Thursday, March 27, 2003

Reducing Multitasking

Last week, Frank Patrick , writer of the excellent weblog Focused Performance passed along an article "Multitasking Makes You Stupid" which appeared a month or so ago in the Wall Street Journal. I commend both the article and Frank’s blog to you.

The article’s main point was how silly we are when we try to jump to a new task before completing the one we are working on. . Yes, we all know that, but seldom do anything about it. The article adds grounding to what we already know.

But, as my kids have heard me say ad nauseum "Knowing and doing are two different things."

So, last weekend, I concocted a small experiment for myself to try to actually do something. I assessed my performance during the previous week to be particularly lousy. Mulling where I was vulnerable to multitasking, I realized the crucial event triggering multitasking for me was email interruptions. Put another way, the constraint limiting my effectiveness was interrupting myself to read the email associated with the little yellow envelope in the lower right hand corner of my computer screen.

The experiment was thus: I would turn on my email software only three times a day, at 10am, 2pm and 4pm. I would respond to whatever was required and then turn it off. At other times, I would focus on key tasks and people.

I’m four days into it now. I have been amazed and pleased. Early observations:

  • I’m not missing anything. I don’t need to instantly respond to each email. I’ve only missed one event by having my software turned off. That was a request from my colleague in the office next to me. (and isn’t that why Al Gore invented the Internet, so that those sitting 12 feet away from one another can communicate?? )
  • I do better at email. I can respond to 10 of them very efficiently when I know that’s all I’m doing for the ten minutes allocated to email. Much better than I did before when I was multitasking more.
  • I’m getting important things done with fewer interruptions. Each day I’ve completed the important tasks I set out to do. It has been a totally different week.
All of which points out what we should expect to see when we attack a constraint, the limiting factor in some measure of throughput. In fact, the startling results validate my assessment last weekend that email interruptions were in fact constraining my effectiveness.

OK, I know four days does not a trend make, so I’ll keep you posted on this. However, I do encourage you to read the article on multitasking and ask yourself the question "What limits me?"

Thanks, Frank, for the lead on the article. I hope this brief discussion is helpful.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Where Does Inspiration Hit?

My colleague Dave set up a very useful meeting last week with one of our fine vendors. This company makes small structural steel accessories for our buildings and has been working with us since 1978. A good, long-term relationship.

Dave set the meeting up so very well. Because of the clarity of the meeting, several observations jumped out at me, which you may find useful in any customer-supplier relationship focused on finding and eliminating waste.

  • Go to the workplace. We met at the vendor. While we sat in their office for a little while out of courtesy, we found the most quality time walking around their shop. We saw, smelled, touched, sensed their process and challenges. Their CNC mill is no longer just a generic tool. We saw it working.
  • Take at least one other knowledgeable person. Dave recognized that two other folks here were critical in how we specify and order these custom parts. He pulled them in on the meeting. He didn't attempt to see it just by himself. The interaction makes it far more valuable.
  • Ask basic questions. Al, one of our engineers, asked basic dimensional questions about the parts. Amazingly, that basic discussion revealed some very simple improvements to make our products more easily machinable for our vendor and more mistake-proof for us. Better value at lower cost. We found this because Al didn't mind asking basic questions.
  • Listen carefully. It's no use asking questions if we don't listen. By having four sets of ears there, we "heard" better. Especially in a business relationship that is 24 years old, we can think there is nothing new to hear. Not so.
  • Expect some surprises. Even though I've done it many, many times, I never cease to be amazed at how surprisingly positive it always is to go to a supplier's physical place of business (makes no difference whether it is an internal or external supplier) and listen. And when the surprise comes, when we say "ahaaa", when we all sit back in our chairs and say "yeah, we could do that"; well, it's a rush and a great part of doing business.
I hope you go to some supplier in the next two days. Even if just an internal supplier. Go. Watch. Listen. Ask. Expect a surprise that can improve something. Dave set it up for us, and we were not disappointed.

I hope this is helpful.

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Monday, March 24, 2003


[note: I wrote this two days ago and am reposting on March 24, due to technical problems. jfe]

It is a quiet Saturday morning. I'm sitting here in my home office and just a while ago had a sense "Wow, this is sure nice!" and mulled a bit on why it struck me so firmly. There is nothing special about my basement. The ping-pong table and dehumidifier are pretty much standard midwestern issue. But it quickly hit me.

