unknown industrialist by the name of Shigeo Shingo.  Hall cited Shingo’s book, A Study of the Toyota Production System: From an Industrial Engineering Viewpoint.  This book presented the technical aspects of Lean in a context of revolutionary concepts and principles.  The original 1982 version was a crude translation from the Japanese, but reading it created a sense of excitement about a wholly new way of thinking about work.   To be sure, Shingo’s explanation of tools echoed reports from Hall and Schonberger, but as one of the key inventors of TPS, Shingo shared a deep understanding that was grounded in unique personal experience and wisdom of a creator.  While he is most often remembered for introducing technical concepts like quick changeover and mistake-proofing, Shingo’s greatest contribution to my learning was in providing an integrated image of TPS, a system that was both technical and social science – tools and culture.  One could not exist without the other.  Beyond that, he conveyed his personal struggles to overcome what he referred as “conceptual blind spots” of his clients, Toyota among them.  He gave us the Law as well as the Gospel:  Lean is an immense opportunity but equally a daunting challenge to rise above status quo thinking.  “Keep an open mind,” he reminded us.  According to Mr. Shingo, management’s #1 job was “volition,” i.e., a passionate commitment to creating an environment that favored improvement. These were lessons that supported my organization and me as we learned new tools and unlearned old concepts at the same time.

Today I’m often asked, “What do we work on first, tools or culture?”   I answer, in context of the Toyota Production System, neither has substance without the other.  They are two sides of the same coin. We need to learn them together.   Our 2017 Northeast Lean Conference is dedicated to reinforcing that message.   Lean tools are essential as means for improvement; Lean culture is essential to enable us to see beyond the status quo. If you haven’t already registered, here’s a link with more information:


Hope we see you next week in Worcester, MA for a couple of energizing, informing and inspiring days.



Most often when we think of a wheel, it’s in the context of transportation, one of the more obvious and ever-present of the 7 wastes.   In fact, the first likely use of a wheel and axle was not for transport but for processing – actual work.  According to the Smithsonian, the potter’s wheel dates to 3500 BC.  The wheel and axle wasn’t used for human transport (chariot) for several hundred more years; and the idea of carting material apparently took several millennia after that!  The wheelbarrow was invented around 100 AD in China, and it took another thousand years more for it to appear in Europe.

cartwheelsFrom a human standpoint these conveyance devices are designed to reduce strain.  In a technical sense, it can be said they multiply our capability to do work; at least the force-times-distance kind of work: W= f x d.   Problem is, that although conveying material on wheels is embedded in our thinking as an improvement over manual transport it’s actually a mechanization of waste.  We may think the wheel has multiplied our ability to do work, but it really has multiplied the amount of waste we can create.  Odd.

Over the centuries additional wheels were added to the basic cart, enabling conveyance of even more material with less work [sic] in a single trip. Then, in 1936, the invention of the shopping cart at Humpty Dumpty supermarkets became the prototype for more recent improvements to conveyance:  A four-wheel, multi-level steel wire cart, this invention replaced a hand-carried basket, enabling shoppers to gather all groceries in a single pass.  The shopping cart, however, also required wider aisles and larger checkout counters.   Then the aisles were widened again, this time to accommodate pallet loading of the larger amounts of material needed to accommodate a new concept: EOQ.   Why buy just a little, when you can have so much more in an economy pack? Carriages became larger still to accommodate bulk quantity shopping.  All of these innovations were intended to make it easier for the customer to buy more – and, of course, to encourage them to buy more.

