Friday, December 27, 2002

Single Piece Flow, in the Snow

As I started removing the 7" of new fallen snow covering my driveway on Christmas morning, I got to thinking about value-adding and non-value adding activities. What would a truly lean system look like? While it was tempting to think that the best system would be to go get my neighbor's snow blower, what could I do without any outlay of cash?

I had to first understand value. In this case, I was the customer. I valued a clean driveway, all the way to the street. A partially cleared driveway did me no good. I had to clear a path for one car and then the path for the other.

I had to make every movement count. The chief of the eight wastes on the driveway was movement waste...unneeded walking. So, I began to think how I could add value with every movement.

Ergonomics then became clearer. With a value-based premise, I realized I also had to value my work force, which in this case was me. Particularly my back. I realized that I could add value and balance the work strain by alternating a big scoop with a light scoop, from the left side of my body and then the right side.

Steady is faster than hurried, if it flows. I found I was making very good progress, when I made every movement count. "Be quick, but never hurry" as John Wooden coached his famous teams at UCLA.

Engaging the mind sped the task. By thinking carefully about simply scooping snow, the task became much more enjoyable. This is a little-talked-about advantage of a lean system. By always thinking about how to improve, the task (oftentimes menial) takes on new meaning and value.

The bottom line... I got my driveway clean in the same time as my neighbor who had his two twenty-something sons helping him. I didn't take my cell phone to the driveway for example and I kept moving. High-priced labor, thinking lean, beats the masses of cheap labor that doesn't.

Lean applications are everywhere. I hope this is helpful...and brings you a smile. Feel free to forward to a friend.

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Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Chrismas Eve Thoughts

A number of musings on this Christmas Eve afternoon.

  • The Economy remains in a very uncertain state. Durable goods orders, reported this morning, are down. Some local indicators seem bullish. If there was a question about it, it shows further that the future is both uncertain and unknowable. A lean system that can continuously improve and renew itself is key.
  • Peace on Earth remains elusive. Despite huge gains in productivity (the kinds of gains that lean systems develop), the world's haves and have nots seem to have a bigger gap than ever. I, as part of the "haves" and part of the West, cannot remain indifferent to that growing chasm.
  • It ain't about technology, it's about character. It is ultimately who we are, who I am, that makes a difference. Marvelous concepts, applied poorly, only deepen hostility and cynicism, both locally and globally.
  • My sons each reside in a tenuous spot in their lives. David, age 24, enlisted in the US Army and heads for boot camp on January 6 to be a field medic in an airborne division. Nathan, age 22, looks hard for a solid job with his undergraduate liberal arts degree in hand but finds it hard going. Matt, age 14, shaved for the first time last night. My head spins to be a friend, Dad and confidant to each of them.
  • My dad died nine years ago today, after a marvelous 78 years of life and a one-year battle with colon cancer. Hard to believe it has been nine years. I learned most of what I know about the crucial parts of life from him. He was a massive gift to me and I still wish I could pick up the phone and gab with him.
  • Christmas offers hope in each of these areas. The humble birth of a baby that we Christians call the King of Kings, who served with humility and tenacity, brings me to learn what I can from him. Psalm 115:13 captures it well "He will bless those who fear the Lord-- small and great alike."

I hope you have a most Merry Christmas.

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Monday, December 23, 2002

Using "AND" rather than "BUT"

One of the amazing things I observed last week occurred in a management meeting on Tuesday. In two very different settings in our business unit, we had staff members who were spontaneously raising their own standards. In both cases, they had looked at important, strategic, recent business results which were very encouraging, exceeding expectations. And, in both cases, their immediate reaction was "we can do better." Their mood was one of slight discouragement.

How do we react as leaders when, as expected, efforts towards waste reduction yield fruit? How do we respond when quality people expect more of themselves?

My colleague, Greg, captured it well (as he so often does) when he pointed out we have to use "AND", not "BUT" in the setting. Example: "We've done well AND we can do better." "We did well on 65% of those jobs AND we can make inroads on the other 35%."

This is not just a clever linguistic ploy. Years ago, I heard a trainer say "The word 'but' negates everything that comes before it, as it if does not count." Think about this phrase, commonly used; "He's a nice guy BUT he never turns in his time cards." Plug in the fault you choose; by using the word "but" you negate your earlier assessment that "he's a nice guy." Words are important.

By using "and" we can correctly acknowledge the progress that is real and celebrate it. We also correctly acknowledge that we can make further progress.

I hope this is helpful. Feel free to forward to a friend.

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Why write a web log??

I failed to write anything on this web log last week. I rationalized the non-action to myself in that it was an amazing week. Much went on here, most all of it very positive, marvelously positive. But rather than write about my thoughts as they developed, I somehow wanted to "polish" those same thoughts, as if this web log was some sort of a performance.

Bad idea.

Why was it a bad idea? Because in so doing, I forgot why I started this log. I lost track of one of my own learning styles.

For me, this log offers a chance to distill and condense my thoughts. That act alone is a huge learning opportunity. If anyone else happens to read, so much the better. What you get here is (until last week) pretty much fresh and not terribly processed. The lean process, as it grows, can be very messy. That goes for individuals, like me, and for entire enterprises. I fail myself and my company if I try to make it too pretty.

I'll try to keep helping myself learn... and write frequently. Thanks for listening.

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Saturday, December 14, 2002

What does "STOP!" look like?

I remain captured by the clarity of Mark Rosenthal's article on the two pillars of Lean(click here to read the article): Just-in-time and Detecting Abnormalities. The key step on the latter is the will to say "Stop" or "Enough" or "Whoa" or "No Way" when we detect an abnormality. Here's four examples from my world in the past two days.

The Good

  • A friend phoned me at home on Thursday night. He's on the building committee of a local church which, after two years of work, just got their first set of bids back on a proposed new 60,000 sf facility. They were flabergasted at the prices and said "Stop!" They were going back to the drawing board. He wanted some ballpark square-foot costs from us to compare to what they saw in the bids.

    He talked to some our our folks on Friday and told me on Friday night that was a huge help to see where they were. They will make a change in course. We might or might not get a chance to be a part of it. But, by saying "Stop!", his committee avoided compounding earlier poor decisons by more costly subsequent poor decisions.

  • At 7:02am Friday morning, my pal Ernie, who manages our yard, came in and said "Joe, don't bother taking off your coat, come take a look at this." Our guys noted an apparent problem with some materials we were getting ready to load to ship to a job. They said "Stop!" and got me and the project manager who was responsible for this job to look at it. We concurred. The material did not load, and we'll not have to explain to a customer why it doesn't seem to be what he thought he bought.

The Bad

A week ago we did our semi-annual physical inventory. In analyzing the results, we observed a consistent pattern: many errors resulted from rushed pick-ups of materials, done with handwritten documentation which bypassed our standard process of computer-generated pull sheets. As a result, we got inconsistent (at best) entry of material issues into the computer. Why? We're just too nice to say "STOP!" when issuing material without a proper pull sheet.

The Ugly

Ten years ago, we built a dairy facility on which the customer wanted a shingled roof. On the day we pulled up to install the shingles, we noted that we had not received the 30-year shingle the customer wanted, but instead had 240 squares of a 20-year shingle. Sitting there, on the site, ready to go on. Did we say "STOP!", correct the error and get the requested shingle? No. We made a deal with the customer and put on the lower-grade shingle.

Fast forward to this past summer, 2002. The singles we put on were degrading already...losing their granulation and changing color. After many discussions, my colleage Greg agreed on Friday to a repair with this customer that will cost him and us a bunch of money. Had we said "STOP!" in 1992, we would have avoided huge amounts of wasted expense and time.

Think about it. Stop an abnormality in its tracks in the next hour. Please.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2002


I wrote yesterday about the most excellent article by Mark Rosenthal of Genie Industries on the two pillars of Lean(click here to read the article).

As I reread it last night and this morning, I was struck by the simplicity of his four points of implementing the human side of Lean:

  1. Detect the abnormality.
  2. Stop
  3. Fix or correct the immediate condition.
  4. Investigate the root cause and install a countermeasure.

