Tag Archives: A3

The Emperor’s New Huddle Boards

emperorAfter a one-day observation at a local company, I participated in a wrap-up meeting with the General Manager and his team. “We’ve been at this for five years,” the general manager said to me, proudly referring to his division’s lean implementation. “Our 5S rating is over 85% and every department spends one hour per week on problem-solving.”   He continued on for several more minutes to extol the vibrancy of their transformation, citing numbers of A3’s, kaizen events and Gemba walks. “I visit team huddle boards every month to monitor adherence. And our corporate maturity score is 3.5 out of 4!”   Finally, in an attempt at humility he glanced to other managers in the room and concluded, “Of course, there’s always room for improvement.   What did you see when you visited our site today?” I took a long pause before answering his question.

I had just finished touring the facility at his request to provide a rough idea of how the site would fare in a Shingo Prize challenge. I had spent a half-day in the factory with the factory manager and several hours in support departments trying to understand the current condition of their improvement process.   My observation bore out the appearance of various activities he described, but there seemed to be no outcomes associated with these. Employees were going through the motions, but not creating change. A3’s posted on the factory wall had grown stale. Huddle boards, notable for their abundance, were updated inconsistently.

“Where is the problem-solving?” I asked a supervisor at one of the factory huddle boards. “We get to it when we can, but it’s been pretty busy lately,” she apologized. I continued, “How often do you get a visit from management?” “Once in a while,” she chuckled, “but that’s okay. We have enough problems as it is.” The factory manager standing next to me looked disapprovingly at his supervisor’s quip. He said to me a bit later in the tour “We need to change our culture. They are not on board.”

Who is they? I asked. “The front line,” he responded.

As we continued into the office spaces I commented, “It looks like you have a lot of Lean props, like A3’s and huddle boards and color-coding, but I don’t see much happening.”

That’s why you’re here,” he replied. “We made some big changes – cut costs and reduced lead-times — at the start of our Lean journey, but we have had difficulty getting employees engaged.”

“What have you done previously to promote Lean?” I asked.

The factory manager responded. “We had consultants swarming the place for a couple years, and spent a small fortune on huddle boards. And we provided Lean training for everyone. Our first wave of improvements seemed to go well, but then we stalled.”

I agreed. “Yes, the process appears to have stagnated. Why are you interested in challenging for the Shingo Prize?”

After a moment, the factory manager replied, “Our GM has an interest.”

  • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Back at the boardroom debrief, I responded to the general manager’s question. “You have a very successful, traditionally managed business”, I began in an attempt to temper my comments, “but I don’t sense an environment that supports improvement and problem-solving.” The president frowned a bit. I continued.   “Use of Lean tools like visual boards and problem-solving are inconsistent and not purposeful. From a distance, it looks like something’s happening, but closer inspection suggests that problems are not being addressed and resources for improvement are scarce. Most of the activity is being generated by a few supervisors. “  I continued a bit longer to amplify my observations with specific details from the floor.

As I spoke, I noted that several of the president’s staff glancing to him for a response. I concluded. “Several times today I heard that employees don’t have the right culture.   The responsibility for changing that culture resides in this room. My recommendation is that your management team re-evaluate your roles and participation needed to create a culture that’s more favorable to improvement.”

After a short deafening silence, a manager responded nervously, addressing the president as much as me. “I don’t agree that our process is broken as Mr. Hamilton suggests. We’ve made a lot of progress.” Other managers nodded in agreement. “Bobble heads,” I thought to myself.

Bolstered by this support, the president addressed me. “Well, everyone is welcome to their opinions. We’d like to thank you for coming in today.” The meeting was over.

Call me a bad salesman, but the emperor had no Lean.


Interested to learn more about management’s role to move beyond “tools” to create a Lean culture? Check out GBMP’s Events page for upcoming courses from the Shingo Institute, as well as our own workshops and video training targeted specifically to creating a work environment that support and accelerates improvement.

Value Stream Wrapping

Gazing into a microscope as a college sophomore, I sketched the innards of a single-celled critter as part of biology exam.  I knew what I was looking for, but according to my professor, was a bit lazy transferring my observations to paper.  The result: no points for my illegible artwork.  I pleaded my case: “I’m not an artist.”

“Observation without sharing,” the prof replied, “has no value.  Practice your drawing.”

Thirty years later, I recalled the professor’s admonition as I stood in my company’s machine shop scribbling my first value stream map on a sheet of notepaper.    A few weeks before, our consultant from TSSC (Toyota Supplier Support Center), Bryant S, had given our improvement team a short tutorial on what he referred to as material and information flow diagramming, or M&I for short.  (M&I was Toyota’s name for what we now call value stream mapping.)  Drawing about half a dozen symbols on an easel, Bryant explained, “Here are few M&I symbols that you can use to share from a TPS point of view what you observe on the shop floor.  Take paper and pencil with you to the floor, and record what you see.  Your objective is to describe the current condition there in relation to the ideal TPS condition and then develop a realistic target and improvement plan that will fit on an 11×17 sheet.”  (Today this plan-on-a-page is referred to as an A3, a nifty way to capture and share what we see.)

My homework was to complete an A3 in my machining department using M&I diagramming. Regrettably, my artistry had not improved remarkably in three decades, so I cleverly (so I thought) transferred my observations to an excel worksheet using Microsoft drawing symbols to approximate the standard notation that Bryant had provided.  I anxiously awaited his return visit to show him my high tech rendering.

Bryant smiled when he first saw my handiwork.  “You should spend more time observing, and less time making it pretty.”

“I’m not an artist,” I pleaded, “and this is the only way I could fit my observations onto a single page.”

“If you can’t fit the key points of the observation on a single page,” Bryant responded, “maybe you’re missing the key points.  Keep it simple.  It doesn’t need to be artwork, but the process should follow a few simple rules.  It’s a means, not an end.  Bryant sent me back to the drawing board with advice:

  • Keep it simple – pencil, eraser, and a single sheet of paper.
  • Keep the TPS ideal in mind.  (He wouldn’t tell me explicitly what this ideal was, but based on hints, I took it to include perfect quality, exact quantity, lowest cost and immediate delivery.)
  • Take it to the workplace and observe directly to understand the gap between current and ideal.

Fast forwarding to 2012, I have a little better appreciation for the TSSC consultant’s concerns when I visit Lean ‘war rooms’ covered with VSM wallpaper: yards of paper roll and post-it notes; imposing but usually not illuminating.  A single sheet, yes; but a tad larger than A3 size.  Often key measures like Takt time or symbols like the push production arrow ( ) are absent, indicating a lack of interest in the TPS ideal.  How much of this scroll was written at the workplace, I wonder, and who goes to the war room to share?

I have an idea for recycling these scrolls (see right):

At the other extreme are the many computerized versions of VSM, offered as improved versions of the manual process. Today, there are hundreds of software tools designed to ‘streamline’ and ‘upgrade’ the VSM process.  Many have integrated other bells and whistles including hybrid VSM/process maps and statistical analysis techniques.  Not simple, not from the floor, almost never with the TPS ideal condition as a guidepost.  These souped-up versions of my 1996 Excel attempt run the risk, like PowerPoint presentations, of focusing resources on appearance over substance. They are pretty, but too often hidden away from most employees and the workplace, both during and after their creation.

Maybe I’m just showing my age, or maybe sometimes a pencil and an 11×17 sheet of paper is best.   What do you think?  Let me hear from you.


BTW:  Speaking of sharing, mark you calendar for September 25-26, our 2012 Northeast Shingo Conference: Learning to Share.