Tag Archives: automation

Traditional Lean?

Twice in the last month I’ve heard the phrase “Traditional Lean” used in public presentations.   In neither case did the presenter explain the expression, but traditionalleanone displayed a slide with a Venn diagram showing the overlap between Lean and Six Sigma.  I suppose this means that he defined Traditional Lean as meaning Lean plus something else, in his case, Six Sigma.   For both presenters, however, the word “Traditional” implied passé.  They were moving on.  Lean, or Lean-Sigma, if you prefer that definition of “traditional”, was a dated process, in need of enhancement or even replacement.  In the 1980’s, I referred to Lean and Six Sigma respectively as TPS and QC Tools.  Each was derived in part from W. Edwards Deming’s post-World War II reconstruction efforts in Japan.  In that pre-Lean era, there was little literature about TPS and few consultants.   Being one of those folks old enough to remember when there was neither Lean nor Six Sigma – at least in name – I find this latest buzzification of Lean to “traditional Lean” amusing.  It’s certainly not the first time we’ve been encouraged to employ alternative approaches to productivity improvement:

By 1985, when American manufacturing was reeling from declining market dominance, an HBS article entitled “MRP, JIT, OPT, FMS” began what has since become a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms each describing a supposed elixir to the problems of rising costs and disappearing customers.  The article is worth a read, if only from the standpoint of showing how focused we were at the time on better methods for scheduling production and reducing inventories.

JIT was the popular surrogate for TPS in the mid-80’s, often juxtaposed with MRP (Material Requirements Planning.)  Back then, the pejorative “traditional” adjective was used to describe push-production of which MRP, a network scheduling system, was a part; we called it “traditional manufacturing.”

FMS, flexible manufacturing systems, was a techno alternative to TPS that proposed superior flexibility through use of robotics and automation to move material and information through the factory.  In a notorious example of FMS, General Motors attempted in the 1980’s to create fully automated facilities.  All told, GM spent 90 billion (yes, billion) dollars to “modernize” its operations.  While TPS sought to elevate employees, GM tried to automate them out the picture.   Ultimately, GM’s lights-out people-less plants were deemed unworkable and were mothballed.

As for OPT, Optimized Production Technology, this was another alternative to TPS from Eliyahu Goldratt (author of “The Goal”) to develop a computer-assisted queuing model that scheduled around bottlenecks.   After taking a couple of Dr. Goldratt’s classes in the late 80’s, I decided that if I could actually define all of the parameters needed to run OPT, I would know so much about my plant that I wouldn’t need any software to schedule around bottlenecks.  I’ve always been an Eli Goldratt fan, but this particular TPS alternative, like MRP and FMS was yet another software/ technology solution to a problem that went far deeper than automation of information and material flow.  Interestingly, all of the alternatives to TPS noted in the HBS article, proposed information and production automation as viable solutions to flagging productivity and competitiveness.   Even TPS, was thought to be only a scheduling model.

In the 1990’s, along with renaming TPS to Lean, came more techno solutions: Agile manufacturing, boasted Lee Iacocca at Chrysler, would “leapfrog” Lean.   Agile, described at the time as the next step “beyond Lean,” promised faster response and greater flexibility through a combination of IT integration and physical re-organization.  It was big on concept but light on details.  At the same time, Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, popularized yet another improvement method, 6s (Six Sigma), presented at first as an alternative to Lean and later through the marketing genius of a large consulting firm, mashed into “LeanSigma.” The mid-90’s, also brought us business process reengineering, BPS, an IT-driven methodology aimed at radical process change.  This top-down change method had a de-humanizing impact on organizations; a condition that many understand today is a major deterrent to continuous improvement.

And all of these software-assisted tools can be rolled into one mother acronym, ERP, which is MRP plus all of the above except TPS.   Readers of one my recent posts will recall ERP referenced as “the granddaddy of excuses” for not spending time on continuous improvement : )

So what does all of this have to do with “traditional Lean?”  Here’s my take:  Over the last three decades, organizations have spent too much time searching for technical alternatives or supplements to Lean without first understanding Lean basics.   I’ve listed just a few of these experiments: MRP, FMS, OPT, Agile, BPS, 6s, ERP.   Perhaps you can add some others.  While there may be merit to some of the thinking behind each of these concepts , they have unfortunately  diverted attention and resources away from the hard work of learning people-centric TPS.  I think “traditional Lean” is TPS.  It’s what Lean was before we consultants got our mitts into it.  Call me a TPS ideologue.  I’m good with that.   Do you agree or disagree?  Share a thought.


And don’t forget:

  1. Today is the last day to get the early bird price on registration for The Northeast Lean Conference coming October 4-5 in Worcester MA. Visit www.NortheastLeanConference.org to learn much more.
  2. We’re still accepting list items for Kanban misconceptions from my last blog post and will randomly select a winner for one free registration for the conference on Friday of this week. See Eye of the Beholder to add your comment.
  3. GBMP’s calendar of Shingo Institute workshops is jam packed through October. Check it out here and join us for a workshop or two soon.

