Tag Archives: mura

John’s Box

Some years back while working in an administrative department I encountered a curious condition.  With about a half-dozen employees, I was following the information flow from sales order to shipping.  Our spaghetti diagram kept looping back to an inbox on a table just outside John’s door.  It was imposing. It looked a bit like this:

“Who is John?” I asked.  He wasn’t asked to participate with us on this project.

“He’s the order supervisor,” I was told.

“What does he do with this information at this point?” I inquired.

“He makes a list of sales orders, checks for accuracy  and  then sends them to scheduling for release” was the answer.

“Where is he today?” I asked.

“He’s in a meeting,” came the reply.

A short time later, the spaghetti led back once again to John’s box.

“After the order is released to production, it goes to John for prioritizing,” I was told.

Order piles and files were mixed.  “How does John get through all of this?” I asked.

“He works late,” was the answer.

By the third trip back John’s box there were a few smirks on people’s faces.  An incongruous comment was offered by one of our team: “John’s a really good guy . . .”

I resolved to sit down with John when he was available.

John, who had been employed with this firm for over thirty years, greeted me cheerily when I finally got the opportunity to meet him.   As I sat across the table from him a scene from Office Space flashed through my head.  But unlike the character from Office Space, he was instantly likeable – really a people person.  During his career, I gleaned he had held nearly every factory and scheduling position, and had at one time scheduled the factory entirely from a three-ring binder.   He seemed to know about nearly every possible problem that might arise in the order process.  And he knew everybody – employees, suppliers and customers.  When I showed him our spaghetti diagram with many noodles pointing his way, he grimaced slightly, acknowledging, “I could be a bit of a bottleneck.”  After a moment, however, he added, “but there are so many problems with this system. If I didn’t check constantly, we’d be in hot water with our customers.”

I met with John’s manager later in the day to ask if John could join our team.  “He’s retiring in the next eighteen months.  He just sorts paper at this point,” said his manager.

“Exactly,” I responded, “and he has so much more capability.  Why not engage him to help solve some of the problems he’s currently sorting?    He’d be an asset to our team.”

“Okay, he’s all yours,” his manager said.  “Good luck teaching an old dog new tricks.”

How do you think John ultimately contributed to this team?  What do old dogs know?  And what is the 8th waste?

Do you have a story to share about underutilized talent in your business?   Please comment.

O.L.D.

BTW  Don’t miss the International Shingo Conference, April 30-May 4 in Jacksonville.  I’ll be looking for you.

Airplane

I think there are no new airplane stories left for those of us who take to the not-always-friendly skies, but having been on one of those super delay specials recently and coincidentally not caring especially about being hours late (I had booked a full day of buffer as a hedge against possible travel snafus), I was in a unique position to observe “from a Lean perspective” while the crew and the remainder of passengers on my flight stressed and melted down.   So I hope you’ll indulge this particular recounting of airline mental Muri and Muda.

The airline on which I booked seems not to be pertinent to the particular problems we experienced – I’ve seen them all before on other carriers.  So let’s just say I flew on a major carrier that, like most of its counterparts, has already declared bankruptcy once in the last decade.  Also like a few of its counterparts, this airline emerged from bankruptcy as a result of “restructuring,” a mostly euphemistic term for retrenchment and service reduction maneuvers that please banks but not customers.

My rule of thumb for travel is: Under four hours travel time, drive; otherwise I fly.  In this case, a two-hour flight was preferable to an estimated auto drive time of seven hours.   The first leg of my journey began at 5:00 a.m., a time calculated to both avoid morning commuter traffic and also place me in a favorable position in security with two hours to spare before the flight.   At 8:15 a.m., my odyssey began as we boarded on time for an 8:45 departure.   Then the schedule began to slip.   At 9:00 a.m., the captain announced apologetically that a “minor” mechanical problem was the cause of the delay, but that he had requested a postponement of servicing because “this problem is most likely the result of a faulty sensor.”  This is something air travelers do not like to hear, as it seems more like a hunch than an actual observed cause.  But concerns for safety appeared at this point to be trumped by a larger concern by many passengers that they not miss connecting flights.  It appeared from discussion in the cabin that most passengers were connecting from my flight with once-per-day international flights.

