Tag Archives: lean manufacturing

Talking Turkey

The English language can be confounding. For example, the word turkey is slang for “a person considered inept or undesirable” while the idiom cold turkey describes the actions of one who abruptly gives up a habit rather than through gradual change. Finally, talking turkey means “to discuss a problem in a serious way with a real intention to solve it.” For the upcoming holiday, let me frame these idioms in terms that are very important to the social science of Lean. First the turkey’s:

A long time ago, after a short stint as a materials manager, I was promoted to vice president of manufacturing. It was, in fact, my good fortune to enter production knowing nothing about it, lest I might have fancied myself an expert. Instead, I relied on people who were already there to help me learn. Having begun my career in the ‘creative’ world of marketing, a block away from the factory, I had previously been given to believe that manufacturing was ‘cut and dry’; a repetitive, mindless environment. What I soon discovered after my promotion, however, was that the production floor was filled with innovative if not spiteful employees who managed to build products despite errors in drawings and bills of material, despite malfunctioning equipment and despite a lack of respect for the irons they pulled out of the fire everyday. When I shared my early concerns with other managers I was cautioned not to spend too much time with malcontents from the factory floor.  

I was floored. “What are these guys thinking?” I asked my welding supervisor, Lenny, as I related the malcontent story. He gave me wry smile and replied, “You’re heading in the right direction. Don’t get discouraged.” I thanked him and thought to myself, “This is different. I’m the manager and he’s coaching me.” Later in the week, I found a gift on my desk (the coffee cup above) from an anonymous friend. The thought and particularly the background behind it helped me through a few struggles. 

Now for the idiom cold turkey.  This is a model referred to in the Lean world as “blitz kaizen,” a big, sudden change.”  These events are typically characterized by major layout changes. Machines and people are moved close together to facilitate material and information flow – both great objectives. Problem is, the machines are fine as objects of improvement. We can push them around as often as we like. Not so much with people. We struggle with change even when it’s self-initiated, and we really don’t like being pushed around. We like to be the agents of change, the innovators, not the objects. Our habits don’t change on a dime. Gradual, continuous improvement works better for us than cold turkey. 

If we want to engage “everybody everyday” we need to talk turkey to get the root cause of real problems – especially managers. Recently during a factory tour at potential customer, a manager proudly shared his huddle board strategy with me: “We require each department to identify and solve a problem every day”, he said, “just like your slogan “everybody everyday.”  

Gazing at the huddle board I asked an employee, “How important are the problems on your huddle board?” Her reply: “Sometimes they’re important, but one way or another we have find problem to solve every day.”    “How’s that working for you?” I asked. “Okay,” she responded tentatively, “but we seem to have more problems than solutions.” Seemed like they were counting problems not solutions – not talking turkey. 

 Finally, for the holiday I want to share a frivolous clip that was the inspiration for this idiomatic post: me talking to a turkey. Just a reminder that to everyone that we all need to lighten up some times and be grateful for the good people in our lives. To all my Lean friends, Happy Thanksgiving.

Tours R Us (aka Why Sharing & Teaching are the best way to Learn)

After being recognized in 1990 by the Shingo Prize, my plant became an overnight hot spot for benchmarking.  Hardly a week went by when there was not a visit from a distinguished visitor, Fortune 500 company, professional organization or college class.   Initially we accepted the visits because of the good publicity for the company; good news sells products. 

But very quickly we discovered that the process of sharing our continuous improvement story had a powerful effect on our employee and management commitment to Lean.  This was not an outcome that I had anticipated.  Sharing with visitors encouraged us to learn more; quoting a Latin proverb, “Docendo discimus,” the best way to learn is to teach.  Anticipating a tour, employees were motivated to polish their efforts; to find one more before-and- after anecdote about changeovers or mistake-proofing or kanban or some clever idea they had implemented to make the job easier.  Front line workers, many of whom had never previously been asked about their work, spoke eloquently about reducing waste and creating value.  It was exciting for them to share knowledge and to be recognized for their grasps of topics that still eluded many of our visitors.  “The engagement of your employees is an inspiration to me,” noted a visitor from a well-known automotive manufacture.  “So many good ideas; how did this happen?”   There was no single answer to that question.

One day, after a double-decker bus carrying students and faculty from a well-known business school pulled out of our parking lot, an employee from our welding department commented, “You know, Bruce, it’s fun having these tours and being able to tell our story to visitors, but how about holding a tour for our own employees?”   He continued.  “I’ve been building parts for our assembly department for many years, but have never really seen how those parts are used.”   

