Tag Archives: Toast Kaizen

Robot Day

I responded recently to a LinkedIn post regarding AI-assisted robotic recycling.  The sorting speed is so fast, we almost miss each sort in the blink of an eye.  Having observed this same activity attempted by humans —  and overlooking the upstream potential to avoid this kind of recycling mess at the source (the wasteful consumer) — I’m all over the potential to pass off these kinds of tasks to machines.  Humans doing this work must operate at a much slower pace, risk injury, and are not so precise as the AI robot.   And of course, humans must also deal with the stench of garbage; these robots, at least, have no sense of smell to distract them from their work. 

Today, smart robots are economically feasible for even small companies, and are increasingly deployed to work in concert with human counterparts.  Referred to as co-bots, collaborative robots, these machine counterparts share the work in factories, restaurants, warehouses, operating rooms and offices. Given the advancement of artificial intelligence, robotics and multi-sensing technologies, it seems that eventually, no job will be beyond the capability of robots; science fiction is becoming science fact.  With the recently apparent shortage of humans to fill jobs this Labor Day, the role of smart robots is on my mind and leading to some whimsical questions; not so much about doing the work, but improving the work:

Will smart machines, for example, become smart enough to solve problems?  Will their designers build into them what Frank and Lillian Gilbreth called “a motion mind,” i.e., will they examine their own motion, or perhaps the motion of other robot team members, to reduce waste?  Robots are subject to the same wastes as humans; e.g., in a poor floor layout a robot must travel the same distance to do the job as its human counterpart.   Will AI be imbued with algorithms to identify  better flow?  Will smart robots analyze and improve their standardized work?  Will they collaborate with humans and with each other to brainstorm (sort of) and test ideas?   Collaborative improvement presumes a harmonization of different perspectives to create a more robust solution than would be available from any single  contributor.  Referring to Masaaki Imai’s definition of Kaizen (my favorite), can it evolve into this?

In the absence of hands-on human experience of the people who do the work, what context will this definition have?  And, what facility can be given to smart robots to create the will to improve, the most basic condition,  according to Shigeo Shingo, for improvement.  So-called human qualities such as “constructive dissatisfaction with the status quo” are not necessary to do the job, but are fundamental to improving the job.  Joseph Weizenbaum, an early AI pioneer, argued that such qualities are not transferrable to machines.  While his AI psychoanalyst simulation, Eliza (Circa, 1966), was designed to mimic a therapist’s response to human discourse, Weizenbaum warned that “no computer, can be made to confront genuine human problems in human terms.”  This warning has been echoed ever since in dystopian science fiction literature and cinema.   How much longer will this be fiction? 

These whimsical questions may not be immediately relevant.  In a world where there is currently  a shortage of humans to fill jobs, robots offer a practical solution.   As I write this post, there are currently twice as many job openings in the U.S. as job applicants.  While much attention has been given to the acute shortage, the rate of U.S. population growth (Fig. 1)  has decreased steadily since 1990 and is nearly flatlined, with many states showing a net decrease in population.  No doubt, the people shortage has been exacerbated by COVID-19, but the issue is chronic.  

In view of this persistent need, what might we expect from the inexorable evolution of science fiction to science fact?  With the current pace of technical advancement and likely long-term labor shortage, what will dissuade employers from replacing most human labor with robots?  Rosie the Robot, after all is an investment, while Rosie the Riveter is a variable expense;  they each hit the bottom line very differently. The allure of a productive resource that is apparently tireless, reliable and requires no benefits may simply be overwhelming – almost too good to be true.  In the words of pioneer systems thinker Russell Ackoff,  

“Managers are incurably susceptible to panacea peddlers. They are rooted in the belief that there are simple, if not simple-minded, solutions to even the most complex of problems. And they do not learn from bad experiences. Managers fail to diagnose the failures of the fads they adopt; they do not understand them.”   

While AI and Robotics are surely not panaceas, applying them as a total solution may just be. I visited a company recently, for example, that utilizes smart robots to move inventory miles between multiple storage locations rather than improving layout to consolidate stockrooms.  An engineer bragged to me “We even programmed it to ride the elevator.” Dr. Shingo called this superficial improvement, automating waste rather than eliminating it. 

