Tag Archives: autonomation

Dr. Shingo’s Last Visit

[The following post is actually the third and final episode of Dr. Shingo’s last visit to America.  The first two episodes can be found on the Shingo Prize website.  O.L.D]

In April 1989, the first Shingo Prize for Manufacturing Excellence had just been awarded at Utah State University.  Dr. Shigeo Shingo was on hand at this auspicious event to receive an honorary doctoral degree from the university and also to bestow his name on the Prize.  I had the honor of meeting and speaking with Dr. Shingo on this occasion, and invited him to visit my company, United Electric, if he ever was in Massachusetts.  I really had no expectation that this would ever occur. To my amazement however, Dr. Shingo did happen to be ‘be in the area’ shortly after the Utah conference, visiting his publisher, and took this opportunity to pay a short visit.  The story of his visit has been told in three parts of which this is Part 3.    In some ways this post is like a three-act play, the first two acts dealing with UE employees’ momentous reception for Shingo, and the second describing his observations on the factory floor.  [Readers who have not read the previous two entries might want to peruse these installments first to develop context.]  The final “act”, which takes place in a Boston-area restaurant that had been researched by his sponsors from Productivity Press to offer the most authentic Japanese cuisine in the area, provides a vignette of Dr. Shingo himself and his reflections on his contribution to manufacturing productivity:

After his trip to Utah State University, Dr. Shingo commented to his sponsors that, while the snow-capped mountains around Logan Utah reminded him of home, he’d not had a home-cooked Japanese meal since he had landed in the US.  Dr. Shingo was longing for a good Japanese meal.  When his gracious visit to our company was concluded, we invited him to dine with us “at a good Japanese restaurant.”   Our party of perhaps 18 persons took the restaurant by storm, other customers sensing the presence of a dignitary.  Dr. Shingo, oblivious to other activity around him, promptly called the waitress to his side and began in Japanese to ask questions about the menu. Unfortunately, this Japanese/American waitress spoke only English.  Apologetically she retreated to find an interpreter.   As it turned out, the only Japanese-speaking employee in the entire restaurant was the cook, who accompanied the waitress to our table.  This suited Dr. Shingo perfectly.  He had found his way to the source – the shop floor — and began a lengthy conversation with the cook.  Not speaking Japanese, I could still glean that the cook and Dr. Shingo had established a connection, and there was as much reminiscing as food-ordering taking place.  With much laughter between the two, the exchange continued for several minutes while the rest of the party sat awkwardly.

His conversation with the cook had put Dr. Shingo in a mood to talk.  First, through his interpreter, Shingo announced that he had already ordered his meal – something special, not on the menu.  And because he believed that this cook was the real deal, Dr. Shingo let us know that he had also ordered an additional meal to-go.  He joked that he had taken these steps to reduce the external set-up.  We all laughed as Shingo continued with his oft-told story of the banana peel (related in at least two of his books): We as customers do not buy the banana for the peel.  Suppliers should always understand value from the customer’s perspective and provide only that.

Next, Dr. Shingo took aim at engineers, one of his popular targets, describing three kinds of engineers that prevent improvement:

  • Table Engineers – those who just sit around a table and talk about problems
  • Catalog Engineers – engineers who think the solution to every problem can be found in a catalog, and
  • Nyet Engineers – engineers who say no to every request.  (Nyet is Russian for “no.”)

I don’t think Dr. Shingo realized that our CEO, Bob Reis, was an engineer by training.  Bob, bristling a bit, responded as Dr. Shingo finished his story, “Well, I’m a Can-do engineer!”  Shingo smiled.  Continuing on, Dr. Shingo mentioned that his name, roughly translated meant “changing red lights to green” and that he had always felt that was his life’s purpose: to change red lights to green on the shop floor.  This brought a tear to my eye as I reflected on how many red lights had turned to green on my shop floor as a result of Shingo’s contributions.

When Dr. Shingo finished his meal he announced that he would take a short nap – and he did.  Table conversation continued as he power-napped (another concept ahead of its time in 1989) for several minutes.  Suddenly, a rejuvenated Dr. Shingo awakened with the announcement that he would sing a Japanese folk song about turning red lights to green.  Not shy, he belted it out as startled patrons turned to observe.  It was a surrealistic moment capping a memorable visit.  I wished I’d understood the lyrics, as this was his grand finale.  He sang with a passion that was the hallmark of his life’s work, and when he finished, he grabbed his boxed meal for take-out and said it was time to go.


Don’t forget the Northeast Shingo Conference, our best ever, coming up on October5-6 in Springfield, Massachusetts.   My next few posts will contain links to podcasts of conference speakers.  Stay tuned. 

No Wiggle Room

I visited a company (actually this could be many companies) recently and noticed “7  Wastes” posters displayed prominently in every department.  Pointing to the waste described as “Inventory’ — excess”, I asked my host, “How would you define excess in this case?”

