Tag Archives: gemba

A Holiday Miracle

Viewing Bill Murray’s “Scrooged” last week for the twenty-fifth time in as many years, I recalled a kind of holiday miracle I witnessed shortly after I began consulting.

holidaymiracleI was working with a manager team at a food processing plant shortly before Christmas, observing a packing line set up especially to pack hams for the holiday.   Imagine a rapidly moving serpentine conveyor transporting hams from a chiller to a rotating shrink wrap platen and thence to boxing and palletizing operations.   Operators stood at key points, to inspect, load and unload. Because the shape of each ham was unique, proper positioning and repositioning of product was also important to prevent jams and spills.

Observation was something new for this manager team. Not that they weren’t on the floor regularly, they just didn’t spend much time focused on the process. This day we were essentially standing in Ohno’s Circle, watching the work of young lady, call her Martina, stationed at the sealing platen.   Hams arrived every twenty seconds on a conveyor positioned next to the platen, where Martina would quickly do a visual inspection and then load and activate the shrink wrapper. The packing line was paused briefly, and with the help of her bilingual supervisor we inquired of Martina if she experienced any difficulty in her work.   As none of our group could speak Spanish, we could only observe facial expressions and body language.   Her supervisor spoke to her in Spanish and then turned to us with a smile on his face: “I asked if she has any problems and she responded that ‘she really likes working here.’ I think she’s a little nervous.” Martina was looking at our team with a big smile also.

Moment of truth: The top manager in our group responded directly to Martina in English. “We know you’re a very good worker and we’re happy to have you working for us. Is there anything that we can do to help you in your job?”   Her supervisor translated to her, apparently adding a few personal words of encouragement. Martina provided a longer, animated response, demonstrating how she loaded the hams from the conveyor to the platen. We watched as she as she suddenly made a long stretch to a spot where the conveyor took a right angle turn.   Her motion was reminiscent of a first baseman stretching to shag an errant throw.   She looked at us again with a smile. Pointing to the area of the “stretch”, her supervisor translated: “Martina says, that occasionally, a ham will fall off the conveyor at this turn, but that she is always watching and is able to catch it before it hits the floor.” He paused, and then smiled again. “And, she wants you to know that it’s not a big problem, and she really likes working here.”

The packing line was restarted, and we observed this time with a better understanding, watching for the occasional falling ham. There were a couple near misses, but no opportunities for Martina to demonstrate her first base stretch. So it is with occasional problems; only the front line sees them.

Before we moved on, from the top manager came a sincere thank you to Martina for her help, and a direction to engineering to add a higher barrier to the conveyor at the point where hams might tumble. For both management and employees it was a holiday miracle, an epiphany: Each had become visible to the other.   As Goodyear’s Billy Taylor put it at our Northeast Lean Conference “if you make somebody visible you make them valuable.” This is culture change, one small miracle at a time. But, in the words of Bill Murray’s Ebenezer Scrooge, managers have to “want to make it happen every day.”   It’s management’s part of “everybody everyday.”

My New Year’s challenge to every manager: Show your personal passion for continuous improvement every day. Make the miracle happen in your organization. Make your employees and yourself visible.

Best Wishes to All for an Incredible 2015.


P.S. GBMP wants to help you get 2015 off to a great start with lean training events to benefit your whole team – including Job Instruction Training, Lean for the Office, Six Sigma Green Belt, Total Productive Maintenance, Value Stream Mapping for Healthcare, benchmarking plant tours, free webinars, Shingo Institute workshops and much much more!  Visit www.gbmp.org and click on Events to see the entire list.


nvllivs imageThere was a time when it was not fashionable for managers to associate with front line employees. Alluding to an old adage, I used to joke that you could not even lead the horse (manager) to water, let alone make him drink. Division of labor at that time was a great divide. In my early days as a manager, visiting with front line employees was frowned upon as “fraternizing”. Managers stayed on the margins, managing from a safe distance.

Today the divide seems to be narrowing for some organizations. Thanks to the popularization of manager standard work and emphasis on business culture (referred to twenty-five years ago as “fluff”), managers are now adding Gemba walks to their busy schedules. So – that’s progress. We can now lead the horse to water. But can we make him drink?

“Why are we here?” I asked Lorie the sales manager as I accompanied her to a sales order department. “According to my standard work, I’m to look for abnormalities.” “So, what do you see?” I asked. Pointing to some numbers written in red ink on a huddle board at the edge of the department Lorie noted, “I see that we’re taking too long to respond to quote requests.”   I asked, “What do you actually see here at the huddle board?” Thinking for a second, she responded, “a record of quote requests.” “So how would you learn more about this apparently abnormal condition,” I inquired. “I’d talk to the supervisor,” Lorie said. “Okay,” I persisted, “would that be direct observation of the abnormality?” “No,” Lorie, conceded, “it would be second hand information as well.” Pausing a moment she then argued, “I can’t be out here all day long just watching for slow responses to quote requests.” Without disputing the time commitment issue I asked, “Do you have even fifteen minutes to watch the process that produces the quotations?” “Yes, I do,” said Lorie. “Good, let’s see how many abnormalities we can observe in that length of time.” With that we left the margins of the sales order department and went to where the work was done. Here is what we observed:

  • A computer system stalled according to the sales associate by “some buffering problem” that IT was working on.
  • An incorrect price list, which needed to be verified and approved.
  • An inconsistency between the customer’s and manufacturer’s drawings.
  • A phone coverage issue. Quotes from different time zones frequently generated abnormal quote times.
  • Escalation challenges. When technical questions were not directly answerable, the path to the correct answer was not always clear.

