Tag Archives: kaizen

Us and Them

Lean Peeve #7 is about the human divide that kills continuous improvement:
Us & Them

Over years of listening to persons describe their work, one single word has surfaced repeatedly as a barometer of what is frequently called “culture.”   The use of the word they in conversation, gives me insight into an organization’s ability to engage employees and sustain improvement. 

The technical aspects of Lean I can observe primarily with my eyes:

  • the flow of material and information,
  • the stability, repeatability and clarity of work
  • adherence to standards
  • alignment of resources to strategic objectives.

These are artifacts, physical manifestations, of Lean and together are necessary to an organization’s Lean development.  But alone, the technical efforts provide only a cursory understanding of culture.  For example, too often I visit workplaces that exhibit evidence of Lean tools and systems, but are lacking a spirit of improvement.  Deming Prize recipient Ryuji Fukuda refers to a “favorable environment” as a work atmosphere that supports employee participation and nourishes that spirit.  This environment is not easily visible from the Lean artifacts.  In fact, organizations willing and able spend money can create an appearance of Lean, with no real change in culture at all.  One large manufacturer I visited recently actually farms out improvement projects to subcontractors.  They are outsourcing Lean implementation – or so they think. 

One word gives these companies away:  they.   It’s a word that refers variously to management, employees, other departments or divisions, external suppliers, boards of directors – any parties involved in the flow of goods and services to the customer. When I visit a company, I’m not only looking for the use of Lean tools and systems, but I’m also counting They’s.  Let’s call it a They Assessment.   

Sometimes they alludes to an adversarial relationship.  “They don’t listen to us”, a nurse told me when I asked her about a scheduling snafu that left patients overflowing in a waiting room.  “Who are they?” I asked.  “The docs,” she said.  “All doctors?” I asked.  “Some more than others,” she replied.”  Notice that the pronoun they objectifies an entire group.  

In other instances, they connotes a more passive separation: “They won’t support these changes” is a concern I hear often, and it could just as well be spoken by top managers or by employees depending on frame of reference.  When I’m speaking to a production department, support departments like IT or engineering are often in the they category.  And the effect is reciprocal.  If one function refers to another as they, the other department will always respond in kind.

They is a red flag word.  It’s frequency and location of use in conversation paint a picture of the business environment: favorable or unfavorable.  Organizations with a stronger Lean culture will refer more frequently to “we” in describing their work.   In one company, for example, assembly employees repeatedly referred to the engineering department as “we” even though engineering was clearly a separate entity on the organizational chart.  The same production department, however, referred to a subassembly department as they, even though both departments worked side by side in the same physical area.   As organizations develop the favorable environment, they is incrementally replaced by “we”, the ideal condition being no they’s at all.   Short of that ideal, when I hear the word they I note a relationship problem that is holding back the essential spirit of improvement. 

Recently, I visited a company that was considering the Shingo Prize model as a template for company improvement.  The plant manager greeted me in the lobby with these words:

“We’d like to know more about the Shingo model and how it can help us improve.  We feel like we’ve made a lot of improvement in the last five years, but have hit a plateau.”

Indeed, there were technical challenges for this company that were apparent on a tour of the shop floor.  Operational availability was still low and inventories still too high.   But not a single they was spoken.   In a company of several hundred people, from management to the factory floor, only “we” and “us” were heard.   I responded to the plant manager’s question,

“The Shingo Prize model will certainly help your plant past its technical plateau, but as far as I can hear your potential for improvement is very high.”

How would your plant fare with a They Assessment?  Which are toughest relationships to forge?  Let me hear from you. 


Are you planning to check out GBMP’s Northeast Lean Conference, 21st Century Lean, next week? (Wednesday and Thursday October 7-8 to be exact.) Time is running out to register yourself, and some team members, for this tremendous opportunity to re-energize your Lean team and implementation. Covid-19 challenges of the last several months have highlighted the critical need to speed innovation in delivery of products and services – central themes to both Lean and IoT. In that spirit, GBMP pivoted our 16th annual event to a virtual approach — to bring our Lean community together in an engaging but safe environment. Please, join us.

