Tag Archives: lean thinking

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!

More Than Toast

More than ToastIt’s hard to believe that 2018 is the 20th anniversary for the Toast Kaizen video.  After two decades, nearly one hundred and fifty thousand copies have been sold – in more than a dozen languages from Spanish to Icelandic.  It’s everywhere.  Several years ago, while walking down the streets of Dubai, I was stopped by a gentleman who pointed to me and declared, “You’re the Toast Man.”    I frequently encounter folks who tell me, “You’re famous,” to which I reply, “No, the “Toast Kaizen” video is famous.”  And happily so.  What was originally intended as a device to encourage fellow managers to get out of their offices and go see has become a non-threatening way to explain continuous improvement to almost anyone.   As I say on the video,  “It’s not about the work, it’s about the things that get in the way of the work”.

While it’s gratifying to think that this campy thirty-minute video has found a place in Lean Transformations, it’s also a little concerning when I hear that the “Toast Kaizen” video is the Lean training.  What was created as an icebreaker, has occasionally been overblown beyond its purpose.   Some time ago, while speaking at the Shingo Conference I asked attendees in the audience how many had seen the Toast video.  Nearly every hand went up.  But when I asked who had read any of Shigeo Shingo’s books, only a few hands went up.  I asked the audience, “Did you know there’s a whole lot more to Lean than the Toast video?”

Yes, a whole lot more than viewing the “Toast Kaizen” video will be needed to really receive the benefits of Lean.  Toast is just a small catalyst to kick off the continuous improvement engine.  This is why at the 14th Annual Northeast L.E.A.N. conference, while we celebrate Toast’s 20th (tattoos and Toast caps for everyone), we are also homing in on those transformers that have truly become Lean Learning organizations and whose compelling results bear witness to their efforts.

There’s still time to register, but seats are filling fast.  Please join me on October 10-11 at the Providence Convention Center. Rhode Island is beautiful this time of year. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the two Shingo Institute courses – Discover Excellence and Continuous Improvement – which are being offered in conjunction with the conference. You can learn more about those here.

O.L.D.

Who Cares for the Care Givers?

Last month I joined Eric Buhrens, CEO at Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) to host a leadership team from the Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center.  They were on a study mission to many of Boston’s fine hospitals and were winding up their week in Boston with a visit to LEI.  Early in the discussion one of our guests asked, “In a few words, please tell me what Lean is.”   Eric fielded this question concisely, explaining “Lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.”   He then asked me to relate the following story, a bit more long-winded, to amplify the concept:

I had a recent sojourn of more than a few days at one of Boston’s finest hospitals affording me a rare opportunity for extended direct observation of the process.  In Lean lingo, I was observing from the point of view of the “object” of improvement —  the part to be worked on.  In a factory, the object of improvement is a piece of material, a part being progressively converted by agents of improvement into a finished product.

Clinicians bristle at this analogy.  People, after all, are not widgets.  Of course, I agree.  Patients are each of them unique, and the task to make them well is anything but standard.  Caregivers must often make split-second decisions based upon years of experience and practice, spanning an enormous range of different potential conditions.   They are indeed agents of improvement, operating singly and as a team, with a passionate commitment to making the patient well. From scrub techs to cleaners to docs, surgeons, nurses, and administrators, these caregivers adroitly shift gears from one minute to next, at one point calming a delirious octogenarian who is screaming in the middle of the night for a pepperoni pizza and then a minute later resuscitating a gentleman in cardiac arrest.  As one of their recent customers, I extend my gratitude.

Toast-Kaizen_TabletBut, as I note in the Toast Kaizen video, “continuous improvement is not so much about the work as the things that get in the way of the work.”

Therefore, please allow me to offer an example from my extended observation.  For a period of days, I was tethered to an IV connected by about six feet of plastic tubing to an infusion pump and IV solution bag.  The dosage rate required the bag containing the elixir to be replaced approximately twice per day.  I say approximately because the flow of medicine was interrupted on average once per hour by a pump fault – an airlock in the line. When an airlock was sensed the pump would pause and alarm.  A nurse would then come by to adjust the tubing above the infusion pump, clear the fault and continue the infusion.  Depending upon the level of activity on the floor, wait time for the nurse ranged from a minute to fifteen minutes.  Oddly, if the fault was not attended to in the first five minutes the alarm grew much louder.  This I am told is a countermeasure to “alarm fatigue”,  a condition which occurs when there are too many alarms to handle at one time.  My sense is that the increased loudness did little more to alert the nurses; it was just an addition to the ongoing cacophony of alarms sounding throughout the floor.  In my own case, however, the increased loudness caused me to hit my call button.  This sent a signal to the nurse’s station that, after hearing from me that my infusion pump was alarming, would summon the beeper my nurse was carrying.  Depending upon the level of the many non-standard things that could be happening on the hospital floor, this might elicit an immediate response – or maybe not.

WhoCaresPostWhen the pump alarmed, I understood that my need was not the most critical, but felt compelled to ask my nurse – actually multiple nurses over a period of days – what they thought might be done to reduce the incidence of airlocks in the line; for example, did they think the problem was caused by equipment malfunction or set-up or the viscosity of the solution, or perhaps a software issue?  Had they investigated the problem?  I was struck by their responses.

First, every nurse assumed that my questions regarding the pump were motivated by my own wellbeing. “No,” I exclaimed, “I’m not asking for myself, I’m inquiring on your behalf.  Your time is so valuable, I hate to see it consumed by these kinds of headaches.”  Still, the response was a long-suffering “we do whatever it takes to care for our patients.”  In the minds of caregivers, clearing pump faults was just an inevitable annoyance – part of the job.  The mindset, while admirably focused on the patient, was also resigned to the status quo of common annoyances.  “At what point does an annoyance become a problem?” I asked one nurse.  She responded simply “its hard to make changes.”  Then, pausing for a second, she reflected, “One of our technicians showed me a trick a while back that he said would reduce airlocks in the line.  Let’s give it a try.”  With that, she repositioned the tubing above the infusion pump.    Subsequently, the pump did not alarm for hours – not until a refill solution bag was needed!  The breakthrough here was not so much in the deployment of a potentially better method, but the realization by one caregiver that what she had considered an annoyance was actually a big problem.

Of course, this just a single point of observation, an anecdote.  I didn’t see the nurse again to thank her or ask her what trick she had applied.  I wondered who else on the floor knew about this trick and how many pointless interruptions to their incredibly valuable work could be reduced if the trick became a standard.

I concluded my story to the management team: “Your caregivers are your most valuable resource.  Management’s job is to create an environment in which the ‘things that get in the way of the work’ are exposed and corrected, enabling caregivers to fulfill their missions with more time and greater focus on making the patient well.”

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you.

O.L.D.