There are more than a few parallels in industry.  AVG’s, pallet jacks, forklifts, and conveyors are all “improvements” on the basic cart.  These machines typically require wider aisles, deeper and higher shelving, new training, and maintenance and, of course, more space to park the machines – kind of like the tail wagging the dog. Too often, rather than rethinking the cause of the waste, we automate around it.  Shigeo Shingo referred to these as “superficial improvements.”  An automatic guided vehicle (AGV) mechanizes the waste of transportation; or an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) facilitates the waste of storage.  Worker strain may be reduced by a superficial improvement, but the actual waste remains and sometimes even increases.  A stockroom manager, for example, lamented to me recently “I have less people now, but it takes longer to kit a job than when we did it manually.  The machine is a bottleneck and the factory waits for parts.”  Unfortunately, these expensive superficial improvements become sunk costs, hard to undo because they are depreciable assets. Thank you, management accounting.

One more insidious re-invention of the wheel is the stationery or almost-stationery wheel.  To the casual observer, these are the wheels that are on the cart that appears as if it’s for transportation; actually, that cart never moves except to move it out of the way.  Moveable storage becomes an option when material staged in front of a process has overflowed to a point that it must be staged in the aisles; funny that this is called “work in process.”  Of all uses or abuses of the wheel, this one is tops on my personal list: the appearance of conveyance.  We assume that if there is a wheel, then there must be movement.  Mr. Shingo’s comment that the “The worst waste is the one we cannot see” comes to mind.

Here is an improvement exercise for you to try in your own facility:  First take an inventory of carts and answer these questions:

  • What is the total number of carts?
  • What is the total floor space they occupy?
  • How many are actually used for conveyance?
  • How many are really only for storage or are kept on hand in case of storage overflow?
  • How can you reduce each of these numbers by half?

Please let me know how much production space you liberate.


PS GBMP, a licensed affiliate of the Shingo Insitute, is offering the following workshops in the coming months. The courses introduce the Shingo Model™ and Guiding Principles on which to anchor your current continuous improvement initiatives and to fill the gaps in your efforts towards ideal results and enterprise excellence. Consider joining us at an event near you soon. To read more and register visit http://www.gbmp.org/shingo-institute-courses.html

Here are a few testimonials from happy participants, followed by the schedule.

“Discovering Shingo with such a dedicated instructor helped our team gain a better understanding The Shingo Model. The workshops were engaging and we all came out of the classes with a much better idea of what we need to do as a company to continue to grow.

“The instructor made us feel that we were really learning from each other. When we were broken up into groups, he was always nearby and available to facilitate, but didn’t hover or impose his viewpoints – we came to our own conclusions as a group – and he was generous in his recognition of others’ input and viewpoints. 

“The Discover Excellence workshop was great. It challenged us to think differently. Going to Gemba at the host site was fantastic. I like that our instructor took part in the Gemba walks as a participant. We were all learning together and challenging each other’s assumptions or understandings of model, which in turn led to a much deeper understanding. 


True North Pole

truenorthpoleMany years ago a small expedition to the North Pole was funded by several American toy manufacturers, anxious to better understand how Santa’s workshop achieved such incredible productivity and just-in-time delivery.

“How can Santa produce all those toys in such a short time?” one manager questioned in disbelief as the small group of managers furtively approached a window of Santa’s workshop. “Be quiet,” the group’s leader whispered to his fellow conspirators as he carefully wiped away a patch of window frost, “we want to learn as much as we can about their process before we’re discovered.”   Through the window, an army of diminutive workers could be seen producing to a cadence such as never before witnessed by these American managers.

“Look how they move these toys down the line without a hitch,” exclaimed one manager.

“Yes and look at the smiles,” noted another, “no entitlement here. My workers are three times the size of Santa’s but don’t produce even a fraction of the volume. All they do is complain.”

A third manager observed, “There appears to be a chart in the middle of the floor that tracks production by the hour. No doubt Santa uses that to crack the whip.”

“Indeed,” noted yet another manager, “and there is some kind of chart above the workers that shows how they optimize their production, and another white board that shows what’s expected of the team.”   “We could never get away with this my plant,” lamented one manager. “It’s clear that the North Pole has a team culture that’s foreign to the U.S.”