We find here that step 2 is the most difficult. Why, we ask, should we stop right in the middle of what we are doing? We won't get it done otherwise! Examples:

  • The work order is incomplete; we start on it anyway
  • We get a request for materials from our warehouse and send it out without the proper paperwork; Hey, the crew needs the material!
  • We schedule a job to start without the local building permit in hand.
  • The teenager reports he is going "out" and is vague about "where"; I don't want to offend, so off he goes.

There is a famous story about Yogi Berra, the bumbling former New York Yankees catcher, who set out to drive to the Baseball Hall of Fame in rural New York state. After driving around, obviously lost, for about two hours, his wife pleaded with him to stop and ask directions. Refusing, Yogi said "I know we are lost, but we are making very good time, I'm not going to stop now!"

I encourage you to find something to say "Stop" to today when you detect an error. Don't continue till you get it right. Until we practice this, it will feel very uncomfortable. But, it will drive quality deeper and deeper when we do so.

I hope this is helpful.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Two Pillars of Lean

I always appreciate real simplicity and elegance. I found an example this afternoon. Mark Rosenthal of Genie Industries wrote this piece on the two pillars of Lean. I heartily recommend you read it. It is a mere two pages in length, yet grasps the twin pillars of lean: Just-in-time and "stop and respond to every abnormality".

Mark is a seasoned Lean expert and frequently contributes to the Northwest Lean Manufacturing Networkdiscussion group, which I recommened to you in my previous post.

I hope this is helpful.

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Saturday, December 07, 2002

On Outsourcing

I return to the summary of the radical nature of Lean from from George Koenigsaecker of Simpler Consulting . Here's his sixth point on why Lean is different from our "natural" way to think.

You outsource to reduce costs vs. you in-source to take advantage of lower lean costs.

Lets cut to the chase. This decision is all about labor rates. Do I make something here, where I pay X dollars per hour or do I send it to another state or another country where they pay 0.1X dollars per hour? An alternate discussion that hits us in the construction turns this argument around. Rather than export the work, do we import the labor?

Lean thinking says this is the wrong question. Rather than asking "what is the labor rate?" the question becomes "what is the productivity?". Lean tools are all about eliminating non-value adding steps. By so doing, more can get done in the same time. This drives productivity.

I'm writing this on a Saturday morning. This same day, United Airlines' board is meeting and will likely announce a move to chapter 11 bankruptcy before the end of the day. Why? Productivity. Southwest Airlines just keeps making money and expanding. Why? Productivity. The folks who work at Southwest have more energy and can get a plane into a gate, unloaded, cleaned, reloaded and taxing again in 15 minutes. That same turn takes well over a half hour at United and most other large carriers. Southwest has paid attention to elimination of steps that don't add value.

There is currently an excellent discussion of outsourcing vs leaning internal systems on the Northwest Lean Manufacturing Network. If you haven't joined this free Internet discussion group, I encourage you to do so. Nearly 3,000 lean practitioners from around the world participate and you can learn much.

By digging and applying lean tools, we can keep jobs and eliminate cost, right where we are. We don't have to stare at the supposedly greener grass in some other place. But it is hard work. Done daily. Done diligently. I urge you, I urge myself, to stay the course.

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Thursday, December 05, 2002

On Making Clear Requests

As promised, I'm writing about the experience of readers of this web log on making clear, not vague, requests. I asked readers on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week to try to make two clear requests. and then email me with observations.

I received no responses!! So, let me make observations on this! (you expected I would remain silent??!!)

In short, the nonresponse illustrates the principles of a clear request

  • A clear request has to be made to someone.I did not ask, directly, anyone. It was a general request. Thus, it was easy to avoid.
  • A clear request has to be heard. It turns out that the service which sends daily updates from this web log to subscribers has had problems this week. Thus, subscribers, expecting to see something in their email box when I add new entried, never saw the request. Only those who bookmark this site and check it via the Web saw the request.
  • The Web is anonymous.Let's not kid ourselves...while email and the web are fantastic technologies, they are very much removed from face-to-face interaction. Thus, it was very easy, perhaps expected, that a non-specific, web-only request would be avoided.

So, all of this makes the point even more strongly. A clear request must be direct: "Martha, can you please try this method this morning and let me know by noon what you observe?" It is best, face to face...I can see if Martha is uncomfortable or bothered by the request...which will let me renegotiate.

Any lean system, any effort to eliminate waste, will be full of hundreds of such interactions. Make them clear. Make them personal. Make them sensitive and full of listening.

I hope this is helpful. Feel free to forward to a friend.
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Wednesday, December 04, 2002

Why Does Change Feel Funny?

Even something simple, like making a non-vague request, feels weird. "I don't like how it feels to ask someone to do a very specific task by a very specific time" I tell myself silently when I try the technique I mentioned yesterday.

There is a good reason why is feels funny. We are shifting our balance. We are using "muscles" we haven't used before. As such, we are clumsy, uncertain. The muscle get sore. Bottom feels funny.

This is where a broader vision comes in. "I know I can be more effective by making clearer requests. So, I will learn to do that. And I will learn by practicing." Without the vision, the "soreness" will get the better of us.

So, have a vision of clear requests. We will never rid our companies of waste without a regular practice of clear requests.

Review the post from yesterday and try to make two clear requests in the next two hours. Then email me about it and we'll learn from it together. I'll post, without your name, the results tomorrow.

I hope this is helpful.

Feel free to forward to a friend.

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Tuesday, December 03, 2002

The Curse of the Vague Request

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, my wife saw a neighbor ringing a bell for the Salvation Army Chrismas kettle at our local WalMart. As she greeted him, Craig just smiled and said "John is persuasive!"

"John" is a mutual friend and would hardly come across as "persuasive". He is active in helping the Salvation Army in their outreach to homeless and needy in our community. He is quiet, shy and unassuming. Yet he makes very clear requests. I'm sure that his request to Craig went something like this: "Craig, will you please ring a bell for Salvation Army at the West Lafayette Walmart from 2-3pm this Saturday?" And then he waited for the response. I know John. He will accept "no." He won't think less of me if I don't do it. He will accept "Gee, how about from 11 till Noon?" He won't think less of me if I renegotiate. But he does make clear requests. And the Salvation Army is better for it.

How would most of us handle this? "If anyone wants to ring a bell, please sign up in the back." How many people sign up? Only those plagued by guilt. A vague request is doomed to failure. The opposite is a responsible request.

What is a responsible request?

  • I direct it to a specific person.
  • I state specifically what the desired behavior or task is.
  • I state when I would like it done
  • I ask a person who is reasonably capable of doing the task.
  • I am willing to "no" or renegotiate.

Why is this an issue? A lean system must happen by people not by techniques. This means asking people to do things. To participate in a blitz. To help in a 5S. To answer one of the "5 Whys." To propose a specific improvement.

In a lean environment, there should be, literally, hundreds of specific requests each day like this. And people must feel free to say no. And not feel that they will be retaliated against for doing so. Respect is key. And, if it is done well, trust happens, because people do what they say they will do. And only with a deep level of trust can innovation truly happen.

Try this practice exercise in making responsible requests.

  1. Make two responsible requests in the next two hours after you read this.
  2. Use the list above, strictly, to rate your request
  3. Note what happens, both in terms of how/if the request was received and what you sensed as you do it
  4. Send me an email summarizing your observations(click here to email me).
  5. I'll publish your responses on Thursday, if you will give me permission, without your name.

Let's see what we can learn on this.

Feel free to forward to a friend.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2002


I recently came across this text from Abraham Lincoln. I hope you enjoy it.
It is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the LORD.

We know that by His divine law, nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world. May we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people?

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.

But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to, feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that God should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.

--Abraham Lincoln - 1863


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So, Answer My Question! Part 2

In a comment posted to my entry of Monday, Hal Macomber stated the following.

One of the principal reasons for breakdowns of this type (unanswered questions) is ambiguity of who the question is directed to and by when it is expected to be answered. You might have a "standard service level" expectation that questions will be answered within 24 Hrs, however someone specifically needs to be on the hook for that by making a promise.

Here's my suggestion: set the standard that all questions (requests for answers) will be promised within 2 Hrs of asking the question. If the promise for an answer is not forthcoming then the questioner knows to follow-up immediately. This avoids the having other issues distract the questioner, as is likely the case with the 24 Hr standard. Further, this keeps the responsibility on the questioner for seeing that his/her question gets answered.

