Tag Archives: continuous improvement

My First Lesson

Just a little over a year ago we lost Hajime Oba, one of the great pioneers of TPS learning in the US.  In 1992, he was the founding manager of the  Toyota Production System  Support Center (TSSC), a non-profit affiliate of Toyota Motors of North America (TMNA), established to share TPS knowledge with North American organizations that showed a sincere commitment to learn and apply what he referred to as “true TPS.”   My company, United Electric Controls, submitted a request to TSSC for assistance in 1995, and it was our good fortune to begin our TPS journey with Mr. Oba. In the next several weeks, I’ll share a few stories to honor his rare leadership. Here’s the first, which represented my first meeting with Mr. Oba, just before TSSC agreed to work with us:

On the day of Hajime Oba’s initial visit to our site, I had arranged for a short meeting with our owners to discuss the nature of TSSC’s service and to reaffirm our commitment to actively support the process.  Next, we went to floor to observe.  “Can you take me to shipping,” Mr. Oba requested.   This location, I learned sometime later, was selected because it was the point closest to the customer.   As we stood in an aisle next to the shipping department, Mr. Oba’s eyes traveled to persons working, then to pallets of material and then to the shipping dock.  After a minute, he turned his glance to me for a moment and then back to a scan of the shipping area.  He was sizing up the situation both as a whole and as a series of operations.  I heard a faint murmur as he watched: “Hmm.”

Then, he turned back to me and asked this question:  “Where’s the shipping?”   I responded, “It’s right here, we’re looking at it.”   Unimpressed with my answer, Mr. Oba murmured again as he turned away as if to invite me to watch with him.  As we observed, he declared, “I don’t see anything shipping.” 

“Oh,” I thought to myself.  He was not referring the department.  He was asking why no products were leaving the shipping to dock en route to the customer.  “It’s still early in the day.” I explained, “Our first shipment is not until 10:00 a.m.”   Even as I uttered these words, I realized this was a bad answer.  “Why 10:00 a.m.?” Oba inquired.  “Because that’s when UPS picks up,” I said.

Mr. Oba looked at me with an expression of mild impatience, but as I was waiting for another “why”,  he shifted his line of questioning.  I suspect he felt he’d already made his point.  Instead he walked to a pallet of goods sitting next to the aisle and, pointing to it, asked , “When is this shipping?”  A little frustrated at my ignorance, I explained that I’d have to check with the shipping supervisor to answer that question.  Mr. Oba waited while I went in search of information. 

I returned with an answer that I felt would conclude this line of questioning:  “The supervisor says this order is on credit hold.”  In my mind, the order status was beyond the purview of operations.   But Mr. Oba persisted.  “How long has it been sitting here?”  Once again, I had no answer and had to rely on my shipping supervisor who advised that that order had been sitting complete for nearly a month!  As I related that information to Mr. Oba, his gaze seemed to ask “What kind V.P. of Operations would let a customer order sit in plain site for a month?”  I was embarrassed, but foolishly persisted, “It’s on credit hold and we can’t do anything about that.” 

“Why is it on credit hold?”  Mr. Oba asked.   Flustered, I replied, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”   A call to our accounting department yielded a “We’ll have to check into that” response.  I promised Mr. Oba I would find the answer.  

About an hour later, I received an explanation that was both humiliating and illuminating.  The order was on credit hold because one of largest distributors, ABC Sales, had exceeded their credit limit.  “Are they a bad payer?” I asked, Bob, our accounts receivable associate.  “Oh no, they’re just  buying a lot this month,” he said, “and that puts them over their credit limit.”   “Then why don’t you release them from credit hold?”   I asked.   Bob responded, “We will, absolutely, if we are authorized by sales management.”  

My credit hold odyssey continued to the sales department.  “Why haven’t you released ABC Sales’ order from credit hold?”  I asked Charlie, the sales manager.   Charlie explained, “We have no internal visibility of orders on hold.  Unfortunately, we usually find out when customers like ABC Sales call us to complain about a late shipment.” 

