Tag Archives: six sigma

They also serve who only stand and wait.

For those not into 17th century English poets,  this final line from John Milton’s, On His Blindness, had particular significance in 1665 at a time when denominations of the Christian world were debating whether we sinners were saved by faith alone or by a combination of faith and good works.  This question was the cause of the Reformation, the split between the Protestant churches and Catholic Church.  Milton was siding with those who felt that faith alone was the way to salvation. Being a good person was nice but not necessary in the eyes of God.   John Wesley, founder of Methodism, was among those who disagreed, however.  Faith alone was not enough.  Good works, things like charity and kindness, were equally parts of the road to salvation.  It was simply not enough to “only stand and wait” as John Milton suggested. 

In the summer of 1665, debates over the path to salvation would have been in context of the deadly epidemic, Black Death.  This wave of the bubonic plague started slowly in a London neighborhood,  but by May of 1665, 43 had died. In June 6137 succumbed and then in July, 17036.   Finally, at its peak in August, 31159 people perished.  In all, 15% of the London population perished during that terrible summer. There was little recourse beyond prayer and primitive forms of protection like the avian-like “gas mask” worn by physicians to damp foul smells. Filled with lavender and  camphor to ward off the invisible pestilence, this protective gear was 17th century state of the art – the best that science and medicine had to offer.   

We can all take heart that science has advanced remarkably since Milton.   While we justifiably worry about the elapsed weeks of time needed to properly garb our pandemic frontlines  and months of time to a vaccine or other therapies, we should consider, as a frame of reference, that the Black Plague lasted more than three centuries in Asia and Europe without remedy.  As an optimist by nature, I still find myself  fighting off angry thoughts and wondering how we ever got into this mess.  Better to focus on the moment.  Seize the day.    What can we do to help the frontlines?   Where is our salvation? 

Perhaps, as in the 17th century, there is power in faith.  I would not disparage it. As an aphorism from the Second World War maintains, “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” Beyond this, however,  what about “good works”?   With regard to our current dilemma, it seems for most us who are not on the front line – not clinicians, not public servants, not essential service workers – there are just two things we can do:

  1. Support the front lines.  Give them everything they need immediately and let them feel our gratitude. 
  2. For the rest of us, oddly, doing  nothing is our good work. As Milton said “They also serve who only stand and wait.”  We need to stay at home for now to protect each other AND the front line. Give them the gift of time to heal the sick and find ways to remediate this scourge.     

Stay well everyone. 
O.L.D. 

P.S. Well, perhaps not nothing. My organization, GBMP, is assisting companies who wish to turn downtime into learning and improvement time through virtual Lean, Six Sigma and Shingo Model workshops, training, coaching and project assistance. The remote platforms are robust and interactive learning and sharing are possible whether your workforce is presently at home or in the workplace, local or dispersed, in one state, multiple states or spread across countries. Contact us to learn how we can assist your team or peruse some of our scheduled Lean learning opportunities.

Turning Downtime into Learning Time

For over 25 years, the GBMP’s mission has been to help organizations large and small develop their most valuable resource: their employees.  Our abiding belief, connoted in our slogan, EVERYBODY EVERYDAY, is that given the right training and inspiration, every employee – from the front lines to the corner office can be a Lean thinker and problem solver.  My personal learning first as an operating manager has been, that continuous improvement requires an army of problem-solvers, a culture that embraces tough challenges collaboratively and confidently. 

Presently, we are all faced with a challenge that absolutely requires that confidence and collaboration.  While we may not be able to march forward arm in arm at this point, thanks to the facility available from the Internet we still can learn together – face-to-face – in the Gemba, if only remotely.  And there is no better time or burning platform than at this moment to engage and inspire all of our employees to become an army of innovators and problem solvers in face of COVID19. 

Whether your workforce is presently at home or in the workplace, local or dispersed, GBMP consultants can help with interactive Lean and Six Sigma training, consulting and coaching targeted exactly to your needs and timeframe.  While we may not be able join you at this time at your site, we are all still as close as your nearest computer or smart device. 

We’re all facing a tough and unprecedented situation right now.  But the best of human spirit dictates that we nevertheless find ways to do our jobs and improve our jobs.  Whether are an existing GBMP partner or are just beginning with continuous improvement, I encourage to take a few moments to peruse the interactive opportunities available to you from GBMP.  Let us help you turn downtime into learning time.