Hal, as usual, gets to the point of the matter quickly. Note how his suggestion for a standard aligns with Rule 2 from Spear and Bowen’s description of a lean system:
”Rule 2. Every customer-supplier connection must be direct, and there must be an unambiguous yes-or-no way to send requests and receive responses.” Spear, Steven & Bowen, H. Kent (1999) Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System. Harvard Business Review, September-October, pp. 97-106.
In a manufacturing setting, this is easy to see with a kanban card “requesting” more material, when needed and a circulating material handling person responsible to collect the cards and fill them on his/her next circuit, typically in a matter of one or two hours.

This sort of “request” can happen in a non-manufacturing arena as well, but only with the discipline of a request and a material handler. Otherwise, excess “inventory” of unanswered questions remain and learning does not happen.

So, can we do the following?

  • Make the request directly to an individual, not a mass posting?
  • Make a promise about response time?
  • Measure if we meet that response time?
  • Minimize the number of unanswered questions?
Thanks, Hal, for your challenging question.

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Monday, November 25, 2002

So, Just Answer My Question!

What Part of "Continuous Improvement" Don't You Understand?

One of our salesmen phoned this morning, somewhat disheartened. An error occured on a contract he wrote and the error log we keep cited "unclear contract" as the cause. When he learned of this, he posed the question (and I paste from his emailed question) "Was the print unclear because I was not clear and if so what could and should have I've done better."

He asked this question last Thursday. I asked him on Thursday to let me know if he had an answer back within 24 hours of him asking. In his phone call this morning, alas, he told me he had no response. I was bummed too.

This illustrates, in its simplest form, one of the core challenges of implementing a lean system -- closing the learning loop. Our sales guy asked a question, wanting to learn. No response. As a result, no learning, no momentum for progress, no opportunity to quickly apply a new insight, however small it might be.

Here's the rub: Did anyone act maliciously, intentionally thwarting his desire to learn? No. When posed with the question like this, will anyone say "Yes, it is a good thing to ignore honest questions."? Nope. Is this a story with which all of us can relate? Absolutely.

As I mulled this over lunch today, the following came to mind, in light of the central tenent of "continuous improvement".

  • Continuous means steady, regular, constant. Clearly, in this context, it could mean daily. Do I see some improvement, however small, daily? Do we see, as a company, some new example of improvement daily? Do we ask each other "what is better today than yesterday?" Robert Maynard, the late newspaper columnist who very positively influenced me by his writings, once wrote that he developed his journalistic insight due to a question his father asked him every night at the dinner table: "Robert, what did you learn today that you didn't know yesterday?" He grew to expect this question and began to relish the opportunity to discuss his daily learnings...starting in third grade. This daily pattern provides a benchmark against which I make assessments and take action.
  • Improvement means getting better. This implies I know where I am and can measure, quantitatively or qualititatively, an improvement in some parameter. In so doing, I can make assessments if the change helps or hurts.

So is it too much to answer a question in 24 hours? Can we possibly learn without conquering something as basic as this? Isn't this the "blocking and tackling" of continuous improvement?

I hope this is helpful.

PS. Bob Maynard's story, on the link above, is compelling. I hope you find it so as well.
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Saturday, November 23, 2002

Saturday Reflections

Some thoughts on a hectic and at times disjointed week just ended.

The trim in my office. Our safety director, Stan Virkler, alterted me some time ago to a particular steel trim we use on our standard roof overhangs that represented a safety hazard. We've had 4-5 crew members require several stitches each because this trim leaves an exposed edge while the building is partially constructed. Stan correctly asked me to work out with our vendors to put a hem or a dull edge on this trim to elimiate the hazard.

So who will help? Unfortuneatly neither the maker of the trim or other sources showed any serious interest in finding a solution. "Yep, you sure have a problem there, Joe." The trim remained in my office.

Duct tape always helps-temporarily. While we tried to find a solution, we resorted to the universal solution to all problems. Duct tape on this edge provided some protection. But it was a pain to apply and we did not have a mistake-proof way to make sure untaped trim didn't get sent to the field. The trim remained in my office.

Frustration led to action. After another near-miss a week ago with a crew guy avoiding a cut just because it was cold out and he had 2 layers on, the frustration welled up. I got fed up with the whole deal. And with myself. The trim still sat in my office.

I called a nearby vendor who had a trim bending machine that I thought might work to implement a solution my colleague Ken Kellams suggested. Yet, over the phone, he couldn't get it. I invited myself to his place on Thursday afternoon and hoped in the car and drove the hour to try to settle the matter. The trim was in my car.

Standing next to his machine, the solution became obvious in four minutes, literally. Once he saw it, we worked to make a prototype solution and there it was. A marvelously simple solution that will remove the safety risk. The solution prototype was back in my office.

So how long did it take? This blew me away. On the back of the trim I had written the date Stan first gave it to me. November 21, 2001. When did I get the solution prototyped? November 21, 2002. ONE FULL YEAR!!!

This just floored and disappointed could a simple thing take a full year to address?? My thoughts, on reflection, about why it happened.

  • Lack of focus. I didn't bring efforts to bear to get it done.
  • Desire for an "elegant" solution. We waited for the ultimate solution from the vendor who made the trim. That "elegance" never came and may never come.
  • Getting distracted by non-responsiveness. I tell you, I have seldom had so many people not give a rip about a problem that was important to me. I let others' mood of disinterest infect my motivation. A very irresponsible move.

The solution came about when the above items were reversed and I "went to gemba" and headed for the shop floor.

I hope this is helpful. Thanks for letting me write this out.
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Thursday, November 21, 2002

I thought We Fixed That!!

Here's the fifth point from George Koenigsaecker of Simpler Consulting on why Lean is different from our "natural" way to think.

Once we have improved an operation we are done vs. Every time you apply the lean tools to an operation you will find more waste.

This concept is probably as radical as batch vs. flow. This one also drives us crazier and is harder to grasp than batch vs. flow.

Why? Because it says we are never done. There is always more waste to eliminate. There is always a way to improve further. As my friend, Mary Pat Cooper of Wiremold puts it "We're as bad now as we'll ever be!" Sounds weird, but she is completely right, living in the lean environment she does. They are always getting better.

Practically, what does this mean? Here are some of my thoughts...I'd welcome yours.

  • I regularly "re-do" an improvement I have already made.
  • I live with the knowledge that things will change.
  • I learn how to talk about continuous change and improvement with my colleagues.
  • I have a couple of key metrics by which I assess if a process keeps improving.
  • I admit that what I did six months ago to improve a process can now be done better.
  • I learn to live with the comment, unspoken or not, "If it is better now, why didn't you improve it back then?"
  • I flesh out, gladly, being a continuous learner.
  • I live in a mood of curiosity and interest. I refuse to live in a mood of resignation or cynicism.
I could come up with a lot more. But excellence and true quality means I'm continuously paying attention to improvement. I hope this is helpful.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Couch Potatoes Go Lean

George Koenigsaecker of Simpler Consulting proposes 9 ways Lean is different from our "natural" way to think. His point 4, in the form of "natural vs Lean."

Economic Order Quantity vs. All set ups can be reduced by 97%

In today's Wall Street Journal, there is a fabulous example of this. If you subscribe to the on-line version you can go tothis link (it is a subscription site) and read it. Or you can find a hard was on the front page.

In short, the article describes how a furniture manufacturer in the hills of eastern Tennessee competes favorably with cheap imported furniture by leaning out their systems to provide custom couches in three weeks or less. The author did a good job of "stapling himself to an order" to describe how one couch flowed from the buyer in Wisconsin to the furniture store to the factory to assembly to the truck back to the buyer in 12 calendar days.

What was interesting was that the factory employed some clearly lean principles (e.g. driving strong relationships with fabric suppliers to get multiple small deliveries) yet still utilized a fair amount of batching. Nevertheless, they were winning customers and gaining market share, simply by delivering promptly. It is a tremendous value proposition.

What did they do? They challenged the assumption that it takes 12 weeks to deliver a custom-built couch. They deliver in one-fourth the time.

I hope this is helpful

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Monday, November 18, 2002

Challenging Assumptions

I was talking with my wife, Gretchen, as she finished supper preparations this evening. With a flourish, she artfully spread some chopped parsley on top of the entree. "It adds some color" she said, knowing my question before I asked it. But there was an added glint in her eye..."and it is pretty neat to have FRESH PARSELY just picked from our garden!" And, dinner was served.

