Tag Archives: GBMP

Back To The Future

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Here is an article I wrote ten years ago, recently resurrected from the lost letter file.  I can’t remember why I wrote it or for whom. Originally entitled, “What is Kaizen?” the article still resonates with me as I hope it will with you.

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What is Kaizen?

Over the years my study of TPS has been guided by book learning, tacit learning and more good luck than bad.   One stroke of good luck occurred in February 1987 when I picked up a copy of Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success by Masaaki Imai.  At that time, most literature about TPS was focusing on its technical aspects so this book, which focused on harnessing ideas and creativity, was different.   Also around that time, early TPS efforts at my company were foundering.  We had “lowered the water level of inventory to expose the rocks” and to our dismay were discovering more rocks than we’d bargained for.  We needed more problem solvers and Mr. Imai’s book quickly became a blueprint for individual and small group improvements that bailed us out of troubled waters.  It was truly good luck that led me to Imai’s definition of kaizen which I’ll paraphrase as “many small improvements that come from the common sense and experience of the people who do the work.”

Thus, many small improvements chipped away at and eventually dislodged the rocks that threatened to sink our TPS efforts.   As a manager, my tacit learning from this experience was that shop floor employees were brilliant and creative – some more than others, but all of them smart, proud of their work and extremely willing to be problem-solvers.  Of course there are a lot of books that tell managers that, but that’s academic.  To really understand it we have to practice it!  While Mr. Imai explicitly described the nature of kaizen with many tangible examples, he was quick to point out that understanding kaizen requires practice:  learning by doing.  Toyota refers to this as “tacit learning” as opposed to academic or book learning.  Anyone who has learned to ride a bike can understand what tacit learning is.  It’s visceral and emotional as well as intellectual.  It’s not academic.  And I had a serious need for more problem-solvers. So there’s another stroke of luck:  Our self-inflicted crisis (hitting the rocks) created a need – and opportunity — to take a chance.   While I like to think myself egalitarian, if there had not been a crisis, the opportunity to expand the problem-solving role beyond a few support personnel and supervisors might not have occurred.

Never-ending improvement – that’s kaizen. This is what I learned by “riding the bike.”  But the common translation of “continuous improvement” doesn’t do it justice because it doesn’t connote the changes that also occur within the persons who have created the improvement. The act of being creative to solve a problem or make an improvement has not only educated us but also inspired us to go further. Now tacit learning kicks in again: Concerns by supervision that work will not get done are replaced by more time to do work. Unfounded fears that “employees will mess up” give way to positive anticipation.   More ideas from more employees offered more freely and more frequently generates an organizational confidence to do more than what was previously thought possible. Every day is a day for more improvement.  My tacit learning?  That kaizen is for “Everybody, Everyday” (GBMP’s slogan.)  The momentum and pace of improvement is governed by the breadth and depth of learning and participation of every single person in the organization.  True, there are some employees with more ideas than others, but the act of each and every employee offering his or her creativity changes the organization.

All of this learning proceeded from a definition of kaizen offered by Masaaki Imai.  Unfortunately not everyone subscribes to his definition.  The notion of “small changes” it seems was a turn-off to managers looking for faster progress, managers who subscribed to the “big brain” theory:  breakthrough and innovation emanating from the creativity of just a few smart people.  The idea that many small ideas from the shop floor were going to make any difference at all was (and still is) summarily dismissed.  This is indeed unfortunate because even though its success has been documented countless times over the last three decades, only tacit learning can teach managers the real power of kaizen.

To parody an old proverb:

“You can lead the manager to the shop floor,” as they say, “but you can’t make him see.”

And sometimes you can’t even lead him to the shop floor!  The word “small” is really a misnomer, perhaps a bad translation from Japanese, because while the cost of the small changes may be small, the effect may be huge!  I have witnessed many small changes that were worth ten dollars and many that were worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.  As one former skeptic reported to me recently, “I can only assume that the dramatic improvements in quality are attributable to the small changes we made, and these summed up to a gain I would not have imagined.”   Tacit learning.  Another manager in the same conversation stated “We’ve made more significant headway in the last six weeks than in the previous six years!  Tacit learning for her:  “Many small changes for the better” add up to improvement much faster than we think.

