Tag Archives: kanban

Celebrity Toast Kaizen

I’m not so sure how I feel about a story I heard this morning of Jim Nantz’s toast visual aid, but it’s so rare that anyone in the public limelight offers a story that touches Lean thinking, particularly one about toast, that I am compelled to share.

actual toast.jpgApparently, Mr. Nantz, who likes his toast burnt (as in #1 on the toast scale), carries a laminated photo of his preference in his wallet.  Whenever he orders breakfast, he passes the photo to the wait staff in order to convey his unusual taste.   I also like burnt toast (around 3 on the toast scale), but somehow could not resort to the use of visual aids when ordering breakfast.  For me, a strong verbal instruction usually does the trick.  My wallet is already stuffed with so many business cards, credit cards and receipts; I’d just be wasting time looking for my toast visual every time I ordered breakfast.   And, truth be told, I’m not quite as particular as Mr. Nantz about these things.

However, in defense of Mr. Nantz,  “The customer determines value.”  No doubt, the toast problem is more consequential for him; he has many more occasions than I to be a customer for breakfast.  (I generally make my own toast.)  He’s even calculated the annual accumulation of wasted time – forty-eight hours – he has suffered by returning his toast for rework; not to mention the added insult of either eating his breakfast out of sequence or alternatively letting it get cold while his waits 10 minutes (his estimate) for the toast to be appropriately burned.  As he notes, “Time is currency.”   He’s apparently on the clock when he’s having breakfast; I generally eat out for fun and see breakfast a time to relax.

Although over 100,000 copies of Toast Kaizen have been sold since its release in 2004, it’s highly unlikely that Mr. Nantz would ever have been a viewer.  Yet, his celebrity story is in many ways an extension of our video.  So this holiday season, GBMP will send him a present: his own copy of the toast video.  (I may also include a discrete warning that burning toast produces acrylamide, a known carcinogen.)

For all our customers of GBMP and readers of Old Lean Dude, we wish you a lighthearted and relaxed Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas or whatever holiday you choose to celebrate.


Tools or Culture?

With our annual Northeast LEAN Conference just a few days away, I want to relate a personal story about the theme of this year’s conference,

The Integration of Tools & Culture:

The first two books I ever read about Lean were Zero Inventories by Robert Hall and Japanese Manufacturing Techniques by Richard Schonberger.  In 1985, these definitive academic works were among just a few sources of information about what was then referred to as Just-In-Time, or JIT for short.   As I was just starting to manage a factory at that time with inventory turns of less than one (really), these JIT “how to” books seemed like the solution to my problems.    I owe Hall and Schonberger a debt of gratitude for their early reports about technical aspects of Toyota’s incredible improvement system.  But, for me, the single most important shred of information from these academic texts was a footnote in Hall’s book that referred to a then unknown industrialist by the name of Shigeo Shingo.  Hall cited Shingo’s book, A Study of the Toyota Production System: From an Industrial Engineering Viewpoint.  This book presented the technical aspects of Lean in a context of revolutionary concepts and principles.  The original 1982 version was a crude translation from the Japanese, but reading it created a sense of excitement about a wholly new way of thinking about work.   To be sure, Shingo’s explanation of tools echoed reports from Hall and Schonberger, but as one of the key inventors of TPS, Shingo shared a deep understanding that was grounded in unique personal experience and wisdom of a creator.  While he is most often remembered for introducing technical concepts like quick changeover and mistake-proofing, Shingo’s greatest contribution to my learning was in providing an integrated image of TPS, a system that was both technical and social science – tools and culture.  One could not exist without the other.  Beyond that, he conveyed his personal struggles to overcome what he referred as “conceptual blind spots” of his clients, Toyota among them.  He gave us the Law as well as the Gospel:  Lean is an immense opportunity but equally a daunting challenge to rise above status quo thinking.  “Keep an open mind,” he reminded us.  According to Mr. Shingo, management’s #1 job was “volition,” i.e., a passionate commitment to creating an environment that favored improvement. These were lessons that supported my organization and me as we learned new tools and unlearned old concepts at the same time.

