Tag Archives: lean

Putting The Pieces Together

Summer’s here, and puttingpiecespicturethat means a family vacation to the beach, the boardwalk and the Hamilton’s favorite Pizza place.   We all agree that Manco’s pizza is the best anywhere, but we differ on the reason why.

My brother, Geoff, thinks it’s the cheese: aged white cheddar in place of mozzarella. My son, Ben, says it’s the combination of spices in the sauce, but my daughter, Alison, thinks it’s the oil – maybe olive oil. Maureen, Mrs. Toast, insists it’s the dough and the thin crust. And for me, it’s the boardwalk experience: the warm summer night and the relaxed atmosphere that give this pizza place the edge.

No doubt, it’s all of these things, not just one, that make Manco’s Pizza what it is, but human nature seems to dictate a tendency to break down the whole into it’s pieces for understanding, and then to subjectively isolate according to our particular experience.   I notice in my work that, depending upon the job title or discipline, there is often a distinct bias or perspective for improvement.   Engineers for example, generally tend to think in terms of functional costs and view value engineering as a means to improvement. Production focuses on safety, speed and operational availability. And quality worries that engineering and production may be cutting corners, adversely impacting product quality. This list goes on. I’m reminded of the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant, each of us trying to understand the whole through a narrow lens of our particular experience or expertise. We bring our silos with us wherever we go.

Similarly, we segment various aspects of continuous improvement in our attempt to break a big system down into digestible pieces. (How do you eat an elephant?)   We recite the seven wastes one-by-one as if they exist separate from one another, and juxtapose culture and tools with questions like “Which is more important.”   The tools themselves are studied ala Carte, too often promoted as ends in themselves rather than means to the ends they are intended to achieve. We break off pieces of the Toyota Production System and call it “Lean” when we should be looking at the whole.

Recently, the Lean discussion has turned to the top manager’s role in Lean transformation, declaring lack of management commitment to be the “elephant in the room” the most important prerequisite for sustainable improvement. While I’m inclined to agree with this hypothesis, Harvard Business Review has declared that the optimal tenure for a CEO is only 4.8 years – a short time for continuity of leadership. Perhaps the next elephant in the room for lean thinkers will be boards of directors, whose average tenures are twice that of the CEO — better for long-term thinking.

In fact, I think our piecemeal learning and the vertical and horizontal extension of Lean thinking over the past forty years would be very positive if it were only holistic, building upon and deepening our understanding. Too often, however, Lean implementers glom onto the latest piece of the puzzle, behaving as if the pieces already in place have maxed out or become passé.   Ultimately, as with the pizza discussion, if we focus only on the pieces, we’ll never understand the whole.

How about in your organization? Are you looking at Lean holistically or hop scotching from the latest trend to the next latest trend?   LMK.


Hurry!   There’s only two months (66 days to be exact) to go to until this year’s Northeast Lean Conference. Our objective this year is to practice seeing all the pieces of the Lean puzzle as whole, and we’ve lined up some dynamite leaders, practitioners and experts for learning and sharing.   That’s the theme of our 2015 Northeast Lean Conference: Putting the Pieces Together. Hope to see you there.

BTW: Have a great summer!



Long-Term Sinking

This past week my organization, GBMP, moved from our home of twenty years at the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts. The UMB College of Management needed more space and so did we, so we relocated to quarters that will afford room for our growing staff and dedicated training space for our customers.   The occasion has given me inspiration for the following post:

sinking1I was walking across the UMass Boston campus last week, reminiscing about the two decades that GBMP has called it home. Glancing toward the twelve-story Healey library, I viewed a familiar spectacle: Scaffolding reaching nearly to the top had been erected on the south face of the building. Workers at the site explained that the top twenty rows of bricks were loose and at risk of falling. I thought of the biblical metaphor of the house “built on sand,” or more accurately in this case the library built on an old landfill.   At some time in 1880’s the city of Boston, like many municipalities, determined it would be good idea to dump its prodigious amounts of trash at its periphery, which in this case was a cow pasture at the border of the city and its scenic harbor. The area nearby, a neighborhood known as Columbia Point, gradually became a mountain of garbage, notorious for its stench and visual pollution. By the 1960s, community residents from Columbia Point hired F. Lee Bailey to help get the city dump permanently closed by the Massachusetts Supreme Court.  It’s hard to understand today why the dump site, literally a monument to short-term thinking, was chosen in the first place.

sinking2Ten years after the dump was closed, the site was selected by Boston State College (now UMass Boston) as its new home. The campus, which opened in 1974, created a striking skyline against the backdrop of the majestic Boston Harbor, and appeared to be a terrific re-purposing of the former blighted site. Beneath the brick facade however there lurked a half-century of shrinking landfill. Perhaps because the state of the art for civil engineering was not sufficiently advanced in the 1970’s or perhaps because budget controls caused corners to be cut in the design of footings for the new campus, the Healey library began to sink; imperceptibly at first, but eventually in ways that required constant monitoring and repair. For whatever reason, it can be said that insufficient consideration had been given to the design of the building’s foundation. By the 1990’s the motion of the facade caused bricks to become dislodged and sometimes fall, and by 2006 the parking garage beneath the library was closed for safety reasons. Finally, this year began the perennial re-facing of the library’s facade, the event that inspired this post. Rumor has it that eventually the library must be replaced altogether.