Three Hands

Over the weekend, I try to catch up on home tasks, and often the lessons I learn there carry forward to the workday.   One of my biggest frustrations with home projects is dealing with tasks that require more than two hands.  Something as simple as nailing a board, for example, requires one hand on the board, one to hammer and one to hold the nail.  Depending on your skill level with a hammer, this particular scenario can also lead to injury. “Be careful to hit the right nail,” my father used to tell me.  I refer to these tasks as three-hand-tasks.  They occur all day long, but we tend to ignore them since there is no remedy.

In the workplace, be it an office, a factory, an OR, or even a construction site, the need for a third hand is often accommodated by a tool like a nail gun that functions as two-hands or as a holding fixture to secure the object of our work.  Still there are many occasions each day when one or both hands are used as holding fixtures.  Apart from safety issues, this normal impediment slows work by 50% or more.  We have two hands, but only one is working.  Take for example, the assembler who holds multiple parts in one hand to act as a feeder rather than repeatedly reaching to a container for each assembly cycle.  The function is assembly, but one hand is just a holding fixture.  Workers adopt this method to avoid repeated reaching.  But why not do something about the reaching?   Or, there is the need to steady the piece (or person in healthcare) to whom we are adding value – another spot where a third-hand would come in handy.  Or, for larger work, maybe we’ll call another body part into use: perhaps a stomach, a shoulder or a foot.  Or, we simply wait until another pair of hands is available.  Without another means for remediation, we do whatever is necessary to get the job done.  And, with practice, we get pretty good at it.  I once observed a rather slight employee with small hands, use her left hand to pick-up and hold six golf-balls at one time as a feeder to her right hand that was loading a pad printer to print logos on the balls.  Problem was, she was the only employee in the plant who had this superhuman dexterity. 

I spent 15 years managing a factory where brilliant shopfloor employees devised clever ways to accommodate their three-hand work with simple fixturing, non-slip work surfaces and arrangement of materials within inches of their work.  And good for them!  They recognized the waste of motion and applied simple countermeasures, most of which they could do without technical support.  But then, one day an astute engineer introduced us to DFMA concepts and software created by Geoffrey Boothroyd and Peter Dewhurst that had the production floor in mind as well as the end customer.  One premise of their studies was that products can be designed so as to not require assembly fixturing.  That single design constraint modified our approach to new product development, making assembly and fabrication safer, easier, faster and lower cost.   My key take-away from the experience was that the full benefits of Lean are realized when everyone in the organization applies their creativity to eliminate waste (in this case three-hands waste); Everybody, Everyday, as a we say at GBMP.

Here’s some homework for my readers:  Be mindful today of how repetitive tasks in your job require “three hands.”  Share a few with me and let me know your countermeasure. 


As GBMP’s annual conference21st Century Lean – quickly approaches (it’s next week, on Wednesday October 7 & Thursday October 8), I thought it useful to mention that, in addition to the live programming scheduled for those dates (see the agenda here), bonus content – great prerecorded sessions for passionate Lean practitioners – is already available to watch, and all of that great content plus recordings of the live sessions, will be available to all registered attendees for a year! Which means if you can’t join us for the sessions as they stream live next week, you can view them (as many times as you wish and alongside colleagues) anytime time in the next year. This flexibility for learning when the time is right for you is pretty exciting and while we love and will miss seeing everyone IRL (in real life) this year, these are some pretty compelling reasons to attend a virtual conference (no travel and registration for 1/4 the price are pretty great reasons too). Be well my friends.

Time-Space-WIP Continuum

Cyril Parkinson was onto something when he postulated in1955 that “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”  While this sounds a bit like hard science, it was actually a semi-serious dig at the capability of British Parliament to find ways of filling time (and spending money).  Today we refer to this postulation as Parkinson’s Law. Over the years, several more humorous corollaries have also been offered:

  • If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.
  • Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.
  • In ten hours a day you have time to fall twice as far behind your commitments as in five hours a day. (from Isaac Asimov)
  • Data expands to fill the space available for storage.