Today I’m often asked, “What do we work on first, tools or culture?”   I answer, in context of the Toyota Production System, neither has substance without the other.  They are two sides of the same coin. We need to learn them together.   Our 2017 Northeast Lean Conference is dedicated to reinforcing that message.   Lean tools are essential as means for improvement; Lean culture is essential to enable us to see beyond the status quo. If you haven’t already registered, here’s a link with more information:


Hope we see you next week in Worcester, MA for a couple of energizing, informing and inspiring days.


Eye of the Beholder

kanbaMany moons ago when I was just getting started on my lean journey, I visited a large automotive supplier to benchmark pull systems.  My own factory had started a pilot kanban between two work centers and I was hoping to gain some insight from a more experienced source.  To my disappointment, when I was escorted to the factory, the aisles were crowded with pallets of kitted orders.  “What is this inventory?” I asked my tour guide.  “That’s Kanban,” he said.  “How so?” I asked. “Every day the stockroom pulls stock for the floor,” he explained, emphasizing the word “pull.” I thought to myself that this particular material looked just like traditional factory orders, launched before they were needed.  The floor of this benchmark facility was more crowded with inventory than my own.   Not wishing to be rude, I tactfully inquired, “Isn’t the kanban supposed to stay near to the supplying work center?”   The factory manager confidently responded, “Oh yes, we have a central Kanban area.  I’ll show you.”  With that, he led me to large storage area that looked just like my stockroom only larger. “We pull from here,” he reiterated, once again emphasizing the operative word, “pull.”

“Amazing,” I thought to myself, “the factory has just swapped its STOCKROOM sign with one that reads “KANBAN.”  (Thirty years later, by the way, that factory has been closed.)  The point here is not to focus specifically on the tool, in this case kanban, but rather to highlight the difficulty that arises when the concept behind any tool is misunderstood.  If we don’t understand “what good looks like,” we could be doing exactly the wrong thing.

Two days ago, for example, I heard a machinist jokingly describe his factory’s use of Andons:  “When there’s a problem with my machine, I set the Andon to red and that signals everyone that I’m away from the machine hunting for the maintenance department.”    Unfortunately, while the front line employee knows this not how Andons are supposed to function, the details are less well understood elsewhere.  There is not a single Lean tool I can think of which is not burdened by misconceptions.  Here are six common ones.  Perhaps you can add to the list in the comments section below and we’ll keep a running tally (think we can get to 50?):

  1. Ganging up shop orders with similar set-ups regardless of due date in order to amortize set-up time, and then calling it “set-up reduction.” This is set-up avoidance. The whole idea of reducing set-ups to “build the customer’s exact order immediately” is lost when orders wait their turn for the right set-up.
  2. Creating dedicated “cells” which sit idle 80% of the time. People tell me, “We don’t have room for cells.”  No wonder.
  3. Moving the stockroom to the factory and then referring to months of stock on hand as “point of use inventory.”
  4. Referring to work instructions as “standard work.” In fact, having a clear work standard and job instructions build an important foundation for standardized work but too few sites understand standardized work as a dynamic choreography matching supplier capability to customer rate.
  5. A subset of the above, confusing Takt time with cycle time.
  6. One of my favorite misconceptions came from an engineering manager who let me know that he appreciated the “8th waste” (loss of creativity) because he was tired of his engineers wasting their creativity on production problems.

Confronted by these kinds of mis-perceptions, I’m reminded of an old Twilight Zone episode, Eye of the Beholder.   Watch the two-minute clip to see how ugly things can get when we don’t have a good understanding of the concepts behind Lean tools.  In the last several years, a great deal of attention has been given to creating a Lean culture rather than just implementing the tools.  This is an ideal I subscribe to wholeheartedly so long as we define culture as an environment favorable to continuous improvement, and recognize that a proper understanding of the tools by both workers and managers is a key part of the culture.