For those of us who subscribe to Taiichi Ohno’s idea that “95% of the elapsed time between paying and getting paid” is waste, the current labor shortage presents a huge impetus to develop an army of problem solvers to eliminate it – a workforce with the will and creativity to reap greater benefits from Lean. While the vision of TPS is human development, certainly this includes thoughtful use of IoT, just as it has included mechanization and automation.   But will Lean thinking inform the designers of AI?  Will they go to the Gemba to learn? Will they regard employees as the most valuable resource?  Will they be systemic thinkers?  Or will they, as Shigeo warned, just be table engineers or catalog engineers,  distant from the process and perhaps a little too enamored of the technology?    That story is not yet written.   Will it be as dystopian as the science fiction predicts, or a golden age for productivity and human development?   And how can Lean thinkers influence the latter?

What do you think?    Please share some thoughts.

O.L.D.

P.S. Speaking of human development,  I hope you’ll be able to join us on September 28-29 in Springfield, Massachusetts,  for the 18th Annual Northeast L.E.A.N. (Lead, Enable And Nurture) Conference.  Four great keynotes, four tracks of breakout sessions, a Lean Lounge with poster presentations, and a Lean After Dark networking session.  AND – if you can’t make it in person, all sessions will be live-streamed on Whova and recorded for later viewing.  You can check out the agenda here:  Conference Agenda

Everyday Collaboration

With GBMP’s 18th Annual Northeast Lean Conference on the horizon, I’m reflecting on our theme, “Amplifying Lean – The Collaboration Effect.”   The term ‘collaboration’ typically connotes an organized attempt by unrelated, even competitive, parties to work together on a common problem; for example, the NUMMI collaboration between GM and Toyota or the international space station.   In a sense, these types of organized collaboration are analogs to Kaizen events and significant organizational breakthrough improvement.   

Being a longtime proponent of ‘everybody everyday’ type Kaizen, however, I think the greater amplification to our continuous improvement efforts lies in our ability to work together in the moment to solve many small problems.  But, just as intermittent stoppages on a machine may be hidden from consideration, so too these on-the-fly opportunities for collaboration may pass without notice.   An example from my own career as a manufacturing manager sticks with me as I consider the importance of everyday collaboration:

Walking through my factory one morning, I overheard a heated discussion between John M. a product designer and Ann C.  a team lead from our subassembly department.  Both individuals had deep experience in their respective areas – perhaps 25 years each.  John was waving an assembly drawing for a particular part as they argued, and Ann was holding the component parts and an assembly fixture.  All the elements of production were present: man, method, material and machine (4M’s).  What was missing was collaboration. 

“If you’d just follow the assembly drawing, there’d be no problem,” John argued.  

“What?”, Ann shot back. “Do you think I’m stupid?  Why would I call you out here if that were true?” 

This was the general tenor of the discussion, each party defensively talking AT the other.  Specialization, necessary as it is, often creates invisible boundaries we commonly refer to as silos.  When any party ventures beyond those boundaries, it’s viewed as an invasion of turf.  As the argument continued, the resolve of each party only increased. 

I inserted myself into the discussion.  “Why don’t we observe the assembly process and drawing together?  I’d like get a better perspective on the problem.”   John and Ann reluctantly agreed.   What seemed to me like an obvious opportunity to understand was, for each of them, possible exposure that one of them would be wrong and lose face.  Philosopher James P. Carse refers to this interaction as a ‘finite game.’  Somebody wins and somebody loses.   I recall saying something trite like, “Aren’t we on the same team here?”   Truth be told, we weren’t.  At least, however, we were all in the same space observing the 4M’s together.

Ultimately, John and Ann began to attack the problem rather than each other and, in fact, pulled a parts buyer and a tool maker into the investigation.  Working together they uncovered a series of contributing factors involving each of the 4M’s.  No single perspective would have been nearly as effective.  The errant assembly problem was solved.    But more importantly, collaborative relationships were created.   James P. Carse would call that an infinite game; everyone wins. 

