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.

Feel free to forward to a friend.

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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.

Feel free to forward to a friend.

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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.

Feel free to forward to a friend.

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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.

Feel free to forward to a friend.

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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.

Feel free to forward to a friend.

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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.

Feel free to forward to a friend.

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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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