Tag Archives: Old Lean Dude

Leader Standard Waste: Part One

leader standard wasteThree years ago I wrote a post entitled “The Emperor’s New Huddle Boards,” in which I expressed concern about the trappings of improvement without actual improvement.  Since then, my concern about the application of Leader Standard Work and Gemba Walks has deepened as these potentially valuable practices have too often degenerated into obligatory scripted play acting.

Ten years ago, when I first heard David Mann presenting these concepts, I thought to myself, “Hmm, it’s about time that someone gives thought to the best use of manager’s time in support of kaizen.”

Most managers, in my opinion, needed some guidelines in this regard.  A hesitancy to go to the floor for direct observation was a pervasive manager shortfall.  Many persons who have viewed GBMP’s video, Toast Kaizen, may not know that in fact, its genesis was in trying to persuade senior managers to get out of their offices and go to the floor to observe.  So the idea of establishing a standard that included visits to the Gemba was appealing to me.

Unfortunately, good ideas are sometimes unintentionally abstracted to the point that they become pointless.   For each of the three parts of David Mann’s model, I have observed a proliferation of shortcomings that invalidate the intended Lean management system.   For the next three weeks, I’ll cover these one-by-one.

Today it’s Visual Controls:

Call me old school, but I grew up in a factory where visual controls mainly meant building visual information directly into the work.  For example:

  • A standardized work chart posted at the workstation so an observer could compare the actual process with the standard.
  • A production-activity log in the production cell, updated on each work cycle with particular emphasis on problems that occurred so that problems could be fixed instantly.
  • A visualization of standard work in process, for example, a chute that held only four pieces – no more or less – to clarify the balance of operations.
  • An Andon that, if flashing, signaled an immediate need for production support.

When I was a kid, the opportunities like these to build information directly into the process in a low-tech way seemed endless.  They provided excellent opportunities for workers to share information about their work, and a manager who understood these visual devices could understand the health of the process at glance.

Today I see far less visual information at the point of use.   It’s been replaced by ubiquitous huddle boards and kiosks and video displays, often situated on a wall far from the actual work.  The ideal of “frequent focus on the process” has been become an infrequent focus on visual displays updated once per day just before the huddle meeting.  The ability to visually compare actual to standard has been lost.  Recently, in fact, I visited an organization that proudly announced they were replacing all manual huddle boards with digital displays that could be viewed remotely.  I’m sorry if this seems harsh, but when these types of standalone visual devices become the sole standard for visual controls, managers learn little or nothing about the Gemba.  “Grasping the current condition” is replaced by counting the red and green dots.  One manager announced to me that he could tell the condition of the factory merely by glancing at the huddle board for several seconds.  “No,” I responded, “you can only tell the condition of the huddle board.”

One final rhetorical question regarding the red and green dots:  In an environment where reviewing a huddle board is understood to be going to the Gemba, how many red dots would you expect to see?   A colleague related to me a comment he received from a shop floor employee.  “Have you heard of the color watermelon?” the employee asked, and then answered.  “We have watermelon dots on our huddle board.  They’re green on the outside, but red on the inside.”

In fact, I do think huddle boards and kiosk displays can be an impactful part of a visual factory or office; but they are only a piece, and probably not the most important piece.  And as stand-alones, they create an additive activity that makes management’s visits to the floor a standardized waste of time and an insult to the front line.


PS Did this get you hot under the collar?  Then please add a comment.  And watch for the continuation of this post next week when I’ll be sharing some concerns about the second part of the Lean Management System: Accountability.

BTW For a terrific story from one senior leader who understands management’s role to create a transparent workplace that incorporates visualization of the work, I recommend Jim Lancaster’s The Work of Management.  Or better still, sign up for our 14th Annual Northeast Lean Conference to be held in Providence on October 10-11, 2018 and hear Jim Lancaster’s Lantech story directly from him at his October 11 conference keynote.


