Monday, February 24, 2003

Two, rather than Three, Trips

Last Friday afternoon, three guys here had an impact.

Kelly, one of our semi-drivers and Bruce, one of our fork-truck operators, were loading up the building components on a flatbed trailer to head for a site bright and early Monday morning. (Here are some typical buildings.) As a good sized post-frame building, everyone assumed it would take three trips with a 48' flatbed trailer to deliver it.

Except these guys.

Along with Randy, our dispatcher, they asked themselves, "Can we get all the components on two, rather than three loads, and stay within the legal load requirements for gross and axle weights?" Conventional logic said "We've always shipped this size building in three loads." They said, "Yeah, but do we have to?"

So, Kelly, the guy who would drive the rig on Monday and Bruce, who had the forktruck ready, started shifting things around on the trailer. Once they got started, it became clear how it could fit. In an hour, out in the cold and winter wind of the Indiana prairie, they had it done.

How did this happen?

  • They challenged the assumption. They refused to blindly believe that this was the way it had to be done, that three loads were required.
  • They refused to compromise essentials. Nowhere did they suggest we would or could run the trailer over the legal load limit. Bruce and Kelly refused to take any unsafe action to "cram" the load on. They refused to shortcut customer service.
  • They took action. They didn't talk about the theory of trailer loading. They went to the trailer and started trying things that made sense to their experienced eyes.
  • They knew they were empowered to try. All of this started when Randy suggested Kelly and Bruce give it a shot.
  • They knew there was no penalty for failing. If it didn't work, hey, we already had planned on three loads. So, it was a "safe" way to try something new.
This is hardly the summation of how innovation works. But it just hit me as illustrating many of the important points and it happened on Friday, right here. I was pretty pumped about it.

Much more can be said about challenging assumptions. One of the best approaches is Goldratt's "Evaporating Cloud." It works best on sticky problems where it appears that compromise might be necessary to get any forward movement. If I can, I might write about it in the future.

For now, just pick an assumption and challenge it today. If it holds up, you will know better why. If it doesn't, you just might make some surprising progress.

I hope this is helpful. But, of course, I wouldn't just assume so. Let me know what assumptions about you and your needs I'm making.

Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

Friday, February 21, 2003

Marjorie C. Ely

Two years ago this morning, my Mom died. After 82 active years of others-centered living, she passed away quietly amid family.

I smile as I remember her, realizing how blessed I was through her and my father, who died in 1993. Among their many influences, they built in their four kids a hunger to learn and inquire. Mom evidenced this most dramatically by finishing her undergraduate college education at age 74. She had put all of us through college and then decided it was her turn! Having started college in 1933, only to have the dream end after one year in the tough financial climate of the Depression, she did the last three years while in her 70s. How many people get to attend their mother's college graduation ceremony?? We did. And what a great day it was.

Thanks, Mom, for all you did.

Thursday, February 20, 2003

Just Write it Down

As I reflected on my day this evening, I had a bit of an "ahaaaa." I counted seven specific situations that presented themselves to me today. Each was perplexing. Each had several sides and solutions were not obvious. In each case, someone expected a solution from me.

Each one, in addition, had lingered. Some for a couple days. Two for well over three weeks.

I was blocked into non-action. I had become comfortable with non-action. And I felt trapped.

And then I made some notes on the thorniest of them. By hand. With a pencil. The block started to dissipate.

Duhh, Joe, read your own blog from the past few days.

Agassiz said "The pencil is the best of eyes." There is something fascinating that happens when I pick up a pencil and write or draw the situation. This simple exercise, as I saw it unfold, unlocked some tough situations for me.

If you get stuck today, start doodling. Make a sentence. Write a paragraph on a computer. Compose an email. Draw a picture to show someone else. Color something.

DO SOMETHING WITH A PENCIL which I say to myself as well!

I hope this is helpful.

Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

The Price of not Mistake Proofing

Call me a geek or something, but this item really jumped out at me from last Saturday's sports page. Yes, the sports page informs us about Lean tools.

So what happened?

At the Daytona 500 qualifying, driver Rusty Wallace was penalized for using an illegal carburetor. Click here for UPI's write up of the story.

What was illegal about it?

All NASCAR aficionados (which means almost all of my colleagues here at FBi Buildings) know that Daytona is one of two tracks which require the use of "restrictor plates." These plates limit the flow of air to the engine's cylinders, slowing the cars to a "safe" 180 mph on the superspeedway.

How did they mess it up?

It seems that Wallace's crew inadvertently grabbed a carburetor without the required restrictor plate and bolted it to the engine for his qualifying run. Wallace ran well and qualified to start 8th in the field of 43. But, at post-qualification inspection, officials found the error.

