Monday, April 28, 2003

Challenging Assumptions

At a family celebratory event this weekend, I struck up a conversation with a man I hadn’t met before, a friend of my nephew. Amongst the chit chat, I discovered he was involved with the mergers and acquisitions department of a Very Large Corporation. Being an area of interest of mine since my MBA days, I asked him more about their work, exploring valuation models, intellectual property protection and SEC disclosures.

[note: this is a good reason not to invite me to any of your social events. I noted that others who had been standing near us seemed to suddenly have a need to check out the relish tray again...oh well, the two of us enjoyed the chat...]

During the discussion, my new friend described one acquisition that fell through due to deep financial losses by the target company. "Hey, how can you make money manufacturing in Connecticut paying $30/hour wages?"

I got thinking about his comment on the drive home, "Well, just why couldn’t that company make money? What are the assumptions sitting underneath that assessment?"

Do high wages mean high product cost? If the ratio of direct labor to materials remains the same, it will. If labor hour productivity does not increase, there is no alternative.

Do high wages require high capital equipment cost? Only if you subscribe to the notion that there is a one-for-one exchange between the two.

Does having a plant close to customers mean little? If we tolerate large inventories and infrequent product changes, it may mean little. If we don’t worry about currency fluctuations, dock strikes, SARS and international warfare, we can locate a supplier anywhere.

Must product development cost a huge proportion of the company budget? If it is only done by scientists and engineers retained on staff it probably will.

Must process improvement take a long time to implement? If the company culture demands only "big bangs", it probably will. If the people doing the actual work have no voice, changes will be slow.

It is entirely possible that this company had one or more of the above issues present. My bias, however, is that Lean concepts challenge each and every one of these commonly held assumptions. They are not as valid as many think.

Challenge some well-held assumption of yours today. Please.

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Friday, April 25, 2003

Making Local Improvements

I've written before about Norm Bodek and his fine book “The Idea Generator.” Norm posted a great summary of his approach in a posting earlier this week on the Northwest Lean Listserve.

I attach the salient part of his post here. You can also read the entire post. There is a key challenge here; Do we believe that small changes have impact?

1. Changing the method - once you change you don't go back to doing it the old way.

2. Small ideas - this is the major key. Most managers are looking only for the big ideas - "the big bang for the buck,," and they ignore the opportunity to involve all employees - not every employee can come up with a big idea but they surely can come up with little ideas that make their job easier and more interesting. Example, a worker gets up every few minutes to drop something into a waste paper container and then gets the idea to move the waste paper container closer. It is a small great idea. We want continuous improvement and it is the accumulation of small ideas that makes a big effect. Sometimes the small idea is worth billions - look at paper clips or post-it-notes.

3. Changes within constraints or limitations. People are afraid to make changes - this is managements job to help overcome that fear. Constraints are: not enough money, not enough time, the boss won't let me, I have too much on my plate, people are not talented enough to do it, etc. Quick and Easy Kaizen is done recognizing that there are restraints but we will overcome them all. We want continuous improvement you must overcome the constraints. People will always tell you why they cannot do something - you just smile, thank them and do what Dr. Shingo did, you say, "Do it! I will come back and check next week to see if it was done."

I have concluded that Norm has something. We've been implementing his material as our primary way of documenting local improvements. It works. If you'd like more info, please contact me. In the meantime, I encourage you to review his material and website.

And, no, I'm not on commission!! It simply works. And, it works, simply.

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Thursday, April 24, 2003

On Dandelions--Tools

What about the tools to use on getting rid of dandelions? If the weeds themselves are a metaphor for waste, might the tools be a metaphor for how we go after the waste?

