Tag Archives: kaizen

Lean Lessons from COVID

You may recognize the quote from Friedrich Nietzsche – or more recently from Kelly Clarkson 🙂  “What doesn’t kill you makes your stronger.”   I’ve thought about this often in the last 22 months in context of the horrible pandemic and more parochially in relation to the efforts of many client organizations to sustain continuous improvement in a period of great uncertainty.  There are more than a few parallels.  Here are some  that occur to me:

Burning platforms are finite.   17th Century playwright, Samuel Johnson said, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”   The sense of urgency generated by immediate threats, commonly referred to as burning platforms, has kick started many a Lean transformation including at Toyota where, as Taiichi Ohno noted  “The oil crisis opened our eyes,” as the event that kicked TPS into high gear in the 1970’s. Similarly, the existential threat of COVID-19 enabled an intense period of historic collaboration between government and industry to produce vaccines in record time.    But what happens when the  perceived crisis is past?  We celebrate and take little break, which too often becomes an indefinite backslide.  Shigeo Shingo warned that complacency is a killer of improvement. Too many organizations get comfortable after an initial burst of improvement.  Contrary to the popular “critical mass” metaphor, I think there is no such thing in continuous improvement.  Organizations that are able keep the continuous improvement flywheel turning are blessed with leaders who work tirelessly to renew a shared sense  of purpose that extends beyond the burning platform.

Myopia is Normal.  W. Edwards Deming described ‘lack of long   term thinking’ as a management sin. But, I’ve regrettably concluded after 50 years in the workforce that long-term perspective is just a very rare capability.  I don’t expect it any more than I expect everyone to have 20/20 vision.   Many executives talk a good game about vision and strategy,  but their actions are more tactical, reactive and transactional.  And, unfortunately, no amount of tactical gyrations can overcome a lack of strategic thinking – a painful lesson from the last two years.  Speaking at a conference in 2003, my teacher, Hajime Oba, was asked why American  companies did not see more benefit from TPS.  He responded, “Two reasons: 1) American management does not understand what TPS is, and 2) they are driven by quarterly earnings.”  Fact is, we look to our executive leadership for that view over the horizon.  While most of us are busy in the trenches, those super-normal visionary leaders are looking out for our futures. 

We are ruled by emotion.   Shigeo Shingo noted “People take action only after they are persuaded, and persuasion is achieved not by reason, but through emotions.”  Even if you’re the boss, according to former Toyota exec, Gary Convis, it’s essential to “Lead as though you have no authority.”  This advice has been helpful to me in my career, but it is easy to slip into a disrespectful and disengaging  ‘just-do-it” mode.   Leaders are charged with bridging the disconnect between reason and emotion.  We count on them to make reasoned decisions based on science and then persuade the rest of us to buy-in and collaborate. 

Life is an infinite game.   From philosopher James Carse comes the idea that the status quo will only change when we fail to take it seriously.   He cites the Berlin wall as an example. Decades of fighting only proved to galvanize the differences between two sides.  The wall was symbolic of a finite game – one that succeeded only because it pitted two sides against one another.  When we talk about win-win propositions in business we are proposing an infinite game.  In fact, one of the biggest obstacles to continuous improvement is business factionalization: sales versus operations, marketing versus engineering, factory versus office, customer versus suppliers, winners versus losers.   These are our Berlin walls.  The leader’s job is to help us to not take them seriously.  Call that transformational.

As we say good-bye to another plague-riddled year, I’m hopefully subscribing to Nietzsche’s aphorism; that our collective experience from the last two years will only make us stronger in 2022.  Here’s to resilience!  And also, here’s to leaders everywhere who will:

  • Share a sense of purpose and direction.
  • Think long-term – over the horizon.
  • Persuade us to follow.
  • Bring us all together – one team. 

Happy New Year!

O.L.D.    

You’re My #1 Customer

I sat on the phone on hold this morning,  serenaded by Christmas music, interrupted periodically by a recorded message, “Your call is very important to us . . . “  As I waited, I mused on that scene from the Christmas classic, “Jingle All The Way,” where Howard Langdon (Arnold Schwarzenegger) frantically tries to power through the queue of waiting customers.  At the end of each call, he reflexively concludes with the expression “You’re my number 1 customer.”    The scene makes me chuckle because I’ve been on both ends of that queue many times.  I do believe that most of us really want every one of our customers to feel like #1, just as we would like to feel that way when we are on the receiving end.  We want perfect quality and zero hassles; and in the information age, we order today because we want it today.

Alas, while most organizations aspire to create that level of customer experience, their systems and policies make it very difficult.  Like factory inventory, customers must be placed in queues when they cannot be served immediately.   Lines at supermarkets, traffic jams, waiting rooms, and, yes, phone queues.  The invention in 1989 (not so long ago) of the auto-attendant was intended to improve efficiency by automatically directing calls; a job that older folks like me will recall was once done by a person.  Where the desk of receptionist once stood, there is now just a phone with a sign above it:  “If you know your party’s extension, please dial it now.”  

If you are calling from outside there are  further enhancements to improve the waiting experience:

  • A clarifying greeting. (“Please listen carefully to the following options, as our menu has recently changed.”)
  • An explanation. (“All representatives are busy serving other customers.” Or, “ Due to high call volumes. . . .”)
  • An apology. (“We’re sorry.  Someone will be with you shortly.”)
  • Music. (Who chooses that?  Improvement idea: Give the caller the option to choose.)
  • A marketing pitch. (“Rated #1 in service by . . . .” )
  • A message to let you know where you are in the queue.  (“There are 14 callers ahead of you.”)
  • An offer to call you back. (“Dial 1 if you’d like us to call you back . . .” )
  • Or the old standard. (“Please leave a message . . . )

An advanced auto-attendant may, in fact, intermix all of these responses – or you may be encouraged to use an app (“For faster service please contact us at www. . . .”)  Of course, the nano-second capabilities of the Internet do not guarantee an immediate response.  Here’s a screen capture of an online inquiry I made in February 2021 🙂

Shigeo Shingo referred to these enhancements as “superficial improvements” because they automate the waste of waiting rather than eliminating it.   All of the embellishments exist only because the connection is not available.  Ultimately, if the proper party does not pick up, as Eli Goldratt might have noted, we have just moved the bottleneck.    

The original auto-attendant concept was intended to improve the flow of the customer’s inquiry by quickly directing it to the proper party.  If we were to consider only the operational time, that might be true.   But, for a customer faced with a nested process of choices based on 10 phone digits, there are plenty of opportunities for mistakes, rework, and frustration.  For me, there is nothing more surprisingly delightful than to reach a real person like Howard Langdon immediately.  But I will confess, if you try to reach me by phone, you may hear: “That mailbox is full.”  (A little 5S problem.)

In any event, have a Merry Christmas and remember: YOU’RE MY #1 CUSTOMER.  🙂

O.L.D.

Looking for a last minute gift for the passionate Lean practitioner in your life? Look no further than ShopGBMP and our annual Holiday Sale!

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. 

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.