– O.L.D.

About Time

Twenty-twenty marks the 35th anniversary of a remarkable and unfortunately also singular event in my career:  In 1985, my employer, United Electric Controls (UE), elected to remove time clocks from the factory.  

At the time of this unusual decision, I had already been employed at UE for fourteen years in a variety of office jobs.  I worked in a building a couple blocks away from the factory, and “punching the clock” had never been a part of my day.  From my first day of employ, my attendance was tracked by exception – sickness, personal time or vacations – pretty much on the honor system.  But in 1985, coincidentally around the time I transferred into manufacturing, the idea to remove the time clocks was floated.  I weighed in as member of the management team on this idea, but I was pretty much a bystander, a new kid on the block, still unaware of significance of the change.   

The proposal raised concerns with many managers and supervisors that some workers would cheat the company by fudging their hours or simply not showing up for work.  From factory workers there were suspicions that without the clock they might be coerced to work extra hours without pay.   Both of these concerns were, as I understand, the historical reasons for the implementation of time clocks as a common factory practice.  Time clocks have been fixtures in factories since the turn the 20th century, installed to provide an objective measure of attendance.  They persist today as a management system example of “the way we’ve always done things” as well as a symbol of mutual distrust between management and labor.   

Back in 1985, a business owner reflected on the time-clock proposal and listened to the concerns raised by others in the company.  Ultimately, he decided, hourly employees should be no less trusted than office workers. (Thanks, Dave.)  Forty hours of attendance would be assumed except as noted by each employee.   No more double standard: a twenty-year factory employee no longer had to prove he or she was present while an office worker hired last week did not.  The most obvious result of this system change was the absence of lines at time-clocks.  Subtler yet more significant was the change in working relationships. More of us, less of them.  In 1990, United Electric was recognized by the Shingo Prize for Enterprise Excellence, a coveted award based largely on the engagement in continuous improvement by employees, but arguably influenced by a singular management decision made years before.  (And, by the way, attendance actually improved.)

Today, whenever I visit factories and witness the stampedes of employees to time clocks and hear the complaints of time lost to waiting in line to punch in out, I wonder why no one questions the practice.   On the contrary, in the last 50 years an entire industry has grown up around punching the clock, adding software even to automatically track an employee’s whereabouts as well as his/her attendance.  

Is this an improvement or are we, as Shigeo Shingo liked to say, just automating a waste – the eighth waste – and taking mutual distrust to a new level?   

A quote from Peter Drucker is ringing in my ears: “There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.”

What do you think?  Is it about time to reconsider time clocks? 

O.L.D. 

PS Speaking of time, at this particular time of year, myself and my colleagues at GBMP would like to wish everyone a very happy, healthy and bright New Year. We look forward to seeing you, members of our Lean community, at events we sponsor throughout the year – from benchmarking plant tours and Shingo Institute workshops to Lean Certificate programs and our annual Northeast Lean Conference. We are especially excited to be able to offer Systems Design, the newest Shingo Institute workshop, this February at Vibco in Rhode Island. We hope you can join us.

Talking Turkey

The English language can be confounding. For example, the word turkey is slang for “a person considered inept or undesirable” while the idiom cold turkey describes the actions of one who abruptly gives up a habit rather than through gradual change. Finally, talking turkey means “to discuss a problem in a serious way with a real intention to solve it.” For the upcoming holiday, let me frame these idioms in terms that are very important to the social science of Lean. First the turkey’s:

A long time ago, after a short stint as a materials manager, I was promoted to vice president of manufacturing. It was, in fact, my good fortune to enter production knowing nothing about it, lest I might have fancied myself an expert. Instead, I relied on people who were already there to help me learn. Having begun my career in the ‘creative’ world of marketing, a block away from the factory, I had previously been given to believe that manufacturing was ‘cut and dry’; a repetitive, mindless environment. What I soon discovered after my promotion, however, was that the production floor was filled with innovative if not spiteful employees who managed to build products despite errors in drawings and bills of material, despite malfunctioning equipment and despite a lack of respect for the irons they pulled out of the fire everyday. When I shared my early concerns with other managers I was cautioned not to spend too much time with malcontents from the factory floor.  