The efficacy of this idea hit me instantly.  It was an enormous missed opportunity.  Shortly thereafter, the first of many employee tours was scheduled.  Long before the terms “value stream” or Yokoten ever became part of the Lean lexicon, we were practicing and gaining the benefits.  In the process, departmental boundaries were blurred and many more ideas stimulated and shared from the opportunity to see the whole rather than just the parts.  A long-time employee commented to me after an employee tour.  “We’re ‘Tours R Us.’  It’s a good thing.”  

What are you doing to remove the silos and stimulate idea sharing in your organization?   Let me hear from you. 

O.L.D. 

BTW – Don’t miss the opportunity to connect with your Lean community and share ideas about involving all of your employees in continuous improvement.  Our 15th Annual Northeast Lean Conference is all about engaging your entire workforce to create value for your customers.  We hope you will join us October 23-24 at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford.  Listen to this important message from the Old Lean Dude to learn more. 

What is a Thinker-Doer?

Several years ago, I was asked to address a startup meeting at a new client, a large manufacturer of medical devices.  The company was resource rich, but after several years of trying had not yet gained significant traction with their Lean efforts.   

There were perhaps forty persons in the room, half from line management and half from their continuous improvement staff.  I addressed the group, first describing my organization GBMP and then sharing a little bit about my own previous experience as an operating manager. Specifically, I described the challenge to shift from a bounded-thinkers-and-doers paradigm to one where every employee is a thinker-doer.  (GBMP’s slogan, Everybody Everyday, is derived from that experience.)  “Managers can’t take on this Lean challenge all by yourselves,” I cautioned my audience. “There’s just too much to be done. It’s crushing to have just a few problem solvers.”   I glanced around the room and saw some nods in agreement.  “And anyway,” I continued, “while the persons operating the machine or entering the work orders may not be PhD’s, I promise you they know more about the problems in their jobs than anyone else.”  This remark elicited a skeptical frown from one attendee. I then further asserted, “The best improvement ideas actually come from the people who do the work.”  That statement pushed my now-agitated skeptic over the edge.  “We don’t encourage the low-value ideas here,” he blurted out. 

My blood pressure rose suddenly at his implication:  Ideas from the front line are low in value; not an especially enlightened viewpoint.  My first instinct was to leap across the table and strangle this gentleman, but I gathered my composure and responded.   “Many so-called small ideas quickly accumulate into big improvements for your customers.   More importantly, the transformative power of many small improvements converging from all points transforms your organization to a thinker-doer culture.  When that happens, your improvement process truly becomes continuous.”   Once again, some heads nodded in approval, but my skeptic stood his ground: “We have subject matter experts,” he said smugly. 

When the meeting was over, I quietly asked my host, “Who was that skeptic?”  Turns out he was the Vice President of Continuous Improvement — and a PhD.  Maybe too smart for Kaizen.   

What percent of your employees are thinker-doers?  What percent of your employees are too smart for Kaizen?  Please share a comment. 

O.L.D. 

P.S. GBMP’s 15th Annual Northeast Lean Conference in Hartford CT gets under way in less than 30 days. Consider attending – and bring your thinkers, your doers and your thinker-doers – for two enriching and inspiring days featuring four exceptional keynote presentations, 60+ breakout sessions, valuable benchmarking and fun networking with 500+ passionate Lean practitioners just like you. I would love to see you and your team there!

Woodstock – Peace, Love & Lean

To close out the summer of 2019, here’s a lighthearted reflection from the summer of 1969: 

Today, I’m riding back from Florida bringing my new graduate home from college.  Listening to tracks from Woodstock as we cruise along in our Penske truck, I’m reminiscing about a summer 50 years ago when an understaffed production crew made a noble attempt to keep a now famous concert afloat.   (Yes, I was one of those crazies who braved the mud and overflowing portable toilets for an opportunity to listen to great music.  Definitely worth the inconvenience.)

Right from the get go, the concert was an exercise in problem solving.  The event venue was confirmed less than a month before showtime, leaving very little time for site preparation.  The main stage for the concert was built of wood just a few days before the concert at the base of a natural amphitheater on Max Yaskur’s farm.  Heavy rains and wet soil added a special challenge to construction of the 20x15x15 meter stage;  and because of time constraints, the original roof design was not completed, limiting stage lighting.  A large canvas tarp was employed to cover the performance area, much like an over-sized dining fly used for camping.  Ultimately, concert producers were forced to shift all staff to finishing the stage on time, leaving gaps in venue fencing.  Customer first thinking:   It was now a free concert with a working stage.  The entire set-build from stage to lighting and sound was an exercise in ingenuity and problem solving with scarce resources. 

