Tag Archives: autonomation

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.

First Job Lessons

Early job experiences can have a profound impact on how we approach the workday.  Here is one of mine from my very first job:

When I was twelve years old, using my brother’s social security card because I was too young to work, I got a job at a seafood restaurant hauling trays of breaded fish and five-gallon pails of coleslaw and potato salad from the second floor preparation area to the kitchen adjacent to the restaurant.  While I wouldn’t have been inclined at the time to identify my first job as “waste of transport,” the relative locations of prep and kitchen seemed odd to me.  This layout required me carry heavy trays of breaded fish down a flight of stairs to be loaded on a cart that was then wheeled across a bumpy back lot to the kitchen. The restaurant’s countermeasure to this transport problem was to hire energetic, wiry kids to do the job.  They paid me a dollar an hour, which delighted me at the time.

One Saturday morning as we prepared for a busy lunch, a co-worker accidentally dropped a large tub of snapper soup while delivering it to the kitchen.  I watched as the soup splashed from the pot and soaked into the restaurant carpet.  After the flurry of activity to clean up the mess, my coworker, also covered in snapper soup was reprimanded for his mistake.  The cost of the soup would be deducted from his pay. By my estimation he’d therefore be working for free for at least two weeks.  So he quit. The whole situation seemed unfair to me at the time, as my co-worker had been asked to carry a large pail of hot soup using only the rim of the pail that overlapped the serving tray. (Today, we’d call this, “Muri”.) Management gave him an unreasonable task and then punished him when a problem resulted.  The punishment ended in the loss of a good employee and a stark lesson for those of us who still had jobs – a lesson that caused an unfortunate decision by me several weeks later:

The coleslaw and potato salad had been prepared for the day – definitely batch production – and packaged for transport into five-gallon stainless steel buckets.  “Lucky for me,” I thought, “that these buckets at least have handles,” unlike the warming tray tub that my unfortunate ex-coworker had dropped a few weeks earlier. I carried two cans at a time down the stairs from the prep area and loaded them onto a cart for transport to the kitchen storage area.  The cart, the same as used in many factories, had two shelves, one that I loaded with six buckets of coleslaw and the other with six buckets of potato salad.  In retrospect, it probably would have been easier and faster for me to just transport the buckets two at a time by hand. But the truck was the standard, presumably because mechanized transport was deemed more efficient than manual.

Once the cart was full, I proceeded to push it across the back lot to the kitchen.  You may guess where this story is headed by now:  In the middle of the back lot, the cart hit a bump in such a way that caused it to dip suddenly to the left.  Three of the containers on the top of the cart flipped off and lay on the ground like potato salad cornucopias, half of their contents spilt to the lot.  In an instant, I reflected on the recent snapper soup episode, then glanced around the lot to see if anyone had seen the accident.   Nearby to my right was an ice machine with a shovel hanging to the side.I am not proud of what happened once I saw that shovel, but at the time I was more focused on my fate than that of the potato salad.  Using the ice shovel, I carefully scooped the salad back into the buckets, picking out foreign objects as I saw them; a task complicated by the presence of mayonnaise and celery seeds.  In a couple of minutes the spilt containers were back on the truck and delivered to the kitchen.   For the rest of the day, I worried that my transgression would be exposed, that a customer would complain about the taste or texture of the potato salad and this would lead back to me.   But it never happened.  The restaurant sold out of potato salad that day with nary a whisper from customers.

A half-century later, this experience still comes to mind from time to time as I visit factories or offices where problems are hidden to avoid retribution.  While I continue to feel guilty for my part in the potato salad cover-up, I also rationalize that I would have behaved differently had management not created an environment that first made my transport task unreasonably difficult, and then had made it impossible for me report the problem and still keep my job.

Do you have any lessons learned from your early work life?  Please share a story.