Be Careful What You Wish For – Part II

Four years ago I posted a funny story passed along to me by a Lean friend, that dealt with the consequences of crazy measures, and how lack of management oversight will allow these measures to persist indefinitely.   It’s one of my shortest posts and worth a quick read if you haven’t already seen it.  Go ahead – rub the lamp   : )be_careful

Now, back to the present. A conversation last week with another Lean friend reminded me of the 2010 post, but this time in the context of ‘the corner office’ rather than the front line (or checkout line in the case of my earlier post.)

My friend, Al, a retired divisional controller of a large multi-national manufacturer related a story about his former firm’s CEO: “It used to drive me crazy how decisions were made,” Al said. “We ran a profitable operation here in Massachusetts, but I was constantly pressured to identify work that could be shipped to low wage regions.“

The CEO’s behavior was driven by the corporation’s MBO’s. In particular, the CEO’s bonus was tied in part to increasing the percentage of ‘foreign content’ for all divisions.

“Our labor was less than 5% of our cost,” Al said. “I tried to show our CEO that relocating production for my division’s products would increase total costs far beyond any perceived part cost savings, but he had blinders on. All he saw was the mindless objective to increase foreign content. Ultimately, we were forced to move production. And when problems with quality and delivery arose as a result, our CEO wasn’t accountable. That was someone else’s MBO!”


Several years ago, I heard a similar story from the factory manager of a well-known highly automated, hosiery producer: “Our entire production line was automated save for one manual step at the end of the process to sew several stitches in the toe of the stockings. Corporate decided that the three stitches should be done in China. So we were forced to load nearly completed products into containers for shipment through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific Ocean for the last stitching operation. Once stitched, the stockings were shipped back to the US for packaging and sale.” The factory manager shook his head in frustration as he told the story. “Where are these folks getting these ideas?” he said.

So, how do these two stories relate to my 2010 post? No oversight. No direct observation, in this case, by the persons who are charged with the corporation’s fiduciary responsibility – its board of directors.   The CEOs in the examples above are no different than the cashier in my 2010 post. They were following damaging directives from absentee leadership.   The difference in these cases however is that when CEOs receive nonsensical objectives the potential for damage to customers and employees is very much greater.

Are your corporate measures working for you or do they reward you for crazy behavior? Please share a story.


BTW: My next FREE webinar, “Tea Time with the Toast Dude”, entitled “The Technical Side of Going to See” will offer some observation frameworks for managers to facilitate their understanding of floor conditions when they “go to the Gemba.” Hope you can make it on Tuesday, June 17th from 3:00 -3:45 p.m. EST. (Read more and pre-register here.)

Also, a couple important reminders:

  • The early bird discount deadline for our October 1-2 Northeast Lean Conference at the Mass Mutual Centerin Springfield, Massachusetts is fast approaching. Register by May 31 and receive a $100 discount.
  • GBMP will be teaching the Shingo Institute Discover Excellence Course at Alpha Analytical in Westborough, Massachusetts on June 12-13. There are still a few slots open.



patienceIn 1966, a freshman at a college in Maine attended a speech given by Floyd McKissick, newly appointed head of the Congress of Racial Equality, better known as CORE.   In the packed auditorium there were no more than a half-dozen African Americans come to hear the “radical” new leader whose mission was to raise awareness of gross racial inequality.  Mr. McKissick’s animated and passionate litany clearly affected the mostly white, middle class audience who sat wide-eyed and still as he detailed the shameful history of persecution to which most of society had turned a blind eye.

A half-century later, it’s hard to articulate the social turmoil of that decade to someone born later.  The marches and mobilizations (such as Mr. McKissick hoped to foment at an unlikely Maine college), the assassinations of leaders of the movement, the lynchings and murders of their followers and advocates, the riots and destruction of property in all our major cities, are now material for history books, dulled by time.   What seemed to many back then to be an impending collapse of society was for persons like Mr. McKissick a major overhaul to an unfair and counterproductive system, a step change for everyone towards the ideals we more fortunate students took for granted.