Our pilot explained his course of action:  He supposed the fault was erroneous – he’d seen it before.  He would shutdown and restart the plane’s engines, power and computer system – and then reboot.  “O-o-o,” I thought, “just like my PC”.  I wondered, since he’d “seen it before”, if there was any informative inspection, i.e., were they trying to solve the problem, or were they just side-stepping it?  It seemed that delivery, in this case of passengers, was more important than perfect quality.

The plane’s power and engines shut down and then restarted shortly thereafter.  But still we sat.  I passed the time on my iPod calmly listening in Tony Bennett’s latest duet album (Take a listen! Lady Gaga can sing), but other passengers began to fidget a little as the crew engaged in discussion at the front of the plane.  Missed international connections were looming for many passengers – the kind that were not only a major customer inconvenience, but also would incur additional hotel costs for the airline.  It seemed that the crew was keenly aware of both issues, but powerless to provide a remedy.  So they served cookies and water with stressed assurances that “everything was being done.”  Apparently the re-boot tactic had been unsuccessful.

At 10:00 a.m., silence was broken by the captain’s announcement:  “We’re going to have to ask you to deplane while our maintenance department diagnoses the problem.” (I suspect this action was taken because of recent laws governing maximum tarmac delays.) He went on, “I know many of you have tight connecting flights, but your safety is our primary concern, and there is an indication from our oil sensor that there may be chips in the oil.”  This condition struck me as substantially more critical than the aforementioned faulty sensor.  Time to repair was estimated at two hours.   “Maintenance will be here as soon as possible,” the captain said, which sounded more like a wish than a declaration.   Passengers were requested to make alternate travel arrangements upon deplaning.

Muri levels escalated as agitated passengers jockeyed for positions in several lines set up near to the gate to accommodate re-ticketing. The scene was chaotic as ticket agents struggled to placate travelers.  After standing in one line for thirty minutes, I learned from a fellow traveler that this particular line was only for passengers with Hong Kong connections.  Passengers with connecting flights (more than two-thirds of my flight) were given preference on alternative flights.  Rather than move to the rear of another line, I opted to just sit it out with my iPod.   My original flight (the one we had just deplaned) was not yet officially cancelled, and still under repair.  There was still a chance I might get on that flight.

At 1:30 p.m. there was good news: the plane had been repaired.  I re-boarded along with about three dozen other passengers, all that were left of the originally full flight.  There would be plenty of shoulder room, but I wondered if the flight was now a money-loser.   As I boarded, an agent offered, “The captain is very confident that the problem has been fixed.”  I chuckled at this reassurance; with all of the cascading problems so far that day it almost seemed like bad luck to be optimistic.  Once we were seated, the captain apologized one more time: “I’m happy to report that there is no problem with chips in the engine’s oil, only a malfunctioning sensor.  I apologize for the length of the repair time, as a new seal needed to enclose the sensor could not be immediately located.”  In other words, most of the flight delay was occasioned by searching for a part.   As I heard this, I imagined a poorly organized maintenance parts area with employees digging through boxes.  The whole repair process seemed reactive, non-standard and even unstable.  And we would shortly be taking off in the product of this system – or so I thought.

In fact, and probably fortunately so, we would not be taking off so soon.  After a brief firing of the engines, the aircraft powered down again.  This time a clearly exasperated captain exclaimed, “We are still experiencing a computer fault on start-up.  We’re going to have the maintenance crew restart the system properly this time”  (his exact words.)  I thought,  “What ever happened to ‘do it right the first time?’”  The captain continued. “No one is more frustrated over this delay that I am.  I’m so sorry.  But the good news is the maintenance crew is still here with us, so we should solve this problem very soon.”

About ten minutes later the captain addressed us for one last time.  “This flight has been cancelled.  Will you please return to the terminal for rebooking.”  I shook the captain’s hand as I exited the ill-fated flight, and thanked him for trying.

From that point, my fortunes improved.  The rebooking line for a 3:45 flight was short, and a friendly but weary agent handed me a ten-dollar lunch voucher. “The airline will also be making a restitution offer to you once you are boarded,” he said.

“What’s that?” I asked.  “I have no idea,” he replied. “I’m just a working stiff.”

I never found out about the restitution offer because I fell asleep once on board.  It had been a pretty long day even for someone not in a hurry.    Ten hours after my original departure time, I reached my destination.

