Tag Archives: lean manufacturing

Push The Cart

There’s a certain irony for me in the attention given recently to the application of robots on the shop floor.  On a couple occasions in the past year, I’ve heard manufacturing colleagues talk about the benefits of deploying robots to handle material conveyance.  “Better,” they say, “to redeploy humans to value-adding jobs where human capability and creativity can benefit the customer.”  Given the persistent labor shortage, I get the benefit of filling open job slots.  What’s confounding to me is the tendency to ascribe terms like value-adding and non-value-adding (NVA) to specific jobs rather than to wasteful activities within the jobs. 

Many years ago, when robots were still science fiction,  my factory converted from push to pull production.  For this to be possible, just-in-time delivery from the stockroom to the production floor was paramount.  Building products one-by-one required a frequent, uninterrupted conveyance function,  carefully choreographed to pick up finished goods and drop off kits to build.  It quickly became apparent that for this new system to work, we’d have to make significant improvements  to material handling as well as to the production process.  For a stockroom that had traditionally delivered a heaping pile of parts once a day, this was transformational.   To provide just-in-time parts supply to production, stockroom employees created a U-Shaped kitting area where parts were grouped according to model to minimize walking, and created ‘cafeteria-style’ kitting to reduce hand and eye motion. To make delivery to production easier,  they designed special cart, stocked once per day with parts that were common to all models, leaving only a few parts to be pulled from the ‘cafeteria.’ 

It was exciting to watch the creativity in action. “What’s next?”  I asked our material handler, Bob, one morning by way of encouraging improvement.

“How about you push the cart today?”  he responded.  “

Taken off guard, I replied, “Sure,” I’ll give a try.”    

Bob smiled and said, “Not just for a couple minutes.  For the entire day.”  

I made a couple of excuses about meetings I’d miss and expressed concern that I might hold up production.   “It’s okay,” Bob assured me.  “I’ll tag along and help out.  I’d like you to get the full experience.”   Moment of truth.  I agreed – and learned a few things.

  • The aisleways were tight, making steering difficult.
  • Turning corners was especially hard on back and shoulders due to clearance. 
  • Some material drop off points were beyond reach, requiring me to leave the cart.
  • There were a couple very narrow spots where I had to steer around poles.
  • My conveyance route was blocked in a couple of places by empty boxes. 

All of these things slowed me down.  As I mentioned them to Bob, who was following me, he just replied, “Uh huh.”

At the end of the day, I thanked Bob for the rare learning experience. He chuckled. The following day we widened and cleared the aisles, and moved all drop offs within reach.   (And, by the way, my shoulders and back were pretty sore.)

So how does this story relate to the irony I feel regarding the application of robots on the shop floor? 

The irony.  A colleague of mine recently related to me that his factory had purchased and deployed a robot to enable humans to fill empty job slots in production.  After extolling the benefits of this move – fast ROI, improved resource availability, fewer indirect (say NVA) employees – he commented offhandedly:  “The implementation was surprisingly easy.  All we had to do was widen the aisles a  little and keep them clear.”   The irony is I knew exactly what he was talking about because I had pushed the cart.    Funny how we expect people to accommodate problems that we fix for robots.


PS By the way. our 3rd Annual Virtual Lean Spring Showcase is just about one month away.   We’ll be visiting  employee teams from 8 great organizations from all over to observe their best practices and ask questions. All in one day. Save the date: April 4.  For more information or to register, follow this link:  Spring Lean Showcase

Year End Muda

So much of the technical aspect of Lean relates to time: cycle time, lead-time, takt time, set-up time, and, of course, time associated with waste.  The Gilbreths referred to time as “the shadow of motion.”   As we all are about to begin another trip around the sun, I’m reminded that time is a wholly manufactured human construct.  Symbolic events like the New Year add a social context to time, one that nostalgically recalls  “auld lang syne”  and at the same time optimistically resolves to be better in the future.  Continuous improvement on the other hand tends to reflect on the past as the ‘status quo’ – a baseline to be improved.  In that spirit, I’d like to suggest reconsideration of a couple of calendar-based customs that I dealt with in my good old days in manufacturing.  Both wreak havoc on productivity and customer service, oddly in the name of productivity and customer service. 

Period End Shipping Bogeys.  Ask most any operations manager what their number one priority is and they’ll tell you shipping dollars. This is not necessarily the same as schedule attainment; for example,  at month’s end, a big dollar order might be cherry-picked for early shipment at the expense of on-time shipment of smaller orders. The practices of heavy month-end overtime and shipping some orders early while others shipped late (we called it ‘dialing for dollars’), in fact, created a raft of problems from excessive labor expense to self-inflicted part shortages.  The wave at period end was always followed at the start of the next period by a trough, as we expedited supplier deliveries to recover from our own overproduction. This “hockey stick” shipping pattern occurred at the end of every month, then quarterly with an extra push, and finally with a grand effort at year-end.  At my company, sales bonuses were paid on quarterly shipments, creating substantial pressure to do the wrong thing.   My teacher, Hajime Oba, once commented that obsession with quarterly earnings was a major inhibitor to gaining the full benefits of TPS.  When my company, finally focused on levelizing the periodic peaks, both productivity and service improved dramatically. 

