Friday, May 30, 2003

Why Have Visuals If You Don’t Take Action?

I’ve seen several examples the last few days of good visual management tools being rendered ineffective by one simple thing; a lack of attention.

Why does an airline pilot have an altimeter? An airspeed indicator? A compass? Do the passengers want to know how high they are or their direction? Do they care? Have you ever been on a flight with a chatty pilot who keeps coming on and giving you all sorts of data? Does it help? No. It just disturbs your sleep or reading or enjoyment of the stale peanuts.

The passenger wants to get to the destination safely and on time. How high the flight, the exact course, the precise airspeed; all are irrelevant to the passenger. Safety and arrival time are fully relevant.

So, it is not these gauges that the passenger cares about. Rather, it is the actions the pilot takes in response to those gauges that the passenger cares passionately about. The data adds no value…the actions are full of value.

To my point: Strong visual measurement tools, be they painted lines for machine location or a plan vs. actual whiteboard, are irrelevant of themselves. Value is created only when those viewing them take action to bring them into line with expectations.

Why do we tolerate visual tools that are not acted on? Why have meaningless numbers posted? Worse, why have relevant numbers that create no sense of comfort (if they show the plane to be on course) or corrective action (if they show the plane off course)? Why would a lean leader ignore or be blind to clear visual indicators?

I’m getting less tolerant…perhaps my rant will help you be less tolerant as well. Take some action on your gauges today.

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

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Keeping Project Focus – Management Intent

I've been reading a fascinating biography of Dwight Eisenhower over the past month or so. One of the most telling observations is the criticality of a clear strategy to success.

Thinking about how this might apply in a Lean setting, I phoned my nephew a couple weeks ago. Brian now works for a well-known pharmeceutical firm in Indianapolis, but spent 11 years as a Marine officer, serving in Desert Storm and Somalia. I asked him "How did you guys communicate strategy in the Marines?"

He immediately replied "It's called 'Commander's Intent'." He explained.

  1. For any mission, the commander draws up a (preferably) one sentence, plain English statement of the outcome desired for the mission.
  2. As the start of each briefing, first thing, they read the Commander's Intent. Literally.
  3. The reason for this, Brian explained, is to overcome "The Fog of War." During the course of any mission, unexpected things happen. Communications break down. Unexpected problems come up. However, if individual units/soldiers have a grasp of "Commander's Intent," the likelihood that they will still make good decisions that lead toward the objective is vastly increased.
  4. This plan only developed in the early 80s. There was no such thing during Vietnam, as planning was so very centralized that operations were hopelessly hamstrung. Commander's Intent is a reaction to that overly centralized control and puts far more decision-making ability into field units. It (gasp) exhibits trust in people.
  5. Brian told me he learned from a crusty, veteran Colonel the best way to write a Commander's Intent is to picture yourself with a bunch of direct reports and precede the statement with "OK, guys, here's the deal..." And everything that follows is Commander's Intent.
Interestingly, if you do a Google search for "commander's intent" you'll see a lot of stuff. Good examples include "Less is Better" and an example of it's effective application. Other links show a long-winded intent and a vague, high-level statement. It isn't easy writing one, we discovered. Brian's recollection of the Colonel's input helped us. "What's the Deal?" Answer it...that's the intent.

This discussion with Brian really got my brain going. Any project has the same "Fog" that happens. Uncertainty is certain. So, does this apply?

Over the past two weeks, we’ve worked up what we have come to call a “Management Intent” statement. A one sentence, plain English, outcome based statement of where we need to go in the near term. We've started using it at the start of all meetings. I've been amazed so far. Folks have really appreciated the clarity and can immediately see where and how it fits in their area.

Hal Macomber has written well about this recently. His work deserves your attention.

Will it work? I dunno. But I do know that business gets every bit as “foggy” as many battle situations.

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

Monday, May 26, 2003

"Who’s Counting?" A Brief Review

I mentioned recently a new book, Who's Counting? A Lean Accounting Business Novel. I got it read over the weekend and it is a very solid addition to the Lean literature. I offer some summary thoughts here.
  • It is a pleasurable read. Jerry clearly is influenced by Eli Goldratt’s novel style in "The Goal" and follow on books. He does better than most in making it believable. The book centers on the on-going tension between Mike, a Lean implementor and Fred, the CFO of the publicly traded corporation for which they both work. . This format makes a painfully dry subject (accounting conventions) into a very readable book.
  • It covers Lean Accounting... The book delivers a solid overview of it’s purpose. How does one keep track of costs in a high-flow, minimal waste environment? In particular, how does one calculate product cost? Where does direct labor, local overhead and company overhead fit? What is the problem with absorption costing? Why do we uncritically accept full-absorption costing? How does one get consistent external financial statements while also producing lean internal controls? What adjustments are needed? These topics are well covered.
  • ... but it really covers Lean Implementing This was my biggest surprise and a very positive one at that. This book portrays the very real difficulties in getting a Lean system started. It captures the real anger, personal problems, long hours and human barriers. It covers, from a Board level to a shop level the hurdles, both technical and human. Someone interested solely in implementing Lean could read this, skip the few parts that are especially technical on accounting and get a very accurate feel for what it takes to implement a Lean system.
Jerry has made a very good contribution to the Lean community. I recommend the book highly.