Still many managers remain immune to this evidence.  The big brain theorists have morphed kaizen into events.  Not something done by “Everybody, Everyday”, but some thing done apart from the work, largely organized and directed by people other than those who do the work.  I first witnessed this practice in 1989 as a visitor in another New England manufacturer at a week long “kaizen event” billed as “5 days and one night”.  I was invited as a participant even though I did not work at the company and knew nothing about its factory. Coming from a situation where improvements were mostly grassroots generated and implemented, I found the whole situation stunning.   Employees from the work center where I was participating were tangentially involved at best.  Most stood sullenly on the sidelines.  One employee confided to me that they would change everything back after we left.  He referred to the process as the BOHICA method, an acronym that I will not expand (but you can guess.)  In this situation employees had become objects rather agents of change, a situation all too comfortable for many managers.  For these employees “kaizen” meant “messes created by managers that produced fabricated gains.”   Implicit in their understanding of kaizen was that management had no regard for employee initiative or creativity, that all of the ideas were coming from the big brains.

Subsequent to that experience I’ve heard the term kaizen used as a euphemism for job cutting and outsourcing, and as a task force method to “get workers to work harder.”  Several years ago I had to even sign a contract before I started to work with a company stating that I would never use the word kaizen in the presence of employees, lest they become enraged; so distasteful was their previous experience.  Less damaging, but still confusing, is a growing tendency to break kaizen into “minor” and major”, a token gesture most often to allow a certain number of non-mandated improvements and differentiate them from the “real” events.  Others shoehorn every capital investment into the kaizen court.  Some might be kaizen, some innovation; but even a warehouse expansion has qualified with one company as a “major kaizen.”  (I thought that was waste of storage.)   Companies who can afford it are establishing mezzanine departments to foster kaizen, but too often only those in the new department are focused on improvement.  Management and supervision distance themselves, and the whole process becomes an extracurricular activity.   In these environments no real change is occurring to the organization.  It’s status quo, business as usual.

A respected friend in the TPS business remarked to me recently that maybe the term “kaizen” is itself becoming a point of confusion, that maybe it has been carved up too many times and now, like “continuous improvement”, is devoid of meaning or emotive power; this, the word that Mr. Imai explained thirty years ago is the “Key to Japan’s Competitive Success.”  Sadly, my friend may be right; maybe we need a new name.  We’re good at renaming Toyota words after all.  If such a move could enlighten us and direct our thinking to Mr. Imai’s definition, I’d support it.  But for me, it’s still, and will always be, kaizen:  many small (but organization transforming) improvements that come from the common sense and experience of the people who do the work.  “Everybody, Everyday”.

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Thanks to all of my readers for subscribing, reading and occasionally commenting on my blog. The very best wishes to you all for 2017.

O. L. D.

How to Rework a Charlie Brown Tree

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Last weekend, as I forked over $70 for a “live” Christmas tree, I had a flashback to a very different experience when I was still a kid.  My family had a tradition of waiting until Christmas Eve to trim our tree.  Late in the afternoon of the big night, I’d accompany my Dad to the local holiday tree sale to pick out our balsam fir.  Alas, by the time we shopped, the yard was totally picked over.  It never dawned on me then that my Dad’s timing was tactical.  He negotiated a price that was pretty close to free for a haggard specimen that, unbeknownst to the seller, was soon to be transformed.  My job was to walk around the now empty lot and pick up scrap branches that had been cut from earlier sales.  What commenced shortly thereafter was nothing short of a Christmas miracle.  We performed tree surgery, not in this case to remove branches, but to add them.   Using clippers and a hand drill, the rework process took about ten minutes.  I held the patient in place while my Dad cut and transplanted limbs in holes predrilled to fill gaps in the greenery.  He took special care to match the size and pitch with surrounding branches, yielding a particularly authentic appearance.   When the cosmetic restoration was complete, the tree was delivered inside to await the trimming ritual.  Complete with lights and tinsel and ornaments, this work of art was virtually indistinguishable from its high-priced cousins.

Now, today it seems laughable that anyone would go to these lengths to save money on a Christmas tree.  In fact, my family wasn’t poor.  We could have afforded a fully intact tree.  For my Dad however, a product of the Great Depression, the values of frugality and resourcefulness were ingrained.  He was preeminently generous to everyone around him, but never spent a penny when it was not absolutely necessary.   Long before Charlie Brown’s tree and long before I learned about the Toyota Production System, I witnessed a basic Lean principle in practice:  “Don’t spend money, use your creativity first.”

Arguably, with the recent purchase of our pricey 2016 tree, I’ve not done right by that principle.  So, as penance and also as a tribute to my Dad, I’ve recreated the magical tree rework process from sixty years ago and videoed it for your holiday viewing enjoyment.   Yesterday, I visited a local Christmas tree stand and bargained my way down to $7.00 for a  tree.   Granted, the tree needed a little rework, but I also picked up scrap branches. Here is a short video of that process:  Reworking a Charlie Brown Tree.   Enjoy!

