Tag Archives: shingo prize

The Emperor’s New Huddle Boards

emperorAfter a one-day observation at a local company, I participated in a wrap-up meeting with the General Manager and his team. “We’ve been at this for five years,” the general manager said to me, proudly referring to his division’s lean implementation. “Our 5S rating is over 85% and every department spends one hour per week on problem-solving.”   He continued on for several more minutes to extol the vibrancy of their transformation, citing numbers of A3’s, kaizen events and Gemba walks. “I visit team huddle boards every month to monitor adherence. And our corporate maturity score is 3.5 out of 4!”   Finally, in an attempt at humility he glanced to other managers in the room and concluded, “Of course, there’s always room for improvement.   What did you see when you visited our site today?” I took a long pause before answering his question.

I had just finished touring the facility at his request to provide a rough idea of how the site would fare in a Shingo Prize challenge. I had spent a half-day in the factory with the factory manager and several hours in support departments trying to understand the current condition of their improvement process.   My observation bore out the appearance of various activities he described, but there seemed to be no outcomes associated with these. Employees were going through the motions, but not creating change. A3’s posted on the factory wall had grown stale. Huddle boards, notable for their abundance, were updated inconsistently.

“Where is the problem-solving?” I asked a supervisor at one of the factory huddle boards. “We get to it when we can, but it’s been pretty busy lately,” she apologized. I continued, “How often do you get a visit from management?” “Once in a while,” she chuckled, “but that’s okay. We have enough problems as it is.” The factory manager standing next to me looked disapprovingly at his supervisor’s quip. He said to me a bit later in the tour “We need to change our culture. They are not on board.”

Who is they? I asked. “The front line,” he responded.

As we continued into the office spaces I commented, “It looks like you have a lot of Lean props, like A3’s and huddle boards and color-coding, but I don’t see much happening.”

That’s why you’re here,” he replied. “We made some big changes – cut costs and reduced lead-times — at the start of our Lean journey, but we have had difficulty getting employees engaged.”

“What have you done previously to promote Lean?” I asked.

The factory manager responded. “We had consultants swarming the place for a couple years, and spent a small fortune on huddle boards. And we provided Lean training for everyone. Our first wave of improvements seemed to go well, but then we stalled.”

I agreed. “Yes, the process appears to have stagnated. Why are you interested in challenging for the Shingo Prize?”

After a moment, the factory manager replied, “Our GM has an interest.”

  • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Back at the boardroom debrief, I responded to the general manager’s question. “You have a very successful, traditionally managed business”, I began in an attempt to temper my comments, “but I don’t sense an environment that supports improvement and problem-solving.” The president frowned a bit. I continued.   “Use of Lean tools like visual boards and problem-solving are inconsistent and not purposeful. From a distance, it looks like something’s happening, but closer inspection suggests that problems are not being addressed and resources for improvement are scarce. Most of the activity is being generated by a few supervisors. “  I continued a bit longer to amplify my observations with specific details from the floor.

As I spoke, I noted that several of the president’s staff glancing to him for a response. I concluded. “Several times today I heard that employees don’t have the right culture.   The responsibility for changing that culture resides in this room. My recommendation is that your management team re-evaluate your roles and participation needed to create a culture that’s more favorable to improvement.”

After a short deafening silence, a manager responded nervously, addressing the president as much as me. “I don’t agree that our process is broken as Mr. Hamilton suggests. We’ve made a lot of progress.” Other managers nodded in agreement. “Bobble heads,” I thought to myself.

Bolstered by this support, the president addressed me. “Well, everyone is welcome to their opinions. We’d like to thank you for coming in today.” The meeting was over.

Call me a bad salesman, but the emperor had no Lean.


Interested to learn more about management’s role to move beyond “tools” to create a Lean culture? Check out GBMP’s Events page for upcoming courses from the Shingo Institute, as well as our own workshops and video training targeted specifically to creating a work environment that support and accelerates improvement.