This is a partial list of process abnormalities, not all from one order writer or a single order, but most directly observable within the fifteen-minute time frame and all coming direct from the front lines. “What will you do now?” I asked Lorie.   “I guess I need to go see for myself more often,” she said.

In many cases, we have led the horse to water but he is still thirsting for the truth. The idea of direct observation continues to be foreign to many managers who feel that division of labor dictates they get their information second hand, massaged, summarized and homogenized. Change leaders would do well to remind managers of the motto of the Royal Society, the seat of modern science and philosophy: “Nullius in verba” – a Latin expression meaning “take nobody’s word for it.” This gold standard of objectivity encouraged scientific thinkers not to let status quo politics and prevailing beliefs affect their thinking. If we are truly seeking a culture change to our organizations we need to encourage the same thinking from our leaders.

In your organization, have you led the horse to water? Has he/she drunk? Share a story.


P.S. A few reminders:

In my next Tea Time with the Toast Dude webinar, on Tuesday, November 18, I’ll discuss “Making Huddle Boards Work“. Hope you can join in the conversation. Register here.

Also, I’m excited to be leading the upcoming Shingo Institute course –  “Discover Excellence” – at Ken’s Foods in Marlborough MA on November 6-7. Seats are still available. This foundational workshop introduces the Shingo Model, the Guiding Principles and the Three Insights to Enterprise Excellence™. With real-time discussions and on-site learning, the program is a highly interactive experience and designed to make your learning meaningful and immediately applicable to release the latent potential in your organization and achieve enterprise excellence. Read more and register here. 


Not wishing to rub salt in the wounds of my beleaguered Red Sox, their meteoric rise from last place in 2012 to first place in 2013 and subsequent plummet to the cellar in 2014 underscores the problems with speculative production. Last week, celebrating a birthday, I was offered a dish of “Fenway Fudge” ice cream, and was amused by the container.


Well perhaps the Sox were when the product was made. Or maybe the ice cream (which, by the way is delicious) was made very recently, but dispensed into packaging that was printed in 2012. Maybe a buyer got a good deal on a large print quantity. The specialty packing industry typically likes long runs to amortize pre-prep and set-ups. Or maybe the forecast for the 2014 season augurs another rise from the ashes for the Sox.   I don’t follow the team closely, so perhaps someone more in the know has a line on next season.

My guess however is the large quantities of packaging and ice cream were manufactured according to what Shigeo Shingo referred to as “speculative production.”  Fenway Fudge, after all, is not the only Red Sox flavor; Green Monster Mint and Grand Slam Vanilla, to name a couple more, also sport the “Champions” banner. So if the ice cream is good, what’s the big deal?  Diehard fans still love their Sox even if the packaging is a season behind (or ahead.) The big deal, I think, is about the need to produce packaging and product well before, as Mr. Shingo would say, they are “authorized.” When the time to produce goods and services is much much longer than the customer’s desired lead-time, then we are forced to speculate – roll the dice – in order to schedule our resources.  Not every type of manufacturer will be so obviously impacted as one that ties it’s marketing to a baseball team, but seasonality, product proliferation, and customer taste make long runs of any product a gamble. And while not every product will cost as much to store as ice cream (note the use-by date on the Fenway Fudge package is 9/30/15), the need to produce too much or produce too soon squanders resources and increases costs in a way that current cost accounting rules hide as an asset.

One of my favorite Shigeo Shingo quotes is:

“The most dangerous kind of waste is the waste we do not recognize.”

Overproduction’s stealth has been legislated into management accounting and operations policy, and until this is recognized, it will be rationalized as a necessary evil, needed to “hit the numbers.”

Is overproduction really seen as a waste in your business, or is it tacitly accepted? Share a thought.

As for the Sox? Wait for next season. Go Sox.

O.L.D. smilebruce

Hey! Our 10th Annual Northeast Lean Conference is next week! October 1 & 2 at the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. Over 550 Lean learners from 150 companies have already signed up. Click here to register today to learn, share, and recharge your Lean batteries. Hope to see you there.

3P – Putting People Phirst

With our 10th Annual Northeast Conference just eight days away, I’ve taken a little poetic license with the conference theme, Putting People First, to highlight just one of the outstanding teams who will be presenting at the conference:

3p Phirst

The “ideas of many” built from cardboard and brown paper.