Paraphrasing Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Trees,

“Blogs are writ by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.”

My Dad, however, came pretty damned close!   From me and everyone at GBMP, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanza or whatever you choose to celebrate.

O.L.D

P.S. Give yourself the gift of education in 2017. GBMP is offering twenty two Shingo Institute Courses – between January and November from New Hampshire to South Carolina and lots of places in between. Find a course near you and join us in 2017.

Summer Memory

I was lucky that the first boss I ever had (at age 13) had much to teach at a point when I had much to learn.  Chris M. was a brilliant but illiterate Italian immigrant and fisherman who had built a landmark restaurant and marina on the bay in Ocean City, New Jersey.  That was my first lesson: You don’t have to be book smart to be smart.

theyardI was a kid looking for my first summer job and using my brother’s social security card and name because I wasn’t yet legal to work.   I walked into the seafood market next to the dining room and asked a man behind the counter if they needed any summer help. “Go see that guy,” he said pointing to Chris, who was standing on the dock talking to a couple of older gentlemen who were peeling shrimp.  Chris, a fit, swarthy sixty-something smiled at my offer to work for him, and asked, “How old are you?”   I lied and I think he knew it, but he didn’t press.  “Can you paint?” he asked.    I lied again, and within an hour I was standing on the roof of the fish market with a brush, a roller and a five-gallon can of oil-base silver paint.  I’d watched my father paint before and at least knew what the implements were, but the actual skill was missing.   By the end of my first day of employment, I was covered with paint, but had moved along the experience curve sufficiently to coat most of the roof as well.  Chris inspected my work and smiled again.  The job was roughly done, but it was done.  “You finished,” he said, “not bad.”   So far I had no job offer, but apparently my commitment to finish the job was more important than my work experience.  That was my second lesson: Attitude first.   “Come again tomorrow morning at 7:00” Chris said.

I arrived early the next day and found Chris standing on the dock next to a ladder that had been tied in several places to a fifty-foot telephone pole.   “Today we’ll paint the mast,” he said, and waited for my reaction.  I think I may have lost my breath for a moment as I gazed upwards, but Chris reassured me, “Don’t worry, I’ll help.” Chris then proceeded to critique my painting from the previous day and offered some tips on ladder safety, loading the brush and applying the paint.  “I’ll paint the top,” Chris offered and then ascended without apparent effort to the top of the ladder where he stood on the yard (see photo) to paint the top of the pole.  Holding paint can and mast with one hand and painting with the other, someone five times my age struck a figure like a Flying Wallenda.   I was in awe.   And while there were drop cloths on the deck, nary a speck of paint fell from above.  This was my third lesson: Age is not an excuse for inactivity.

After painting to just below the yard, Chris descended and handed me the paint and brush.  “You can hook the can on the ladder,” he said “and hold on tight.  Don’t reach too far. We’ll move the ladder to hit the farther spots.”    Cautiously, I climbed the ladder, clenching paint and brush in one hand, until I reached the point just below the yard.  I have never been as scared as I was at that moment.   My trembling hand caused paint to fall at first in every direction.   In a calm voice, Chris encouraged me, “You’re doing fine, just take it slow.” With each rung that I descended, my capability and confidence increased.  Chris continued to watch until he was comfortable that I had the knack.   By the time I reached the deck I had a sense of accomplishment.   The drop cloths were speckled with paint, but job or no job, I’d done something I would have previously considered impossible.  For some reason, I felt like I owed it to Chris, a man whom I’d just met, to finish the painting.

Looking back on the experience now I realize how rare an experience that was to have had the attention of the most senior person.  This was my final lesson: Chris’s success derived from his penchant to develop others around him.  Chris appeared as I was finishing.  “You can begin tomorrow in our fish market. I pay $1.25 an hour.”   Best job I ever had.

Do you have a Chris in your past?     Please share a story.

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O.L.D.

PS Which reminds me. GBMP’s 12th annual gathering of more than 500 Lean practitioners – The Northeast Lean Conference – is just two weeks away. If you haven’t considered attending it yet, I sincerely hope you will take a look at the website – the agenda, the session abstracts and more – and consider attending and bringing an employee or two – to show your interest in their personal and professional development. You’ll be glad you did!