PS I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind folks that the Early Bird price for The 12th Annual Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference  – “Lean-By-Doing: Accelerating Continuous Improvement”– ends May 31. It’s a great event and all the better if you can save your company some dough when you register your group. (It’s still a really affordable event even if you wait until the summer to register, no worries.) I am really looking forward to it and hope you are making plans to join us. There will be keynote presentations by John Shook, Steven Spear, Art Byrne & Dr. Eric Dickson, plus more than 30 interactive, educational, inspirational and fun breakout sessions rounded out with networking socials, yokoten in the Lean Lounge and much more. Here’s the agenda. See you in October, I hope!

As an added incentive to add to my kanban misconceptions list, one commenter will receive a free registration for the whole event! Good luck! BEH




Ludicrous Speed

speedMel Brooks fans will remember Spaceballs, his jocular jibe at the Star Wars epic. In pursuit of a rebel ship, evil Lord Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) orders his crew to accelerate their craft beyond the speed of light to “ludicrous speed.” While time travel remains science fiction, our ability to process and transmit data has proceeded apace since I was a young lean dude. In college we expressed data transmission speed as a baud rate, a unit of measure roughly equivalent to one alphanumeric character per second. Geeks like me sat at Teletype machines watching our computer programs transmit programs at the blazing speed of 32 baud (i.e. 32 characters per second) to a shared computer at Dartmouth College, which then processed that information at a rate expressed in IPS, instructions per second.   Information speed was severely limited by the transmission and processing technology of the day.  By the time I graduated college however, speed had progressed to MIPS, millions of instructions per second, then to billions, and more recently FLOPS.   The trend continues today, bounded only by theoretical limits, towards ludicrous speed.

Fascination with information speed has been with us since 1953 when the first commercial computer was sold. At that time UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) processing speeds averaged 0.002 MIPS. Only a handful of the world’s largest corporations could afford the million-dollar price tag for the twenty-nine thousand pound device that filled a four hundred square-foot room.   UNIVAC was the device that coined the term “real-time” defined as the “actual time during which something takes place” plus a few more MIPS for processing.   No doubt, the technological breakthrough was amazing, if only visible to a few persons.

However, compare UNIVAC’s real-time stats to the iPhone 6, weighing in at less than five ounces, and fitting easily in a jacket pocket. In a sixty year span, the speed of real-time has increased by nearly 130 million percent. Ludicrous speed! Moreover, smart phones are ubiquitous. Now everyone can have real-time information, not just a few large corporations. So what’s so ludicrous about that?

From a Lean standpoint, there are a number of challenges:

  1. First, is the barrage of media presented to us every minute of the day. How many emails must I routinely delete each time I handle my smart phone?   How many videos do I need to see on, for example, Kanban? YouTube lists 56,600 entries. Which of these is valuable to me? Which represent misinformation?   How can I confirm? In reality anybody can post any video today – with ludicrous speed.  No doubt, some of these videos will be excellent. But I could sort and sift through the YouTube haystack forever looking for good information.
  2. Second, the promises of automating Lean are alluring but insidious. For example, say some, do away with those pesky cards (kanbans) and replace with them with real-time kanban. This, unfortunately, separates the information from the material, assuring that the two flows will be out of sync. Moreover, the ‘instantaneous’ information becomes invisible.   Cyberspace is not a Gemba. We can’t go there to see queues or delays or problems.
  3. There is a paradox in the lack of connectedness that has derived from this ludicrous speed of information flow. An increasing number of persons labor under the delusion, for example, that texting is “talking to someone.”   At a time when we are finally acknowledging the importance of social science to real Lean transformation, we are at the same time interposing a tool that isolates people, that creates only the illusion of human interaction.
  4. The ludicrous speed with which we can all whip up professional-looking presentations today has blurred the distinction between looking good and being good. In the immortal words of Dave Lee Roth, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how good you look.”   PowerPoint, the original “baffle-them-with-B.S.” application has been around for twenty-five years, but it is quickly being supplanted by a plethora of smartphone apps for 5S, standardized work , Kanban, Kamishibai, and..well…you name it! Why do we do this? Because we can.   The words of my old-school TPS teacher are ringing in my ears.   Responding to my PowerPoint-drawn value stream map, he replied “Don’t make it pretty, make it accurate.
  5. Finally, as with material flow, when we focus primarily on cycle time, those nanoseconds of computer processing and transmission, we lose sight of the often huge stagnation time of computer queues, the automated over-production of information (produced before it is needed), and the total elapsed time for information flow, which includes the batching of information before input and after output. Those times can be truly ludicrous.