Suddenly the production line stopped. Apparently one of the workers had found a defect. Workers swarmed to the area where the defect was found and then gathered to talk about it. “How can these little people be so productive when they stop just because of a single defect?” laughed one of the managers who was immediately joined in laughter by the others.   “Yes, shouldn’t they just call the quality department?” one queried.

Still, the managers agreed there we some unusual new tools that appeared to be central to Santa’s secret. If only they could learn more about how those tools worked.   As if to answer their wish, Santa suddenly swung open the workshop door and bid his industrial spies, “Merry Christmas! Please come in. What would you like to know?”

The startled visitors thereupon entered Santa’s workshop and spent the remainder of the day asking questions about the tools that he had devised to improve productivity.   With cordiality that befit the season, Santa answered every question.   “Even if our employees are not as good as Santa’s,” remarked one of the managers, “at least we can take advantage of these new tools.”

As the shift was winding down, Santa’s visitors thanked him for answering their many questions, and then departed, intoxicated with these North Pole manufacturing techniques. When the visit ended, one of Santa’s employees asked Santa, “Why have you answered all of these questions from our competitors?”   Santa smiled wryly and replied, “Do not worry, what they need to know they will not see.”

Ho, ho, ho and Merry Christmas. See you next year.


Burning Platform

blurningplatformA favorite Twilight Zone episode that played Labor Day weekend put me in mind of the stressful push production environment that many organizations still endure today. In a technical sense, push production refers to launching orders into production before customer requirements are known and then pushing them along, some faster than others as requirements become clearer. Shigeo Shingo referred to this production method as speculative, a euphemism for guessing. With a forecast and MPS at the front end of the push, perhaps this could be elevated to educated guessing.   In my MRP days I witnessed the ugly consequences of the automated push: Computer-assisted attempts to tweak the push, including exponential smoothing, safety stock, pan size, shrinkage, yield, order point, n-days supply, fixed and variable lead times, transit times, minimum lot size – all intended to optimize the guessing, but all ultimately resulting in over-production, over-time and over-burden.

The first two “overs”, over-production and over-time, chewed at the bottom line. But the mental and physical stress of push production, the over-burden, ate away at the soul of the organization. Work days were defined by expediting, bumping queues, threats, accusations, finger-pointing poison-pen letters and CYA reports intended to deflect blame when customer deliveries were missed. Over-burden created a social condition worse than push. It was push-push-push! Watching the Twilight Zone clip rekindled memories of the divisive and counterproductive behaviors engendered by push production.

Once a job had been launched to the factory, for example, it was typically impractical to de-kit it and return it to stock. In fact, having just-in-case work orders in the plant provided a false sense of security: there was always something to keep machines and people busy. With this reservoir of make-work orders, measures like machine utilization, OEE, absorption and labor efficiency could all be manipulated to paint a rosy picture of productivity.   Excess orders on hand became habitual.

Too often, those unneeded work orders would be cannibalized to fill part shortages for urgent customer orders. A sales manager once blasted me: “Production does nothing until my customer’s need becomes urgent.” In fact, while that appeared to be the case, the factory was almost always busy building something, just not the right thing. Production by heroics worked for a few key customers, but to the others who were bumped back in the queue, we were bums, not heroes.  A frustrated assembly supervisor remarked as we neared our month-end push, “You know we pump all kinds for work into the factory during the month, but almost nothing comes out until the end of the month. It feels like constipation.”  The crowning blow, however, came from a customer, visiting our factory shortly after I transferred to manufacturing: “Congratulations,” she said, “on your new job, Mr. Hamilton. Perhaps you explain why it takes sixteen weeks for your company to produce product that’s smaller than my fist.”

That was 1985, the year I resolved that there had to be better way.   The push system was bad for our customers, but my burning platform for change had as much to do with the stressful, dehumanizing environment of push, push, push.


BTW: It’s not too late, even though there are only a few days left before our 11th Annual Northeast Lean Conference in at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. Take a look our outstanding lineup of workshops and presenters here, and register here. Hope I’ll see you there.