What was the penalty?

Plenty. Wallace lost $28,720 of prize money he earned through his qualification run. His crew chief was fined $10,000. Further, NASCAR bumped him back in the starting grid, from 8th to 38th. As a result, he had much more traffic to work through if he was to challenge for a top finish. In the conga-line traffic flow of Daytona, this created a real problem. We don't know what his sponsors thought about the adverse publicity.

So how did it affect him in the race?

Hard to tell, as the race was cut in half due to rain. But, he ended up only in 25th place. The 8th place finisher earned $240,000 in prize money. Wallace earned $186,000, a difference of $54,000. Clearly, starting farther back in the pack didn't help him. Further, had there been a major accident in the middle of the pack, he would have been far more vulnerable.

What on earth does mistake-proofing have to do with this?

Everything. One mistake cost them so very much!! Had the crew locked up all the wrong carburetors, they could only have bolted a correct one on. The sequence of failures and losses all stemmed from this one error. An error that was very, very, preventable.

Visual tools, labels, low inventory, clear instructions; all are ways to mistake-proof your processes. Do a web search on "mistake proof" or "poka yoke" and see what you find. Perhaps you can send the results to Wallace's crew chief.

I hope this is helpful.

Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

Tuesday, February 18, 2003


I hope you enjoyed reading "The Student, The Fish and Agassiz". I found it fascinating when I first encounterd it 1973 and still enjoy it. Some of my observations.
  1. The teacher tested for teachability early on. He asked if the Student wanted to learn and when he wanted to learn. He then immediately assessed that resolve with action. "Here, look at this fish."
  2. In so doing, he made the student responsible for learning. He did not lecture. He let the student set the pace. It was clear, by action, that the learning was up to the student.
  3. He used the Socratic Method. I'm hardly even knowledgable on this method and could learn more about it. As I understand it, though, it is centered on well-directed questions which point the learner to learn. It is the opposite of our normal lecture and take notes method of learning. Much has been written about it. In the Lean literature, Spear and Bowen, in their landmark HBR article on "Uncoding The DNA of the Toyota Production System," pointed out that this is the key technique utilized in training Toyota production associated. Jim Collins in "Good to Great" observed that very effective leaders used this same Socratic method.
  4. He engaged the learner with the task. He sat the student down in front of the fish and said "Look." He didn't let him do anything else until he showed he had learned the first lesson.
  5. He encouraged drawing, by hand. "The pencil is the best of eyes," he admonished the young student. This is documenting reality...just draw what you see. As western, linear thinkers, we all too often want to WRITE about what we see. We don't draw what we see. Shoot, what am I doing here except writing??!! Our digital world encourages words, not free-hand drawings. It is the best way to document reality...just draw a simple picture of what you see.
I could go on...but I'll spare you. I would like to publish other things that you see. Please email me with your thoughts or post a comment. I hope you enjoyed this fascinating short story and that it was helpful to you. Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

Friday, February 14, 2003

"A pencil is one of the best of eyes"

To "document reality" one has to observe. Closely. Looking for patterns. Grasping what is really there, not what is imagined. Can this be learned or do some people just "have it" while others don't?

As I pondered this recently, I recalled a short story I first came across over 30 years ago. Having long lost the book I remember it from, I found it on the Web and link to it here.

The story is called "The Student, The Fish and Agassiz" and was written by a budding young student taught how to observe by a wise but unconventional professor around 1870. It is marvelously and colorfully written and applies fully to our struggle to improve our systems. Please read it and enjoy it with me. I'll comment more on it in my next posting.

(If you would like a .pdf version of the story, click here.)

I hope this is helpful...and may all of your fish be Haemulon : ) Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Document Reality

Why is this phrase, "document reality" such an important part of a Lean System? Why should we bother to "write down what is happening"? It continues to challenge me. Why? I illustrate and then try to explain.

  • We had a group of Purdue Industrial Engineering students do a project with us on shortening the change-over time in our truss manufacturing facility. The documented the number of paths and steps taken by each of our team while changing from one type of truss to the next.
  • We counted how many phone calls our inside sales folks made in a day on which they actually spoke with the person they were calling.
  • We count how many times we implement local improvements in a work group.
  • We wrote down how many times lumber is handled from the time we purchase it until it arrives here.
  • My wife wrote down what we spent on insurance premiums.
Why is it important to "document reality"?