I realized that for the past 12 consecutive days, I have been going non-stop, averaging 16-18 hours a day of fairly intense interaction with people. Business meetings, seeing my son in the Army, connecting with vendors, addressing sudden concerns of colleagues and customers; you know the routine. All of it wonderful...I enjoy my job, vendors, family, friends. When I totalled the days up this morning, I chuckled though. "No wonder you feel a bit depleted," I chided myself.

Each of us involved in continuous improvement efforts can only lead when we ourselves have the mental and physical reserves to think clearly and creatively. Each of us have routines and patterns which refresh us. For me, it is getting some space, reading, writing, being quiet, praying. I encourage you to get in tune with yourself to recognize when you feel depleted. Then learn take actions to restore yourself.

I hope this is helpful.

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Monday, March 17, 2003

Just In Time for Dilbert

If you didn't see "Dilbert" last Friday, check it out here.

Scott Adams, in only a handful of words, captures the essence of a Lean system. Delivering "Just in Time" means that promises are reliable. Those who make commitments will follow through. It implies trust and communication. Adams is so very funny because he captures the agony of making this happen.

It is good to laugh. At ourselves. We are funny.

And, when you get done laughing, read Hal Macomber's excellent paper Securing Reliable Promises on Projects. It is some of the clearest work I've seen on the subject. You will understand much better how to make and secure a promise that will not cause sharp, stabbing pain in the chest.

I hope this helpful.

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Sunday, March 16, 2003

Two Useful Lessons

Just returned late Saturday from five fascinating days with my oldest son as he graduated from US Army Basic Training. Among the many, many things I learned and observed, two are very applicable to the implementation of a Lean system.

The Criticality of Attitude

I asked David what was the most important thing he learned in boot camp. Drill Seargents, rifle skills, obeying orders; all of these struck me as possible answers. I was completely wrong.

"It was all about attitude, Dad," was his immediate and forceful reply. He explained.

He learned that if he went into a difficult task with an attitude of expectancy, saying "I can do this," he succeeded. Armed with this view of the entire training, he did well and actually enjoyed basic training. Yeah, I know, you're not supposed to enjoy boot camp. But he did.

Conversely, to a person, he saw that others in his unit who expected it to be tough found it to be hard indeed. Those who expected it to be impossible dropped out. The task was physically doable. But those who did not view it as such failed miserably.

In terms of language, David made a well-grounded assessment that he, a young man of normal physical and mental skills, could indeed accomplish all the tasks required in Basic Training. He grounded this assessment based on the extensive experience of the Army in training all sorts of people. Thus, he took the action of believing that he could do it. Make the Assessment. Ground the Assessment. Take Action.

In implementing change, eliminating waste, driving quality metrics upward, we are each faced with the same demands. Can we do it? Is it even possible?

It all comes down to attitude. Can I ground the assessment that I can indeed do it? Will I take action on a well-grounded assessment?

The Power of Focus

As I watched 800 young soldiers, male and female, of every ethnic stripe, mostly between the ages of 18 and 25 march in perfect formation, responding perfectly to orders, it hit me what had occured in a short 9-week training.

While an extreme example of focus, it shows what can happen when other distractions are set aside. With virtually no outside concerns for the training period and nearly 24 hour supervision by drill instructors, this group of raw recruits was transformed into an effective unit. I got to converse with a number of David's new pals and was impressed with them as well. It was rapid change on a massive scale.

Lean companies have made their changes by focus. Mind you, nothing like boot camp (and I'm not suggesting that), but still by taking one important task (e.g. shifing a process from batch to single-piece flow) at a time. These companies set aside other distractions to allow a team to do one thing and do it well. For a few days or a week, they accomplish significant change. It can be done. It takes a goal and leadership. The Army has figured it out. We can too.

I'm seeking to go after the busy week in front of me with an expectant outlook and focus on the key two things I have to do. I hope you can do the same.

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Monday, March 10, 2003

Off Line for a few days

I'll be off-line until the weekend as Gretchen and I travel to Columbia, South Carolina to visit our oldest son who is just completing the US Army's Basic Training. That will be quite an adventure, to see our oldest in uniform. I'm quite proud of him and it is a time to train well as a soldier.

Yeah, I'll probably see something applicable to excellent systems, somewhere along the 1,500 mile trip. I'll be back next week with some observations.

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Throughput Accounting, take 2

I wrote at some length on Saturday night about the flow of revenue. In reality, the story of the oil change and the car wash illustrate far more than just the flow of dollars.