So what does this story have to do with our Lean transformations?   Several things:

1) Without a firm foundation, there is only a crumbling facade.

2) No amount of problem solving can overcome a fundamentally flawed design.

3) Short-term thinking creates long-term sinking.   : )

Are you dealing with any of these challenges? Share a thought.

And have a terrific Fourth of July!


BTW July’s Tea Time with The Toast Dude (that’s me) FREE Webinar is coming up on Tuesday, July 7. The topic this month – The Politics of Organization Change. I hope you can join me. Register here.

GBMP is also very excited to be offering the Shingo Institute workshops “DISCOVER Excellence” & “Enterprise ALIGNMENT” several times this summer in several locations – including central Massachusetts, Texas and Idaho. Check out all of our upcoming events on our website.


Not wishing to rub salt in the wounds of my beleaguered Red Sox, their meteoric rise from last place in 2012 to first place in 2013 and subsequent plummet to the cellar in 2014 underscores the problems with speculative production. Last week, celebrating a birthday, I was offered a dish of “Fenway Fudge” ice cream, and was amused by the container.


Well perhaps the Sox were when the product was made. Or maybe the ice cream (which, by the way is delicious) was made very recently, but dispensed into packaging that was printed in 2012. Maybe a buyer got a good deal on a large print quantity. The specialty packing industry typically likes long runs to amortize pre-prep and set-ups. Or maybe the forecast for the 2014 season augurs another rise from the ashes for the Sox.   I don’t follow the team closely, so perhaps someone more in the know has a line on next season.

My guess however is the large quantities of packaging and ice cream were manufactured according to what Shigeo Shingo referred to as “speculative production.”  Fenway Fudge, after all, is not the only Red Sox flavor; Green Monster Mint and Grand Slam Vanilla, to name a couple more, also sport the “Champions” banner. So if the ice cream is good, what’s the big deal?  Diehard fans still love their Sox even if the packaging is a season behind (or ahead.) The big deal, I think, is about the need to produce packaging and product well before, as Mr. Shingo would say, they are “authorized.” When the time to produce goods and services is much much longer than the customer’s desired lead-time, then we are forced to speculate – roll the dice – in order to schedule our resources.  Not every type of manufacturer will be so obviously impacted as one that ties it’s marketing to a baseball team, but seasonality, product proliferation, and customer taste make long runs of any product a gamble. And while not every product will cost as much to store as ice cream (note the use-by date on the Fenway Fudge package is 9/30/15), the need to produce too much or produce too soon squanders resources and increases costs in a way that current cost accounting rules hide as an asset.

One of my favorite Shigeo Shingo quotes is:

“The most dangerous kind of waste is the waste we do not recognize.”

Overproduction’s stealth has been legislated into management accounting and operations policy, and until this is recognized, it will be rationalized as a necessary evil, needed to “hit the numbers.”

Is overproduction really seen as a waste in your business, or is it tacitly accepted? Share a thought.

As for the Sox? Wait for next season. Go Sox.

O.L.D. smilebruce

Hey! Our 10th Annual Northeast Lean Conference is next week! October 1 & 2 at the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. Over 550 Lean learners from 150 companies have already signed up. Click here to register today to learn, share, and recharge your Lean batteries. Hope to see you there.

I’m Against It!

A recent viewing of a Marx Brothers film caused me to reflect on one of the questions I’m frequently asked, “How do you deal with people that are against Lean?”

i'magainstitMy stock response is to quote Shigeo Shingo’s advice that “99% of objection is cautionary,” that is, persons who appear to vigorously object to Lean are really just asking for more information. I confess that, while this answer puts a positive spin on objection, depending upon who is doing the objecting, it doesn’t really answer the question.

For example, very early along in my TPS discovery process while I was away from the plant for a week’s vacation, two of my fellow middle managers, armed with apocalyptic predictions about employee empowerment, took advantage of my absence to make an end run to the corner office. Upon my return, our CEO confronted me: “I understand that you’re turning all of the decision-making over to the employees,” he said.