  • Simple tools work. The tool my wife handed me when I started was designed for popping dandelions. It had a wooden handle, somewhat like that of a screwdriver, a shaft about 10" long and a v-shaped tip, designed to grab the lower part of the root and force it up from below. No moving parts. No batteries. No high-speed Internet connection required. And, it worked.
  • Even effective simple tools can be improved. As well as it worked, after 90 minute of weeding, I observed a large blister forming in the palm of my right hand. By pushing down, time and time again, I had embedded the handle into my hand. The improvement? I have a large, rounded cap in mind that I’m going to fit the tool with before I go out again.
  • The improvement ideas come from those with the blisters. Not a tool designer in a lab or a machine shop. ‘Nuff said.
  • Why not use a spray? I asked myself that question, especially after I felt the blister work up. The answer, I concluded has to do with the complexity of the system.
    1. When our boys were younger, we had a simple back yard. The objective for the yard was to have a lot of smooth, uninterrupted grass to serve as a combination soccer/baseball/football/freeze tag field.
    2. As sports and neighborhood games gave way to cars and girlfriends, the goal for this expanse of grass changed. It became the canvas for my wife’s artistry in flowers, vegetables and shrubs.
    3. So, when the yard was simple, a broad spray of Ortho’s WeedBGone was perfect. It couldn’t do any damage to anything else because there wasn’t anything else to hurt. It was deadly on the dandelions.
    4. Today, though, the risk of "collateral damage" to tender spring flowers is much higher. The dandelions would still go away but do I risk losing all the tulips on a windy day? No way. A wide application of a comprehensive herbicide is clearly too risky.
    5. Therefore, in a complex yard, a focused, targeted waste-removal strategy was in order.
Taiichi Ohno said the central question was not eliminating waste but finding waste. Once you find it, it is then relatively easy to eliminate. I hope this set of discussions, using dandelion removal as a metaphor for a waste-free business system, helps you to learn better how you see the waste, the weeds, in your system. Then, find the right tool and the right teacher to go practice it and get good at it.

I hope this is helpful.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Want more on TOC and Lean?

Many thanks to Alert Reader Karen Wilhelm, web editor of The Society of Manufacturing Engineers' Lean E-newsletter. She alerted me to the fact that SME recently published a good summary of TOC and Lean, titled Examining Just-In-Time and Theory of Constraints. If you found last week's discussions with Hal and Frank useful, you might like this as well.

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On Dandelions--the Root

More thoughts from a spring afternoon's work on how pulling dandelions can teach us about eliminating waste. How do we get to the root cause of the waste? How do we eliminate it?
  • Gotta get the root. Dandelions are tough little weeds. Their roots are big and gnarly. And, as my wife pointed out, unless you get all or most of the root, they’ll just come back next year.
  • And the plant fights to NOT let you get the root. It seldom went straight down from the plant. It often zigged and zagged. From the surface, I could not tell where it went. I had to poke with the tool, and in so doing, sometimes cut off the root at the surface. Dandelion 1, Joe 0.
  • Getting the root was wonderfully satisfying. To see this ugly, brown, knotted hunk of weed root in my hand and tossed into the bucket was its own reward. It was, to use Aubrey Daniels' term "PIC; Positive, Immediate and Certain" the most motivating form of feedback. Check out his book.
  • By getting the root on one plant, I learned. I taught my hands and fingers what the tool felt like when it had secured the root to pop it out. Success certainly bred success.
  • Going slower was sometime faster. I learned that a bit of patience in poking the soil yielded more roots than a quick thrust down. To pull off leaves, the latter worked well. To get the root, patience was almost always rewarded.
  • Roots came out easily in soft soil. Where Gretchen had recently worked up a new bed, the root popped out easily.
  • Roots came out with difficulty in packed soil. As if they "knew" they could hide better there, they were hard to locate and harder to pop out.
  • Experience helped. The more I did, the better I could tell if I got the root, or enough of the root

You never dreamed that dandelions could be so helpful, did you? Neither did I. More in my next post on observations on tools.

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Monday, April 21, 2003

On Dandelions

It was a beautiful Easter Sunday yesterday here in central Indiana USA. After church and before relatives arrived for supper, I wanted to get outside and enjoy the warm sunshine. So, I told my wife that I’d be pleased to pull some of the dandelions spurting forth in our yard. After recovering from the surprise of my offer, she gladly accepted, got me her cool dandelion puller-outer tool and let me get to work.

The work was OK until it hit me that the exercise was a wonderful metaphor for eliminating waste in any process. At that point, the work got downright interesting. What could dandelions teach me about eliminating waste and delivering value? Here are a few points.

  • Some waste is obvious. It has a big yellow flower and says "Hey, over here, pull me out!"
  • Some waste blends in. It matches the surroundings, all green. From a distance, it is unseen. Only by literally walking near it could I detect the different leaves that mark it.
  • If you look for it, you will find it. It was there all along but until I tried to find it, I would not have the chance to get rid of it.
  • Go to the workplace. I can’t get rid of weeds sitting in my living room. I have to go outside and get on my knees.
  • Practice is essential.. I wasn’t all that good when I started. After about 150 pulled dandelions though, I started to get the hang of it.
  • So is a teacher. My wife, an experienced gardener, chuckled slightly as she watched me hack and beat the weeds at first. But, sensing a teachable moment, she showed me just how to plunge the tool into the dirt to get the root. Until I had struggled a bit though, I couldn’t have caught the lesson.
  • Other wastes started to jump out. Though I was looking for dandelions, I discovered thistles and some other weeds I don’t know the name of. Dig, pull. Out they came too.