Here are a few reflections:

  • As a business traveler, I was not astonished by the multitude of problems encountered on this flight on this day.  But I was struck by the apparent lack of countermeasures and system feedback that could have eliminated every single one of those problems.  W. Edwards Deming’s estimate that “90% of all problems are system problems” seems understated in this case.
  • Customer service could be so much better and at a lower cost if airlines adopted Lean methods and philosophy.
  • Mostly however, I empathized with the demoralized captain, crew and other airline employees who went to work that day with the desire to provide perfect service to their customers, but were thwarted by a bankrupt system.

Do you have an airplane story to share?

O.L.D.

They Assessment

Over years of listening to persons describe their work, one single word has surfaced repeatedly as a barometer of what is frequently called “culture.”   The use of the word they in conversation gives me insight into an organization’s ability to engage employees and sustain improvement.

The technical aspects of Lean I can observe primarily with my eyes:

  • the flow of material and information
  • the stability, repeatability and clarity of work
  • adherence to standards
  • alignment of resources to strategic objectives

These are artifacts, physical manifestations, of Lean and together are necessary to an organization’s Lean development.  But alone, the technical efforts provide only a cursory understanding of culture.  For example, too often I visit workplaces that exhibit evidence of Lean tools and systems, but are lacking a spirit of improvement.  Deming Prize recipient, Ryuji Fukuda refers to a “favorable environment” as a work atmosphere that supports employee participation and nourishes that spirit.  This environment is not easily visible from the Lean artifacts.  In fact, organizations willing and able to spend money can create an appearance of Lean, with no real change in culture at all.  One large manufacturer I visited recently actually farms out improvement projects to subcontractors.  They are outsourcing Lean implementation – or so they think.

One word gives these companies away:  they.   It’s a word that refers variously to management, employees, other departments or divisions, external suppliers, boards of directors – any parties involved in the flow of goods and services to the customer.  When I visit a company, I’m not only looking for the use of Lean tools and systems, but I’m also counting They’s.  Let’s call it a They Assesment.

Sometimes they alludes to an adversarial relationship.  “They don’t listen to us”, a nurse told me when I asked her about a scheduling snafu that left patients overflowing in a waiting room.  “Who are they?” I asked.  “The docs,” she said.  “All doctors?” I asked.  “Some more than others,” she replied.”  Notice that the pronoun they objectifies an entire group.

In other instances, they connotes a more passive separation: “They won’t support these changes” is a concern I hear often, and it could just as well be spoken by top managers or by employees depending on frame of reference.  When I’m speaking to a production department, support departments like IT or engineering are often in the they category.  And the effect is reciprocal.  If one function refers to another as they, the other department will always respond in kind.

They is a red flag word.  Its frequency and location of use in conversation paint a picture of the business environment: favorable or unfavorable.  Organizations with a stronger Lean culture will refer more frequently to “we” in describing their work.   In one company, for example, assembly employees repeatedly referred to the engineering department as “we” even though engineering was clearly a separate entity on the organizational chart.  The same production department, however, referred to a subassembly department as they, even though both departments worked side by side in the same physical area.   As organizations develop the favorable environment, they is incrementally replaced by “we”, the ideal condition being no they’s at all.   Short of that ideal, when I hear the word they I note a relationship problem that is holding back the essential spirit of improvement.

Recently, I visited a company that was considering the Shingo Prize model as a template for company improvement.  The plant manager greeted me in the lobby with these words:

“We’d like to know more about the Shingo model and how it can help us improve.  We feel like we’ve made a lot of improvement in the last five years, but have hit a plateau.”

Indeed, there were technical challenges for this company that were apparent on a tour of the shop floor.  Operational availability was still low and inventories still too high.   But not a single they was spoken.   In a company of several hundred people, from management to the factory floor, only “we” and “us” were heard.   I responded to the plant manager’s question,

“The Shingo Prize model will certainly help your plant past its technical plateau, but as far as I can hear your potential for improvement is very high.”

How would your plant fare with a They Assessment?  Which are the toughest relationships to forge?  Let me hear from you.

O.L.D.