The stories illustrate constraints, exploiting constraints (and not), metrics, decision making, preventative maintainance, continuous improvement and team building. I could go on about each. And so could you.

For example, one Alert Reader correctly calculated that I paid $44 for an oil change on Saturday. "Too Much!" he exclaimed. Perhaps. But think about it with me. I got synthetic oil to keep my 106,000 mile Saturn running well. (I have a target of 180,000 miles for my little home away from home for over an hour a day.) I got in and out quickly with no hassle. Does Jiffy Lube's speed and convenience earn them a premium? Probably. Did I quibble with Dwayne? Nope. He made good value.

More importantly though, the stories simply remind me that examples of systems abound in what we see daily, both within and without of work. I can learn from any of them. I write up what I'm learning here. I hope you find it helpful as well.

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Saturday, March 08, 2003

Throughput Accounting, Illustrated

After a long winter with the second highest snowfall on record, we had a break here today with 55 degree sunshine in central Indiana on a Saturday. In a commentary on your host's hopeless fascination with business and Lean systems, I learned something about how one can make business decisions while out running errands in a marvelously lovely late winter's day.

The Oil Change

My first errand was for basic service on my car. Anticipating delays since all my fellow citizens were also breaking out of hibernation, I grabbed a book and headed forJiffy Lube.

Their three bays were full and three cars were waiting outside when I pulled up. Dwayne, the manager, came outside, greeted me warmly (I'm a regular) and wrote up my order. I asked him how he was doing on a busy Saturday. "Hey, we're clicking today! I have a full staff and we're moving well. We'll have you in pretty quickly."

He was right. In about 12 minutes, my car was in the bay. In another 12 minutes or so, it was done. I paid, was thanked warmly by Dwayne and two others on his team, the last one closing my door for me as I drove off. I only got four pages read in my book.

The Car Wash

I left Jiffy Lube and headed for a nearby car wash I have frequented for years. Not surprisingly, they were jammed with cars at 1pm on a sunny Saturday wanting to wash off the accumulated salt and road grime of a long Indiana winter.

I was surprised, however, to note that two of their seven manual wash bays were closed off and two of their three automatic wash bays were also not operating. It was a perfect day to make big money in the car wash business, one of only two or three that might be so perfect in a full year. Why on earth were those bays down?

The lines were so long. I drove on and washed my car at another establishment.

What is the cost of the non-working carwash bay?

As I drove, I got thinking. The following are all my own estimates, based on my own observations.

The carwash manual lanes charge $1.75 and run one car through in five minutes. That works out to $21.00 per hour. For the two bays to be down for the 9 hours today that they would have been fully used had they been available, the car wash lost about $375 in revenue.

The auto lanes were even worse to have down. At $4.00 for a four minute cycle, they each generate $60 per hour. Having both lanes down on a busy day cost $1,080 in lost revenue.

In round numbers, the carwash forfeited nearly $1,500 in revenue in one day. Assuming that the true variable costs for water and soap are small, say 10% of the total cost, the firm could have had another $1,350 towards their fixed expenses had the lanes been operating.

So what's the point, Joe?

This is a very basic treatment of throughput accounting. It affects how one thinks about costs when we view capacity and the pace of revenue rather than point costs.

Say you are the owner of the car wash. One of the automatic lanes quits working. Should you fix it now? Throughput accounting does the calculations above. Clearly, repairs that cost less than $1,080 will be recovered in a single sunny Saturday's operation. Those repairs add capacity and throughput when the demand is there, as it was today.

What did Jiffy Lube do differently?

Either directly or indirectly, Dwayne knew about his throughput.

Based on what I paid and observed, I estimated that each of the three bays in his shop could generate about $220 per hour based on the 12 minute cycle time I experienced today. That's $660/hour for the three bays.

For all practical purposes, Jiffy Lube did not have the option of expanding capacity by adding a fourth bay. Way too expensive. But what was the impact of Dwayne's planning to have the team fully staffed for a busy day? Consider this.

If their cycle time had been 14 minutes per car rather than 12 minutes, the revenue flow would drop from $660/hour to $566/hour. Nearly $100 each hour of lost revenue!! Revenue which would never be recovered!!! So, to bring in one more associate at, say $10/hour, is a very, very smart move. It adds capacity, when measured by throughput accounting, even through it also added one more person to the payroll.