O.L.D.

PS This year’s Northeast Lean Conference will examine collaboration from every angle.  Top-down, bottom-up, horizontal, networked, virtual, intercompany, governmental and societal.  The “Collaboration Effect” touches every system and every interpersonal relationship.  I hope you can join us on September 28-29 (face-to-face or live-streamed) as we explore better ways to work together.  It’s just six weeks away – sign up today

Uncommon Sense

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  This advice, attributed to Nicolo Machiavelli, and later cited by Winston Churchill at the conclusion of WWII, resonates once again in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.   Widespread shortages of products, services, raw materials, fuel, equipment, transportation and people have shocked the system in our land of plenty, creating an almost universal burning platform. From manufacturing to healthcare to service and even the public sector, providers can’t deliver – this while costs are rising, unemployment is at record lows and customer demand is through the roof.   Could it be that this tsunami of challenges is driving providers to experiment with ideas that just a few short months ago were light years from top of mind?

One factory manager noted recently for example, “It’s just a no-brainer that when you can’t find workers, you can increase productivity by removing waste from the job.” Funny that this should be considered a no-brainer now, when the supply of employees is limited.  But I’ll take it.   The pandemic, it seems, has elevated the role of the frontline while casting a brighter light on the shortcomings of off-shoring.  In 2011, when the theme of GBMP’s Northeast Lean Conference was “Made Lean in America,”  several supply chain pundits shared with me in no uncertain terms that this was wishful thinking. It would never happen, they said.  Times change. 

For organizations that have traditionally responded to growth by acquiring more equipment,  telescoping purchase times for equipment have turned our attention also to making the best use of the machines we already have.   Practices like preventative maintenance and quick changeover address the scarcity of equipment and equipment operators. 

And, then there are the omnipresent material shortages.  At the start of the pandemic, many providers took the commonsense step to actually reduce supply, even as consumers horded whatever was available.  The resulting deficits have now placed keen attention on what’s made and when.  “Certain alloys are super scarce right now,” a manager of a machine shop related to me, “so we can ill-afford to produce any material that we cannot ship.”  

Referring to the window analysis in figure 1, in times of plenty, Lean improvement efforts fell more into the “known-but-not-practiced” category.  Let’s call it the mediocrity zone.   As a VP of Operations confessed recently, “Yes, we attended the Lean 101 workshops in the past, and dabbled with some experiments; but in reality, these methods are not a part of what we do.”  I hear the same message in every industry.  The props may change, but the half-hearted practice is the same.  

My teacher, Hajime Oba, used the word “commitment” to describe the difference between Lean dabblers and organizations that seize the opportunity to gain significant benefit from TPS.   With cautious optimism, I believe that commitment potential may never be greater than today. I have observed in the last six months the greatest resurgence of my career in interest to learn and practice problem solving and continuous improvement methods. This crosses every industry, but shares a similar burning platform, one that no one would have predicted before 2020.   Writing in 1988 about the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno stated “The oil crisis opened our eyes . . . “   Or as Shigeo Shingo noted around the same time, “the biggest obstacle to improvement is the will to improve.”   Here we are more than three decades later.  Let’s not let a good crisis go to waste. 

O.L.D. 

P.S. Speaking of… GBMP’s 18th Annual Northeast Lean Conference is coming up in less than two months. Have you checked out the agenda yet? We are so excited about our theme – “Amplifying Lean: The Collaboration Effect” and sincerely hope you will join us for the 2-day event which will feature four terrific keynote presentations plus more than 30 breakout sessions, a dozen benchmarking organizations in The Community of Lean Lounge and the chance to network with hundreds of Lean practitioners just like you! Read all about it.

By the way – if you can’t make it to Massachusetts, don’t worry. All of the sessions will be streamed – LIVE – so you and your team members can attend from anywhere in the world! Register Today.

Too Happy Too Soon

[Editor’s Note: This post is part 2 of a post from March 1, Do Your Job. If you haven’t already read it, reading it will help to provide context.]