I was floored. “What are these guys thinking?” I asked my welding supervisor, Lenny, as I related the malcontent story. He gave me wry smile and replied, “You’re heading in the right direction. Don’t get discouraged.” I thanked him and thought to myself, “This is different. I’m the manager and he’s coaching me.” Later in the week, I found a gift on my desk (the coffee cup above) from an anonymous friend. The thought and particularly the background behind it helped me through a few struggles. 

Now for the idiom cold turkey.  This is a model referred to in the Lean world as “blitz kaizen,” a big, sudden change.”  These events are typically characterized by major layout changes. Machines and people are moved close together to facilitate material and information flow – both great objectives. Problem is, the machines are fine as objects of improvement. We can push them around as often as we like. Not so much with people. We struggle with change even when it’s self-initiated, and we really don’t like being pushed around. We like to be the agents of change, the innovators, not the objects. Our habits don’t change on a dime. Gradual, continuous improvement works better for us than cold turkey. 

If we want to engage “everybody everyday” we need to talk turkey to get the root cause of real problems – especially managers. Recently during a factory tour at potential customer, a manager proudly shared his huddle board strategy with me: “We require each department to identify and solve a problem every day”, he said, “just like your slogan “everybody everyday.”  

Gazing at the huddle board I asked an employee, “How important are the problems on your huddle board?” Her reply: “Sometimes they’re important, but one way or another we have find problem to solve every day.”    “How’s that working for you?” I asked. “Okay,” she responded tentatively, “but we seem to have more problems than solutions.” Seemed like they were counting problems not solutions – not talking turkey. 

 Finally, for the holiday I want to share a frivolous clip that was the inspiration for this idiomatic post: me talking to a turkey. Just a reminder that to everyone that we all need to lighten up some times and be grateful for the good people in our lives. To all my Lean friends, Happy Thanksgiving.

Tours R Us (aka Why Sharing & Teaching are the best way to Learn)

After being recognized in 1990 by the Shingo Prize, my plant became an overnight hot spot for benchmarking.  Hardly a week went by when there was not a visit from a distinguished visitor, Fortune 500 company, professional organization or college class.   Initially we accepted the visits because of the good publicity for the company; good news sells products. 

But very quickly we discovered that the process of sharing our continuous improvement story had a powerful effect on our employee and management commitment to Lean.  This was not an outcome that I had anticipated.  Sharing with visitors encouraged us to learn more; quoting a Latin proverb, “Docendo discimus,” the best way to learn is to teach.  Anticipating a tour, employees were motivated to polish their efforts; to find one more before-and- after anecdote about changeovers or mistake-proofing or kanban or some clever idea they had implemented to make the job easier.  Front line workers, many of whom had never previously been asked about their work, spoke eloquently about reducing waste and creating value.  It was exciting for them to share knowledge and to be recognized for their grasps of topics that still eluded many of our visitors.  “The engagement of your employees is an inspiration to me,” noted a visitor from a well-known automotive manufacture.  “So many good ideas; how did this happen?”   There was no single answer to that question.

One day, after a double-decker bus carrying students and faculty from a well-known business school pulled out of our parking lot, an employee from our welding department commented, “You know, Bruce, it’s fun having these tours and being able to tell our story to visitors, but how about holding a tour for our own employees?”   He continued.  “I’ve been building parts for our assembly department for many years, but have never really seen how those parts are used.”   

The efficacy of this idea hit me instantly.  It was an enormous missed opportunity.  Shortly thereafter, the first of many employee tours was scheduled.  Long before the terms “value stream” or Yokoten ever became part of the Lean lexicon, we were practicing and gaining the benefits.  In the process, departmental boundaries were blurred and many more ideas stimulated and shared from the opportunity to see the whole rather than just the parts.  A long-time employee commented to me after an employee tour.  “We’re ‘Tours R Us.’  It’s a good thing.”  

What are you doing to remove the silos and stimulate idea sharing in your organization?   Let me hear from you. 

O.L.D. 

BTW – Don’t miss the opportunity to connect with your Lean community and share ideas about involving all of your employees in continuous improvement.  Our 15th Annual Northeast Lean Conference is all about engaging your entire workforce to create value for your customers.  We hope you will join us October 23-24 at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford.  Listen to this important message from the Old Lean Dude to learn more.