Two weeks ago I had the honor of attending the ribbon cutting for the West Suburban Cancer Center in Needham, Massachusetts.   This innovative center was conceptualized in the spring and summer of 2012 by a diverse, dedicated cross-functional team of approximately 30 docs, nurses, technicians, physicists, architects, facilities engineers and administrators using a technical method referred to as Production Preparation Process, or “3P”.   While the structured, rapid brainstorming and prototyping methods used to design the new center design were important to the success of this large project, far more crucial were two principles that guided everyone’s thinking:

  1. A single-minded Patient First principle focused everyone’s thinking on the best possible experience and outcome for the patient and patient’s family rather than just maximizing local efficiencies of the providers.   Patient focus groups provided an essential perspective that kept the team grounded. Using tabletop models to simulate the patient flow, in one instance reducing patient moves from twenty-two to five, the team was guided by the philosophical position that the needs of the customer must come first.
  1. The project’s mantra, “The ideas of many are better than the experience of one,” challenged team members to collaborate in a way that encouraged everyone’s ideas.   With encouragement of BIDMC management and support from facilities and architects, the new center was actually designed by the people who work in the space. In the words of one team member, “We ended up with a design that no one could have foreseen when we started the project.”

As I entered the new cancer center and surgical pavilion, I recalled the original cardboard and brown paper structures that the team had built in order to test and improve their design. At the entrance, I was greeted by one of the physicians who participated on the 3P effort.   She remarked excitedly, “This new design really works!” That excitement was shared by other team members who attended the grand opening, and, I must admit, by me also. The technical achievement was outstanding, but would never have been possible without the focus on people.

There is so much more to this success story than I can relate in a post. I hope you’ll join me on October 1 and 2 at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Massachusetts to hear more from this team and others who are ‘putting people first’. Still time to register and recharge your Lean efforts.


I’m Against It!

A recent viewing of a Marx Brothers film caused me to reflect on one of the questions I’m frequently asked, “How do you deal with people that are against Lean?”

i'magainstitMy stock response is to quote Shigeo Shingo’s advice that “99% of objection is cautionary,” that is, persons who appear to vigorously object to Lean are really just asking for more information. I confess that, while this answer puts a positive spin on objection, depending upon who is doing the objecting, it doesn’t really answer the question.

For example, very early along in my TPS discovery process while I was away from the plant for a week’s vacation, two of my fellow middle managers, armed with apocalyptic predictions about employee empowerment, took advantage of my absence to make an end run to the corner office. Upon my return, our CEO confronted me: “I understand that you’re turning all of the decision-making over to the employees,” he said.

In another context, I might have taken his words as a compliment, but given the tenor of our organization at the time and the stern visage before me, I quickly understood that I’d been thrown under the bus.   A practiced counterpuncher, I was fortunately able to respond with a few compelling examples of decisions made by frontline employees to make improvements or solve problems, thus diffusing my adversaries’ arguments.  I thought to myself, “Thank goodness I didn’t take a two-week vacation. I might have been fired by then.“

There are several points worth noting here.

  • First, had our CEO occasionally visited the front lines, he would have been in touch with what was actually happening and would not have been vulnerable to the emotional arguments of naysayers.   Unfortunately, too often in the early stages in Lean transformation, the CEO is only passively involved.
  • Secondly, at least some of the time, factual arguments will trump emotional ones. The top manager usually has no ax to grind with any department or division; his/her interests lie in the prosperity of the entire organization.
  • Third, middle managers are often troubled by a perceived loss of authority among their direct reports. If front line employees are empowered, does that make the managers less powerful?
  • Fourth, middle managers may resist a change that they perceive is a threat to their turfs.   For example, “quality at the source” may be seen as an attempt to eliminate the inspection department. Or Kanban may be perceived as a threat to production scheduling.   If improvement implies organizational change to their turf, territorial imperative kicks in.
  • Finally, early Lean successes will sometimes create professional jealousy. Managers may perceive the rising star of a lean leader as a threat to their own advancement. For these managers, the response to the change leader’s ideas is likely to be “whatever it is, I’m against it.”

To be sure each of the concerns above could be characterized as “cautionary.” At a later point in the Lean journey, many managers will come to realize that their early concerns were horse feathers; organizations and individuals do change — for the better.   But in the earlier going, change leaders need to be mindful of and responsive to managerial objections. How we do that is the topic of my October 14 Tea Time with Toast Guy Webinar.


Alert: Our 10th Annual Northeast Lean Conference is now less than a month away. I hope to see many of my readers there as the theme, “Putting People First,” is recurrent in the O.L.D. annuls.   For the last four years my posts have dealt primarily with management’s responsibility to create an environment that’s favorable to problem solving and continuous improvement – and that too is the theme of this year’s conference. I hope to see you all there!

BTW: Attend my next free Webinar next Tuesday, September 9, and you could win a FREE registration to our 10th Annual Northeast Lean Conference. The topic: “Getting Suppliers Involved – Do’s and Don’ts.”  Register here.