WYSIWYG

Computer geeks over the age over 40 will recall that once upon a time, the images of text and graphics that appeared on computer screens bore little relation to the product outputted from the printer. There was a bit of an art involved using special ‘markup tags’ to control the printing font and format.  Prior to 1980 we could not see our work in advance of printing.  Then in the early ‘80’s came a miraculous software advance referred to as WYSIWYG – What You See Is What You Get.   This may seem trivial today, as everything we see on computer screens, including moving 3-D simulation models, is a faithful and accurate representation of the actual.   But for those struggling on early PC’s or Macs, the ability to see was a breakthrough.

The idea of “seeing what you get” pre-dates the emergence of IT.  The revolution began with Flip Wilson’s Geraldine in the 1960’s and entered our musical vernacular in 1970’s as a laidback Motown classic.    The message in both instances was “Here I am with no guile or pretense and no hidden agenda.”  What you see is what you get.    So by 1980, when the phrase was usurped by techno geeks, we understood what it meant.   [BTW: For a bit of nostalgia, take a couple minutes to click on the links above.]

In the 1990’s with the popularization of the Toyota Production System we were once again Learning to See, except this time, the process ran in reverse as we struggled to correlate our mental image of the workplace with Gemba – the “real place.”  Using a new method referred to a Value Stream Mapping, we toured our factories and offices, our OR’s and ED’s intending to understand and separate the real value provided to the customer from a sea of waste.   With post-its and pencils in hand we walked the process flow to “see” the real place.

But what did we see?  The traditional supposition, that the workplace was dirty, unimaginative, unmotivated, cut-and-dry often tainted our observation.  A general manager of a large consumer goods manufacturer commented to me in a loud voice as we stood on a load dock watching a worker unload a truck, “Wow you can tell we’re paying him by the hour.  How much time is he going to take to unload this truck?”  The worker shot around and glared at the manager, responding, “Last week I got my butt reamed for making a mistake on the count.  The way shipments arrive here it’s a miracle anyone ever gets the count right!  So now, I’m taking my time and triple-checking everything, BOSS.”

It seems that what this general manager saw was exactly what he got.   Respect is a two-way street, something with which many managers still have difficulty.   Thirty years (and 14 million copies) after Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson advised managers to “catch someone doing something right,”  this continues to be a challenging concept.   The VSM symbols describe material and information, but they don’t provide a WYSIWG of the people who do the work.

How about in your workplace?  Are employees your most valuable resource or a necessary evil?  Geraldine was right:  What you see is what you get.    Share some thoughts.

O.L.D.

Signs

Do you remember a post-hippie era song called SignsThe song’s refrain came to mind recently during a workplace walkthrough:

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

Both office and factory were heavily invested in workplace organization, striving to create a workplace free of confusion.  Employees told me, when asked, that they never had to search for anything – ever.  The manager who walked with me proudly spoke of their team effort to create order from chaos by sorting out unneeded items – information, material and equipment.  “The employees in each department were the change agents,” he said.  “They decided first what should go and then where to place the things they need.”

To be sure, there were clearly marked, set locations for almost everything. Floors, bench tops, shelving, cabinets and bookcases all were taped and addressed. But one thing bothered me.  Lots of signs.  Little reminders were posted everywhere (“do this, don’t do that”) intended to usher the flow of production and information sans delays or defects:

  • A decal on an assembly fixture warned:  Caution. Do not operate without material.  An operator explained to me that fixture would be damaged if run empty. “Has that ever happened? I asked.  “Why do you think the sign is there?” she replied.
  • Above a packing bench in the shipping department a cute sign inquired, Got manuals? to remind packers to include operating instructions with products.
  • In the test lab, a sign over a test bath read, Turn on at shift start, off at shift end.  “Do you ever forget?” I asked.  “Yes, occasionally,” was the reply.
  • In a production control department, signs on computers read, Please log off at night.
  • Signs for the order desk were everywhere, some formal and some just hand-written notes.  “How do you keep track of all of these exceptions and special conditions?” I asked the order-entry person.  “I just know,” replied the employee, “and many of these notes are out of date anyway.”

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign ,” I began humming to myself.

“Why all of the signs?” I asked my host as I pointed a couple do-this-don’t-do that’s.  “They’re work standards,” he replied.

“But aren’t most of these signs just warning employees about problems that haven’t been fixed?” I asked.

My host looked at me incredulously and said, “It’s just part of their jobs.”

“Is it really?” I persisted.  “Are these things they were hired to do, or are these signs just mental clutter?”

What do you think?  How many signs can you find in your department?  Chime in.

O.L.D.