Year-end Inventory.  When I took part in my first physical inventory, I naively assumed that its main purpose was to assure that perpetual inventory on our ERP system matched the actual count on the shelf.  This was my perspective as the manager of our IT department.   Years later, after transferring to operations management, I realized that the primary purpose of the physical inventory was to value inventory for taxes.  We were more concerned that the aggregate dollar value of the counted inventory was close to the budget. If a  number of individual part counts with positive variances (more on hand than on the ERP record) were offset by an equal number of parts with negative variances (less than on the ERP record), we’d be on budget.   As for tracking the root causes of inventory inaccuracies, the trails were cold; we just updated the ERP records.   Apart from the enormous disruption caused by shutting down production for counting, there is strong evidence that the blitz approach to the physical inventory creates as many counting issues as it corrects. Like all batch processes, the year-end inventory makes problems invisible.  After many years, we finally replaced this particular year-end tradition with a smaller batch process: daily cycle counting.  This was considered satisfactory for tax purposes and occasionally enabled root cause analysis to improve inventory accuracy.  Eventually, as the factory focused on just-in-time delivery, we realized the obvious: that the magnitude of the year-end physical counting was caused by the sheer volume of the inventory itself.   In other words, if you buy and make less, then counting is easy.  In 1989, when Shigeo Shingo visited our stockroom, he turned to me and said “The inventory should be no higher than your knees, Mr. Materials Manager.” That was about right.

If you are making resolutions for 2023, consider revising these two unpleasant and counter-productive business customs from the good old days.  Thanks for reading in 2022 and best wishes for the year to come.


By the way. Speaking of time…now is a great time to SAVE THE DATE for GBMP’s 19th Annual Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference:  coming October 3-4, 2023 to the DCU Center in Worcester MA.  Our theme. “It’s About Time”, speaks for itself – sharing both methods and motivation to gain back time lost to waste. 

Robot Day

I responded recently to a LinkedIn post regarding AI-assisted robotic recycling.  The sorting speed is so fast, we almost miss each sort in the blink of an eye.  Having observed this same activity attempted by humans —  and overlooking the upstream potential to avoid this kind of recycling mess at the source (the wasteful consumer) — I’m all over the potential to pass off these kinds of tasks to machines.  Humans doing this work must operate at a much slower pace, risk injury, and are not so precise as the AI robot.   And of course, humans must also deal with the stench of garbage; these robots, at least, have no sense of smell to distract them from their work. 

Today, smart robots are economically feasible for even small companies, and are increasingly deployed to work in concert with human counterparts.  Referred to as co-bots, collaborative robots, these machine counterparts share the work in factories, restaurants, warehouses, operating rooms and offices. Given the advancement of artificial intelligence, robotics and multi-sensing technologies, it seems that eventually, no job will be beyond the capability of robots; science fiction is becoming science fact.  With the recently apparent shortage of humans to fill jobs this Labor Day, the role of smart robots is on my mind and leading to some whimsical questions; not so much about doing the work, but improving the work:

Will smart machines, for example, become smart enough to solve problems?  Will their designers build into them what Frank and Lillian Gilbreth called “a motion mind,” i.e., will they examine their own motion, or perhaps the motion of other robot team members, to reduce waste?  Robots are subject to the same wastes as humans; e.g., in a poor floor layout a robot must travel the same distance to do the job as its human counterpart.   Will AI be imbued with algorithms to identify  better flow?  Will smart robots analyze and improve their standardized work?  Will they collaborate with humans and with each other to brainstorm (sort of) and test ideas?   Collaborative improvement presumes a harmonization of different perspectives to create a more robust solution than would be available from any single  contributor.  Referring to Masaaki Imai’s definition of Kaizen (my favorite), can it evolve into this?

In the absence of hands-on human experience of the people who do the work, what context will this definition have?  And, what facility can be given to smart robots to create the will to improve, the most basic condition,  according to Shigeo Shingo, for improvement.  So-called human qualities such as “constructive dissatisfaction with the status quo” are not necessary to do the job, but are fundamental to improving the job.  Joseph Weizenbaum, an early AI pioneer, argued that such qualities are not transferrable to machines.  While his AI psychoanalyst simulation, Eliza (Circa, 1966), was designed to mimic a therapist’s response to human discourse, Weizenbaum warned that “no computer, can be made to confront genuine human problems in human terms.”  This warning has been echoed ever since in dystopian science fiction literature and cinema.   How much longer will this be fiction? 