And this is what I observed. One associate popped out into the driveway from time to time to wash windows of a car that was waiting. This was an operation that did not have to happen in the bay and improved the throughput. Way to go Dwayne.

A Througput viewpoint affects how we think

Each of us has some throughput for our activities. It can be estimated either in dollar terms or unit terms. It can be viewed for an entire plant or one individual. I'm convinced understanding it leads to better decisions. Lean Systems are most correctly driven by looking at the costs of flow.

I encourage you to think about throughput in your world today. Try to calculate what the flow per hour or day might be. What limits it? What might increase it? It can radically modify your decisions. I hope this is helpful, even though it is a lot longer than normal. Thanks for listening, as I try to learn this myself.

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Friday, March 07, 2003

Who Knows the Most, Anyway?

Had a tour yesterday of a major local manufacturer. They were quite proud of their approach and quality of product. I was impressed with several of the mistake-proofing systems they had built into their production process. They correctly identified the most crucial, tightest-tolerance procedures and consistently delivered accurate work on them.

Yet, a nagging problem sat in my stomach after I left. I finally identified it and the more I think about it the more it bothers me.

Several questions arose as to how the company accomplished their stated goal of continuous improvement. In short, the company expected most of the ideas and all of the implementation to come from engineers and front-line supervisors. The hourly folks who made up the bulk of their workforce were only allowed to contribute ideas. When one of them submitted an idea, it then had to filter through three levels of management. After scrutiny and rigorous challenging at each level (and management seemed proud of the rigor with which they challenged proposals), approved ideas were then implemented by a group of engineers and supervisors, but not involving the person who raised the idea at first.

I'm amazed they get any ideas at all.

Why would a company purposely not involve the people who have their hands on the product day after day and who know every nuance of the product? Who know every idiosyncrasy of each machine? Who see waste and feel it in their feet, backs and hands? I don't know.

What we believe about people profoundly influences how we behave towards those people and the reaction we tend to get. If I believe these people are dumb and self-serving, I'll probably end up with that. If I believe these people want to be excellent and move ahead, I'll probably end up with that as well. The choice is obvious.

I hope this is helpful.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2003

What Really Matters

In the same phone call with my vendor friend mentioned below, we reflected on some heart-rending people issues.

Just before he called, I received a phone call from the wife of a valued colleague here who has been off work since late August due to a heart attack and subsequent open heart surgery. Dave was due to come back to work half-time next Monday. We have missed him and needed him. His wife called to tell me he just had another cardiac "episode" that set him back tremendously. We have no idea when he will return. I ache for Dave and Tammy and their family.

My pal empathised. One of their associates recently suffered the tragic death of a 13 year-old son. The grief was devastating.

Business is fascinating. Systems intrigue me. But their importance fades as one is confronted with such challenges. People are truly most important. A genuinely excellent business acts with compassion, mercy and understanding in the face of these agonizing human problems. A genuinely excellent system has room for people and a heart for their well being.

And that's what most of us want to be about.

I hope this is helpful.

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Management by Sight

Had a call this morning from a friend at one of our fine vendors. After discussing some product improvements, he began to tell me about the latest developments in their implementation of Lean systems in their plant.

Most exciting was the soon-to-be tranformation of a long assembly line into two U-shaped cells. Single-piece flow seemed within grasp, with all raw materials line side and very little WIP. "Joe, it'll be so cool, because we can see the state of our raw materials! It's all so visual!"

Late this afternoon, my colleague Ken walked into my office. He interrupted his comments to me as he suddenly looked out the window in disgust. "There! I saw it with my own eyes! I knew that was happening." He pointed out to me a kanban card fluttering down from a passing fork truck and landing in the slushy snow. Our cards are not supposed to ride around; they are supposed to go to an appointed kanban post right next to the point where the material is used.

Central to any Lean system is Management by Sight. An effective system is very visual. In less than two minutes, any associate must be able to assess if the system is in or out of compliance.

Our vendor will soon have a moment-by-moment view of his raw material stock. A kanban system tells one to take action or not. A unit of material that has no kanban card similarly indicates a non-complience. Both are examples of Management by Sight.

In Ken's disgust and frustration, I pointed out one more wonderful part of a visual system. Since our kanban cards are color coded, we also knew that the offending material was, exactly, one bundle of Southern Yellow Pine, #1 Grade, 2x6, 10' long. Since the card was red, we could easily find it in the snow. From 150' away, we knew what happened. And the solution was obvious. Even when the system gets messed up, visual management works.