The level of excitement was high in our machine shop as we approached closer to our goal of less than nine-minute changeovers on the BNC lathe.   Set-up improvements had so far reduced changeover time to 20 minutes, cutting the economic order quantity from weeks to days of stock on hand. Our pull system now more closely resembled a supermarket with several containers  on hand for each of the 66 parts in our pilot.  After decades of viewing set-ups as a problem and inventory as a protection from stockouts, this new process was still confounding for many persons.  But, it was working,  which was most apparent to the operators on the BNC and to their internal customers in assembly:   

  • No more expedites and angry demands.  
  • No more breaking down a set-up in mid-run to run a hot part.  
  • No more juggling jobs between machines.
  • No more fiddling with tools and programs to get a good part. 

The BNC improvement team had, as my friend and mentor Steve Spear likes to say, “proven theory through practice”.  The concepts from Shigeo Shingo’s books actually worked.  All that was required was a little coaching from our TSSC consultant and a whole lot of brilliant ideas from the operators. 

Funny thing about good ideas: they tend to spread.  Operators were champing at the bit to take some of what we’d learned from the BNC and spread it to other machines.  I don’t recall how it started or if I  may have selectively forgotten part of  the charter Mr. Oba had given to us for our setup project:

“All of the parts for your model line assembly will be made on this machine and changeover between any two parts must be less than 9 minutes. Work only on this machine.  That is your target”

We were making so much progress with the BNC that I probably rationalized Mr. Oba would be pleased to see us sharing the ideas across other machines.  This turned out not to be the case.

On Mr. Oba’s next visit to the plant, I enthusiastically greeted him with the news, “changeovers on the BNC are already down to 20 minutes and we’re now working on improvement at the LE22 . . . “ (the machine next to it.)   Before I could finish this sentence, Mr. Oba stopped in his tracks and turned for the door.   Incredulous, I followed him outside to the parking lot apologizing, but for what I was not sure.   I recall asking in desperation,  “What did we do?   Oba stopped walking, turned to me and, with a shrug of disappointment, replied “You’ll never be better than 20 minutes.”  I think he was most disappointed that I hadn’t figured this out for myself.   I apologized again, now with understanding. “We’ll work only on the BNC until we hit our target.”   As the two of us re-entered the plant,  I reflected: “Don’t spread mediocre results.  The target was single minutes, not double-digits.”   Six months later we hit 9 minutes on the BNC, and began to spread best practices to other CNC’s. 

My lessons: 1) Don’t be too happy too soon, and 2) Focus your scarce resources to build capability before branching out. 

O.L.D.

Speaking of building capability, here are a couple of upcoming events I hope you’ll be able to join:

My monthly webinar, Teatime with the Toast Dude, on March 15 will respond to the current labor shortage by sharing ideas for maximizing the productivity of the folks you already have. It’s free.  Sign up here: Teatime

Our 2nd Annual Virtual Lean Showcase on April 1st will highlight best practices from seven great organizations in one day!   Here’s the lineup:

  • Bausch + Lomb’s Journey to Increase Daily Throughput
  • Comtran Lean Strategy Deployment & Alignment
  • Nuvera Fuel Cells: Using Lean to Transition from Development to Production
  • Abiomed: TWI Creates an Exceptional Training Experience
  • Axcelis Technologies: Improving Every Day for its Customers
  • UMass Memorial Health: 100,000 Ideas Implemented… & Counting
  • SnapCab: A Lean Recruitment System

You can get more info and register here:  Spring Showcase

Do Your Job

We had been working with TSSC for two years to build a model line in our assembly department.  As we moved from small batch production to one-by-one, the results had been astounding: customer lead-time reduced from 2 weeks to one day, crew size cut in half and over-time reduced from 40 hours per week to 10.  Literally hundreds of small changes made by assemblers to the assembly process had made this possible.  Everybody everyday, GBMP’s slogan, was born from that experience.