I’m admittedly a participant in the information age and I benefit from its ludicrous speed.  I use the Internet, for example, to write my posts and revel in the opportunity to pull in links to humorous video, historical background and scholarly articles.   But I worry that the ludicrous speed with which I send and receive information today may not be leading to more wisdom.

Please share your thoughts. Do you agree or disagree with the challenges I’ve posed? Can you think of other challenges?


P.S. GBMP has lined up several Shingo Institute workshops this winter and spring. For those who wish to learn how to create and lead sustainable cultures of excellence based on the Shingo Model and its Guiding Principles, we hope you can join one of our exceptional Certified Facilitators at an event near you soon. Read all about the courses and our faciliatators here.

Also, it’s long been a part of my organization’s mission to help build a community of passionate lean practitioners, leaders and learners and we at GBMP are proud of our Membership Mission and program. You can read all about it here. After more than a decade without a change in the annual fee to belong (which has always been an astonishingly low $495 per year for a company-wide membership),  dues are going up in March of 2016. Not without additional benefits, we promise. And not without the option to pay the current price to keep the current level of benefits (plus a few new ones). Beat the increase by signing up for or renewing a current membership now so you’ll get all the benefits of our GOLD Membership for the old price.

Burning Platform

blurningplatformA favorite Twilight Zone episode that played Labor Day weekend put me in mind of the stressful push production environment that many organizations still endure today. In a technical sense, push production refers to launching orders into production before customer requirements are known and then pushing them along, some faster than others as requirements become clearer. Shigeo Shingo referred to this production method as speculative, a euphemism for guessing. With a forecast and MPS at the front end of the push, perhaps this could be elevated to educated guessing.   In my MRP days I witnessed the ugly consequences of the automated push: Computer-assisted attempts to tweak the push, including exponential smoothing, safety stock, pan size, shrinkage, yield, order point, n-days supply, fixed and variable lead times, transit times, minimum lot size – all intended to optimize the guessing, but all ultimately resulting in over-production, over-time and over-burden.

The first two “overs”, over-production and over-time, chewed at the bottom line. But the mental and physical stress of push production, the over-burden, ate away at the soul of the organization. Work days were defined by expediting, bumping queues, threats, accusations, finger-pointing poison-pen letters and CYA reports intended to deflect blame when customer deliveries were missed. Over-burden created a social condition worse than push. It was push-push-push! Watching the Twilight Zone clip rekindled memories of the divisive and counterproductive behaviors engendered by push production.

Once a job had been launched to the factory, for example, it was typically impractical to de-kit it and return it to stock. In fact, having just-in-case work orders in the plant provided a false sense of security: there was always something to keep machines and people busy. With this reservoir of make-work orders, measures like machine utilization, OEE, absorption and labor efficiency could all be manipulated to paint a rosy picture of productivity.   Excess orders on hand became habitual.

Too often, those unneeded work orders would be cannibalized to fill part shortages for urgent customer orders. A sales manager once blasted me: “Production does nothing until my customer’s need becomes urgent.” In fact, while that appeared to be the case, the factory was almost always busy building something, just not the right thing. Production by heroics worked for a few key customers, but to the others who were bumped back in the queue, we were bums, not heroes.  A frustrated assembly supervisor remarked as we neared our month-end push, “You know we pump all kinds for work into the factory during the month, but almost nothing comes out until the end of the month. It feels like constipation.”  The crowning blow, however, came from a customer, visiting our factory shortly after I transferred to manufacturing: “Congratulations,” she said, “on your new job, Mr. Hamilton. Perhaps you explain why it takes sixteen weeks for your company to produce product that’s smaller than my fist.”