PermsFor many years I worked for a manufacturer of pressure and temperature switches, a small company with a very big product selection. In our product catalog there were roughly three-dozen distinct product families with hundreds of standard products, each available with thousands of optional configurations. The average order quantity per line was two pieces. In short, we were what is commonly referred to today as a “low volume, high mix” manufacturer. The potential product selection was astronomical, perhaps in the hundreds of millions.

I experienced this complexity first in 1971 while working in the marketing department of that company. My job in marketing was to present these innumerable specifications and styles in a manner that made ordering products easy for our customers. I had no idea, however, how many parts were needed to produce even a single product, let alone the hundreds of millions of permutations.

Component parts and raw materials, bills of material and production routings compounded that complexity in ways I did not even try to understand while I worked in marketing. But in 1977, when my job changed from marketing to IT, the picture changed. Every product I realized had parts, and many parts were parents to other parts. The relationships defined not only the products I’d sold while in marketing, but also the parts that comprised them and the location and sequence of production. The actual production floor at that time was a half-mile away from the computer room in another building so my understanding of those additional permutations and combinations was limited to what I saw in data volumes, flow charts and reports.

In 1984, after a moderately unsuccessful attempt to implement MRP, my company fired the materials manager. Somebody had to be accountable.   And this is when I backed into a job I would never have dreamt of taking in 1971. I was offered the materials manager position.   Armed with combined experience in marketing and IT, including an understanding of the mechanics of MRP, I headed to work nearer to the factory. Once more the permutations grew, this time jumping from the printed page and data file to actual stocking locations for raw material, components, assemblies and products. Notwithstanding MRP’s elegant computer simulations, it seemed we always had too much material that we didn’t need and not enough of what we did need. All of the work that I and others had done to implement MRP seemed be without effect. My customer – production — was dissatisfied with material availability, and their customer was unhappy with our delivery performance.

About eighteen months after modest success in cleaning up the then speculative push production system work, I moved from managing materials to managing production as well; now in the factory and one step closer to the customer. The complexity problem I now saw was at a whole new level.   All of the process and system problems that I could gloss over in my earlier jobs now became painfully obvious. That pain was the birth of TPS in our plant.

Over the next two years, we experimented with the concepts of TPS, in particular Kanban, which cut through complex permutations by focusing on many 1:1 relationships between consumer and provider, enabling us to attack our biggest problem: too much of one thing and not enough of something else. The momentous change in thinking was not without some short-term calamities (stories for other posts), but by 1990 our turnaround in customer service and productivity was sufficiently noteworthy to gain recognition by the Shingo Prize. I might have fooled myself at the time into thinking that we had mastered the permutations problem.

In 1994 however we undertook a project to move from small batch to 1×1 production for our most complex product line; one that represented a third of our revenues. My experience from marketing informed me that there were perhaps 25,000 distinct end items and a thousand times as many permutations. Pondering how we would manage this complexity one product at a time felt to me like solving a Rubik’s Cube. But using the wondrous technology of computer programming, I was able to set up a Monte Carlo analysis to determine the probability of any particular set of permutations.   There was a 90% chance that there would be 2500 different base assembly permutations in any one year!   This is what I learned from experience in marketing, IT and materials management. I took my discovery to Jose L., the team leader for the pilot line that would move to one-piece flow.

“Jose,” I said, “I’ve looked at our sales history and analyzed our bills of material and assembly routings, and I’m stumped at how to layout the line for 2500 different combinations.

Jose looked at me for a moment and, trying to be respectful, replied to me, “There are only 16.”

“Sixteen what?” I asked.

“Sixteen combinations,” he replied with certainty. “We can build everything from sixteen base assemblies.”

And he showed me how.


BTW: I’ll be teaching the Shingo Institute DISCOVER Excellence Course, May 5 and 6, at the 26th Annual Shingo Institute International Conference in Sandusky, Ohio. Hope to see you there

And: My next FREE webinar, “Tea Time with the Toast Dude”, entitled “Going to See” will offer some do’s and don’t’s for managers who are wondering what to do when they “go to the Gemba.” Hope you can make it on Tuesday, May 20th from 3:00 -3:45 p.m EST. (Read more and pre-register here.)