Wait a minute. Fresh parseley? In Indiana in mid-November? When we had snow flurries last Saturday?

Anticipating my next, yet-unspoken, question, she chirped "I fired up the wall-o-waters. I figured they can protect the parsely for another few weeks. I'm just going to push the envelope and see how deep into winter we can get."

What does this story have to do with learning about lean systems? Gretchen simply challenged the assumption most of us have that gardens can't yield any produce after a hard freeze. She used her own considerable skill as a gardener and a cook. She employed a simple, yet effective tool, called a wall-o-water. This amazing little device is nothing more than a series of vertical clear plastic tubes, open at the top and linked to form a circle. The gardener adds water to each tube, which makes the whole structure stand on its own and protect the plant from freezing weather. Simple, cheap, effective...the perfect lean tool.

Because she challenged assumptions, we have fresh produce from our own garden after snow already flies.

This is a summary of all of George Koenigsaecker's points we are examining. Each one turns an assumption on its head and pushes to an new level of performance using simple tools and creative thinking.

I hope this is helpful.
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Thursday, November 14, 2002

George Koenigsaecker of Simpler Consulting proposes 9 ways Lean is different from our "natural" way to think. Here's his point 4, in the form of "natural vs Lean."

Economic Order Quantity vs. All set ups can be reduced by 97%

This of course is a further variation on the batch vs flow discussion of last week. EOQ recognizes large fixed costs as "normal". An effort towards set-up reduction says "we don't have to assume that large fixed costs are normal." A couple of examples.

I had a tour about 18 months ago of a large metal extrusion facility. They had a huge (and I mean huge) 800 ton extrusion unit to squeeze out piles of metal to customer-requested profiles. The kicker was temperature control. Every time they had a new shape requested, they had to swap out the die and wait for it to heat up. "Conventional wisdom" said this was a minimum of an 8 hour process; during which nothing happened. The fully staffed team sat around and played cards, just waiting for the die to heat up. As a result, whenever the die did heat up, they made the same part for several days on end...they simply could not afford to shut it down after only a few parts.

In a process overhaul, managers challenged this assumption and provided training on quick change-over. Two main things happened.

  1. They paid attention to the schedule and knew if Die A was in the machine now, the next one required would be Die B.
  2. They installed a pre-heating oven. While Die A was running, Die B was warming up to the key temperature. They then put a "hot" new die in the machine when ready.
  3. They tested just how critical the temperature was to the metal. Turns out the exact temperature was a theoretical issue but not a practical one. The metalurgists had insisted on a level of control that just wasn't necessary.
As a result, they dropped the changeover time to less than 12 minutes. Yes, from 480 minutes to 12 minutes. I saw it. How? By challenging assumptions.

I'll have another example tomorrow.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Feelin' Good in the Inventory-hood

George Koenigsaecker of Simpler Consulting proposes 9 ways Lean is different from our "natural" way to think. Here's his point 3.

I like having "some" inventory vs. believing inventory causes waste and also "hides waste" and prevents improvement in productivity, quality and flow.

Many people believe Lean is about getting rid of inventory, for the sake of just getting rid of inventory. Lean, however, is about seeing and eliminating waste. Inventory clutters the view and hides waste we would see otherwise.

We typically think of inventory as the physical stuff of production, which it is. But even in processes outside of production, "inventory" gets in the way. I had a marvelous illustration of that today.

One of my colleagues has ultimate accountability for collecting our Accounts Receivable. He took over that role early this year amid a very ovewhelming backlog of unpaid bills. Taking a deep breath and rolling up his sleeves, he went to work on this backlog with his team. As of November 1, our A/R is 58% below it's level on January 1. A tribute to diligence and paying attention to details.

What does this have to do with inventory? It hit me today when Greg commented "Now, when we have a genuine problem with a recievable, it stinks! It jumps out at us! We immediately know where the problem is and can attack it!" Do you see what he did? Greg and his team eliminated an "inventory" of receivables. Receiveables are just like inventory...they are a use of cash that adds no value. On a Balance Sheet they show up as an asset (just like inventory) yet we can't spend it or use it to create more revenue. This type of "asset" is an illusion. Furthermore, the older the receivable gets, the harder it is to recover (just like old, unrotated inventory). And, when we collect A/R, it translates, immediately, into cash. And our CFO is smiling these days when the subject of cash comes up.

By aggresively eliminating this "inventory" Greg and his team can now very easily "see" problems that arise with current A/R. And take action sooner.

Inventory is all around us, both in physical goods (stock material, work-in-process, unclaimed purchases), as well as in non-physical goods (plans not finished, phone calls not returned, bills not collected, ideas not acted upon). As George says, we "like" having these things around, they make us feel good, they make us feel useful, the provide job security. But they do not create value! And if we are not creating value, why are we here?

PS. Sorry for the gap from last week...a monster head cold has laid me out for a few days. Be glad you are not getting my germs....
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Thursday, November 07, 2002

Grasping New Concepts

George Koenigsaecker of Simpler Consulting proposes 9 ways Lean is different. He prefaced the list with this statement.

The core concepts of Lean are not complex ideas, but they are difficult to apply because they are the opposite of what we currently believe.

In the manner of a good teacher, George captured a big truth in a simple way. A story our General Manager told this morning illustrates the point.

Our GM and his family were on vacation at a hotel in Arizona. Sitting in the warm sun on a cabana chair, Jeff noticed a little flip-up flag on the back of the chair. Being curious, he looked around and figured out that if he flipped the flag up, a server would walk up to him and take an order for a soda or munchies. No flag up meant the server left him alone, to enjoy a relaxing vacation. Jeff smiled, just thinking about that great time in a cabana chair.

This is a marvelous illustration of what George describes as a simple idea, opposite of what we think. We normally expect a waiter to come around and either ask or sense what we need. This hotel, rather, put all that power in the hands of the customer. The waiter did not have to scan all the folks lounging in the cabana chairs around the pool. Instead, he/she needed only look for flags. When a flag went up, immediate, personal service was delivered, right where it was needed, right when it was needed. I'd suspect that in so doing, the hotel required fewer people to deliver better service. And, can you imagine the tips that the waiter could earn by being very prompt and cheerful.

Two principles here; a clear, unambiguious signal for action and "production" is pulled by the customer, not pushed by the producer.

We'll move to George's point three on Monday...I'm taking a long weekend with my lovely wife. Enjoy your weekend.

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Tuesday, November 05, 2002

Musings on Root Cause

So what if there was an easier way to do root cause analysis? Could we, would we, do it better and easier and faster? Would that cause us to do less-firefighting?

This has me intrigued.

I scan my current knowledge of tools that could be applied:

  • Five Why. A well known Lean tool.
  • Fishbone Diagram. Separates material, methods, machines and personnel causes.
  • Theory of Constraints. Goldratt offers a complex but effective root cause system, most notably described in "It's Not Luck"
  • Phred Solutions, a small software firm in Colorado, is now offering a knowledge-based software tool, which is being used in several large companies, Shell, most notably.

The latter two are quite analytic. I've used Goldratt's technique with some success, but have not been able to transfer that knowledge to others. I suspect a Five Why worksheet might be more helpful as a realistic, easy-to-learn way of documenting the discovery of root cause. But, I wonder if I'm missing more than this.

I welcome your comments.

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Monday, November 04, 2002

George Koenigsaecker of Simpler Consulting describes nine ways that Lean doesn't make sense. His second point-counterpoint:

Fire fight today's problems vs. do root cause solution to stop the need to fire fight

In a Lean enviroment, the focus is on eliminating the emergencies and building a "quiet" workplace. Machines work properly; people work safely and steadily; materials appear when needed and in the amount needed; customers get what they ask for, quickly and without surprise.

For many of us, this sounds like a dream from some drug-enduced street philosopher of the late 60s. But George has seen it, I've seen it, many of you have seen it. Why is it so hard to get to?