But what did Mr. Parkinson mean by work?  Webster says, work is the “physical or mental effort or activity directed toward the production or accomplishment of something,” i.e., value-added activity.   If we take Webster’s meaning for work then it’s really not the work that expands – that’s a constant. It’s what’s left over after the customer has been satisfied – let’s call it Waste.  And the physical manifestation of that waste is what we erroneously refer to as “Work In Process.”  This could be either material or information that has been produced too soon, or is ridden with defects and is therefore delayed.  Toyota refers to this more accurately as stagnation.  But for most of the rest of us it’s called Work In Process; WIP.  The moniker is forgiving:  It must be okay, because it’s work and it’s in process, right? 

I continue to be amazed when I visit factories, just how much space is given up to this partially completed stuff.  In hospitals, it manifests itself in the waiting rooms and the gurney’s stretched along the halls with patients waiting for a bed. And in insurance companies, it’s the virtual queues of customer claims urgently awaiting a response. 

So, to end the week I’d like offer Lean Peeve #5: WIP, and offer an additional corollary to Parkinson’s Law: 

Work in Process expands to fill all available space. 

If you’d like a laugh, check out his humorous video the GBMP team made in 2012:  WIP it.  Enjoy. 


By the way, even though our conference is virtual this year, we are not giving up on a little fun there too.  If you’re joining us on October 7-8 for the Northeast L.E.A.N Conference, don’t miss “Lean Before Dark” on the afternoon of the 7th, when we’ll try some asynchronous Karaoke. 🙂  And for you DEVO fans, check out this LinkedIn post from our day one closing keynote,  John Carrier:  WIP Leads to Bull Whip

Indirect Distortion

When Stan Davis wrote Future Perfect in 1987 (then called the “book of the decade,” and still a good read), he foresaw a reversal in thinking that has since become normal.  For example, the expression “Time is money,” has flipped to “Money is time,” the focus now being on money as the measure of time.  While his book was not specifically a Lean book, it coined the term “mass customization,” that is now a basic customer expectation.  Most impactful for me, however, was his reminder that organization follows strategy, and that as strategy does a 180, we need to modify our organization and policy to support it.  New jobs and entire organizations have sprung up in the last 30 years to support Lean Transformation.  The same is true for Digital Transformation.  New job titles, new reporting structures and new policies all to support technology that was science fiction when I entered the workforce.   These are good changes to embrace. 

What has been more difficult, however, for many organizations, is letting go of the old organization and policy that supported earlier strategies.  These constructs that have been baked into our infrastructure and systems die hard. One example of this is the concept of direct and indirect labor. 

Let’s call it Indirect Distortion, Lean Peeve #4.   

Fifty years ago, when I entered the manufacturing world, roles were very clear: You were either touching the product or not.  Supervisors, material handlers, stock keepers, inspectors all were considered indirect.  But as our shopfloor adopted a Lean strategy, the closer we approached one-piece-flow, the distinction between direct and indirect became more blurred.  For example, when we set-up a cafeteria style stock area adjacent to assembly and rotated assemblers through the material handler role there was initial pushback.  “You can’t have direct folks doing indirect tasks,” I was told.  Why?  It would “mess up our costs.”   Fortunately for me, our V.P. of Finance visited the floor for himself to understand.  The job was reclassified. 

On the other hand, as our stockroom shrank, we redeployed stock keepers to insource production from an external supplier.  Until our standard cost system caught up, this created an illusion that were losing money.  Once again, through some myth-buster heroics from our V.P of Finance we demonstrated that the change was, in fact, super-profitable.  I was fortunate to have this support on site.  Many sites, like one I worked with years later as a consultant, do not have that advantage.  I once visited a division of a medical device manufacturer that was deemed by the corporation to be its productivity leader.  What I learned on my visit was that this site unofficially “borrowed” production workers from the floor to make improvements and solve problems.  This deceptive practice, while highly effective, was hidden from corporate management, lest the borrowed workers be classified as indirect labor at a time when management was taking an ax to that population.  “Doesn’t corporate see this?” I asked.  “No,” replied the site manager, “they never visit.”   