That was 1985, the year I resolved that there had to be better way.   The push system was bad for our customers, but my burning platform for change had as much to do with the stressful, dehumanizing environment of push, push, push.


BTW: It’s not too late, even though there are only a few days left before our 11th Annual Northeast Lean Conference in at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. Take a look our outstanding lineup of workshops and presenters here, and register here. Hope I’ll see you there.


PermsFor many years I worked for a manufacturer of pressure and temperature switches, a small company with a very big product selection. In our product catalog there were roughly three-dozen distinct product families with hundreds of standard products, each available with thousands of optional configurations. The average order quantity per line was two pieces. In short, we were what is commonly referred to today as a “low volume, high mix” manufacturer. The potential product selection was astronomical, perhaps in the hundreds of millions.

I experienced this complexity first in 1971 while working in the marketing department of that company. My job in marketing was to present these innumerable specifications and styles in a manner that made ordering products easy for our customers. I had no idea, however, how many parts were needed to produce even a single product, let alone the hundreds of millions of permutations.

Component parts and raw materials, bills of material and production routings compounded that complexity in ways I did not even try to understand while I worked in marketing. But in 1977, when my job changed from marketing to IT, the picture changed. Every product I realized had parts, and many parts were parents to other parts. The relationships defined not only the products I’d sold while in marketing, but also the parts that comprised them and the location and sequence of production. The actual production floor at that time was a half-mile away from the computer room in another building so my understanding of those additional permutations and combinations was limited to what I saw in data volumes, flow charts and reports.

In 1984, after a moderately unsuccessful attempt to implement MRP, my company fired the materials manager. Somebody had to be accountable.   And this is when I backed into a job I would never have dreamt of taking in 1971. I was offered the materials manager position.   Armed with combined experience in marketing and IT, including an understanding of the mechanics of MRP, I headed to work nearer to the factory. Once more the permutations grew, this time jumping from the printed page and data file to actual stocking locations for raw material, components, assemblies and products. Notwithstanding MRP’s elegant computer simulations, it seemed we always had too much material that we didn’t need and not enough of what we did need. All of the work that I and others had done to implement MRP seemed be without effect. My customer – production — was dissatisfied with material availability, and their customer was unhappy with our delivery performance.

About eighteen months after modest success in cleaning up the then speculative push production system work, I moved from managing materials to managing production as well; now in the factory and one step closer to the customer. The complexity problem I now saw was at a whole new level.   All of the process and system problems that I could gloss over in my earlier jobs now became painfully obvious. That pain was the birth of TPS in our plant.

Over the next two years, we experimented with the concepts of TPS, in particular Kanban, which cut through complex permutations by focusing on many 1:1 relationships between consumer and provider, enabling us to attack our biggest problem: too much of one thing and not enough of something else. The momentous change in thinking was not without some short-term calamities (stories for other posts), but by 1990 our turnaround in customer service and productivity was sufficiently noteworthy to gain recognition by the Shingo Prize. I might have fooled myself at the time into thinking that we had mastered the permutations problem.

In 1994 however we undertook a project to move from small batch to 1×1 production for our most complex product line; one that represented a third of our revenues. My experience from marketing informed me that there were perhaps 25,000 distinct end items and a thousand times as many permutations. Pondering how we would manage this complexity one product at a time felt to me like solving a Rubik’s Cube. But using the wondrous technology of computer programming, I was able to set up a Monte Carlo analysis to determine the probability of any particular set of permutations.   There was a 90% chance that there would be 2500 different base assembly permutations in any one year!   This is what I learned from experience in marketing, IT and materials management. I took my discovery to Jose L., the team leader for the pilot line that would move to one-piece flow.

“Jose,” I said, “I’ve looked at our sales history and analyzed our bills of material and assembly routings, and I’m stumped at how to layout the line for 2500 different combinations.