This is just the start. I’ll share more tomorrow. I hope this is helpful.

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Saturday, April 19, 2003

A brief wrap up on a week of TOC and Lean

I hope the preceeding series was helpful in exploring how Theory of Constraints can help explain how to make sense of the crazy world of projects. A few summary random comments.

  • I appreciate Hal and Frank inviting me to join this discussion. The original idea was Hal's. He understands the power of networking and "walks the talk" really well. Frank brings a deep, deep understanding of TOC and is an excellent writer. I hoped to share with this audience the synthesis I find between TOC and Lean. Did the three of us bring clarity or muddy the waters? We hope the former.
  • One interesting fact is that Frank and Hal both make their living consulting. I spent 12 years in the consulting world, 10 with a medical device development firm and two on my own. Now I'm with a commercial construction company, FBi Buildings and as such draw a regular paycheck. So, while we all understand consulting, Hal and Frank are actually for hire. If you have needs, contact either of them to see if they could help you.
  • Writing is a central learning tool for me, personally. So, my primary purpose in writing on this blog is because I am "Learning about Lean." I continue to be astounded that others seem to find it useful to look in, "over the shoulder" so to speak. I'm humbled and appreciative.
  • We'll compile the entire document and make it available sometime soon (hey, we all have other jobs too!!). Stay tuned...we'll publicize the link.
  • Learning is an interactive thing. I hope you can talk and interact with others where you are about these topics. Read some further books. Mostly, go do it. Try something. You can't learn to swim sitting on the edge of the pool.
I hope this is helpful. Thanks for listening.

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Thursday, April 17, 2003

Down 'n Dirty with the Theory of Constraints -- Day 5

I conclude a week of collaborative postings with Hal and Frank with thoughts of how one manages a project with a TOC and Lean perspective.

At the core, both Lean and TOC principles lead management to be a continuing conversation, based on metrics, that allow daily assessments of focus on delivering on the goal. I elaborate.

  • A continuing conversation happens primarily in daily workgroup meetings, as well as as-needed reviews. It never happens monthly and seldom can happen solely weekly. And a conversation is, by definition, two-way. The leader who only talks is no leader. He/she must listen and listen well.
  • Make measurements daily. Highly predictable processes can be measured more frequently, even on an hourly basis. Most projects, however uncertain, will still allow daily measures. The metrics must be obvious, not easily manipulatable, very inexpensive to collect and posted publically.
  • Assessments are, in my opinion, the missing link in the management of most projects. Many will make daily metrics, but then simply admire them or ignore them. More crucial is assessing what the metrics tell you. Making well-grounded assessments is a skill that you can learn. This is a topic for a full week's set of blogs, by itself. (Interested?? Let me know, perhaps we can produce a set on making grounded assessments...Email me)
  • The goal is what drives the assessment. Are we getting closer? How do we keep our eye on the target? The discipline of understanding constraints helps this terrifically.

Pay attention to Hal and Frank on this topic...they both are experts.

We hope this week-long discussion has been helpful. Hal, Frank and I will compare notes and try to learn ourselves from it. Thanks for listening.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Down 'n Dirty with the Theory of Constraints--Day 4

Yet another day's thoughts on Theory of Constraints with Hal and Frank. Today's topic: Flow Through the Constraint.

If single piece flow is so critical to managing the work flow through a constraint, how do we make sure we get this single piece flow? Here's where some Lean folks get hung up with TOC. Allow me to answer with an illustration.

Have you ever seen a big concrete pumping rig? A really cool piece of equipment and very expensive to rent. It can pump concrete to higher floors on a multi-story building or over a large horizontal distance across which concrete trucks can't drive. It is almost always the physical constraint in a concrete pour. If it isn't there or if it breaks down, the entire pour comes stops. This is a huge problem with wet concrete. How do we manage that constraint?

We add inventory.

