Tag Archives: lean thinking

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.

The Final Frontier

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first US astronaut to journey to the “final frontier.”  Atop a Mercury rocket, Shepard launched into a fifteen-minute suborbital journey reaching an altitude of about one hundred miles before returning to earth.  His space capsule, Freedom 7, was a wonder of science weighing a little more than one ton and loaded to the max with avionics and life support apparatus. Yet, this pioneering venture into endless space would also afford almost no space for the passenger.  According to launch engineer, Guenter Wendt, “astronauts entered their capsules with a shoehorn and departed with a can opener.”   I remember watching footage of Shephard squeezing into his capsule.  The memory still creates pangs of claustrophobia.

Ironically, space constraints faced by NASA fueled a revolution in miniaturization evident in almost every innovation of modern society – from laptops to cell phones to transportation to medical devices to all things Internet.  The need to pack more utility into a small package has changed everything.  Or almost everything.  Here are some recent exceptions:

“We’re adding a new wing to manufacturing,” a colleague related to me recently, “we’re running out of space.”   As I glanced around a shop floor crowded more with material than machines, I asked, “What are you going to put in the new space?”  “We’re just going to spread out,” he said.  “This is a good time to build before interest rates start to climb.”

Another manufacturer advised recently that he was building a Lean warehouse.  “What’s that?” I asked.   “We’re relocating all of our raw material to a location that’s closer to the main highway,” he said. “We need to add several machines, so were Lean-ing out the space.”    “Aren’t you just adding more space and moving inventory farther from your floor?”  I asked.  His response: “Warehouse space is cheap.”

A major hospital requested Lean assistance to re-design its perinatal services in order to accommodate more patients.  After reviewing the current operation, I recommended that existing space could be repurposed to handle the projected growth. “No,” they said, “We’re cramped. We need more space and the budget is already approved.”

It seems that decisions regarding space are driven more by claustrophobia or perceived worth than actual need.   Flow distance may double or triple as a result of expansion, but additional space somehow still equates to growth.   More space is viewed as an investment, an alluring addition to the balance sheet, or a badge of success.   Only on rare occasions do I encounter a growing business that is interested in reducing space. Perhaps, then, space is the final frontier.  Not more space, but less.   I wonder how much Lean progress would be made if space were seen as a constraint for business as it was for NASA’s Mercury launch.

How much space do you have?  Too much?  Too little? Share a story.

O.L.D.

PS I’m teaching the Shingo Institute workshop “Continuous Improvement” at MassMutual in Springfield next week and a few seats remain if you’d like to join us. Learn more here.

PPS I’m also looking forward to presenting my monthly “Tea Time with The Toast Dude” webinar on June 20th. It’s free! The topic is “Silver Bullet Mania”. Intrigued? Read more and register here.