Standards Part 1

I attended a gathering of healthcare providers recently to participate in a site review and listen to some nice TPS success stories.  During a Q&A session at the conclusion of the review this question came from one of the participants:

“How can we get the docs to accept standardization?”

I smiled at the question, not only because doctors as a group are notorious individualists, but also because they are not so different from any other occupation in their view of standards.   The word “standard” makes people cringe because to many it implies loss of personal choice:

  • Several years ago a program manager at a local defense contractor offered this view of standardization:  “I never liked the idea of sameness. I want my engineers to be creative.”  I snapped back at her with some frustration, “When you’re driving home tonight on the right side of the road, would you consider that “sameness?”
  • On factory floors, where work has been measured (although too infrequently) for a long time, standards have a bad name as well.  A shopfloor employee related to me, “They (the industrial engineer) ‘made up’ a standard when the product was released and it’s been wrong from the start.  Then last year to meet a cost reduction target, they just arbitrarily reduced the labor figure.”
  • My friend Gifford Brown, a former site manager at Ford relates the outcome of a set-up reduction exercise at his plant conducted by Shigeo Shingo (a story for another post) back in the mid-80’s.  In just half a day, working with Dr. Shingo, Ford operators, tool makers and set-up folks changed over a 300 ton press in just 10 minutes, down from a previous standard of four hours.  When Gifford saw this, he ran up to congratulate the Ford team:

“Did you imagine this time-savings was possible?,’ he asked one operator.

“Actually, much of what Dr. Shingo showed us we already had discussed,” the operator replied.

“Then why didn’t you make these changes before now?” Gifford queried.

The answer?

“We don’t set the standards, boss.  You do.”

So there are more than a few reasons for skepticism surrounding standards.  American industry’s track record of time-setting without careful observation and without significant involvement of workers (be they doctors, engineers or machine operators)  has created an almost universal cynicism.  The road to standardization has many obstacles, but the start of the journey is often the hardest because of a legacy system that suggests standards will be forced upon us and will stifle originality.

On the other hand, coming from a musical family long before I got into industry, I understood “standards” to be the great songs that every musician should learn.  They define a level of excellence to which we should all aspire.  I have never heard a blues player complain about sameness because only three or four chords are a standard for blues.  In fact, those standards define the genre and are the basis for creativity.  We establish boundaries within a norm and sometimes stretch that norm to create new standards.  Just as in TPS, the standards for musicians are the baseline for creativity.  Standardization means “reading from the same sheet of music.”

So I responded to the question posed to me at the hospital gathering:

“Doctors worry that forced conformity will impact their ability to care for their patients.  Docs don’t want to be the objects of change.  So, make them the change agents by first finding a few small things on which they already agree.  Dr. Shingo referred to this as “Socrates Secret.”  Then pick some small differences and normalize those.   Every doc will have some preferred practice on which he or she is intractable – don’t go there, leave those objections alone for now.  The first objective is to create a more positive view of standardization itself. “

 In the words of Dr. Sami Bahri

“Do whatever is possible, and the impossible starts seeming more possible. “ 


BTW:  The deadline is fast approaching to take advantage of the 25% discount for the 2012 Northeast Shingo Conference.  Register today!

Acts of God

Several weeks ago in New England, the rants of angry electric utility patrons filled the evening news.  Accusations of greed and incompetence were plentiful as many homes (including mine) were without electricity after a freak October snowstorm. Magnifying the problem was the disparity of service from community to community:  some communities had power restored in just a couple days while others – even adjoining communities – were powerless for almost two weeks.  For those communities, businesses and schools were closed, and municipal services were limited.  The situation was not dire for most, but it was uncomfortable, disruptive, and, in the minds of many, unnecessary.  I was out of town (in a warm climate) for the whole ordeal, but I was smugly complacent that I had purchased a portable generator earlier in the year for just such an occasion, and that my family, at least, would have heat and hot water while the electric company sorted things out.  The storm was after all, I reflected, an “act of God,” and the utilities could not possibly plan for such lopsided service needs.  But then, I had electric power, so the problem was not front-and-center in my thinking.  I was naively sympathetic as I was watched errant utility company officials decry the severity of the early storm.  “Mura,” I thought, “with so many downed power lines, how could they reasonably be expected to bring the power back quickly?”  The utilities had finite resources after all, I thought, so even Herculean ‘round-the-clock efforts were not adequate.

Yet some towns were up and running within hours of the storms passage while others were only just coming back on line by Veterans Day.  How could this be?   A partial answer to this query came to me as I had occasion to travel by car from Boston to Pittsburgh over the Veterans Day weekend: Convoys of utility trucks – dozens and more – traveled the same route, heading home after weeks of mutual aid.  Some were from states as close as Pennsylvania, but many were much farther from home: Kansas, Texas and Louisiana to name a few.  Distance alone would have delayed response from the more distant areas for up to a week.   Some utilities, it appears had more responsive reciprocal agreements than others.  Later stories in the local papers revealed additional delays in even contacting these overflow contractors.   And in some municipalities, no clear authority to remove downed trees had been given to the utilities. Many small problems combined to delay recovery efforts.   And yet there were also examples of good practice, where power was rapidly restored.   Ultimately there was plenty of culpability to go around and also many lessons learned.