One such ingenious device was a rotating platform designed to speed-up the changeover between acts.  The idea was to use the front for playing and the back for setting up the equipment of the next band so time between acts was minimized to the time required to rotate the platform. Externalize the set-up, as Shigeo Shingo would say.  Unfortunately, while the innovation worked during testing, it was not up to the task of repeated loading and unloading. By day 2, casters crumpled under the weight of musicians and equipment, and the crew had to go back to traditional set-up and tear-down. (I’m reminded of many shop carts with broken casters that I see today on my factory visits.)   Perhaps a bit more preventative maintenance could have saved the platform, or maybe the process was just not capable.  Regardless of cause, the effect was to extend the event into the wee hours of Saturday night and thence to sunrise on Sunday.  My sense is that the laid back customers were not bothered by delays.  

On Sunday, after a brief respite from the night before, Joe Cocker opened day 3 with a rousing 90-minute set while dark clouds rolled in above the stage.  As he sang his final number, “With a Little Help From My Friends,” high winds caused the stage’s canvas cover to flap and oscillate above the stage, also producing Joe’s iconic windblown hair style.  He finished the tune as the skies once again opened in a torrent.  While the crowd futilely chanted “No Rain,” concert staff scurried to secure stage and towers.  As we concert-goers sat soaked to the bone on a mountain of mud, the concert resumed after a three-hour delay almost to noon on Monday.  If ever the phrase “the show must go on” rang truer, I am not aware. 

O.L.D. 

PS In a way, isn’t that what Lean is all about?  “The show must go on.” Solving problems and getting by with a little help from our friends?  I sincerely hope to see you for more “Peace, Love & Lean” at GBMP’s upcoming 15th annual Northeast Lean Conference in Hartford on  October 23-24.  Admittedly, it won’t be another Woodstock – a little Karaoke perhaps – but it will be educational and inspiring, sure to ignite great sharing of ideas among our awesome community of passionate Lean practitioners. Read all about it, view the agenda, session abstracts, speaker bios and get registered today here: www.NortheastLeanConference.org See you there!

Accountability or Authority?

Reflecting on McGregor’s  X and Y Theories of human motivation,  Shigeo Shingo took the position that each of us by nature has a dual  tendency: sometimes lazy and self-interested, and other times motivated and generous.  Which of these behaviors dominates is directly related to the environment in which we find ourselves – call it culture.   

My personal experience as a manager, and as an employee, has surely confirmed Shingo’s opinion for me.  Dropped into a manufacturing management role in 1986 with NO manufacturing experience, I had the opportunity to experience a quintessential Type X culture.  My predecessor, a man of considerable personal knowledge of the business, had ruled for decades with an iron fist, intolerant of opinions other than his own.   I remember commenting to a friend when I first took over the manufacturing VP job,  “it seems like employees are children and production employees are bad children.”   Transferring from an IT role in a different building to this new world of distrust and muted dissatisfaction was indeed a culture shock for me.   After a short time on the job, my general foreman presented me with a list of employees to “keep an eye on.”  He thought he was being helpful.  “Troublemakers,” he  whispered to me. 

It turns out that a few of the troublemakers became early adopters of a different kind of culture, one where employees would be seen as “the most valuable resource.”  What distinguished these rabble-rousers was that they had refused to be beaten down by the previous regime.  My role as a manager was, in the words of Mr. Shingo, to turn their dissatisfaction (Theory X) into “constructive dissatisfaction” (Theory Y.)  At the time I described the experience as akin to freeing prisoners.  I wasn’t making them participate; I was just asking for their help.   That seemingly simple shift ruffled more than a few feathers in management, a humbling experience I documented in a 2012 post jokingly entitled Lead with Humiliation.  Lean transformation,  I discovered, while difficult for everyone, is hardest for managers. 

So, what does this story have to do with the words “accountability” and “authority”?   In 2006, I had the pleasure of listening to David Mann, author of “Creating a Lean Culture“, deliver a presentation at the Shingo Conference on Leader Standard Work (LSW.)  “A novel concept,” I thought to myself.  “Why not clarify the manager’s role in developing a Lean culture?”    So much effort had already been put into transforming front-line systems, but very little in transforming the management systems for folks who were steering the ship.  In fact, the concept to engage managers by check-listing key culture-changing management activities, caught on in a big way.  Many an organization I visit today has attempted to add LSW to its Lean transformation.  Unfortunately, fifteen years and millions of white boards later, what seemed like a good concept is failing in execution.  Here are my observations.    