Peripheral Discoveries

The following post is inspired by The Teachings of Don Juan, an anthropological novel from the 1960’s written by Carlos Castaneda chronicling his travels with Don Juan, a Yaqui shaman.   To crudely paraphrase, according to Don Juan, the road to knowledge is blocked first by fear of learning new ideas, an experience most of us have had to one degree or another on our Lean journeys.  For those who forge ahead in the face of this “natural enemy” of knowledge, we are rewarded with “clarity,” a confidence we gradually acquire as we seek to learn.  Clarity, however, becomes the second enemy of knowledge, because its focus blinds us to new learning beyond a confined framework.  Shingo called it complacency.  I call it “too happy too soon.”  The point is when we are too confident with our understanding of continuous improvement, new learning stops.   With that preface, here is a story:

peripherySometimes we go to the floor with a specific intention, but along the way discover an opportunity well beyond the margins of our conscious attention.   As an example, I was once tasked with improving the productivity of a high-speed manual packaging line about thirty feet in length, one where products were delivered by conveyor to a team of employees who frantically picked, packed and heat-sealed individual products in plastic sleeves.  Picture Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory; that was the pace and tenor of this line.  I was working with a team of six persons from production, each focused on a particular function within the line, while I stood back attempting to see the whole.  There were a hundred observable reasons why this line did not hit packing targets, but that focus is not the subject of this blog post; only the backdrop.

As I concentrated on the packing line, an area chosen by the company’s owner for improvement, an interference blip appeared just at the edge of my peripheral vision.  Someone was observing from distance.  A middle-aged employee standing in the finished goods warehouse was watching intently.  Call him Jim; he was the warehouse manager.  I briefly glanced in Jim’s direction and smiled.  He smiled back and then during a break approached me.   “I don’t know why you’re focusing on this line,” Jim said alluding to the packing line in front of me.  “They’re producing far more than we sell.  I can hardly find a place to put the products.”

“Where should we be watching?”, I asked Jim.  “Come watch us pick and pack orders for Wal-Mart,” Jim replied.  “We can’t hit their deliveries and are in danger of losing that business.  If that happens, you won’t have to spend time on that packing line.  It will be shut down!”  At the end of the day, Jim and I reconvened in the warehouse for a quick review of the pick and pack process.   His team was working overtime to complete an order that, if not shipped on-time in-full, might be refused altogether.   As we walked the process, once again my peripheral vision picked up some blips.  Other warehouse employees watching and listening just out of my line of sight were now keyed into our observation.  They too had ideas about improvement to the shipping process.  Ultimately, we re-focused our attention away from a packaging process that surely could be improved but was less critical to one that had only been on the periphery but nevertheless was extremely important.

Today I am frequently asked by organizations that I visit, “Where do you look for improvement when you visit a site?”   My answer is, I try not to focus right away in order to receive any signal, direct or deflected.  I don’t want to ‘point the camera’ based only on my past experience.   Or as Shingo put it “The best place to look for improvement is in an area where it is thought not to exist.”

Do you let your current knowledge obscure opportunities for new learning?  Are your decisions ruled exclusively by “clarity” or are you following the ways of Don Juan?   Let me hear from you.

O.L.D. 

PS It’s hard to believe but there are only 48 days until The 2016 Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference! Our 12th annual event features five tracks and includes presentations by Lean thought leaders, peer-to-peer discussions of critical best practices, experiential learning through hands-on exercises and exceptional bench-marking opportunities, all designed to help you take your Lean initiative to the next level.The practical learning format caters to all learning styles & levels of experience. From the front lines to the corner offices,  there is something for everyone.  Please join us on October 4-5, 2016 at the DCU Center in Worcester MA to learn how to help your organization act its way into Lean thinking. Read more about the event, view the agenda, read the abstracts and register here.

Profitless Part Proliferation

leadwireI wrote a post a little more than five years ago about Variety Reduction Program (VRP), an amazing but little known product design optimization tool.  At the time I referred to VRP as an idea whose “time had not yet come.”  Last week, as I gave a short presentation on VRP, I realized that five years later its time apparently still has not come.  In the interest of creating more interest around this significant technique, the following post expands on my epistle from 2011 and provides a couple of tangible examples of that significance from my own experience.

First, I think the technique deserves a new, mnemonic and alliterative moniker:  Profitless Part Proliferation.   I suggest this clarification because the word “variety” has an unfortunate positive connotation in the sense of greater customer selection, and therefore turns off sales and marketing folks before you can explain that VRP is not about product line trimming.  That was my initial experience in my own company many years ago.  “Just another anti-customer maneuver by operations,” I heard.  In fact, VRP aka P3 is about trimming needless part variety and all of its associated costs (e.g. drawings, inspection, purchase orders, stocking locations, etc.)