Now it was time to move upstream from assembly to our internal supplier, machining, a resource that despite efforts to improve was still overproducing and delivering late. Setups on our CNC lathes averaged 90 minutes despite an improvement project supported by graduate engineers from a notable Massachusetts engineering school.  In fact, at the end of a one-year project, while we had learned a lot about new cutting materials and had purchased two new machines, there was hardly any improvement in set-up times. We were forced to group like set-ups together to amortize set-up time and even come close to maintaining a reliable parts store.   So, with some disappointment we thanked the graduate engineers, sent them on their way and instead requested assistance from TSSC.

Our Sensei (a term I use very sparingly), Hajime Oba, responded to our request with a visit to our machine shop.  “Hmm,” Mr. Oba  muttered as he walked around one of our old  CNC lathes.  “All of the parts for your model line assembly will be made on this machine and changeover between any two parts must be less than 9 minutes. Work only on this machine.  That is your target”  I squelched an urge to guffaw and politely replied “Okay, we’ll do it.”  Privately, I thought, “I’ve seen die changes on presses done in minutes, but how will we accomplish this on a lathe?”

Three weeks later, TSSC, sent a consultant to help us begin the improvement process.  This young, 20-ish industrial engineer, Ann, was the daughter of the owner of a Toyota supplier.  I’m pretty sure she’d had no previous experience with CNC lathes.  But, off we walked to the machine shop with nothing more than an easel for recording observations.  As I introduced her to the operators, there were rolling eyes and grins.  They’d just finished a year with another group of engineers who were, let’s say,  snobs.    This looked like the same old stuff to the shop.   

Ann introduced herself and said she just wanted to watch the process and might have a few questions.  As the day wore on, I stopped by periodically to check-in.  Ann was watching the work and the operators were mostly ignoring her.  At the end of the day, nothing was written on the easel.  We’d start again the following morning. 

I noticed on day two that there was a little bit of communication.  Operators were sharing.  Ann did not talk much.  She just watched and listened.   I expected a report from her at end of day to sum up her first visit to our plant.  Working with TSSC in assembly, I’d come to expect a list of must-do’s before her next visit. Oddly, the easel was still blank at mid-day on day two.

As day two wrapped up, Ann asked for a meeting with me.  As we stood by the BNC, the lathe where the improvement was to be made, Ann said, “This lathe needs an overhaul.  It’s not repeatable and improving changeovers will be impossible.  I’ll be back in three weeks.”

“Three weeks!”, I exclaimed.  “There’s no way I can get that done in three weeks.”  I should have expected the next words out of her mouth:  “Ok then. If you can’t do your job, then I can’t do mine.”  This ultimatum yanked me back to reality.  “I’ll get it done, then.  I’m not sure how, but we’ll make it happen.”  And it did. 

Three weeks later, Ann returned.  “I’m glad you could get this done,” she told me.  “Now we can get to work.”  At the end of her two-day visit there were eight pages of notes on the easel with my next list of must-dos highlighted.   There were no monumental tasks this time, just a whole lot of requests  from the operators.  As we went over the list, I saw a gleam in eyes of a couple operators.   Would I follow up on these ideas?    Absolutely!

By Ann’s third visit, with the help of an employee Kaizen support team, CNC set-up reduction was now accelerating: set locations for tools and inserts, materials near to the machine, programs standardized, downloaded and ready to go.  Just as in assembly, CNC operators were inventing hundreds of small improvements.  In a short time, most changeovers were close to 20 minutes  – or, as we started to say, 1200 seconds – and on-time delivery to assembly was near to 100%. 

I couldn’t set-up or even operate a CNC machine, and all of the improvements had come from the operators.  But there was a job for me and in this case I did my job.    Still, we had not reached the goal of 9 minute changeovers.  Stay tuned for that in my next post. 

O.L.D.  

Hey!  We’re just one month away from Second Annual Spring Roadshow.  On April 1st, thanks the magic of Whova and Zoom , we’ll be showcasing best practices at 9 different organizations from Florida to Massachusetts.  You can join in for all or part to go-see virtually and then ask questions of employee teams.  And we’ll be recording, so there’s an opportunity to watch again later at your leisure.  What a great way to kick of the Spring season.  Here’s the link for more information:  Lean Spring Showcase.