Several hours had passed.  Mr. Oba had already departed, but was aware of my investigatory efforts if not the final answer to his question.   Ultimately, that answer led to a process change that would trigger a credit hold inquiry immediately rather than after a customer complaint. 

I asked myself, why had I not seen what Mr. Oba had uncovered in a glance?  I missed the details and I also could not see the big picture.  Perhaps that was Oba’s first lesson for me.

What do you see when you go to the floor?   Please share a comment or story.

O.L.D. 

BTW —  TSSC will be joining us on October 6-7 at our 17th annual Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference, as will the Shingo Institute, the Lean Enterprise Institute, MEP’s from New England, AME, SME, MHLN and a host of great presenters.  What a great opportunity to get out in a safe CDC-compliant environment to re-energize your Lean journeys and establish new relationships with other passionate Lean organizations. 

But – if distance or company policy prevent you from traveling this year, we’ll not only be live and in-person we’ll also be live streaming for virtual attendees – and recording  all sessions for all attendees!  Check out the outstanding agenda at this link:  Getting Back to the Future.  Hope to see you at the MassMutual Center in Springfield MA this October. 

When PDCA Meets Silos

PDCA – Plan, Do, Check, Act (or Adjust) — is one of those acronymic concepts that regularly finds its way into Lean discussions. Descended from Francis Bacon’s scientific method (hypothesis, experiment, confirmation), PDCA has become a ubiquitous catchword for business process improvement.   From standardization and problem solving on the front line to iterative product and process design to Hoshin,  this approach is the engine for continuous improvement.  But like many Lean concepts, when layered over a traditional organizational structure, PDCA can fall far short of its promises.

My initial exposure to the concept, Shigeo Shingo’s Zero Quality Control: Source Inspection and the Poka-Yoke System offered an unusual, non-technical insight into PDCA.   Referring to the concept in the context of quality improvement as “informative inspection,” Shingo posed a  couple of critical questions:

  1. How rapid is the feedback? and
  2. Who is involved?  

Traditional feedback loops were gated, according to Shingo, by a Quality Control function,  a group of subject matter experts “enshrined on a lofty mountain” far away from the “Production Village.”   Several outcomes of this approach were:

  1. Checking (inspection) was a batch process, separate from production, with all of the batch’s attendant delays.  Information was yesterday’s news by the time it reached the lofty mountain.  Whatever conditions may have caused a non-conformance were lost in time.
  2. The person’s doing the Checking were remote from the workers, both physically and interpersonally.   Division of labor became implicitly unequal: thinkers and doers.  
  3. The Doers in Production Village, no longer had responsibility for quality and often no longer had even the capability to Check.   

Regrettably, these outcomes noted by Shingo in 1985 are still commonplace today. As a consultant, I regularly observe long delays to set-ups caused by remote first-piece inspections and worse – forensic root cause analysis initiated long after defects are created.  But worst of all, the folks closest to the  problems are not at the table.  When PDCA meets silos, it too becomes siloed.  Information from production to QC flows through a semi-permeable boundary,  one-way at best and subject to bias and conjecture.  Not a very favorable environment for problem-solving.

Similar boundaries between production and engineering also obscure opportunities for process improvement. In a social model where production workers are doers and engineers are thinkers, the most critical process information is often lost.  An engineering manager once remarked to me “If all employees were engineers, we wouldn’t need mistake-proofing.”  Shingo spoke to this kind of silo as well, coining the term “table engineers” to describe engineers who just sat around a table to solve problems – no interaction with the floor.   These kinds of social barriers dwarf the technical challenges to effectively applying PDCA. 

At the executive level, strategy deployment often only feeds forward only and then typically only to middle managers.  In this case, the silos are vertical as well as horizontal.  Eli Goldratt likened this approach to a game of chess where the players were in a different room from the chessboard and can not see their opponents’ moves.  Check and Adjust steps are not even possible.  And the Doers — employees who must implement  — are frequently not even aware of the big picture. Small wonder that the deployment aspect of strategy deployment is frequently lackluster. 

In fact without acknowledgement of traditional organizational boundaries and application of intentional feedback loops,  PDCA can be short-circuited between any two disciplines yielding only the appearance of science.    The problem to solve is not technical.  As Steve Covey noted,

“A cardinal principle of total quality escapes too many managers: you cannot continuously improve interdependent systems and processes until you progressively perfect interdependent, interpersonal relationships.”