In another context, I might have taken his words as a compliment, but given the tenor of our organization at the time and the stern visage before me, I quickly understood that I’d been thrown under the bus.   A practiced counterpuncher, I was fortunately able to respond with a few compelling examples of decisions made by frontline employees to make improvements or solve problems, thus diffusing my adversaries’ arguments.  I thought to myself, “Thank goodness I didn’t take a two-week vacation. I might have been fired by then.“

There are several points worth noting here.

  • First, had our CEO occasionally visited the front lines, he would have been in touch with what was actually happening and would not have been vulnerable to the emotional arguments of naysayers.   Unfortunately, too often in the early stages in Lean transformation, the CEO is only passively involved.
  • Secondly, at least some of the time, factual arguments will trump emotional ones. The top manager usually has no ax to grind with any department or division; his/her interests lie in the prosperity of the entire organization.
  • Third, middle managers are often troubled by a perceived loss of authority among their direct reports. If front line employees are empowered, does that make the managers less powerful?
  • Fourth, middle managers may resist a change that they perceive is a threat to their turfs.   For example, “quality at the source” may be seen as an attempt to eliminate the inspection department. Or Kanban may be perceived as a threat to production scheduling.   If improvement implies organizational change to their turf, territorial imperative kicks in.
  • Finally, early Lean successes will sometimes create professional jealousy. Managers may perceive the rising star of a lean leader as a threat to their own advancement. For these managers, the response to the change leader’s ideas is likely to be “whatever it is, I’m against it.”

To be sure each of the concerns above could be characterized as “cautionary.” At a later point in the Lean journey, many managers will come to realize that their early concerns were horse feathers; organizations and individuals do change — for the better.   But in the earlier going, change leaders need to be mindful of and responsive to managerial objections. How we do that is the topic of my October 14 Tea Time with Toast Guy Webinar.


Alert: Our 10th Annual Northeast Lean Conference is now less than a month away. I hope to see many of my readers there as the theme, “Putting People First,” is recurrent in the O.L.D. annuls.   For the last four years my posts have dealt primarily with management’s responsibility to create an environment that’s favorable to problem solving and continuous improvement – and that too is the theme of this year’s conference. I hope to see you all there!

BTW: Attend my next free Webinar next Tuesday, September 9, and you could win a FREE registration to our 10th Annual Northeast Lean Conference. The topic: “Getting Suppliers Involved – Do’s and Don’ts.”  Register here.

How We Learn

While I am an unabashed proponent of learning by doing, I have a list of books that have over the years been essential to me as a framework for experiential learning. Most of these books were written before 1990, and one of the most insightful, Managerial Engineering by Ryuji Fukuda, was first published in English over 40 years ago. I think it was the very first book published by Productivity Press (publisher of Shingo’s and Ohno’s books as well.)

howwelearnAs the book’s title suggests, the topic is about better management practices.   There is so much substance to this book, some of which is only now being revisited in more contemporary texts. Among other things, Fukuda introduced CEDAC (cause and effect diagram adding cards), a substantial improvement to the Ishikawa diagram. And policy deployment was not even a part of the English lexicon until Fukuda’s development of the X-type matrix. Window analysis, a simple way to clarify kaizen maturity and guide it forward, is another gem from this text.

This post, however, reflects on just one key point from Managerial Engineering. A diagram on the front cover of the book describes a simple, practical improvement model that the author, a Deming Prize Winner, dubbed ‘Managerial Effectiveness.”

His three-step method begins with identifying reliable methods (referred to today as ‘tools’), which he qualifies as having the impact of reducing either set-ups or defects to zero. In other words, he was ahead of the curve on why the tools should be used, a popular topic today for latter day lean disciples. Also, Fukuda is challenging managers with this step to follow the leaders, not the pack, a concept still missing from many business strategies.

The second step in Fukuda’s model, create a favorable environment, is a real mouthful. Today the term “culture” is substituted for Fukuda’s phrase, but I like his term better. Forty years later, many organizations are rediscovering that the best problem-solvers will hide problems if they are afraid to report them. Fukuda puts the onus on managers to recreate the work environment by changing their work, an idea popularized years later as “manager standard work”.

Finally the biggest challenge, keep everyone practiced, is a call to action for daily kaizen. Dr. Fukuda uses the game of golf to make his point. If we want to be good, we should first of all learn from the best and then practice every day  in an environment that nurtures experimentation and discovery. After four decades of event-type improvement, organizations are finally realizing that this is how we learn.

Is your organization learning or parroting?   Share a story.

BTW: Managerial Engineering is available used on Amazon for $1.47  : )


Don’t forget: Our next Tea Time with Toast Guy Webinar is next Tuesday, August 12 from 3:00 – 3:45 p.m.   The topic is “Creating a Realistic Pace for Improvement”. Read more and register here.

Bonus!  We’ll select one person from the list of participants to win a free registration to our October 1-2 Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference. Learn more about the conference here.