In this case, the inventory is a queue of concrete trucks sitting there on the site. One is dumping into the pump and one to four more are just sitting there, idle, chutes extended, ready to swoop in (well, as much as a mixer truck can "swoop" :) ) as soon as the first truck is empty. The empty truck gets out of the way as quickly as it can and cleans up somewhere else, letting the next truck in to keep feeding the pumper.

The act of management falls to a project manager who arranges, ahead of time, with the concrete supplier and the pump supplier to have the pump there and to have the pace of concrete truck arrivals such that the pumper never stops. It is about simple planning, but paying attention to the management of the constraint.

Here's the point. In many, if not most, situations uncertainty prohibits a perfect matching of the flow rates through each step of the process. While in the ideal case each step would have the same output rate (based on takt time), that is not the case. When it isn't, the countermeasure is to add inventory to the system. There can be a knee-jerk negative reaction for a lot of folks to this statement.

The crucial move is to add inventory only in front of the constraint. In our example, the pumping unit must not be starved of concrete to pump. The responsible manager makes sure of that.

Inventory is like cholestorol. Some is good, some is bad, but we need both for good health. TOC helps us know where inventory is good and where it is bad. Lean has all the tools to get rid of the bad and how to manage the good. As I said on Monday,

TOC tells you where, Lean tells you how.

We hope this is helpful.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Down 'n Dirty with the Theory of Constraints -- Day 3

We continue in collaboration on Theory of Constraints with Hal Macomber and Frank Patrick. What happens in this framework when one resource is needed by multiple people at the same time?

Hal writes well today on what TOC calls "Resources in Contention." In our company, one of our RIC's has a name; he's called Loren. Loren is a highly talented civil engineer who works closely with our sales force to do all the structural analysis of building solutions we propose to customers. Because he is so good, his days are punctuated with phone requests to "just do this little favor, I have a customer sitting right here." In so doing, some other "urgent" request is not worked on. Loren has to ramp up on the new project, do that work, then go back to the previous job and re-ramp up on it. We only have one Loren.

We are so used to such multi-tasking that we often don't see it. Enter TOC and Lean. Both systems of thought treat single piece flow as a fundamental. Start one task, finish it. Start the next task, finish it. Nothing new here, yet none of us seem to do it well. Why? Because there is a paradigm constraint, an unwritten rule that says "I'll satisfy every customer at the moment he/she asks."

The key? Making work ready for Loren to work on it. We have instituted standards for him to work on a request. No specs for the loading of a roof?? No truss analysis. Wow. That's a shock to the system of those who were used to calling and letting Loren work on unclear requests. But it is vital. If we have a true constraint then there must be a queue of ready work in front of him.

The foolishness of thinking otherwise was recently parodied in Dilbert. We laugh because we know it is so true.

Seeing a RIC as a paradigm constraint, rather than just "life is like this" allows us to make inroads to a solution. It allows us Loren to say to a salesman "I will deliver the estimate to you in two days, but I can't look at it until then." Calling it an unwritten rule allows us to talk about why that rule is there and why we think we want it to be there. Calling it for what it is allows us to speak openly about the hidden assumptions than sit underneath our actions.

Frank states well today that a good response of the RIC is "What DON'T you want me to work on?" Single piece flow demands that type of conversation and managerial support.

We hope this is helpful. Check out Hal and Frank for their views as well. Email me with your comments.

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Monday, April 14, 2003

Down 'n Dirty with the Theory of Constraints -- Day 2

We continue in collaboration on Theory of Constraints with Hal Macomber and Frank Patrick. Yesterday, we talked about physical constraints. We expand the understanding of constraints today.

One of the little-known but most useful aspects of TOC is a differentiation between physical, policy and paradigm constraints. Hal's post today is a marvelous example of how a construction elevator on a multi-story building project could be a physical constraint, whereas it's use patterns could also be policy and paradigm constraints.

Policy constraints are almost always harder to see than physical constraints. They are also far cheaper to fix, usually requiring very little capital. How do you find a policy constraint? Ask questions, challenge assumptions. Use the well-known Lean tool of "5 Whys". I illustrate with a simple example from a vendor discussion we had last week.

We were working with a vendor to eliminate many transaction costs and lower prices. The vendor asked us, somewhat gingerly, our opinion on the packaging of one type of fastener. All of their other customers received this fastener in plastic bags of 250 pieces. However, the vendor shipped it to us in bags of 500 pieces. The vendor asked, gently, "Is there any way we could go to 250 piece packages for FBi as well??"