“Creating a Lean Culture” depicts the Lean management system as comprised of three parts:

  1. Visual Controls.  Mann describes a wide variety of devices such as hour-by-hour charts intended to make each process obvious on a real-time basis.  Are we on schedule?  Are there defects?   But very few organizations that I visit have a robust standardized work system for specifying and improving work.   More common is “standard work,” which describes only the sequence of the work, often in generalities.   Whether in a factory or office or operating room, the failure to understand cadence and precise composition of the work creates a very shaky foundation for accountability.   
  2. Standard Accountability.  This, for most sites I visit, is the centerpiece of the Lean management system.  Operational status for a work group is summarized periodically and discussed at a brief stand-up meeting.   Impediments to flow are noted and countermeasures are reviewed.  The supervisor of the front line is the owner of the “Tier 1” board and is accountable meet specific KPI’s.   The Tier 1 board is tied  to goals and targets set at a higher-level Tier 2 board, which is owned by the manager.  He or she is accountable for Tier 2.  Finally, at the global level is the Tier 3 board owned by the executive.  This is the principle that enables oversight and alignment of goals and measures. 

    Several issues frustrate the effectiveness of Standard Accountability. 
    • First, as noted above, workers are often not given a stable, repeatable process to run.  Says Mann, “until you demonstrate an improvement in stability of a process by applying the tools of Lean production, leader standard work comes across as a waste of time, a bureaucratic abstraction without real meaning.”
    • Second, inadequate attention is given to actual Kaizen.  Referring to the role of leader standard work, Mann notes, “the journey truly begins in earnest after the production floor has been rearranged, or procedures redefined.” But, if front-line capability to deploy countermeasures to problems has not first been established, then what system is there to manage?   It’s a bit like coaching a baseball team where the players themselves have never played.  We can measure the balls and strikes, but nobody has learned how to bat.  Before accountability, there must be ability. 
    • Third, there’s that word “accountability.”  Check out Roget’s Thesaurus for the synonyms:   blame, fault, liability, answerability, responsibility, culpability, chargeability.  Or just listen to the evening news for the connotation of the word.   It’s the equivalent of referring to mistake-proofing as fool-proofing.   In this sense, accountability is more like finger-pointing.  Mr. Shingo condemned the word fool-proofing because it was a Theory X word.  I think if he were alive today, he would also ban the use of word accountability for the same reason.   When our words imply that we must make people do something, we’re perpetuating an archaic Theory X view.  As managers, we should be enabling our employees to develop their capabilities.  We should be authorizing them to master their crafts.  Words mean something.  We should choose them carefully. 
    • Finally, the concept of tiered accountability can provide an empowering line of sight to all employees and managers, IF it is sincerely followed by all – and when I see the occasional effective tiered accountability process it underscores the power of true alignment.   More commonly, however, engagement at higher tiers is spotty; accountability in that case flows downhill.   The message at Tier 1 is “S.O.S.” 

  3. Leader Standard Work (LSW).  This is the management checklist that keeps everyone practiced with the new way, a thoughtfully constructed list of periodic tasks for executives, managers and supervisors, designed to show visible commitment and support for the new way.  This is the concept that first intrigued me when I listened to David Mann’s presentation in 2006: a reminder to managers to be leaders for change.  My observation over the last decade is that managers who use LSW well soon become practiced and no longer need a checklist.   Unfortunately, many managers create a checklist, but then don’t follow it.  “My day is too unpredictable to use leader standard work,” one manager tells me.  An all too common refrain.  We are asking our employees to embrace change, but we are excused.  It is perhaps no accident that the third edition of Mann’s book, released a decade after the original, adds a full chapter dealing with the challenge to engage management. 

From the foregoing rant, it may seem that I don’t subscribe to concepts put forth in “Creating a Lean Culture”; but in fact, fifteen years after its publication, I continue to believe that if employees have both ability and authority, then the guidance and alignment provided by a Lean management system is imperative. That is Theory Y.  As David Mann reminds us, “Execution is the key to lean management.”   The authority to execute, today as in 2006, rests squarely on the shoulders of executives. 

What is your experience creating a Lean management system?  Can you share a story or observation?  

O.L.D.

Hope to see you all at our 15th annual Northeast LEAN Conference in Hartford, October 23-24.  The topic of engagement – employees and execs – will be a main focus.  Our theme this year, Total Employee Involvement, combines the knowledge and experience of leading practitioners and experts.  Want more information?  Click here.