She thought for a moment and then replied, “About one  month’s worth of inventory is good.  Any more than that is a problem.”

Pointing to stacks of material that lined the shop floor,  I asked, “So that inventory is good?”  “Yes,” she replied, “That’s all good – it’s sold.”

“So you’ve already received cash for it?” I asked.  “No,” she replied impatiently, “but we will soon.”

I decided not to push the concept at that moment, but reflected on how much wiggle room is built into the word “excess.”    I see the word used frequently to describe several of the seven wastes.  “Excess” is used to modify the waste of Motion also.  I wonder why.  I’ve not yet seen a poster that allows for  “excess defects”, although we might as well use that phrase too since most acceptable quality levels (AQL) are well above zero.  Even six sigma provides a little wiggle room for defects.

The problem with the wiggle room is that it modifies an ideal condition to become an “acceptable” one.  In the case of the company above, batches of inventory totaling one month were considered good.  More or less than that amount is not especially important.   What’s important is that the concept of an ideal condition has been lost.

How remarkably different the situation is in organizations that maintain the ideal:  Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting with Dr. Sami Bahri at his dental clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.   Dr. Bahri , who has been called the world’s “First Lean Dentist,” explained to me how he and his staff pursue the goal of “single patient flow.”

“We began with the simple procedures, like imaging and cleaning, with the goal of completing the patient’s complete procedure in a single visit.  Next we added simple dental procedures, and then crowns.  We’ve adopted quick changeover, pull systems and other lean methods to approach the ideal of one by one patient flow for every procedure.  We’re not there yet, but we work towards the ideal every day.”

The vision of one patient flow is pervasive and persistent at the *Bahri Dental Practice* giving rise to minute-by-minute problem solving and improvement.  This remarkable clinic has no place for wiggle room.

How much wiggle room do you allow in your organization?   Let me hear from you.


BTW.  Dr. Sami Bahri will be presenting at our  NE Shingo Conference, October 5-6, Springfield MA.

Moving Mountains

I was listening to Alan Robinson present last week at the Lean Systems Summit about the power of “small ideas.”   Alan wondered aloud why so many organizations continue to pursue the few million dollar ideas while small ideas account for more than 75% of the innovation outcome.

I reflected on a conversation I’d had several weeks earlier with a client, call him Bob,  who was struggling with his Lean journey.

Bob remarked, “I can’t see how we’ll ever make a significant improvement.  Doing anything around here is like moving mountains.”
“How would you go about moving that mountain?” I asked.
“I’d blast,” Bob smiled.

I think that is the answer to Alan Robinson’s question:  When presented with an obstacle, managers are trained to “blast.”   We are paid to get things done; the bigger the obstacle, the more explosives.

The challenge with Lean transformation is that given a choice between dynamite and a large group of people with shovels, most managers will choose the former to get the result.  The results we target are tangible and necessary for the organization’s health: QCD, dramatic Quality, Cost and Delivery improvement are the promise of Lean.  Why not cordon off the area to be improved, and ask the troops with the shovels to step to a safe area while we send in our special forces to blast away? The troops can return afterward to clean-up.   Sound familiar?

“Why would you blast?” I asked Bob.
He responded,  “Because our management says it needs to be done by Friday.  They’re looking for a report out then with hard numbers for results.”
“And would one of those results be level of employee participation?” I asked.
“Not really.”  Bob replied.

The problem with this approach is that if we treat the workplace like a war zone, employees will run for cover when they see change approaching.  “Keep a low profile, and they leave you alone,” one employee confided in me.  When that occurs we have failed to achieve the most important, if intangible, result: employee creativity.   The 75% of innovation that Alan Robinson is describing actually requires many people with shovels.

How many folks in your organization are shoveling?   Let me hear from you.


BTW- Alan Robinson will be at our October 5-6 NortheastShingo Conference.

Lean Rock Stars

In December, I took my son, Ben, to an Edgar Winter concert at a Worcester, Mass theater.  Do you remember Edgar Winter?  A tall, lanky dude who in the 1970’s invented (I think) the over-the-shoulder keyboard strap, enabling him to ambulate around the stage as he entertained.   To me and the rest of the mostly over-sixty crowd who turned out to cheer, EW is a quintessential rock star:  flamboyant, quirky, energetic and more talented than I remember him in his hey day.  I mused to myself as I watched the elder rocker, still alive and even fit at 65, that here was a truly “lean rock star.”  He still attracts a crowd and whips them into a frenzy.   Even my teenage son turned to me during EW’s finale and screeched, “These guys are GREAT!”