Jose looked at me for a moment and, trying to be respectful, replied to me, “There are only 16.”

“Sixteen what?” I asked.

“Sixteen combinations,” he replied with certainty. “We can build everything from sixteen base assemblies.”

And he showed me how.


BTW: I’ll be teaching the Shingo Institute DISCOVER Excellence Course, May 5 and 6, at the 26th Annual Shingo Institute International Conference in Sandusky, Ohio. Hope to see you there

And: My next FREE webinar, “Tea Time with the Toast Dude”, entitled “Going to See” will offer some do’s and don’t’s for managers who are wondering what to do when they “go to the Gemba.” Hope you can make it on Tuesday, May 20th from 3:00 -3:45 p.m EST. (Read more and pre-register here.)

Is Lean the Dark Side of TPS?


I opened a fortune cookie yesterday, which read:

“Understanding little is better than misunderstanding a lot.”   Seems to me that we Lean wannabes misunderstand a lot – maybe not everyone, but I regretfully include myself in misunderstanding-a-lot group.   There is so much to know about the Toyota Production System that one lifetime of study and trial and error is not enough for most of us.  I wonder sometimes if Lean has become the abridged version of TPS, structured as a tack-on to existing policy and practice.

 Key concepts like Kaizen, for example, are reduced to buzzwords, and means are confused with ends (a concern voiced by Shigeo Shingo four decades ago.)  After forty years of kaizening, most organizations I visit are still counting the number of events to evaluate their Lean Transformations. 

 In many cases the tools that are supposed to engage employees as agents of change, treat them instead as objects of change.  One company I worked with a couple of years ago stipulated in my contract that I could never use the word Kaizen in the presence of employees as their previous experience with it had been so unpleasant.  “We call it the BOHICA method,” one employee related to me.  [You’ll have to translate the acronym for yourself.] How can such a wonderful concept that should be developing employees become so infuriating to them?  In the name of Continuous Flow, his company had mashed together a sequence of once distant individual operations that did indeed reduce lot and process delay for the part, but at the same time created an unsafe condition for the operators. “My hands are in and out of caustic chemicals all day long in this new set-up” the operator related.  “They tell me to wear gloves, but I can’t manage the detail part of the work wearing gloves, so I have to put them on and remove them every five minutes. It’s impossible to keep the chemicals off of my hands.”   (The manager of this factory expressed frustration that shop employees were ‘not engaged.’  Small wonder.)

 Checkbox-type diagnostics based upon cursory observation of presence or absence of specific tools have also become commonplace: 

  • See kanban signage?  Check P. But the factory is scheduled by MRP.  
  • Are tools and materials in set locations?  Check P.  Are those the right locations for the persons who use them?  Who knows?
  • Are Andon lights in place?  Check P.  Are they ever used?  No. 

Factory managers, unfortunately are graded often more on appearance than reality.  Checkbox audits are tied to compensation.   

In the name of visual control, factory and office wall space is wallpapered with slick graphics and slogans.  Automated production boards provide “real-time” data (a topic for a future post), but for whom?  These trappings look good for customer tours, but they are often irrelevant to the people who do the work.  

Altogether, many so-called Lean Transformations are bodies without souls represented by physical and procedural changes that lack the “know-why.”   They parrot the language of TPS in the name of customer value, but they lack a conceptual foundation, especially ‘respect for people.’  They seek improvement, but only as ancillary programs without a guiding compass.  (Our upcoming 2013 Northeast Region Shingo Conference, True North, to be held in Hyannis, Mass., September 24-25, takes up this critical topic.) 

 Is your Lean journey guided by the Force (True North) or are you in danger of falling to the Dark Side?  Is Lean like the Dark Side at your company or is it close to true TPS?  Share a thought. 


 BTW: My next free webinar, “Tea Time with the Toast Dude”, entitled Management Kaizen (click to sign up) is coming up next Tuesday, August 13 at 3:00 p.m.   One lucky participant will win a free registration to our fall conference.   Hope you can join me.