My two purchasing department colleagues and I sat back and asked ourselves sheepishly "Gee, just why DO we get these in packages of 500?" As we talked, the best reason we could come up with was to say "tradition." (Cue the sound track from "Fiddler on the Roof" here... ) We then just broke out laughing. There was no good reason at all not to switch to packages of 250. We gave the much-relieved vendor rep the OK to implement this immediately.

This is an example a policy constraint. Our stated (yet poorly considered) request for packages of 500 was raising costs for the vendor. And, of course, we paid for that higher cost. By seeing that policy problem as a limiting factor towards the goal of lower cost, we could remove it. It cost us nothing. It will help, almost instantly.

Policy constraints (stated rules) and paradigm constraints (unstated rules) only come to light when you ask questions. "Now, tell me again, just why do we do this in this way?" I have found Goldratt's Evaporating Cloud to be a marvelous way to get to both policy and paradigm constraints. Read a paper Frank wrote about evaporating clouds to learn more about this tool.

But, whatever you do, have the guts to ask "why do we do this" today about one step of a process. It is the start of any improvement journey.

We hope this series is helpful.

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Sunday, April 13, 2003

Exploring the Theory of Constraints

Join me in an experiment in thought and learning this week. Two neat guys, Frank Patrick and Hal Macomber, write blogs like this and the three of us are collaborating with posts on the same topic this week. We encourage you to check out all three posts and I'd really like to know what you think.

The topic? The Theory of Constraints. TOC was articulated by Eli Goldratt in The Goal. In short, TOC says that there is a single limiting factor in any process or product. Think of a lane constriction on a freeway; by itself, it throttles the flow of traffic. To increase the flow of traffic, you don't make cars go faster. You have to remove the constriction.

Hal's post today summarizes TOC very well. Frank's post gives a good overview of a project's constraints and an excellent description of the layers of thought to speed a project to completion. These guys write well and explain well.

The question remains: why do I chose to write about TOC in a blog on Lean? Doesn't this confuse the issue? Does this pollute an understanding of Lean? My view is fully summed up as:

TOC tells you where to improve. Lean tells you how to improve.

I explain. For any lean application to be effective, our limited human and financial resources must be used effectively. If not, one ends up with what Jim Womack, author of Lean Thinking often refers to as "Islands of Lean in an ocean of waste." I have found that TOC does the best job of leading me to the points of a project or a process to which we must improve. Once there, Lean tools are the easiest to then actually improve it.

Some Lean folks seem to have a difficulty, politically or practically, utilizing TOC viewpoints. I don't know why, but I sense this in the Lean community. Maybe I'm way off base, but considering both is no problem for me. Part of the issue, I believe, is that TOC is pretty cerebral. Goldratt believes at the core of his being that management can be approached from a scientific framework. As such, it feels too academic for some. I have a hard time teaching it in a way that others successfully grasp. Constast this with Lean, an intensely hands on and practical paradigm for improvement. I find that teaching about removing waste to be much easier to get across. But in my mind, both are very critical and the combination is the most phenomenal way to approach improvement.

In my view, TOC informs a process from the top down, Lean informs from the bottom up. They meet very neatly in the middle.

Stay tuned for a full week of collaborative learning. Let me know if it is a better way to learn about TOC! We hope this is helpful.

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Saturday, April 12, 2003

An Experiment in Learning

In the coming week, I’m devoting this weblog to an experiment in learning, collaborating and understanding systems. I hope you’ll stay with me for it!

Two guys whom I deeply respect invited me to join them as the three of us will write all next week about the Theory of Constraints (TOC). Hal Macomber is a friend and a leading thinker on the application of TOC and Lean to project management, such as one encounters in a large construction project or in producing quality software. Frank Patrick is one of the deepest thinkers I know on TOC and will lend his considerable understanding of constraints to the effort. I’ll chip in with my observations of how TOC and Lean interact. I’ve thought a lot about this in studying both streams of though for a number of years.

Each of us has our own weblog and this is an experiment to see if collaboration on one topic from three views is helpful to those who read our musings. Thus, I’d really appreciate your feedback on whether our writing helps or muddies your understanding of systems.

For you who subscribe to "Learning About Lean", it appears that Bloglet is now up and running again. I hope it stays up for the week. Frank and Hal both have Bloglet links on their sites, so if you want to get all three postings each day in a single email, pop in to their websites and add your email address to their Bloglet sign up. If not, there will be clear links each day.