  • We like being heroes. It feels good to swoop in and "save the day". Other's salute us and say nice things in company newsletters. As such, we are not often willing to give up our spandex superhero outfits.
  • Management reinforces heroism. Because it is so much part of our own nature, management is grateful for and recognizes the excellent fire-fighters amongst us. Since we don't have an appreciation for root-cause elimination, we don't even see it as being a better way. When's the last time you saw a big deal made over someone who is quietly effective because he/she preempts all the big fires?
  • We like loud over quiet, flashy over subtle. This is a corrolary to George's first point, of batch vs flow. Batch is big and visible. Flow is often invisible. It is cool to fight fires. No one notices when there are no fires to fight.
  • We don't know how to get to root cause. Perhaps this is the biggest problem. If we could do root cause analysis easily, could we do it better? Yes. Is it a habit which we could form? Hmmmmmm. I gotta say "Yes" to that question but it is a challenge.

I welcome your comments.

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Sunday, November 03, 2002

Flow meets Batch in New York City

Another way we tend to Batch, rather than Flow, is in how we plan any big project. We want to do the plan, and then execute it. One time to plan, then we act as if it must go according to plan. "Plan your work, work your plan."

This is especially evident in construction projects. For a very good description of a Lean approach to Project Management, click the button "Reforming Project Management" on the left. My friend, Hal Macomber, hosts this fascinating discussion.

This came up in a conversation yesterday with a very good friend who lives and does medical research in New York City. An $8M expansion of his research lab has just broken ground (actually, it broke asphalt...he works in a densely populated part of Brooklyn...) next to his current lab. "We'll be dusty and messed up for years," was his comment.

Don and I have discussed Lean many times, so he wasn't surprised that I had some Lean comments about the grunge he would have to walk around to and from work for the near future. I focused on how one can get Flow in such a big project and how there were tools to deal with the fact that the future is both uncertain and unknowable. Don has a PhD, so is no dummy and saw the appeal.

As the discussion wound down, Don paused reflectively and said "Joe, there is nobody in New York City that has ever heard of such a simple way to run a project."

Well, I suspect someone in NYC has heard of Lean, yet his comment reflects reality...Batch is all around us in many ways. Flow is far less visible. It takes new eyes, a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking, a new paradigm to see flow.

Try this experiment today...find three places where you see batch. Perhaps a long stretch of highway construction blockage with only one small stretch actually having work done. Then, if you can, try to identify one place where there is flow. One hint: have lunch at a Wendys.

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Thursday, October 31, 2002

Flow vs Batch

George Koenigsaecker of Simpler Consulting describes nine ways that Lean doesn't make sense. His first point-counterpoint:

"Batch production vs. 1 piece flow"

Why do we want to batch things together? I look at my is full of "Batch", translated as "I'll get to that when I can" or "I'll batch all those annoying little tasks together in one lump" or "I'll file all this stuff when I get around to it."

It's no different when we manufacture things. We want to lump all the same size trusses together, even though the timing of the orders may be quite different. Try as I did, I had little luck getting our wonderful pie-making volunteers to make one pie at a time.

I wonder if it isn't genetic, to some extent, or behavorial, found in our agricultural roots. We want to gather food when there is food to be had. I drive past massive piles of corn on the ground these days as the Indiana harvest season comes to a bountiful end. "Batch" surrounds us.

Flow, on the other hand, does not seem as evident. Probably for the very fact that flow, by definition, is moving. Thus, it doesn't stay in place very long. You can't go see "flow" nearly as easily as you can go see "batch." There is evidence of my work when I make a big pile of something. There is no remaining evidence if I make what the customer wants, just as he/she asks for it.

When I was at Wiremold in August, I arrived just before 5pm on a Monday, due to flight delays. One of my hosts, Hans Cooper, gave me a quick tour of the facility. Now, the production associates end their day at 4:30pm, so the plant was quite empty. Hans proudly showed me some of the assembly cells he had helped revamp earlier in the year. "Let me show you some of our surge suppressors that we make here," he said proudly. Then, he looked and looked...none were to be seen. "Wow, I guess they are all shipped." That was flow. No finished was all packaged and on a truck, heading for the customer. For the entire week I was there, the only time I could see product was during the work day. Even then, I had to look fast, as it quickly flowed through the cell, into a box, then onto a truck, backed up to the shipping dock.

Yeah, Batch feels better. Flow pays better. We take our pick.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2002

5,000 (almost) Apple Pies -- The final story

We did a wrap-up of our apple pie adventure on Monday night. While I was quite pleased with the operational aspects of the exercise, the financial results blew me away, to wit:

  • We netted just over $20,000, to add to the school's tuition assistance fund
  • We had 95 volunteers donate an average of 3.5 hours each to make pies
  • This works out to over $55.00 per volunteer hour

I wonder how many non-profit fund raisers can point to that kind of productivity?? What a compelling statement to ask folks to be involved!! Plus, it was fun to work in a clean, orderly, U-shaped production facility where materials came to you and there was little clean-up, due to the minimal WIP!!

I hope to get photos posted this weekend.

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Why does lean feel weird?

George Koenigsaecker of Simpler Consulting has been a leader in Lean implementation in the US for 20 years now. I had the chance to hear George speak at a conference recently. Later, I spent another half hour in the hallway with him, pursuing details on both the human and the technical aspects of a lean system.

In his presentation, George identified nine ways in which a lean perspective runs counter to the way most of us think. Over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to describe them and then, in my own words, try to articulate how we run into this in a post-frame construction environment. I welcome your input.

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Monday, October 28, 2002

Wiremold Data

I found a much more readable version of the interview with Art Byrne that I mentioned last week.  I urge you to print it out and read and think carefully about.  I can attest to its accuracy.  Click Here to link to the interview transcript.

Why am I fascinated by Wiremold? Because:

  • They started small
  • They practiced clear focus
  • They did it without major capital infusions
  • They built a culture that built both people and quality
  • They did it in very ordinary product areas

If they can do it, anyone can. But do we have the discipline??

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Still working on commenting software, Monday pm. It appears to work now...I added a comment, if someone else could check it and add one too, I'd appreciate it!!

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Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Straight Talk from Wiremold’s CEO

I mentioned last week that I had a mind-stretching time at Productivity Inc’s conference on Lean and TPM on October 10-11.

One highlight was an hour-long presentation from Art Byrne, the just-retired CEO of Wiremold. My notes were full and I wondered how I could communicate what I learned. Then my colleage, Gary Stewart, from the Wabash Valley Lean Network passed these links to me. If you want to stretch your mind about what is possible in manufacturing, go to these pages and read. Then go reflect on it. These two interview summaries contain virtually all of Art’s content that he shared at the conference.

After spending a week in a kaizen event at Wiremold in August, I can tell you, this is the real deal. Then, go take some action. Email me with your comments.

From The Society of Manufacturing Engineers

Wiremold is a rare company. It has achieved national and international prominence not so much for the products it makes, but for the manner in which it makes them. Under the 10-year stewardship of Art Byrne, the company was one of the first in the U.S. to embrace the production and management techniques of the Toyota Production System. Since then, his company's sales have grown by more than a factor of four to $460 million, or by more than 38 percent per year. Its operating margin exceeds 12 percent. It continues to double inventory turns every two years and has improved quality by at least a factor of 10. In this article excerpt from Manufacturing News, Byrne offers some sound advice on what it takes to succeed and fail at lean.

Click here for interview summary.

From Manufacturing News

This is a longer interview from Art…prepare to blow away many of your preconceptions.
Click here for full interview text.

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Monday, October 21, 2002

5,000 (well, 4,502) Apple Pies – The Results

We finished the production of pies on Wednesday night, October 16. I’ve recovered from 17 hours on my feet that day and reflected on what happened. Here are my thoughts on implementing a lean system.

  • Energy matters. We had a bunch of Purdue students from a service organization there join us for production each evening. Hard to measure the impact of injecting 20 college kids into a group of 35-50 year old adults, but it is positive. Especially in a volunteer system like this, the simple ability and tendency to move quickly matters.

  • Material handling matters. While a simple understanding of lean pays most attention to the cell or assembly structure, a deeper understanding knows that how raw materials get to the cell is equally important. We saw this. Fortunately, we saw it quickly when it broke down and could correct it in minutes.

  • Equipment breakdowns cost money. Our goal was 5,000 pies. We made 4,502. The difference??? The refrigerated trailer we rented broke down on night one…we had to cut off production two hours early. In those two hours, we could have easily made 500-600 more pies. This error cost our fund raising efforts at least $2,500. It was an expensive breakdown.