Or were they?    The storm has passed, power has been restored, homes are warm again and businesses are open.  But what has been learned?  Deming Prize Winner, Ryuji Fukuda, points out that railway accidents in Japan were prevalent until a concerted effort was made to understand their causes.   What process exists for municipalities and utilities to learn from major events like the October snowstorm?  I guess we’ll have to wait for the next big storm to find out.

How does your place of business handle lessons learned from problems?  Do they feed back to the process or are they considered “acts of God”?   Let me hear from you.


Lean Thanks

The upcoming holiday is my second favorite (after New Years), first because it’s energizing to reflect on things to be happy about, and second because it’s a four-day break.   While I’m thankful for many personal-type things and people, this post will just be for Lean things that I’m thankful for.  Here are a few:

  • The creators of TPS who understood decades before the West that a supplier-first philosophy is not viable, and that employees are not just “human machines.”
  • The hardworking shopfloor employees who, after decades of being beaten down by a bad system, still have the chutzpah to overstep their traditional roles.
  •  Middle managers who take a risk when it’s not personally necessary and often potentially hazardous to their careers to support a fledgling Lean effort.
  •  Top managers who leave their offices and meetings to see the real world.
  •  Engineers that get their hands dirty.
  • Accountants who ask why 5 times about traditional cost accounting.
  • Buyers who know more about the part than its piece price.
  • Marketing and Salespeople who “get it” that just-in-time sells products and services.
  • Material handlers who once were lowest in the pecking order but now are the governors of material and work flow.
  • Maintenance departments who do more fire prevention and less fire fighting.
  • Boards of Directors who consider the value of making products in the regions where they are consumed.
  •  CEO’s who are not slaves to quarterly earnings reports.
  • Businesses and individuals that freely share what they are learning.

This is the short list.  I should add a couple more quasi-personal things: I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing, and grateful for the dedicated and passionate staff at GBMP.

Are there any things you would add to this list?  Let me hear from you.

Happy Thanksgiving.


The Ear of the Beholder

A short time after I moved into operations as the VP of manufacturing, our assembly department made an early and, dare I say, imperfect attempt to realign the factory floor for ease of material delivery and pick-up.  I would not describe this as improved flow, as we were still delivering heaping piles of kitted orders to the factory by the pallet-load.  At best, this was a superficial improvement to widen the conveyance lanes and keep the pallet jack from knocking into the workbenches.  But, very early in the improvement process, as a new kid in town, I was taking some satisfaction that we had made any change to free up our clogged arteries.

After several days of operating with this change, I approached a production employee with the question, “Vahram, what do you think of the new layout?”   Vahram answered back to me, “I like my job!” Not exactly the answer I was looking for, but I took it as a positive opinion, and responded “Thank you, I’m happy to hear that.”   There were seven different languages spoken in our factory, and English was a second language for many employees, so short interchanges like this were normal.  What was not normal however was the concern that shown on his face as he answered me.  I asked him, “Are you sure?  Is there a problem?”  He tried to smile as he responded once more, “I like my job.”   “Okay,” I said, “I’ll see you later.”

Several hours later the employee’s supervisor approached me with this concern: “There’s a rumor going around in the plant that there’s going to be a layoff.”

I groaned.  “Great.  Where would a rumor like that come from?”

“Well,” answered the supervisor, “Vahram said you told him that there was going to be a new layoff and then said that he was a problem.  He said you’d be coming back later to fire him.”

I think I let out a faint yelp as I heard this, half laugh and half gasp.   “I didn’t say anything like that!” I explained.  “I only asked him how he liked the new layout.”

“Well,” responded the supervisor,  “Varham is good man. I hope I’ll have something to say if there’s going to be a layoff.”

“There’s not going to be any layoff!”  I exclaimed.   I was startled that Vahram misunderstood me, and now more startled that the supervisor was not hearing my explanation.  The factory was buzzing with anxious rumors based upon what I had thought was a friendly exchange.

I accompanied the supervisor, who unlike me was multi-lingual, to apologize to Vahram for the misunderstanding.  I realized during this exchange however, that the primary reason for the confusion was not language, but predisposal: Neither Vahram nor his supervisor had anticipated an interrogative statement from the boss.  They both took it as declarative.   In short, they didn’t know me, and they didn’t trust me.   I was a new kid in town, but to them I was just more of the same.  Another boss.

As the cliché goes, “Actions speak louder than words.”  Over a period of months and years I worked to earn their trust, but I don’t think the layout/layoff confusion was ever completely clarified.   What I had said was never recorded or witnessed by anyone other than Vaharm and me, but what he heard had impacted the anxiety and output of the factory for several days.


About a week later I heard this version of the incident, which had been circulating in the plant:  “Bruce was planning to layoff Vahram, but Vahram’s  supervisor spoke on his behalf, so Bruce changed his mind.”

How about communication in your business?  Between departments?  Between management and workers?  Between your organization and your suppliers?  Or between divisions within your company?  And what do you think this story has to do with TPS?  Please share your thoughts.


BTW:  This week is the 25th anniversary of my layout faux pas, and it’s also the first anniversary of my Blog.