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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