A memorable quote from Jim Womack, our opening keynote at this year’s Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference, comes to mind: “Cost accounting makes liars out of all of us.”    The point is that a Lean strategy is too often thwarted by status quo organization and policy and, in this case, even the language that describes it.  


Stay tuned. Lean Peeve #5 coming tomorrow. Oh and by the way… there are less than two weeks until my organization’s annual, but inaugural virtual, conference, “The Northeast Lean Conference: 21st Century Lean”.   Send a team and recharge your Lean batteries for 2021.  Here’s the link the program and registration.

Local Efficiency

“What do you do for a living,” a neighbor asks.  As I try to explain about GBMP’s attempts to help customers improve productivity and quality, my neighbor interjects with a smirk, “Oh . . . you’re an efficiency expert.” He thinks I walk around holding a stop watch, trying to find ways to make people work faster.  “Well,” I respond, “we try to improve SYSTEM efficiency, not just local efficiency.”  About this time, he has zoned out, not particularly interested in the distinction I’ve made, and he changes the topic to football (see yesterday’s blog post.)  I’ve written more than a few posts over the years about the difference between local improvement and system improvement. Here’s one more. 

Lean Peeve #3 is Local Efficiency.

Alluding to the stopwatch, I’ll begin with the definition of efficiency: standard time / actual time X 100%.  This is the one you’ll see on your ERP system. Say that I’m machining PARTA with a standard time of 60 seconds.  That standard was measured by someone with a stop watch to determine that fastest repeatable time for the operation. But I actually take  65  seconds each for this lot.  My efficiency is 60/65*100% = 92%.  Simple enough.  However, PARTA is two levels deep on the bill of material of the final product sold to the customer and is therefore essentially decoupled from actual need by weeks or longer.   My efficiency is not based on the ability to provide what the customer needs, but on a standard that rewards me ala Lucy-in-the-chocolate-factory to go as fast possible. Consider the implications of this definition of efficiency in context of the metaphor.   What would happen if each person in the canoe pictured paddled as a fast as he or she could?  (Having been in the Boy Scouts, I know what happens.) That’s classical efficiency, or, as Toyota calls it, local efficiency.  SYSTEM efficiency would have everyone paddle at the same rate (call it Takt time), which is pretty evident in a canoe.

But let’s take this idea back into the factory: I have just completed an order for 360 PARTA’s, built according to my MRP (based on EOQ, fixed lead-time, pan-size, safety stock and a raft of other order modifiers that will be the topic of a later post) with an efficiency of 92%.   These will subsequently be sub-assembled in a different department according their MRP requirements and ultimately built and shipped to the customer in a still different quantity from either upstream process, each department operating at high local efficiencies.  There are no colliding paddles as in the canoe metaphor, just lots of squandered capacity and excess inventory. 

What do you think of the SYSTEM efficiency is in this example?

It turns out that where efficiency is concerned, the whole is not necessarily equal to the sum of its parts.  In fact, in a functionally organized workplace (ironically set-up as such to maximize local efficiency) we can expect system efficiency to be far less than the sum of its parts.   We can all be paddling as fast as possible, thinking we’re doing great – but the boat is going in circles. 

Speaking at a Shingo Conference some years ago, my friend and mentor, Russ Scafede, who was a senior manager at both GM and Toyota during his career, reflected this way on local efficiency: “At General Motors, we use to joke that all of our divisions were making money; it was only the corporation that was losing its shirt.

How do you measure efficiency?  Share a story. 


Want to learn more about True Efficiency?   Please tune into the 16th Annual Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference to learn how taking the best thinking from Lean Transformation and Digital Transformation can accelerate your continuous improvement efforts.  Only two weeks to go before opening day. Our three exceptional keynotes (there are also ten breakout sessions and lots of networking opportunities) include Fady Saad, co-founder of MassRobotics, who will discuss the rise of robotics and AI technologies and how their applications will disrupt the way we understand and implement lean methodologies and approaches as we know it today. From applications in manufacturing, logistics, construction, agriculture and healthcare, robotics and AI will change the way we do things. Learn how the lean community can better prepare and adapt to this new era of smart systems.   You can get more information and register here.