Where are your PDCA boundaries?  Are they barriers or intersections?  How are the interpersonal relationships?   Do pecking orders short-circuit PDCA?  What systems do you employ to foster the free flow of information?    Please share a  thought.

O.L.D.

PS I don’t know about you, but I personally am looking forward to “Getting Back to the Future” and seeing old friends and new, at the 17th Annual Northeast Lean Conference – LIVE & IN PERSON – in Springfield MA on October 6-7, 2021. Registration is open and there’s an early bird rate in effect until the end of July. Trust me, it’s a bargain. There will be four tracks, four super keynotes, dozens of presentations that will educate and inspire you and your whole team, plus benchmarking in the Community of Lean Lounge and networking at our Lean After Dark social event. Will you join us?

IoT, Industry 4.0 & 21st Century Lean

Just two days to go before our 16th Annual Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference, an opportunity for all of us to put aside the tactical realities of Covid-19 and think more strategically about the future of society.  Our theme this year, 21st Century Lean, deals with the humanistic application of technology, in particular information technology, in the coming decades.  Concepts like the Internet of Things (IoT, coined in 1999) and Industry 4.0 (first referenced in 2011) are rapidly moving to center stage.  The goals of each are laudable:

  • IoT is the network of physical devices, vehicles, buildings and perhaps even humans -embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity- that enable these to collect and exchange data.  This capability could support a worldwide Utopia of sharing, innovation and best use of scarce resources; but it could also support a dystopic world such as that painted in George Orwell’s 1984.  When Orwell’s book was published in 1949, IoT was entirely science fiction.  Today it’s approaching science fact, making the questions he raised 70 years ago urgent.
  • Industry 4.0 is more narrowly defined as a network of physical devices, vehicles, buildings and other items—embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity- that enable these objects to collect and exchange data. The expressed goal here is to accommodate an anticipated shortage of human workers in the coming decades. Population studies suggest rapid population growth for the remainder of this century to perhaps 10 billion people, but thereafter a sharp decline.  And in some more industrialized countries, a shortage of labor already exists.  As with IoT, the impact of Industry 4.0 may be viewed as yet another advancement in productivity and quality; and like IoT, it’s knocking on our doorsteps.  It’s no longer science fiction as noted in a 1964 episode of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.  Here is a link to a 90 second clip, from “The Brain Center at Whipple’s,” but for those of you with Netflix, I recommend the full 30-minute version. 

So where does Lean fit into these strategies?  Must we adapt some of the thinking to new technology?  A client of mine, for example, once asked “If Mr. Shingo were alive today, with all of the automation we have, would he have invented mistake-proofing?”   Or are the principles and concepts of Lean more important than ever before to help us reign in our impulses; to aim for, as my teacher, Hajime Oba once said “what we should do, not what we can do.”   In 2003, speaking at SME’s Eastec Exhibit in Springfield, Mass, Mr. Oba was asked, “Why do American manufacturers get so little benefit from TPS?”  Mr. Oba responded without hesitation, “First, management does not understand TPS and second they are focused only on quarterly earnings.”   Did Mr. Oba have Mr. Whipple in mind?

Here is my 10th and final Lean Peeve before the conference: short-term thinking.  It’s not too late to invest in a little strategic thinking about this critical and now urgent idea of harmonizing the best of Lean Transformation and Digital Transformation.  Take a couple days to stop worrying about what’s going to happen the next month. Give yourself a break, and join our discussion about where our world is headed for next century.  Hope to see you at the conference.

O.L.D.

Trivia Break

I woke up this morning to some very unsettling news, or should I say yet another crescendo in seven months of unsettling news.  Wishing the President and everyone in his sphere affected by this latest chapter of Covid-19 a speedy recovery, I’ll take the easy way out today with a short list of Trivia covering Lean and IoT for you to ponder over the weekend.  How many of these questions can you answer without using the Internet?

