Tag Archives: storage

Lean Transformers

A few years ago, after I gave a speech on Lean at a meeting of the Transformer Association  (like the kind on the telephone poles providing electricity to your home), my then six-year old son, Ben, asked me if I’d met Megatron.  His question caused me to chuckle at the images we assign to our language.   In Lean lingo, the word “transform” is frequently used; I wondered to myself what image the word conjured in others when used in that context.


Then, one day last month after attending LEI’s Lean Transformation Summit in Orlando, I took a day off to be a big kid at Universal Studios.   And there was it was: Megatron (or facsimile), the object of my son’s earlier admiration.  I joined a long line of persons (most a bit younger than myself) to pose for a picture with this ten-foot Bot warrior who, in principle, could transform in shape, size and function to fit the needs of battle: a universal machine, one moment a robot, the next a sports car, an eighteen-wheeler and then a rocket.   My sojourn reminded me once more of my son’s earlier interpretation of ‘transformers.’  So I needed to have a souvenir photo to take home for him.

For me however, the image of transformation was not about technology or machines, but about the Lean leaders I’d had the pleasure of listening to and speaking with at LEI’s March conference.  These transformers were changing the thinking and behavior of entire organizations, creating environments that, in John Shook’s words “make people before making products.”   Lean transformer Ken Goodson of Herman Miller related, “Things started to change when we began asking our employees ‘what can we do to eliminate your struggles?’”  And from Art Byrne who led the Lean transformation at Wiremold: “People are the only asset that appreciates.”   These Lean transformers required none of the technology that went into Megatron, only an abiding belief that our thinking and behavior can be nurtured in a way that unleashes latent human creativity.  Perhaps this is not even a transformation, but more of an actualization of human and organizational capabilities; a realization of the way things ought to be or would be if that creativity weren’t systematically hammered out of us by autocratic management behavior and policy.

Universal Studios was a whimsical diversion, LEI’s conference an inspiring immersion.   A little of both is a good recipe for recharging your batteries.


BTW:  Speaking of Lean Transformers, there’s still time to register for the Shingo Prize 25th Annual International Conference in Provo, Utah.  May 6-10, 2013.  I’ll be there for a ‘recharge’ and hope to see you too.

Lean Avoidance

I went to the gym this morning, April 1, and the gym’s owner, sole employee, and pretty much everyone’s personal trainer, Howie, asked me the same question he asks me every time I see him:  “What’s your weight?”

“Stayed the same,” I said, but jokingly added, “Actually, I’m ahead of the game because yesterday I skipped the ice cream and cake at the Easter dinner.”

“So what?” Howie asked.  “Is that an improvement?”avoidance

“Not exactly”, I quipped, “but I’d call it “weight avoidance.”

Howie laughed, “Who are you kidding?”

In Howie’s lean world, the one from which the Lean analogy is drawn, to make improvement you have to lift weight and lose weight.    Neither is supposed to occur in a blitz, just a little bit every day.  “If you want to be an old lean dude you have to stop concocting pretend improvements to avoid real improvement,” Howie admonished.

“I understand,” I replied.

In my work, I encounter Lean avoiders all the time.  In fact, “cost avoidance” is one of the most often chosen bogeys for improvement. While there can be real opportunities to collaborate with suppliers to stave off cost increases to both supplier and consumer, cost avoidance, as I observe it in practice, is almost always the outcome of leveraging and hedging.

A purchasing manager at Hospital A, for example, asserts that she has avoided a price increase on consumable goods by committing to larger deliveries.  “Less receipts and inspections,” she says, “less invoices to pay also — and we can still hold the line on a price increase this year.”

“You just received three months worth of material purchased on speculation,” I respond. “Isn’t that over-production and cash out the door?”

“Not to worry,” she replies, “if our usage slows down, we’ll just schedule out later deliveries.”

“But didn’t you make a commitment to purchase these quantities in order to hold the price?” I ask.

She smiles at me.  ‘That’s the game,” she says.

Listening to my story, Howie comments,  “That’s a losing game.  If I ran my gym like that with pretend savings based on cheating suppliers or buying stuff I don’t need to hold a price, they’d be pad-locking my doors in short order.  How can they call that cost avoidance?  Seems to me more like improvement avoidance.”

How does your organization handle cost avoidance?  Is it a win-win for you and your supplier or just a funny number on your improvement bogeys for the year?  Let me hear from you.


By the way, we cover this topic in more detail in our Lean Training DVD “Supplier Kaizen – Engaging the Extended Value Stream“. Check it out.

Superficial Resolutions

As we begin another new year, here’s a post about resolutions.  In most organizations there are plans for something new in 2013 – maybe a new product or market, or a new machine or facility.  For those of us in the Lean world, new also means re-new – getting better with what we already have. Continuous improvement is great re-newer of the corporate soul, engaging and developing employees while providing greater value to our customers.  The best organizations resolve to create greater value and sales growth with very few added resources.

super_res_picWith the best of intentions however, many organizations make what they think are improvements when they are actually just automating a waste.  In an earlier post, for example, I described a high bay automatic storage and retrieval system installed at my company in 1980 to automate our stockroom.  In fact, it simply automated the waste of storage while at the same time promoting batch kitting.  Fact is, we just had way too much inventory, and the ASRS hid it away from sight.  By the time Shigeo Shingo visited my factory in 1989, we had removed the ASRS, and placed inventory back in plain site on the floor.  He complemented us on that, but then pointed to my knees and said through an interpreter, “Mr. Materials Manager, don’t be satisfied until the piles of inventory are below your knees. That will be the real improvement.”  Shingo was the one to coin the phrase “superficial improvement” to connote automation of a waste in the name of improvement.  I think he was pleased at least that we understood the concept of superficial versus real improvement.

More recently, a large factory in my area installed AGV’s  (automatic guided vehicles) to transport materials around a very poorly laid out, functionally organized plant.  Shingo would have pointed out to this organization that the parts were traveling just as far on the AGV’s as they had previously on fork lifts, so I made the point for him to the plant manager.  The plant manager responded to me incredulously that they had eliminated so many conveyance jobs and now had ‘complaint free conveyance that didn’t charge for overtime.’  As we continued the factory tour (dodging AVG’s) we passed highly automated production processes feeding ultimately into an ASRS that dwarfed the puny six bay unit that had once been in my factory.  The manager reported to me that their improvements for the coming year included an expanded ASRS.    “A superficial resolution,” I thought to myself.  “He’s automated just about every waste from motion to conveyance, and has overproduced to such an extent that he needs more automation to store his finished goods.”

“What are your inventory turns?”,  I asked the manager.  “Marketing owns the inventory” he responded.

So where do you stand with real versus superficial improvements in your organization?   Have you resolved to do more in 2013 with the resources you already have, or are your resolutions superficial?   Chime in.

Happy New Year