  • Productivity goes way up. Compared to 2001, we made 50% more pies with 1/3 less manpower. Roughly speaking, this is an improvement in productivity of 80% to 90%. All by going to three u-shaped cells and using simple visual kanban for material movement. This blows me away.

  • Satisfaction goes way up We had repeated comments from folks who worked the line that “wow, this is a lot more fun!” Anecdotal, perhaps, but we’ll have a lot easier time recruiting workers next fall since they enjoyed it this year.

  • Humans want to batch, not flow. My biggest disappointment was how difficult it was to get to single piece flow (or single pie flow, as I jokingly termed it) in each cell. Our volunteers really, really wanted to push pies through in batches, not one at a time.

  • WIP goes way down Despite the mini-batches, the cells physically limited the WIP. The small cells just wouldn't hold much of a "batch." So much so that when we shut down the lines at the end of Wednesday night, we went from full-bore production to the last pie in the box in only 16 minutes. We were producing at a rate of 450 pies per hour and still only had 16 minutes of raw apples in the system. That was cool.

  • Gotta have metrics I did a simple tracking of how many pies per cell per hour we produced. Even this simple method of scrawled notes on a 3x5 card in my pocket gave us committee members insight on the fly during the hectic day of production. Lean systems have to have metrics.

All in all, it was quite an experience. We raised nearly $30,000 for the school scholarship fund. This works out to around $35/hour for the time contributed by the volunteers. This feels good for people to know that their time is well worth it.

Thanks for following this saga. It was fun.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2002

5,000 Apple Pies--Day One of Production

Yesterday, we had the first of two days of pie production. A few observations, before I head over for day two.

1. The Lean System we set up used half the space that the previous assembly line/batch/queue system used. The last several years, it used the entire gym floor. Now, we made just as many pies and nothing extended past half court.

2. Anectodally, our productivity was probably 1.5 to 2.0 times what it was last year. I don't know for sure, as it relied on some of the "veterens" remembering about how many pies we made with about how many people. We had lower turnout this year of volunteers, but still hit our numbers for the first day.

3. The three, identical, U-shaped cells worked great. The visual cues seemed to be obvious for the volunteers.

4. Having three cells let us ramp up and ramp down production according to the number of people we had at any moment.

5. Clean up was a LOT simpler. Far less mess than before.

6. Single piece flow was better but not perfect. What we did find, though, was that by confining the space and limiting the WIP, we simply did not have the space to build up too much inventory.

7. Possibilities for improvement are endless. My mind whirs.....

The Stats of Day One: 2,020 pies in just a little over 8 actual work hours. That's a cycle time of just over 14 seconds. I was shooting for 13, which would allow us to get 5,000 done in two 9 hour shifts. A freezer truck breakdown caused us to quit early last night (yes, we filled one entire semi trailer with apple pies). If we can keep the pace, we'll get done well today.

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Saturday, October 12, 2002

Note: I have added new commenting software to this page. Thus, any comments will appear with the page and others can add as well. Let me know what you think....or better yet, add a comment!

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5,000 Apple Pies...rightsizing containers

In the midst of a rapid spurt of training and input on Lean, we set up to make 5,000 apple pies at my son’s school for their big fall fundraiser.

As previously mentioned on this blog on Sept 17, I volunteered to help make the flow go well for the "manufacturing" process. So far, we have a plan, but it will all be about execution.

It all starts on Monday evening, when we do the layout of the gym. We’ll build three U-shaped cells, each of which can be staffed with 2-5 people. We’ll have material handlers that will move materials with marked containers from peeled apples through to crumb toppings. All of this will funnel bagged and boxed pies to a rented semi-trailer freezer sitting in the parking lot.

Takt time calculation says that if we make one pie every 13 seconds, we’ll have the whole thing done in two 9 hour shifts. The experienced people have all laughed at this. It normally has taken two 15 hour days.

Our big challenge will be how to utilize a widely varied number of volunteers. We’ll have a smattering of people in the mornings...a big bunch at night. Thus, my strategy is to have three cells prepared and then pull all the raw materials.

Stay tuned.

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Friday, October 11, 2002

Thoughts from Orlando

Just finished up earlier this afternoon with the Lean Conference sponsored by Productivity, Inc. Many, many observations...this is an index of them, in no particular order.

  • Don't be too happy with too little The gains to be had with a fullblown Lean implementation are order of magnitude jumps. Expect it. Question myself if the gains are not that big.

  • Don't say "I've got it" too soon Too many people, myself included, will declare themselves "Lean", long before it is really true.

  • High hanging fruit tastes better The gains get bigger, not smaller, as you continue. Consider the flywheel.

  • Change can happen quickly if the soil is prepared Leadership means everything, from the top down.

  • "What you are speaks so loudly I can't even hear what you are saying." Gotta walk the talk or it's all a sham.

  • The Big Price Squeeze Like it or not, we are in a global net of inexorable downward pressure on prices. Much more to write about this one.

  • "What does the grasshopper do when he reaches the edge of the sea?" I leave it to the reader to ponder this one.

  • G2G and Lean Jim Collins' work, Good To Great, is almost point for point consistent with Lean. Collins speaks at the most senior executive level...Lean builds from the shop floor. They align. I think the two are a powerful combination.

  • How you count affects what you do. Standard costs, full absorption accounting can lead to some very wrong decisions. A two hour session with Brian Maskell was most enlightening. Much to ponder on this one.

  • What you count affects what you do A few simple and unfuzzable metrics are critical. The fewer the better.

  • It is much simpler than we think

  • It is much harder than we think

My session? It went well. I owe Vickie Messersmith a Pepsi...over 30 people were there for my talk in the very last breakout session of the event. She said there would be 25. Good energy, surprisingly so given the position of the talk. Very few folks are working on Lean apps in a non manufacturing setting. We're plowing some new ground...we can't give up on it. See points one and two, I say to myself.

Gotta head for the airport. More on this later. Let me know what you'd like to hear more about.

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Wednesday, October 09, 2002

These Guys Got it Right

My cell phone was down to four minutes talk time...I had to get a new
battery. Stopping by the wireless
phone store where I got it, I found out they no longer stocked it. They
sent me to a battery store
downtown. Arriving there, they said "Sure, we have one of them" but
couldn't find it. It seemed their
inventory system was off. By one.

"But, ya know, we sure can order one for you."
"So how long before it gets here?"
"Oh, a week from Monday."
"Hmmmm. How much will it be?"
Tap, tap, tap. "Looks like $62.50. Plus tax."
Gulp. "I'll think about it." And I headed out.

At home, I jumped on the web and quickly found href="" Phone
. In three clicks, I found the battery for my phone. Price?
$28. Four more clicks and some credit card info and it was ordered.
delivered in four days. Later that Saturday, I had email confirmation of
order. On Monday, I had a UPS tracing number to track the package's
progress. Right as promised, I had the battery on Thursday, complete with
conditioning instructions for how to charge it the first time.

I've had the battery for a week now. Have been through the prescribed three
conditioning cycles. I haven't
bothered to turn it off yet. And it just works. I smile every time I make
a call.

I have no idea if the folks at Phone Batteries are using lean systems or
But clearly, they focused on what I wanted. A battery. With minimal
hassles at a good price. And, they clearly had systems to deliver on that

Cut out some fluff today. Figure out what your internal or external
wants and deliver it. Just it. And do it quickly.

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Off to Orlando

I leave this afternoon for a new experience for me. I've been asked to
speak at a connference on Lean Manufacturing, sponsored by Productivity Inc.

I'm presenting on the changes we have made over the last 2 years in our
design and take off department.

My interests in the conference are:

  • Hear the emphasis on culture change
  • Listen to a lot of practitioners
  • Engage in one-on-one conversations where I can
  • See who is interested in non-manufacturing applications

And, I get to do this for free since I'm speaking...that is kinda cool.

If I can get internet access while I'm there, I'll post observations to the
blog. If not, look for some items over the weekend and next week.

Oh yeah...I'll say Hi to Mickey while I'm there....

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Tuesday, October 08, 2002

Three Levels of Change, all at Sue’s Desk

In ten minutes this morning, my colleague Sue articulated the examples of three levels of continuous improvement.