It’s odd that the tag rock star has become popular in the Lean world. The stereotypical musician is in many ways the antithesis of the lean expert.  Our Lean thought leaders, after all, are not noted – with one or two possible exceptions — for their flamboyance or entertainment value.  When they speak, they don’t typically bring us to our feet, but they do cause us to think.  Like their musical counterparts however, they connect with the audience.  They inform, but also inspire. They are able to take an “old song” and give it new significance by adding to it their personal depth of experience.  Our opportunity to share that connection brings us out. We give these lean rock stars our undivided attention in a way that rarely occurs outside of the “concert.”   So perhaps the rock star analogy is not so bad. Ironically the greatest of these “stars” cringe at the title.  It’s not of their choosing, but more a price for them to pay as objects of our admiration. Their personal fame underscores the legitimacy of their remarks. (Edgar Winter, incidentally, was quoted, “I really had little interest in becoming famous. When I write my book, it will be my guide to avoid becoming a rock star.”)

I was also reminded at this concert that while Edgar Winter is a rock star, he is surrounded by superb musicians whose names we’ll likely never hear, but who nevertheless are an essential part of the experience.  The same is true in the Lean world.  There are just a few rock stars, but there are many virtuosos:  folks who will likely never be famous, but from whom we can learn things even the rock stars can’t teach us.  These virtuosos are the folks who do the work; the experts of the workplace.  Their messages may not be lofty, but they are profound and grounded in an understanding based on their devotion to their art and daily practice.   Like the unknown bassist or drummer, they are an essential part of the experience.

By now, you may have  sensed that I’m making a pitch for our October 5-6 Northeast Shingo Conference to be held in Springfield, Massachusetts.  Yes, we are lucky to have with us Lean rock stars from industry, healthcare and public service.  But, the virtuosos will be there too:  In our “Lean Lounge”, Lean virtuosos from over two dozen organizations will share their Lean odysseys peer to peer.

Hope to see you there!


Lean Government

In the spring of 1989, Shigeo Shingo addressed the 14th annual Productivity Conference at Utah State University.  On this occasion there were seven hundred persons, mostly academics, assembled to hear Dr. Shingo describe poka-yoke and SMED.  Shingo had just received an honorary doctorate from the Utah State College of Business, and had in turn bestowed his name upon the North American Shingo Prize, an award recognizing those companies who have successfully implemented the concepts and techniques
of the Toyota Production System.  Today the Shingo Prize is highly regarded, but in 1989 few persons knew of Shingo’s work or his greatness, and most of those presumed that the Toyota Production System (aka “lean”) had no application outside of manufacturing.

Dr. Shingo, eighty-eight years old by this time and physically frail, was in a wheel chair for the conference, but rose to his feet and stood to address the large gathering.  Dr. Shingo was expected to discuss the best practices he had pioneered.   Before he began his formal presentation, however, Shingo called out to the moderator of the session, seated on the dais to Shingo’s left.  Speaking through an interpreter, Shingo chose to take the moderator, an officer from nearby Hill Airforce Base, to task.  Holding up a copy of his newly published book, Non-stock Production, Shingo exhorted the unwitting moderator that he ought to take Shingo’s book back with him to the base and use it to eliminate waste in the military. Shingo spoke in a strong voice as he pointed alternately to his book and then to the commander.  Although Shingo’s words were translated almost as he spoke them, the echo of the English translation provided an awkward pause – a chance to reflect — to all who were listening.

Shingo was animated now and turned his attention back to the unfortunate but polite moderator who had by now come to represent wasteful government spenders.  Shingo announced to the moderator through his translator “I sent a copy of my book to Ronald Regan with a promise that if he followed my ideas, he would be able to cut the defense budget by 1/3 without any reduction in service.”  Shingo turned to the audience and continued, “But obviously he didn’t read my book, so your taxes will continue to go up.”  Shingo’s speech went on after this as he covered the topics he’d been expected to cover.  But the highlight was in the unexpected.  No one anticipated his verbal assault on wasteful government spending.

Fast forward to tonight’s evening news, overcrowded with the same debate.  How do we bring the national debt under control.   Do we raise taxes or cut programs – or both?  I think Shingo would say “Neither.”  He would say as he did in 1989,  “read my book, understand where to find waste, and cut the budget by  1/3 without any reduction in service!”

And today there is some good news on that front.  There are glimmers of hope in federal, state and local government.

  • Using Lean principles,  The Jacksonville Florida Sheriff’s Department has reduced it’s annual budget by $30 million with no reduction in services.
  • In Maine, a state-wide lean initiative has broadly adapted lean thinking to state government.
  • In a June 30, 2011 newsletter the State of Washington Attorney General’s Office announced a $17 million dollar reduction in costs without reduction in services.
  • The town of Durham, New Hampshire has embraced Lean as a means to continuously improve service to its “customers.”

Lean government efforts are spawning today in greater numbers, and lean leaders in that arena are sharing what they have learned at the 2011 Lean Systems Summit on August 12 in Portland, Maine. Efforts like these are the true means to a balanced budget and a more favorable environment for private industry.   I’ll be there two weeks from today to participate and support these important efforts, and hope to see you there as well.