Secondly, I would like to call attention to the false sense of profitability that is often created through the addition of new parts and assemblies.   Minimizing the functional cost of material (the one that shows up on variance reports) for a single product looks good on paper, but almost always creates huge overhead costs arising from complexity.  Engineers and cost accountants typically focus on the apparent profit from product X, but ignore the resulting system costs.   They can’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak.   The following two examples for common part commodities, one a purchased part and the other a sub-assembly, speak to this problem:

O-rings.  A project was initiated to examine O-ring specifications and dimensions – things like durometer, chemical resistance, temperature range, ID and OD.   The first thing we realized was that there was no single repository for this information.  Our computer part master record contained dozens of fields to support ordering and costing, but most important design information was squished unintelligibly into a description field.  After cataloging specs and dimensions for O-rings, we realized that twenty-nine different O-rings were stocked.  Our discoveries:

  • Our information system made it difficult for designers see what was already available when they were choosing parts. It was just faster and easier to go to a supplier catalog. An alarming amount of part variety arose simply from poor design tools.
  • Once we were able to view O-rings as a part type from a design standpoint, we realized there was considerable overlap in specs and dimensions. Of the twenty-nine O-rings we cataloged, we determined that all production needs could be handled by only five O-rings.
  • Of the five remaining O-rings, one had metric dimensions because of unanticipated tolerances with mating parts. Rather than deal with correcting the mating parts, a unique O-ring was selected as a “bushing.”  Incidentally, that particular new part required the addition of a new supplier.

The rub was that the most robust O-rings cost a few cents more than marginally acceptable specifications.  Cost accountants argued that using the most robust  O-rings would increase product cost, ignoring the additional costs of maintaining two-dozen unneeded parts.  In fact, as we were a low-volume high-variety producer, we pretty much had to order months of supply for every one of the different O-rings anyway.  Finally, engineers argued that the cost of an engineering change – particularly a drawing change – was too great.  “We have better things to do” I heard.   Fact is, engineers are typically not rewarded for fixing up old parts; they are recognized for designing something new. Ultimately, however, some concessions were made in the interest of experimentation and the O-ring variety was reduced.

Lead wires.  A more egregious example of Profitless Part Proliferation was the variety of lead-wire assemblies. As a manufacturer of electro-mechanical products, my company built thousands of different lead-wire assemblies to support perhaps three dozen product families. At one point we dedicated a full bay of ASRS storage to lead-wires.  Still, lead-wire assembly stock-outs represented a major cause of late customer deliveries. Lead-wires were cut and terminated in large batches owing to the long set-ups on the machine.  While working on set-up reduction of the lead-wire machine, a production team lead astutely wondered why many lead-wires differed by insignificant lengths, as little as 1/32”.  During a project launched to catalog the variety in gauges, stranded or solid, terminations, insulation color and material – and many other specs – we did in fact identify an important opportunity just in lead-wire length variety.  This variety, we suddenly realized, stemmed from a single statement regarding the length of the connection leads outside the end item enclosure.  Sales and technical literature read something like this “Lead-wire length:  12” outside enclosure.”  In fact, our customers would have been happy with “at least 12” outside enclosure.”   Twelve and one-half inches would have been fine, as would twelve and one-thirty second inches, and so on.  The authors of VRP advised us to be clearer regarding which dimensions should be fixed and which could be variable within a range.   Once the product specification was changed to reflect “at least 12 inches outside,” the number and type of lead-wire assemblies plummeted!  So did the stock-outs.

These are just two of many specific examples where parts proliferation was pointless and profitless.  Now, before you say to yourself, “Oh that would never happen in my factory,” I’d encourage you to choose a common commodity of a purchased or manufactured part, and investigate the variety.   Please share a story for our readers about your discoveries. (One lucky commenter will be selected to attend GBMP’s 12th annual Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference coming in October to Worcester, MA. I am delighted to reveal our four exceptional Keynote presenters will be: Art Byrne, John Shook, Steven Spear & Dr. Eric Dickson (not to mention the forty other educational, informative, motivational and fun breakout sessions).

Shigeo Shingo was quoted as saying “The worst waste is the waste we cannot see.”   Help us to see by sharing an example from your experience.   I’d hate to think that I’ll be reflecting again in another five years on an idea whose time still has not yet come.

O.L.D.

BTW: 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.

lfxAlso, I’m happy to share that GBMP’s online streaming video subscription service which we launched in March and call Leanflix  is receiving terrific reviews. We are so glad that we have been able to provide convenient, low-cost, on-demand video training content to meet the varied and ongoing training needs of so many in our Lean community. If you haven’t checked it out, I hope you will set aside a little time this week to do so.

– Bruce