  • Strategic Change Sue clearly explained to three other folks in our Purchasing department the impact of our current strategic initiative. We have just released a PC based application to allow our sales crew to spec and price a simple post-frame building in 15 minutes, with all materials lists and prints complete. She explained what that will do for our volume and costs. The group understood and shared her enthusiasm. She explained how we will see the benefits by late this quarter and in a major way in 2003.

  • Workgroup Improvement From this discussion, Sue slid seamlessly into a description of a three-day blitz or kaizen in which she is a key participant. She’s a key player to describe exactly how certain manufactured components will flow directly from the output of the PC application to our manufacturing facility, with no human intervention required. She stated that the group will be done with this by Thursday...three days after they started.

  • Local improvement Shifting gears only slightly, Sue then explained that she confirmed late yesterday that an improvement in how we specify and price shingles was implemented. She had identified this as a need last week, talked directly to the right people and made it happen. A simple change, that was done by her, quickly.


    When I visited Wiremold in August, I saw the most seamless implementation of three levels of change I have ever seen. I’ve been talking about it since, with documentation of how to do each one. This morning, I saw a glimmer of it’s adaptation, in ten minutes. Way to go Sue...she is a learner and I’m not surprised that she grasped it so well.

    Does this make sense? Email me and let me know!

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  • Monday, October 07, 2002

    The Seeds of Improvement...

    ...are in the ugliness of screw-ups.

    Last Wednesday, we discovered about $4,000 work of building material had
    gone bad while sitting outside in our yard. Ouch. We asked Why? five times
    and discovered that the material in question should have been under cover.
    We had tucked it under an open-sided building, but it wasn't good enough.
    The rain still blew in.

    So where could we put it? Folks voiced a lot of opinions and as usual,
    there was more heat than light. Except for Ernie....

    Ernie supervises our entire yard operation. He and his eight direct reports
    handle $1M worth of material a month inbound and $1M outbound. He walked
    around the yard with us last Wednesday and Thursday and watched the
    hand-wringing and opinion-making over this degradation of materials. And he
    thought...and he thought.

    On Friday afternoon, I talked with Ernie, and put forward an idea I thought
    might work, yet I knew it was only a partial solution. After I proposed it,
    Ernie, keeping a straight face, said harshly "NO!! That'll never work.
    Come here." I thought I had really ticked him off.

    He walked me just inside of a building. "You see that rack there? We're
    going to move it on Tuesday...we'll replace it with the rack to hold that
    stuff that went bad. We can get to it easily with the fork trucks here. I
    thought about it last night and realized we could do this. My guys are
    swamped on Monday...we'll do it Tuesday." And then he grinned and slapped
    me on the back...he had me.

    What strikes me out of this is:

    • We had to lose the money on the material to define the need clearly.
      The screw-up got us to face reality.
    • Getting mad didn't help...thinking hard did. We defined what we could
      do, even when we didn't know how to do it.
    • The best idea came from the guy closest to it. Ernie captured the idea,
      mulled on it at home and came up with the solution.
    • A solution can come about quickly. This one had bugged us for several
      years. When we finally faced up to it, we had an improvement in 5 workdays.

      Embrace the screw-ups. Therein is the seed of your next improvement.
      Try it today.

    Thursday, October 03, 2002

    Supply Chain Lean Part 2

    Some further observations from our Steel Supply Chain meeting on Wednesday.

    1. Waste exists everywhere No surprise here for all of you paying attention to lean systems. But, it bears repeating. Yet, in a supply chain discussion, each company can tend to "pound its chest", Tarzan-style, proclaiming expert ability to deliver value. Not true. Waste always exists...we just have to keep finding it.

    2. Numbers help find waste. Until we have clear metrics, it is tough to clearly identify waste. Without a target for a particular metric, I can't tell if I am falling short.

    3. Performance numbers are harder to talk about with vendors than pricing numbers. How many times do we place the order late? How many times is labeling wrong? How many times do bills of lading not match what’s on the truck? We've found that setting standards for this type of metric finds waste faster than any other method.

    4. Three places need attention to waste removal This is a new perspective for me.
      • The supplier
      • The customer
      • The link between the supplier and customer
      The two parties have to deal with their own problems and not shunt them off on the other. In addition, the two have to come together to rid waste from their interface. It is all, not just one or two, of these but all three.

    It's not easy. But the gains to be had are well worth it. Have a conversation with a supplier, either internal or external, today.

    I hope this is helpful.

    Feel free to forward to a friend.
    Email me

    Monday, September 30, 2002

    Documentation Can Help Process (when done well...)

    Last Wednesday, I reported on Craig and I working to define a strategic initiative (also called a hoshin, a major strategic breakthrough for business results, asked for by the marketplace). Craig did a whale of a job in planning and grasped how we could link shorter blitzes (also called kaizens) to make the bigger task happen.

    Today, he reviewed the plans with two senior managers and did a super job. What did we learn?

    • Having forms to work with got it going. Since the forms allowed Craig to focus on WHAT he was going to do and propose and not sweat the format, he wasted less time doing it.

    • Questions on each form helped. By asking the critical questions for each blitz, Craig listed clearly the deliverables for each component of the larger strategic initiative.

    • It made for a short meeting. The proposal was so clear, it only took one trip through the documents for the senior managers to see what he was doing. We were done 30 minutes sooner than expected... a rarity for us

    • Accountability was clear. There was not doubt for the senior managers who was doing what, and by when.

    • The proposal got better, due to the clarity. One critical matter of timing was vastly improved as a result of one observation of our CEO. I think a good reason he made that contribution was that the proposal was so uncluttered, he could see a missing link.

    What’s the next improvement in the process?
    >>>> Some questions on the forms are still unclear. We can do better.
    >>>> We can evaluate how well the forms work to monitor this initiative. We have to be further open for learning more.

    Stay tuned. I’ll report more.

    Email me

    Thursday, September 26, 2002

    "Giving Reality its Insistent Due"

    NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu
    turned this phrase tonight on All Things Considered. His point? Maturity causes us to move from idealism to seeing the world more clearly. My ahaa? The responsible person who wants to drive quality, throughput and waste elimination must also "give reality it’s due."

    I asked myself as I drove "Where have I given reality its due the past couple of days?" A few examples:

    >> It is hard to get every window square
    >> I am a sucker for chocolate brownies
    >> We struggle to eliminate roof leaks
    >> We nailed, perfectly, three month’s of process conformance in ordering
    >> A six-page checklist is impossible to use

    On further reflection, I realized that the effective person then takes action, based on reality. What did I do in response to the above?

    >> Initiated process improvement with vendor
    >> Complimented the cook and took another one
    >> Began to brainstorm mistake-proofing options
    >> Quick celebration with folks who contributed
    >> Drafted a one-page version

    One of Toyota’s mottoes is "Document Reality." What reality do you see? What can you do, today? Send me a note on how you did.

    Email me

    Wednesday, September 25, 2002

    Rapid Change – Developing a Method

    When I visited Wiremold’s Brooks Electronics Division in Philly a month ago, I was "up close and personal" with the best conceived system for continuous improvement that I’ve seen. My mind has been churning on it since and today we took an important step to try it.

    My colleague Craig has a major project to strip 8% of the cost out of one of our product lines by December 31. Much work is done already but he asked if Wiremold’s method might help direct the final push. So, we sat down this morning for three hours and planned how to link the large project (called a hoshin at Wiremold, renamed "strategic initiative" here) with seven supportive sub-events (called Kaizen many place, we’ve called "Blitz"). Using Wiremold’s model, we reduced each event’s plan to a single piece of paper. Thus, in only eight pages, we have a believable plan for a major effort.

    Will it work? I’ll keep you posted. I can say this:
    1. The method keenly focuses us on what we are doing, freeing us from worrying about the format.
    2. The final plan promotes clear accountability.
    3. The method forces substantial conversations.

    Email me

    Tuesday, September 24, 2002

    Fear of Failure -- Diminished Slightly

    By 9am this morning, we had the first result of yesterday's improvement effort. By handing the request out the afternoon before it is due, we gave the project managers more time to decide what they needed. By putting it on a pumpkin-orange paper, it stood out in the pile of papers. With no pleading or cajoling or whining to someone else's boss, all five steel requests were in our department by 8:20am.