These whimsical questions may not be immediately relevant.  In a world where there is currently  a shortage of humans to fill jobs, robots offer a practical solution.   As I write this post, there are currently twice as many job openings in the U.S. as job applicants.  While much attention has been given to the acute shortage, the rate of U.S. population growth (Fig. 1)  has decreased steadily since 1990 and is nearly flatlined, with many states showing a net decrease in population.  No doubt, the people shortage has been exacerbated by COVID-19, but the issue is chronic.  

In view of this persistent need, what might we expect from the inexorable evolution of science fiction to science fact?  With the current pace of technical advancement and likely long-term labor shortage, what will dissuade employers from replacing most human labor with robots?  Rosie the Robot, after all is an investment, while Rosie the Riveter is a variable expense;  they each hit the bottom line very differently. The allure of a productive resource that is apparently tireless, reliable and requires no benefits may simply be overwhelming – almost too good to be true.  In the words of pioneer systems thinker Russell Ackoff,  

“Managers are incurably susceptible to panacea peddlers. They are rooted in the belief that there are simple, if not simple-minded, solutions to even the most complex of problems. And they do not learn from bad experiences. Managers fail to diagnose the failures of the fads they adopt; they do not understand them.”   

While AI and Robotics are surely not panaceas, applying them as a total solution may just be. I visited a company recently, for example, that utilizes smart robots to move inventory miles between multiple storage locations rather than improving layout to consolidate stockrooms.  An engineer bragged to me “We even programmed it to ride the elevator.” Dr. Shingo called this superficial improvement, automating waste rather than eliminating it. 

For those of us who subscribe to Taiichi Ohno’s idea that “95% of the elapsed time between paying and getting paid” is waste, the current labor shortage presents a huge impetus to develop an army of problem solvers to eliminate it – a workforce with the will and creativity to reap greater benefits from Lean. While the vision of TPS is human development, certainly this includes thoughtful use of IoT, just as it has included mechanization and automation.   But will Lean thinking inform the designers of AI?  Will they go to the Gemba to learn? Will they regard employees as the most valuable resource?  Will they be systemic thinkers?  Or will they, as Shigeo warned, just be table engineers or catalog engineers,  distant from the process and perhaps a little too enamored of the technology?    That story is not yet written.   Will it be as dystopian as the science fiction predicts, or a golden age for productivity and human development?   And how can Lean thinkers influence the latter?

What do you think?    Please share some thoughts.


P.S. Speaking of human development,  I hope you’ll be able to join us on September 28-29 in Springfield, Massachusetts,  for the 18th Annual Northeast L.E.A.N. (Lead, Enable And Nurture) Conference.  Four great keynotes, four tracks of breakout sessions, a Lean Lounge with poster presentations, and a Lean After Dark networking session.  AND – if you can’t make it in person, all sessions will be live-streamed on Whova and recorded for later viewing.  You can check out the agenda here:  Conference Agenda

Everyday Collaboration

With GBMP’s 18th Annual Northeast Lean Conference on the horizon, I’m reflecting on our theme, “Amplifying Lean – The Collaboration Effect.”   The term ‘collaboration’ typically connotes an organized attempt by unrelated, even competitive, parties to work together on a common problem; for example, the NUMMI collaboration between GM and Toyota or the international space station.   In a sense, these types of organized collaboration are analogs to Kaizen events and significant organizational breakthrough improvement.   

Being a longtime proponent of ‘everybody everyday’ type Kaizen, however, I think the greater amplification to our continuous improvement efforts lies in our ability to work together in the moment to solve many small problems.  But, just as intermittent stoppages on a machine may be hidden from consideration, so too these on-the-fly opportunities for collaboration may pass without notice.   An example from my own career as a manufacturing manager sticks with me as I consider the importance of everyday collaboration:

Walking through my factory one morning, I overheard a heated discussion between John M. a product designer and Ann C.  a team lead from our subassembly department.  Both individuals had deep experience in their respective areas – perhaps 25 years each.  John was waving an assembly drawing for a particular part as they argued, and Ann was holding the component parts and an assembly fixture.  All the elements of production were present: man, method, material and machine (4M’s).  What was missing was collaboration. 

“If you’d just follow the assembly drawing, there’d be no problem,” John argued.  

“What?”, Ann shot back. “Do you think I’m stupid?  Why would I call you out here if that were true?” 

This was the general tenor of the discussion, each party defensively talking AT the other.  Specialization, necessary as it is, often creates invisible boundaries we commonly refer to as silos.  When any party ventures beyond those boundaries, it’s viewed as an invasion of turf.  As the argument continued, the resolve of each party only increased. 