Because it makes action clearer. It grounds the assessments that we make, such as:

  • We can do faster changeovers.
  • We are dialing but not talking to the right person.
  • We are really making improvements.
  • Our lumber passes through too many middlemen.
  • We pay way too much for insurance
Each of these assessments, without documentation, are merely "opinions" and, as such, can be dismissed along with those of some radio talk show host just filling air time. Without a description of the current reality, the assessments are ungrounded.

When we do document reality, we can then ground the assessments. A well-grounded assessment is much easier to take action on. When our guys saw the extra steps they were taking during changeover, ways to improve became much more obvious. When we wrote down how many hands were touching our lumber, ways to save money became clear.

By documenting reality, by writing down what we see and observe, right now, we give ourselves a much clearer path to improvement. Try it today...document one process or method, make a grounded assessment of it and then see if action doesn't become more obvious.

I hope this is helpful.

Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Observing Objectively

A number of other timeless principles have hit me since our most recent Blitz, about which I wrote last week. A key principle is that of documenting the gains. An example.

During the blitz, I had an idea about material flow during one step which I thought would cut the cycle time by almost half. We had measured cycle time in the "current state," observing the lowest repeatable time in 7 cycles. I discussed my idea, the guys liked it and decided to try it.

We then checked the cycle time. We were all disappointed. After doing another seven cycles, accounting for the brief learning curve, we only shortened the cycle time by 30%...not the 50% we had expected. We paused and wondered "Why wasn't it as good as we had hoped?"

It became obvious as we talked that we had (mentally) counted the productivity gains which we thought were pretty cool and had (mentally) ignored the less-cool added steps required by the idea. Yeah, a 50% boost on the cool stuff, at a 20% cost.

What I learned: The net gain was great; 30% is nothing to sneeze at. But since we stated clearly what we thought it would gain, measured the actual gain in real time and then sought to understand why it was less than expected, we learned even more. The demanding taskmaster, Reality, taught us more than we would have learned otherwise. It forced us into more and better proposals for improvement which we tried on the fly, right there.

A lean motto is "Document Reality." It works.

Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

The Power of a Blitz

I've seen it many times before and I suppose I should cease to be surprised....but I was. It was amazing, encouraging and mind-boggling.

I'm talking about a Blitz (as we call it) or a Kaizen event (as most in the Lean community call it). We did a very simple, one-day event in a well-run area of our production facility yesterday. We used the same, proven method to plan the day as we would in a poorly run area, badly in need of work. We simply started looking for ways to improve flow, safety, ergonomics and quality.

Why was I amazed? Let me try to explain:

  • Meet in the workplace. We spent the whole day in the work area itself. No conference room, nothing impressive. We got dusty and cold. And we saw things we could never have seen anywhere else.
  • Forget the donuts. It was not about frills. We didn't bring in lunch. We didn't do anything that smelled like a "perk." We worked an ordinary work day.
  • It was about listening. The guys who have made this a well-run area had a bunch of ideas on how to make it better. The rest of us listened and asked questions to understand better. Folks would rather be sincerely listened to than eat donuts in a nice conference room. But it's easier to run to Krispy Kreme and grab a dozen than it is to really listen well.
  • Listening became infectious. As those of us from outside the area tried to listen, the guys in the workgroup started asking questions about how material and information flowed to and from the workgroup.
  • No one person had a breakthrough idea. There were no "home runs"...the area was already functioning well...if it never changed, we'd still be OK.
  • Collectively, we had some great ideas. Since the group was in a marvelous mood of listening and inquiring, one small idea sparked another, on which another person built a further extension. Soon, nobody could remember just whose idea it really became owned by everyone, because it was.
  • Improvement became obvious. We ended up with 8 specific action items to improve flow, safety, ergonomics and quality.
  • Include folks from outside the group Two people on the team had spent virtually no time in this area. Two things happened. One...we had some fresh perspectives. Two...we built experience in the change process. Both incredibly positive.
Watching. Reflecting. Asking. Looking hard. Taking time to improve. All these things work. I know that. I've seen it a hundred times. But it still grabs me.

Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

Saturday, February 01, 2003

In Memoriam: The Columbia Seven

With millions of others, I was shocked and grieved to hear of the destruction this morning of the space shuttle, Columbia. My prayers go to the families and friends of those who died.

It is hard to describe fully the impact of the space program on my career development. At age 49 now, I grew up with the space program. I remember vividly being in elementrary school and watching with fascination as Alan Shepherd became the first US man in space; John Glenn's first orbital flight; Gus Grissom (a fellow Purdue grad) and his colleagues dying in our first space accident; Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon; the Challenger disaster in 1986. Through it all, the space program inspired me and many others to pursue the development of technology and its impact on human lives.

Risks are real. We must continue. And we can learn from disaster. We can persevere.

Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me