    What did the group learn? One of the best lessons yet in a sequence of improvement. It started with a clear metric and a standard against which to assess the metric. We saw the metric slipping. We said "Stop, let's change something." Even though we didn't know what to change, the people most affected made the proposals. Then we implemented it. In one day. And the results were evident immediately.

    Go improve something, anything, today.

    Email me

    Monday, September 23, 2002

    Fear of Failure Short Circuits Continuous Improvement

    Last week we saw a quality metric in our Purchasing group heading south. On 10 of the previous 13 days, the group had failed to receive order requests from our project managers for the steel which covers most of our buildings by 8:30am, which put them in a time crunch to submit to our vendor by 11am. Having made the assessment late last week that we had non-conformance, I asked two of the folks most affected to propose a solution.

    This morning, I asked about the proposed solutions. Two seemed to make a lot of sense. First, put the request on different colored paper so it would stand out on the generally-cluttered desks of our project managers. Second, distribute the order request forms at 4:45pm the day before it is needed, rather than at 8:00am the day it was needed.

    "So, let’s try it today!" I said, "We can know by 9am tomorrow morning if it works or not!" My colleagues managed only a weak smile. "But we don’t want to do it wrong" was their reply.

    Their hesitance came from a fear of failure. They were worried that even a small move like this might be seen in a poor light. I realized that somehow, our culture had bred a reluctance to try something new.

    Leaders need to break that culture by sponsoring good tries like this. Small or big. Keep trying to improve. Learn. Try again.

    Saturday, September 21, 2002

    Defining the Conflict

    I had a very testy and brief conversation with our safety director on Thursday. Stan and I are friends...we like and respect each other. Yet, we were both fed up with the other and felt it.

    At issue was fork truck operators not wearing seatbelts. OSHA requires it. Our guys are on and off the truck 30 times an hour and refuse to do it. Stan said "Hey, they just need to do it." I said "Hey, we have to make it easy to do." Thus, the conversation with Stan ended.

    I had a long drive to a job site (see Friday’s entry) right after that, which gave me time to think. My mind moved to Eli Goldratt’s "evaporating cloud" technique, and I sought to utilize it. In it, one takes care to carefully define the shared goal and the conflict. In this case, the shared goal was a safe and productive forktruck operation. The conflict was that safety demands wearing seat belts, productivity demands ignoring the seat belt. You can’t split that baby in the middle.

    Goldratt says to then find the assumptions which sit under this conflict and see if you can zap it, making the conflict moot. While in Gemba, at the job site, I saw another subcontractor operating a small skid-steer loader. That unit had a padded bar that the operator pulled down from above his head to secure him in the seat. It resembled a safety bar on a roller-coaster car.

    The assumption this may eliminate is that we have to use the seat belt. What we need is to secure the operator. If we can install/retrofit a safety bar, we make it both safe and productive.

    Until I defined the conflict, however, I was still hung up on the testy exchange with my friend. Instead, we are checking out this option.

    Friday, September 20, 2002

    Settings vs. Measurements

    Going to Gemba seldom disappoints. Yesterday was no exception. I came away with a list of seven clear assessments, accompanied with conversations on how to improve our performance.

    One was a marvelously and elegantly simple set of clamps that three of our foremen had dreamed up and had fabricated. They were steel rods about 17’ long with a bracket on each end and a vise grip tool (yes, the kind you buy in a store to clamp things together) welded onto each bracket. Funny looking but very effective. They used them to quickly and accurately clamp two trusses together while they fabricated them on the ground. The clamps held the two trusses at precisely the correct distance from each other while the 2x8s that were the final product were inserted. Safety was enhanced (they worked on the ground, not 25 feet in the air), quality was improved (all spacings were perfect) and speed was tripled.

    Why? They employed the lean principle of "settings are better than measurements). The correct measurement was embedded in the spacing on the rod. Normally, they would use a measuring tape on these trusses. Not so here.

    Wednesday, September 18, 2002


    My colleague, Ken, reminded me of a central Lean concept late this afternoon. Where? Where, physically, do we do Lean? Where, physically, do we see the waste we want to eliminate? Where, physically, do we make decisions that will improve my company?


    This Japanese word is far less familiar than kanban or kaizen. Yet it is every bit as crucial to seeing. Gemba, most simply, means "workplace". The physical place where value is added to the product. The place where a customer would say "Yes, that is my product. I can see it. Make it well, folks, and get it to me quickly!"

    The vast majority of the time it is not in my office. It is not in a meeting room. It is in the dust of a construction site. It is at the desk of a designer. It is next to the purchasing clerk buying windows.

    When I am in Gemba, I can see. The rest of the time, I can only speculate. And, as Phil Crosby said, "all quality problems are caused by hunches by management." Being in gemba knocks down hunches.

    Tuesday, September 17, 2002

    5,000 Apple Pies – Initial Introduction to Lean

    Tonight, I did the demonstration with Legos of how a container kanban system could work to make all these apple pies. With a committee of 9 people, I divvied them up into roles as material sorters, a material handler and assemblers. By varying how many were doing each, I visibly shifted the constraint of the system and showed the visual clues that will tell us how to balance production.
    What did I learn about training and acting as a change agent?
    1. The demonstration was worth far more than any write up, memo or diagram. When I was done, the group was sold and didn’t want or need to see anything more.
    2. The concept of small containers, delivered frequently, hit home.
    3. In the ensuing discussion, I learned of a few more wrinkles to the process than I had known before. Had we not done the demonstration, I would have missed some important facts.
    4. Labels on containers will be crucial. The visual workplace concepts work.
    Two weeks from tonight we finalize the plans. We’ll make 5,000 pies on October 15-16. Stay tuned.
    5,000 Apple Pies – The Proposal

    My son’s school has a fund raising event each fall – preparing and selling frozen Dutch Apple Pies. This fall, they want to produce 5,000 pies in two days with volunteer labor. Last year, by all accounts, the process was near chaos. So, my wife and son who worked on the production last fall and experienced the mayhem, encouraged me to be on the committee this year. “You’re the process guru…they need you, Dad!” was the tone of their urgings.

    So, we had the first committee meeting two weeks ago. I got the lay of the land; Traditional “batch” processing, lots of good people running around, working hard and getting little done.

    Tonight, I propose a radical rework of the flow of the pie production. One, single, U-Shaped cell to assemble and package the pie, one at a time. Then simple container kanban systems to bring the raw materials (crusts, apples, cinnamon/sugar mix, topping) to the cell. Further feeder cells to peel and core the fresh apples we use.

    While the process is simple from a lean perspective, my interest is how a change agent works. These pies have been produced this way for many years. It is an all-volunteer process. How does change happen?

    I’m going to try to demonstrate the process with a simple Lego exercise to show how we can get rapid clues as to where we need resources if we match the feeder line’s pace to that of production. I’ll post how it goes.

    Sunday, September 15, 2002

    Making quick application

    I find that if I quickly try out something that I have learned, I learn it more deeply.

    This morning, in a non-work setting, I briefly explained the four steps of forming a habit; awareness, awkwardness, skill, habit. The setting was a class at my church for parents of teen-agers. The other parents were struggling to implement some of the concepts we were trying to learn.

    I quickly wrote the four steps on a piece of paper and described the two steps. The six other people stopped, absorbed, then reached for their own paper to copy it down.

    As one guy said "I always get stuck at the "awkward" step...I don't persevere enough to get to "skill" " Well said.

    My application... try to communicate, quickly, what I'm learning. It helps me assess if it is useful or not. And, hey, it might help someone else too.

    Saturday, September 14, 2002

    Dwight's Visit

    An old friend of our company stopped by yesterday. In a discussion about how to drive change, he mentioned his view of the four steps to a culture change:


    This sequence resonated with me. Before I can expect someone in our company to adopt a new method, I have to make him/her aware of it. Clarity must be key.

    Then I need to encourage and coach through the stage of awkwardness. I need to celebrate getting it "almost right".

    Skill can be demonstrated. It will follow an encouraged awkwardness.

    Habit happens when skill takes over in the subconcious. At that point, it is subconcous and the mind takes over to become aware of a new practice.

    How quickly I expect people to jump from "awareness" to "habit"!!