Near the end of his presentation, Floyd McKissick raised his fist to the audience in a show of emotion and used this analogy to make his case:

“The Man is standing on my neck. I am on the ground and he is choking me.  And he says to me ‘You need to be patient because I need acceptance time for these kind of changes.’”

These words hit their intended target.  Patience is not a virtue when it is an excuse by those in power to forestall positive change.   Further, sometimes testy, impatient mavericks like Mr. McKissock are the advance guard, forging the trail for the rest of us who are trying to create change.

Decades later, working to make improvements in my factory, I was reminded of Mr. McKissick’s remarks when my teacher said to me “Bruce, you should be very patient with the workers but not patient with the managers.”

A belated thanks to Floyd McKissick and other trailblazers.   Happy MLK day.


BTW – My next free webinar will be on Tuesday, Feburary 11, from 3:00-3:45 p.m. EST.  The topic is “Tips for Manager Gemba WalksHope you can join me.  Click here to register.

And you can learn about all of GBMP’s public lean training events here  – from benchmarking Plant Tours to Lean Accounting Workshops, Six Sigma Green Belt Certificate programs and more.

One by One

big batchPreface: A Christmas present from a lean-thinking friend, Brian Dandrea at Mass Mutual Insurance, is the inspiration for this week’s post. Those of you who have seen the Toast Kaizen video will remember the big batch of toast I make in my deluxe four-slice toaster. For years that toaster has been the metaphor for wrong-sized monument equipment, wrong-thinking about true efficiency and resulting overproduction. And I’ve embellished the metaphor with the assertion “You can’t buy a one-slice toaster, you’d have to build your own.” This assertion was based upon my apparently cursory search of the web, which turned up all sizes of toasters (even a ten-slicer!), but nary a single example of one-slice toaster. When I mentioned this to Brian D. recently however, he made it a personal mission to challenge my hypothesis. The result you can see for yourself in the following clip: click here. Toastmaster apparently discontinued its 1×1 model toaster around 1953 (coincidentally at about the same time Toyota was rolling out its just-in-time production system. )

Post: While it would be easy enough to parlay my new right-sized toaster into more discussion of the virtues of single piece part and information flow at the front lines, let’s consider instead the “work in process” for managers. Especially in the last decade, it seems to me that managers have become buried in administrative WIP — projects and objectives. Infinite loading of managers is the norm: give them a hundred projects and ask them to spend 1% of their time on each — just like on the factory floor, we figure if we keep pushing work in, something will eventually come out. We launch many objectives and then expedite the hot ones – and hot unfortunately usually means most urgent, not most important. Managers are rewarded for stamping out the fires, for working long hours to keep up, and for juggling too many ‘priorities.’ Loaded down like Santas we have to decide on a moment’s notice “who’s naughty and nice,” who gets help, what is the best short-term solution. We may be preaching one-by-one production to the shop floor, but we are often victims ourselves of way too much manager work in process.

I had a boss many years ago who would call me to his office almost daily to lecture me: “Project X is your number one priority, I want you to spend 100% of your time on it!” The following day I’d receive a similar message, but this time for a different project. After trying to juggle too many priorities for a while, I just learned to fake it – to pretend things were happening even when they weren’t – since it was virtually impossible to handle all of my manager WIP. Ultimately, when we overburden managers, we make them bad managers.

This being the holiday season and my last post for 2013, I like to suggest to managers that next year you give your direct reports and yourself the gift of one-by-one projects – or at least smaller batches. Focus on less at a time, get some balance in your life, and the flow will improve. Less WIP, greater velocity.

Thanks for reading and commenting this year; hope to have you back in 2014.


BTW. Please Join me on January 14 from 3:00 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. for a free “Tea Time with the Toast Dude” Webinar. Next month’s topic will be “Value Stream Mapping Mistakes and Faux Pas.” You can register on our website: go to www.gbmp.org and click on Events.