I’m really honored to write with these two solid thinkers. I hope you find the exercise helpful.

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Friday, April 11, 2003

Batch Perspectives Die Hard

Had a question yesterday for a supplier. Some technical info we needed. I had expected it earlier in the week, didn't get it, so emailed requesting it.

The reply came, with the needed information. Then a line that said "We wanted to send the updated info to everyone at the same time." Huh?

The supplier wanted to batch the information distribution. Had it been a piece of common information, such as pricing updates, in which it was crucial that all customers got the same information at the same time, it would make sense. However, this was purely a technical update, specific to our situation. It made no difference to me when or if anyone else got the info. But we needed our data!!! I would have waited another week had I not asked, when, in fact, it was ready, right now, for me. And, it was distributed with a simple email, "Parameter XXX should be set for YYY."

The reason? Nothing malicious. The supplier, without thinking deeply about customer value, felt it would be more "efficient" to batch specific information to all parties at once. This simply reflects our innate, perhaps genetic, tendency to batch.

Flow is a learned response. So, if it is tough for you, relax. Try to focus on it and keep learning it. As you see it, you will grasp it more and more clearly. Today, see if you can resist a batch tendency. For example, instead of emptying the entire dishwasher onto the counter top and then putting it all away, take the coffee cups directly to their place in the cupboard. No "work in process." Instead of addressing all the envelopes at once, put one letter into the envelope, address it, stamp it and put it out for mailing. Once you see it, you'll find many examples daily.

Even in supplier correspondence.

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

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Wiremold Leads the Pack

Last week, my friend, Mary Pat Cooper of Wiremold was our guest speaker at the Lean Network of Wabash Valley (sorry, no web site for our volunteer-run group!). About 50 of us from manufacturers in an eight-county area were fascinated by her summary of 16 years of Lean experience at Wiremold. Some of the highlights:
  • They started small, with, literally, one single cell making surge suppressors. Mary Pat organized it, literally hidden behind 16 foot high stacks of inventory. When the rest of the plant was falling apart, they used pull and flow to keep making suppressors, to order, in lightening-fast speed. With no expediting. That caused others to watch and seek to emulate.
  • They used "pull" to introduce Lean as others wanted to figure out how they too could make quality product with no hassles.
  • They used standard methods to run both their production process and their change process. Habits are hard to set. They have a method and stay with it.
  • They constantly changed which seems to be an oxymoron. But it is a characteristic of Lean applications. If you haven't read the crucial article on Lean in HBR (note: a $6.00 download fee is well worth it, read the abstract for free), you will note that all good Lean systems are simultaneously rigid and flexible. Wiremold is so as well.
I'm grateful for the openness of Wiremold. They welcomed me to a week-long kaizen event last summer and the relationships continue. They are a true leader and have figured out how to thrive in the brutal business environment we are in. Look for information about them on the web. One of the best is this interview with Art Byrne, their president throughout most of their transformation.

I hope this is helpful.
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Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Wow, that was Fast!

About 5:30pm yesterday afternoon, I made a quick check of Hal Macomber's blog and noted the following paragraph.

In chapter seven, "Muda (waste), Service, and Flow", the authors paraphrase Jim Womack's and Dan Jones' book Lean Thinking. These are some of the best 19 pages on lean thinking that you will find. If you don't buy the book, at least read the chapter over a cup of latte at Barnes and Noble.

I went to the "best 19 pages," scanned it and was impressed, so I printed it off to read later that evening. A few minutes later, at 5:45pm, my colleage Ken stopped by with a vendor who had his flight delayed by the rotten weather we've had this week in the midwest. We got talking about how he was trying to help his large lumber mill employer understand the benefits of targeting customer value rather than simply getting the most boards out of logs. "You know what, I've got an article you might enjoy on the flight home tomorrow," and I handed him the 19 pages, literally still warm from the printer.

My point? One, it works well to network, learn and share. Two, many people, like my new lumber-selling acquaintence, see that the only way to make money in this price-lowering economy is to eliminate waste, with waste being defined by the customer! Thus, he was anxious to learn and I had a tool to help him. Thanks to Hal and his alert reader Claude, who put the link together.

Yes, I got home late, again, but it was a very fruitful discussion. Check out the 19 pages for yourself. Then, see if you can pass it on to someone else in the next two days.

