Tag Archives: idea systems

Space Junk

spacejunkLast weekend in the Nantucket ferry terminal, I passed a defunct phone booth, the ornate wooden kiosk kind that was used twenty years ago to frame a payphone, provide a modicum of privacy, and hold a phone book.   It appeared that this particular phone booth had been re-purposed to hold a suggestion box; or maybe the suggestion box was also defunct.   Who knows?  I picked it up and shook it; it was empty.  And there were no blank suggestion forms in the side slot.  These thoughts crossed my mind as I viewed the payphone/suggestion box combo:

  • In this bustling terminal where customers crowded to catch the last boat to the mainland, someone might have written a suggestion if there had been pencil and paper. Notwithstanding my jaundiced view of the effectiveness of locked suggestion boxes, this particular one might as well have read: “We don’t really care.”
  • When the phone company removed the payphone, probably a decade ago, all that remained was an empty kiosk. The functional part of the phone booth had been stripped leaving a useless shell.

These are two different kinds of space junk, a term I’ve borrowed from NASA that describes the half-million pieces of accumulated debris left behind by decades of astronautical experiments; except in this case, the stuff is floating around in our offices and factories and labs and  ORs and warehouses.

The first kind of space junk, epitomized by the suggestion box, represents a system that is apparently in place, but is not purposeful and probably even counterproductive since it does not demonstrate understanding or commitment.   In fact, I frequently see suggestion boxes in this condition.  Other common examples include:

  • Taped lines left on the floor or signage left hanging from the rafters after a department re-layout
  • Huddle boards with “to do” dates more than a year old
  • Standardized work charts that bear no resemblance to the current condition
  • Kanban racks overflowing with over-production – or conversely, empty
  • ‘Employee of the Year’ postings last updated three years ago

At one point any of these experiments may have been purposeful, but now they’ve become monuments to stagnation and backsliding.

The second kind of space junk, represented in this case by the payphone-less kiosk, is debris that is left behind from old systems.  Like the kiosk, this stuff appears to be re-purposed, but after a time it accumulates into a hodgepodge of hand-me downs.  I’d wager, for example, that more than half of the seven-foot shop cabinets I see are leftovers from an earlier use.  They are almost always too deep for the current use, creating FIFO problems and inviting storage of excess supplies, tools and materials. Other examples of this type of space junk include:

  • Old desks turned into tables, perhaps to hold a printer plus “stuff” or maybe used as a lab bench
  • A wall that once divided two different departments, now just blocks the line of site between two team members from the same department
  • File cabinets and book cases re-purposed as fixture holders or walls
  • Electrical and plumbing drops left from an earlier time; like the payphone kiosks it was just easier to leave them behind.

To be sure there are times when old stuff can be effectively re-purposed, but more often than not these attempts save a few pennies up front, only to add cost and strain later on:  Many years ago, walking a convoluted conveyance route with a material handler, we came upon a floor scale that jutted into the route causing the employee to muscle the cart to the side of the aisle.  I asked, “Who uses the scale?”  The material handler didn’t know.  In fact nobody knew or could remember when the floor scale was last used.   Space junk.

I invite you to look around at the fixtures in your workplace and ask if they are really there to facilitate flow and make the job easier, or if they are just space junk.  How many can you find and how do they impact your work?  Please share a couple examples.

O.L.D. NELeanEsig2016_v2

PS I can’t believe it’s only 40 days until the start of GBMP’s 12th Annual Lean Conference. If you haven’t yet, I urge you to check out the website, take a look at the agenda and consider joining us. I personally am looking very much forward to spending time with our community of hundreds of passionate Lean practitioners from manufacturing, health care, insurance and other industries and to our four exceptional keynote presenters – Art Byrne, John Shook, Dr. Eric Dickson and Steven Spear – not to mention the dozens of presentations, interactive sessions and The Community of Lean Lounge. What a line up! I sincerely hope to see you there.


A chance reading recently provided a thought from Henry Thoreau that I think is worth sharing. Thoreau said:

“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when
one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”

The quote caused me to reflect on an incident some years ago at a film manufacturer:

I had been asked to visit with a team of engineers and scientists to troubleshoot a process problem on the production line.   While I had no special technical understanding of this process, the project manager felt that “another pair of eyes” might help to discover the cause of impurities deposited on their finished product, polarized film.

invisiAfter a short meeting, our team of erudite problem-solvers took to the floor, which, in this case was a one hundred foot long automated coating line. Film wound in serpentine fashion through prep, coating, drying and slitting zones over dozens of stainless steel rollers, accumulators and knives.   When the two technicians manning the line were told to take a break during our investigation, I objected and asked if they could work with the team.   One of our team, a gentleman with a PhD in Chemistry, grunted disapproval and then declared that he had isolated the problem in the process and had a solution. “MEK on this roller,” he said, pointing to a large stainless cylinder.   He turned to one of the techs and barked at her, “Wash this down with MEK.”