Upstream Swimmers

upstreamswimmersI was asked recently by a colleague if I make stuff up for my blog.  “Some of your stories seem too crazy,” he said.

The answer is, no, I haven’t made anything up; I don’t need to.  There’s a world of rich material regarding management Lean faux pas.  I’ve only changed names and occasionally venues in my stories in order to protect the innocent – or sometimes guilty.  In fact, I’ve probably made enough blunders so far in my career, let’s call them learning experiences, that I don’t really have to draw on other people’s experiences.  I use those mainly as corroborating evidence.   And the further corroborating evidence from some my reader’s responses is a constant reminder of the elephant in the room: archaic management systems that reward counterproductive behavior – both in employees and managers.  Here’s’ a recent example, with links to some posts from the past.

Last week I commented to a client, that he should be suspicious when he went to floor to observe.  He objected that being suspicious of employees did not show respect to them.  “Oh, no,” I replied, “I don’t mean suspicious of the employees, I mean suspicious of the system that encourages their behavior and of the so-called standards that bound and judge their work.”  Hiroyuki Hirano suggested that the correct frame of mind for change leaders should be “The current system is the worst possible.”  This mantra was recommended as a countermeasure to defending the status quo, but at more than a few work sites that I’ve visited this perspective seems to have been literally accurate.  It’s mystifying how systems that are so clearly inhibitive to improvement can continue to exist.

If I pick on management from time to time it’s only to highlight the management  system shortfalls in which they also toil and to which they also turn a blind eye  That’s the elephant in the room.   Just as a front line employee may adapt to a broken wheel on a cart or a computer that must be re-booted hourly to fix a software glitch,  management will adapt to and accommodate a broken system.   For many of us, it’s easier to ‘go with the flow’ even it’s flowing in the wrong direction .  The so-called upstream swimmers are fighting a stiff current of obsolete policies.  Here’s to the upstream swimmers!  As I approach year four of the OldLeanDude blog (and 700 followers), I salute you all and thank you for reading and commenting.   You are my inspiration.

And for those few persons in management who are keepers of policy, a reminder:  You have built these up over many years.  They may be difficult to change, but they are not immutable – and they won’t change themselves.  Why not pick a single policy today that seems to be thwarting your continuous improvement and be suspicious of it?   Ask why five times, and help those upstream swimmers out.

Can you think of a policy, standard or norm within your work that would be a good candidate for the 5 Whys?  Please share it with us.


Reminder: My next FREE webinar, “Tea Time with the Toast Dude”, entitled Managing Up (click to read more and pre-register) is coming up Tuesday, September 10 at 3:00 p.m.  I’ve had many requests to weigh in on this subject.  And one lucky participant will win a free registration to our Northeast Region Shingo Conference in Hyannis, MA, September 24-25.   Hope you can join me.

Early Bloomers

earlybloomersThis winter has presented folks in my clime with a perpetual blanket of snow that hides most of the welcome signs of an approaching spring.   There is one early bloomer, however, that blossoms each February, even as temperatures fall to the single digits as they did last week.  The small yellow and very fragrant flowers of the Witch Hazel bush provide a shred of hope that spring is on its way.

In the world of lean transformation there are early bloomers too, persons who for one reason or another take a risk at an early stage to participate.   Sometimes that participation arises from dissatisfaction with old ways, but other times from a sense of idealism about being part of something new.  Whatever the reason, I’m grateful for early adopters.  They bloom in the frost and require very little care and feeding.   And they pave the way for later bloomers.  Shigeo Shingo noted that caution over new ideas is normal.  Early adopters are supernormal in that respect, but like the Witch Hazel they are a distinct minority and risk the fate of being either unnoticed or alternately martyred as sellouts to the ‘establishment.’