Make something visual today. I hope this is helpful.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2003

The Stockdale Paradox

I wrote Saturday about the "players" I met at our recent trade show. They reminded me of a profound story told by Jim Collins in his outstanding book Good to Great.

Collins dubbed the story "The Stockdale Paradox" following a conversation with Ret Admiral James Stockdale. The story is told on pp 83-87 of the book and on Collins' web site.

Stockdale's story is of survival while in a North Vietnam prison camp for eight years. He articlated that those prisioners who survived had an amazing dual view of their situation. They confronted, directly, the most brutal facts of their situation AND they never lost faith that they would prevail. Read the story your self, it is moving.

The folks I met who were players had this attitude. They saw, clearly, the bleak business climate they faced. They didn't shy from it; in fact they could articulate clearly the specific challenges they faced. In addition, they calmly expected they would prevail; they were taking steps that meant they were acting as if they would prevail.

Those who are successful in Lean applications consistently go straight to the problem. They document reality. They identify the constraint and deal with it, straight up. Because of this, they know they have the tools to prevail.

It gave me much to think about. I hope this is helpful to you as well.

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Monday, March 03, 2003

Price Pressure

Another common theme in talking with lots of folks last week at the NFBA trade show was price pressure.

Nothing really new here and it sure gets old. The pressure comes from rising input prices and a refusal of customers to accept higher prices. This is evidenced at each step of the supply chain and in each of multiple chains.

Oil prices go up, which affects fuels, which affects the transportation of goods. In an industry where most of our supplies are physically large and heavy (wood and steel), it is a huge impact. Further, industries which use petroleum-based inputs (like paint and insulation) see further price increases on their base materials. Most employees want to see wage increases. Health care prices won't quit rising.

The situation can seem helpless without a framework for a relief valve.

The handful of folks who are adopting a Lean philosophy seemed far less concerned than those who didn't or wouldn't. Lean is all about the tools to find and then eliminate waste, those activities which add no value to the product in the eyes of the the customer. Price pressure, for those pursuing Lean, is merely the impetus to find more waste to cut out. Price pressure, for those not pursuing a lean strategy, feels like a noose. It is genuinely frightening.

This is why a framework for understanding is so crucial. It is not a purely theoretical discussion. It can mean survival.

I hope this is helpful.

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Saturday, March 01, 2003

Conversations at a Trade Show

I just returned from two days at our industry trade show. I had numerous conversations with vendors, competitors and industry execs. A few themes emerged that apply beyond just our industry.
  • Business is tough. The fragile economy, tough winter weather, the threat of war; all created uncertainty and indecivenss on the part of customers. No surprise in this; until the conversation moved on.
  • Some are victims. These forces seemed beyond comprehension to some. They were faceless, fatal adversaries. The best they could hope for is mere survival.
  • Some were players. Looking at the same facts, others saw opportunities, ways to learn, ways to hone their business for current and future success. In the tough times lay clues to future success.
What was remarkable to me was both the numbers in each group (about equal) and the similarities in language used.

Vicitms consistently used, with minor variations, this sentence: "They just won't let anyone make any money." I couldn't believe how often I heard almost these exact same words. The "they" could refer to many sources; competitors, regulators, customers, other unnammed and mysterious forces. There was a helplessness and a resignation in the voice of the victims. It was not an attractive place to go.

Players also used a remarkably consistent sentence: "The market is telling us something and we think we can respond sooner and smarter." Again, the message was the same. The market is speaking. I can sense what it is. I can try things to respond. I have a way to respond. I can do it faster and better than my competitors. The education I get from the market will make me better. Their voice had a mood of inquisitiveness and anticipation. It was a very attractive place to go.

I'm not suggesting this is "happy talk." Rather, I saw on the part of the players a dry-eyed ability to perceive and reflect on what patterns were emerging and a committment to respond. The language used helped articulate the steps to take. Coupling a knowledge of Lean Systems and an ability identify constraints is a powerful framework to respond to these challenges.

No question where I want to be nor is there a question who I'd want to partner with.

I hope this is helpful.

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Marketing Brilliance

Billboard I saw outside Louisville on I-65 while driving to Nashville, TN.
Charlie's Tattoos; Done while you wait
Like how else would you do a tattoo??!!

"Hey, Charlie, if I drop off my left arm this afternoon, can you have it ready by Thursday?"

It's a crazy world...keep smiling!!

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