Both technicians glanced over to me, one of them shaking his head slightly.   “What do you think?” I asked them. One tech responded tentatively, “I used DI water for a similar problem in the past.” I glanced back to the problem-solving team, but no one was paying attention. In a slightly elevated tone, I repeated the tech’s idea. “She says that DI water has worked for cleaning in the past.”

After a short pause, our PhD chemist replied with an air of condescension, “Just use the MEK.”

By now, dear readers, you may think you know where this story is headed.   And you’re right! After several hours of experimenting with MEK, the team decided it was not working. “How about trying the DI water?” I asked. The project manager shrugged and replied, “Ok, let’s give a try.”

The cleaning with DI Water worked; the residue of impurities on the film vanished. To my amazement at the end of the day, the team thanked me – not the technicians – for the idea.   I corrected them, but I’m not sure they understood. To paraphrase Henry Thoreau:

“The greatest insult that was ever paid me was when
no one asked me what I thought, or attended to my ideas. “

Are you attending to the ideas of your employees, or are they invisible?   Please share a thought.


ALERT: Less than six weeks until our Northeast Lean Conference. This year’s focus “Putting People First” will energize your Lean journey. Click here for more information.

And don’t miss my next free Tea Time with the Toast Guy Webinar on September 9th from 3:00-3:45 p.m. The topic: “Getting Suppliers Involved – Do’s and Don’ts.”  Register here.

Half Full or Half Empty?

halfemptyI’ve always felt the need to accentuate the positive, something I think I picked up from my mother.  In tense situations she would always interject “Isn’t it a beautiful day,” a comment that usually generated laughter and reduced tensions.  While this seems like an admirable quality, I discovered one day that it should not be reduced to a knee-jerk reaction:

Twenty-three years ago, after my factory had received some press recognition as a Shingo Prize (now the Shingo Institute) recipient, requests for plant tours began to roll in.   In 1990 there weren’t yet many tour sites available, so the visits were plentiful; we referred to ourselves jokingly as Tours R Us.  In truth, we were early on on our improvement curve, but still a little farther along than many factories.  We accepted the tours because it gave our employees a chance to learn by teaching.

One memorable request came from the author of a then popular book on leadership.  He expressed a desire to listen in on a team meeting, a perfect opportunity to showcase our employees and to learn from an industry expert.   A cross-functional team that was meeting on the day of his visit provided a good sandbox for our visiting expert.  I don’t recall the exact problem the team was trying to solve, but I clearly remember that the meeting was unusually contentious.  We promoted openness in our team discussions, so this situation was not unusual, just on the high end of normal.

The tenor of the meeting’s discussion rose as frustrated participants sparred over questioned data and missed project assignments.   I glanced occasionally to our visitor whose visage began to show signs of concern.  Our Punch-and-Judy approach was perhaps less civilized than he had anticipated. While meeting protocols were followed – agenda, timekeeper, and minutes – it soon occurred to me that we might have needed a sergeant-at-arms as well.   I recalled my mother’s words, and resolved to say something positive to keep the meeting on track and let our visitor know that we could indeed work together as team.  I addressed the group, “You know, this team has accomplished a great deal in the last month, let’s not lose sight of that.”

Eddie V., an outspoken team member responded directly, “Well, I don’t think we’ve made hardly any progress, and pretending we have is not going to help the situation.”

Suddenly I felt like proverbial manager defending the status quo.  The room was silent for a moment. Our visitor glanced again to me wondering how I would respond.  “Yes, you’re right in one sense, Eddie,” I said.  “We should be working harder to solve the problem. You think the glass is half empty and I think it’s half full.  Perhaps we’d all be better served if we focus on the half-empty viewpoint.”

The team then continued its discussion and soon the meeting ended.  The encounter felt dysfunctional to me, and one side of me was privately embarrassed that we could not put on a positive face for our visitor.  But Eddie’s retort stuck with me as a reminder that the answer to the rhetorical question “Is the glass half empty or half full?” is:

“Yes!”   The glass that is half full is also still half empty. Management optimism untempered by a little bit of reality may be construed as complacency.


BTW: Another “Tea Time with the Toast Dude Webinar” is fast approaching.  Please join me for a free 40-minute webinar next Tuesday, November 12 at 3:00 p.m. EST.  The topic: “Why So Few Ideas” will focus on gaining better participation in your idea system.  Click here to register on-line.