Too often the early adopters become the “A-team.”   Because they are the first to buy in to new thinking, we overload them with projects rather than leveraging their participation to encourage later adopters.  One the best improvement persons I ever worked with, Harvey C., was at first an outspoken skeptic. He had worked as a supervisor for over thirty years and had seen many improvement schemes come and go. Harvey watched the early adopters carefully and kept a journal for several months, recording the results of various JIT experiments that were running in the factory.   When he could not disprove the impacts of TPS, Harvey became an incredible leader for change.  Skeptics, by definition, are persons who are disinclined to accept ideas without rigorous testing.  More so than early adopters, these skeptics are critical thinkers whose actions are guided by science as much as passion.   Had I dismissed Harvey’s cautionary behavior, I would have probably lost one of improvement’s strongest allies.   I’m grateful for later adopters too.  They bring direction and legitimacy to the Lean transformation, creating an environment that favors broader participation.

Finally, there are the trailing adopters.   Unlike the earlier bloomers, they may require the security of a friendlier climate in order to blossom.  They require a bit more “cultivation,” but they are found in large numbers that create a momentum for improvement, sometimes referred to as “culture.”    The ideal condition, as we say at GBMP, is “everybody, everyday,” but this is never the starting point for improvement, and it will not occur unless lean leaders respect and nurture every individual according to his or her proclivity to learn and develop.

Where is your organization on this seasonal curve?  Share a story.


BTW:  Only 21 days until spring and 68 days until the 25th International Shingo Conference in Provo.  I’ll be speaking and hope to see you there.

Death by Efficiency

deathbyefficiencyI was reminded this week how problematical the conceptual blind spots in our management systems can be:  An otherwise insightful and passionate-to-improve organization that I was visiting was caught in a vicious production cycle that I’ll refer to ineloquently as “piling on.” That is, each department, struggling to be efficient, was overproducing to the max, leaving a pile of partially finished product in front of its downstream internal customer.  In cases where the pile wouldn’t fit at the customer, it was removed to a warehouse until such time there was space for it on the factory floor.

There should be a corollary to Murphy’s Law to describe this problem:  “All upstream operations can and will out-produce their downstream customers.”  A few years back, I witnessed this at a sporting goods manufacturer.  The first operation, a rubber mixing process, could easily bury its customer who molded the rubber.   “Why do you produce so much?” I asked a third shift supervisor.  “Efficiency,” he replied.  “My boss tells me, that if I run out of work orders, just keep running our standard product until the sun comes up.”

At another factory, I watched a hardware bagging line fed by an automated forming process.  There were thirteen packers on the line functioning in a manner reminiscent of Lucy in the Chocolate Factory.  An industrial engineer in the plant explained to me, “We run the line only two days per week because volumes have dropped off and we don’t want to overproduce.”  When I asked him if producing too soon might not also be considered overproduction, he shrugged adding this response, “This is the most efficient way to produce.”   Later I asked the production manager for the product line, “What do you do with employees for this line for the remainder of the week?”  He replied “I find work for them in other departments when its there, or send them to the rework area.”

“I think if we tried an experiment,” I said, “to run the line at a pace equal to actual demand, we could demonstrate system efficiency rather than just machine efficiency.”   The manager agreed to a pilot project, which slowed the line to a pace that could produce a week’s worth of material in one week, using only five employees.  Quality improved, machine jams plummeted, and eight employees were available for full-time reassignment.  “Victory!” I thought.

Six weeks later when I revisited the plant however, I noticed that thirteen employees were back on the line.  “What happened?”  I asked the production manager.  ‘Our efficiency dropped,” he replied,  “at least the way we measure it, so our President told me to go back to the old way.”

Regrettably, what I am describing is the norm almost everywhere I go.  Lucy in the Chocolate Factory is baked into the psyche of our management thinking, killing us part by part.   A statement made about ten years ago by a friend and mentor, Russ Scaffede, sums up the local efficiency dilemma.  Russ had been a senior manager at General Motors, but had later moved to Toyota.  Speaking at a Shingo Prize conference**, Russ reflected humorously on his time at General Motors: “We liked to say at GM that all the divisions were profitable; it was only the corporation that was losing its shirt.”

Is your local efficiency killing you slowly?  Share a story.


**BTW: The 25th Annual Shingo Conference is coming up quickly in Provo, Utah – May 6-10.  I’ll be speaking this year at the conference, and hope to see you there.