I hope this is helpful.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Training for Lean

Over the past several days, I’ve been reminded of how people learn Lean systems. This has occurred in the context of reviewing how we document the simple changes that bring about local improvements. Here’s the summary of each of the events. I’ve used as our model for this the simple system Norm Bodek put forward in his fine book “The Idea Generator.”

One colleague saw what a couple of departments had done but didn’t grasp the scope of what a “local change” would be. Rather than describe the theory of local change and how it relates to strategic change (which it does), I walked him to the two departments practicing this system. We stood and read a sampling of the documentation of the improvements. He started to nod, knowingly.

A second colleague had tried to document changes but misunderstood the form we were using. As he explained this to me, it hit us both that simply changing the wording on the form would help a lot. In 5 minutes, we had found the master copy, modified the language, reprinted the blank forms and replaced the old ones in our form rack. It seemed to make sense.

A third colleague had participated in a kaizen event (which we call a “blitz”) earlier in the week. He then saw a neat opportunity in his area to cut the packaging materials we use in one process in half. He just went ahead and experimented with it, reviewed it with the internal customers, got their buy-in and stopped in to tell me about it. I got pretty excited and asked him to simply document what he had already done. He saw how that would help solidify the change.

All of these happened in consecutive days. I didn’t conspire to do this training, it just “happened.” I realized, though, that the training happened in the context of making improvement. Not in a sterile training exercise. Hal Macomber introduced us to the term “elbow-to-elbow” training. It is a great term, in that effective training happens when one can literally touch elbows with the other person. And, it happened spontaneously. The learner was ready to learn.

I am increasingly convinced that these moments happen far more frequently than we detect. I’m trying to sense it more clearly. I hope you can do the same.

I hope this is helpful.

Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Just Why Do We Eliminate Waste, Anyway?

What Price Cool?
Last week, my colleague Glen followed me into the parking lot one morning and told me my driver’s side brake light was out. So, a quick outing to the neighborhood auto parts store went on last Saturday's to-do list.

A mid-day outing took me to the auto electrical aisle today. I quickly found the required brake lamp and was reaching for it when my eyes jumped out at the blister card next to it. You see, I have endlessly bored my family and others doomed to take a car rides with me over the past couple of years with my fascination by the new class of LED brake lights and turn signals. You see them on cars and big rigs and can tell them because they turn on and off very precisely and crisply. Very different than the normal rise and fall times of light from a conventional incandescent lamp. OK, OK, maybe you haven’t noticed these things...but to this Purdue engineer, the LED signals look very, very cool.

And, this afternoon, in aisle 6, coolness appeared before my very eyes. On a blister card right next to the lamp I was reaching for was a plug-in compatible, simple-to-install LED brake light for my own car!! Opportunity knocked in my quest to be cool! All I had to do was put it into the brake light socket waiting for me in my garage! Only then did I look at the price of this coolness.

A pair of normal, dull, ordinary brake lamps was $3.00. A pair of cool LED brake lamps were $17.00. Whoa. Just how badly did I want to be cool?

What Price the Competition?

My wife and I went to a new, large home-improvement center Saturday to purchase material for a back-yard project. While in the checkout line, I spotted a sign that piqued my interest.

This store offered post-frame building packages, a virtually identical product to that which we produce. And, they did it in a self-service mode. A well-packaged touch-screen display allowed the user to configure a post-frame building to his/her exact size and shape. I walked up to the screen, started tapping and in about four minutes had a basic building designed. When I was done, the computer gave me a price for the materials.

I did some quick math to compare it with our pricing for a similar building.

Joe, please, what’s the point of all this?
To answer the question I posed at the top.

We eliminate waste to lower the price to the end user. Period.

Lean is about cutting out waste which adds no value to the end user. In so doing, we seek to deliver a product to the end user at a price that is lower than our competition.

It is tempting to think that the end of a Lean system is to have good documentation or good metrics or simple ways to move materials or low inventory or clean workplaces or good communication or single piece flow or no rework. Each of these are necessary. But in the end, only one things matters.

For me to buy those cool LED brake lights, the vendors are going to have to get the price down. I’d pay double to be cool, but not six times as much.

The customers of our company will ask, legitimately, how does your price compare to the one I punched up myself at the store? If we can’t deliver them a package for less than what they see there, they’ll buy it there.

It all comes down to price. Let’s never forget that.

I hope this is helpful.

Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me