  • Who is the creator of the X-Type Matrix for Policy Deployment? 
  • Who did Shigeo Shingo pay homage to as “his teacher’s teachers”?
  • What is the literal translation of Poka-Yoke? 
  • When was The Machine That Changed The World published?
  • What is the difference between Internet of Things and Industry 4.0?
  • Who coined the term “knowledge worker”?
  • When was Toast Kaizen first videoed? 
  • Who said “If this Lean stuff seems easy, you’re probably not doing it.” ?
  • When was the World Wide Web invented?
  • When was the first toaster connected to the Internet?  

Have a relaxing weekend, puzzling over this trivia – think of it as preparation for next week’s big event.  Just four days to the 16th Annual Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference.  I’ll be back on Monday with another Lean Peeve. 

Stay safe,

O.L.D.

By the way: On the afternoon of the first day of our conference we’ll also take a break from serious inquiry for some “Lean Before Dark” fun that may include more Trivia with a few prizes and possibly some asynchronous Karaoke.  Hope you can join in for the learning and for the fun.  Hope to see you. 

Standard Units

“What’s measured improves.” So said famed management consultant and author, Peter Drucker.  Assuming we are measuring the right things, how do standard units of measure affect our perceptions of improvement?  As a youngish Manufacturing Manager, I lived in a world of standard units: pounds and kilograms, dozens and pecks, feet and inches, years, months and days. The units themselves created expectations. For example, lead-time, was typically expressed in “business days” apparently assuming that weekends represented a void.  In fact, for longer lead-time purchased parts, weeks were a more common unit.  For engineering projects, Gantt charts were expressed in months.  And business performance was tracked by quarters.  Each of these units, typically rounded up to the nearest whole number and crystalized by our ERP system, implied a cadence to which we operated. Weekly bucketing of factory orders, which preceded the advent of computers, continued as a unit for factory loading, inadvertently creating hills and valleys in the production schedule. Factory productivity was measured monthly.  We operated in an environment of self-inflicted unevenness.  Standard Units are Lean Peeve #9

As my organization began to study Lean, it became apparent that standard units for measuring time were limiting visibility and therefore our improvement.  Units of measure were effectively synonymous with frequency of measurement.   Daily huddles, for example, included discussion of problems that were already one-day old, but I viewed this response time as significantly better than previous, when huddles occurred only weekly.  

Then my company hooked up with TSSC, a division of Toyota that specializes in sharing TPS thinking with committed organizations.  One of my first assignments was to visit each product cell hourly to initial a Production Activity Log and immediately address any problems reported by the team lead.  I recall the words of my consultant at the time: “Bruce, you’re being very disrespectful of your employees by letting problems fester for hours.”    Based upon the amount of daily activity that had previously been reported in our daily huddles, I thought to myself “No big deal,” assuming the hourly follow-up would not be arduous.

That assumption turned out to be very wrong.  Problems were occurring from the starting bell to day’s end, and those that were unaddressed, often recurred multiple times during the day: missing parts, broken fixtures, defects, documentation questions.   These had been mostly invisible to me at the daily huddles because of brute force heroics and work arounds by the front line. And all of those previously invisible problems were baked into another standard unit we called our fixed lead-time.   Fixing these problems in something closer to real-time was exhausting, but also exhilarating.   The point is, it wasn’t just “what’s measured.”  It was also how often it’s measured that was important.   Accelerating the cadence of problem-solving created flow.   From there on, I began to measure in hours, minutes and seconds what had previously been measured with a calendar.  Time is a continuum, but the standard units that we use to chunk it up have a profound impact on how we measure. 

I’ve covered just one standard unit in this Lean Peeve, but there are hundreds!  How many can you think of?

O.L.D. 

Speaking of standard units, there is less than a week to GBMP’s annual conference.  Or should I say less than 120 hours until the 16th Annual Northeast Lean Conference gets under way.  Invest less than two-days of your time on October 7-8 and receive over 50,000 seconds of Lean sharing and inspiration for only $345.  That’s less than a penny a second!   In fact, we’re throwing in free use of LEANFLIX, GBMP’s award-winning streaming video content site, to all conference attendees.  Hope you can join us.