I inserted myself into the discussion.  “Why don’t we observe the assembly process and drawing together?  I’d like get a better perspective on the problem.”   John and Ann reluctantly agreed.   What seemed to me like an obvious opportunity to understand was, for each of them, possible exposure that one of them would be wrong and lose face.  Philosopher James P. Carse refers to this interaction as a ‘finite game.’  Somebody wins and somebody loses.   I recall saying something trite like, “Aren’t we on the same team here?”   Truth be told, we weren’t.  At least, however, we were all in the same space observing the 4M’s together.

Ultimately, John and Ann began to attack the problem rather than each other and, in fact, pulled a parts buyer and a tool maker into the investigation.  Working together they uncovered a series of contributing factors involving each of the 4M’s.  No single perspective would have been nearly as effective.  The errant assembly problem was solved.    But more importantly, collaborative relationships were created.   James P. Carse would call that an infinite game; everyone wins. 


PS This year’s Northeast Lean Conference will examine collaboration from every angle.  Top-down, bottom-up, horizontal, networked, virtual, intercompany, governmental and societal.  The “Collaboration Effect” touches every system and every interpersonal relationship.  I hope you can join us on September 28-29 (face-to-face or live-streamed) as we explore better ways to work together.  It’s just six weeks away – sign up today

Uncommon Sense

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  This advice, attributed to Nicolo Machiavelli, and later cited by Winston Churchill at the conclusion of WWII, resonates once again in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.   Widespread shortages of products, services, raw materials, fuel, equipment, transportation and people have shocked the system in our land of plenty, creating an almost universal burning platform. From manufacturing to healthcare to service and even the public sector, providers can’t deliver – this while costs are rising, unemployment is at record lows and customer demand is through the roof.   Could it be that this tsunami of challenges is driving providers to experiment with ideas that just a few short months ago were light years from top of mind?

One factory manager noted recently for example, “It’s just a no-brainer that when you can’t find workers, you can increase productivity by removing waste from the job.” Funny that this should be considered a no-brainer now, when the supply of employees is limited.  But I’ll take it.   The pandemic, it seems, has elevated the role of the frontline while casting a brighter light on the shortcomings of off-shoring.  In 2011, when the theme of GBMP’s Northeast Lean Conference was “Made Lean in America,”  several supply chain pundits shared with me in no uncertain terms that this was wishful thinking. It would never happen, they said.  Times change. 

For organizations that have traditionally responded to growth by acquiring more equipment,  telescoping purchase times for equipment have turned our attention also to making the best use of the machines we already have.   Practices like preventative maintenance and quick changeover address the scarcity of equipment and equipment operators. 

And, then there are the omnipresent material shortages.  At the start of the pandemic, many providers took the commonsense step to actually reduce supply, even as consumers horded whatever was available.  The resulting deficits have now placed keen attention on what’s made and when.  “Certain alloys are super scarce right now,” a manager of a machine shop related to me, “so we can ill-afford to produce any material that we cannot ship.”  

Referring to the window analysis in figure 1, in times of plenty, Lean improvement efforts fell more into the “known-but-not-practiced” category.  Let’s call it the mediocrity zone.   As a VP of Operations confessed recently, “Yes, we attended the Lean 101 workshops in the past, and dabbled with some experiments; but in reality, these methods are not a part of what we do.”  I hear the same message in every industry.  The props may change, but the half-hearted practice is the same.  

My teacher, Hajime Oba, used the word “commitment” to describe the difference between Lean dabblers and organizations that seize the opportunity to gain significant benefit from TPS.   With cautious optimism, I believe that commitment potential may never be greater than today. I have observed in the last six months the greatest resurgence of my career in interest to learn and practice problem solving and continuous improvement methods. This crosses every industry, but shares a similar burning platform, one that no one would have predicted before 2020.   Writing in 1988 about the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno stated “The oil crisis opened our eyes . . . “   Or as Shigeo Shingo noted around the same time, “the biggest obstacle to improvement is the will to improve.”   Here we are more than three decades later.  Let’s not let a good crisis go to waste. 


P.S. Speaking of… GBMP’s 18th Annual Northeast Lean Conference is coming up in less than two months. Have you checked out the agenda yet? We are so excited about our theme – “Amplifying Lean: The Collaboration Effect” and sincerely hope you will join us for the 2-day event which will feature four terrific keynote presentations plus more than 30 breakout sessions, a dozen benchmarking organizations in The Community of Lean Lounge and the chance to network with hundreds of Lean practitioners just like you! Read all about it.

By the way – if you can’t make it to Massachusetts, don’t worry. All of the sessions will be streamed – LIVE – so you and your team members can attend from anywhere in the world! Register Today.