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Friday, May 23, 2003

Womack and Jones, part 2

Some emails are more useful than others. Exhibit A was a bulk message today from Jim Womack and Dan Jones on the publication of a second edition of “Lean Thinking” (currently just available at Lean Enterprise Institute web site).

In their summary reflections on what they’ve learned about Lean in the seven years since the first edition came out, they include the following in today's email:

Find A Change Agent: We hope this person is you or that you are lucky enough to work for one. However, we've discovered that there are really two roles involved in creating permanent change: pushing the old ways aside and firmly installing the new way as a business system. In the most successful implementations we've observed, the visible Change Agent was assisted by a system builder - sometimes behind the scenes - who methodically put all the elements of organization and method in place so the new system continued to improve even after the Change Agent moved on. In the absence of the System Builder, results often last only as long as the Change Agent is in charge.
This really intrigues me. It says there are likely at least two different skill sets required in a lean transformation. One to shake things up, the other to re-solidify the mess in a sustainable lean system.
Utilize Policy Deployment: We have found this step the hardest to master even in our own non-profit organizations. And we've also found that a failure to rigorously define and deploy policy at the outset has been the root cause of every failed initiative. Our conclusion is that this truly the key heavy-lifting job for the CEO and that it never gets easier as long as an organization is traveling through a changing market (which surely defines the path we all must follow.) At the same time, we've found that the plans so laboriously developed in the deployment exercise are soon in need of modification. As a senior Toyota executive once pointed out, "Planning [in the form of policy deployment] is invaluable but the actual plans are soon worthless." His point was that the real gain from the rigorous process is that every part of the organization is forced to become aware of the effect of its own actions on every other part so that unworkable projects are deselected at the outset and all approved projects are developed with a viewpoint for the whole organization.
I missed this point entirely in my earlier readings of the book. I learned it, however, as Wiremold graciously allowed me to be part of their Lean efforts. It is a deeply profound concept, as even Womack and Jones acknowledge above. It is the compass, however, that orients potentially scattered lean efforts into a business breakthrough effort.
Events since the launch of Lean Thinking amply confirm our long-held view that managers will try anything easy that doesn't work before they will try anything hard that does. The good news is that the disasters of recent years in pursuing worthless easy things have prepared all of us to tackle the one hard thing (lean thinking) that always works.
Ouch. But true. Business conditions force us, as never before, to eliminate waste to survive.

If you’ve never read “Lean Thinking”, please do so. If you’ve read it, join me in ordering the second edition. I look forward to the added material.

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

Thursday, May 22, 2003

Just where does change happen?

Late this afternoon, I encountered my colleague Dave at the Coke machine. I paraphrase the conversation.

Dave: Well, you’re looking rather casual today in your jeans and work shoes.

Joe: Yeah, we had a kaizen event today. Out in our parts warehouse. .

D: Now that’s interesting. I just got back from a job site [about 60 miles away].

J: So what was up on that site?

D: I heard we had some material problems on Job X. Since I did the take off on those materials, I figured I’d better get on site and see what I could learn. What did you do?

J: We had three folks from a vendor in. We wanted to see if we could improve our packaging of the material we buy from them. We store all the material in the we stood there and looked at it.

D: Hmmmm. I did kinda the same. I got on the site and saw the customer and two of our key people talking. I just joined them and listened and looked. By being there, it struck me what the problem was. I talked with our folks on the site about it and it seemed plausible. Then, on the way back, I stopped by the [different] vendor who could help solve the problem. I hung out in his shop. We’ll get the parts Tuesday.

J: Now that’s really interesting. With our vendors, we didn’t get any real progress until we did a mock-up, in the shop, of the packaging improvement we were thinking about. And when the ideas hit, the solution was way better than we imagined it could be.

I don’t understand everything I can observe. But, time and time again, I observe that good things happen when problems are discussed in the physical place where they occur. Not in an office. In the workplace. Good things happen when ideas are sketched, not just talked about. Even better things happen when they are mocked up and prototyped. One idea triggers another and solutions begin to happen. Why? I’m not totally sure. But, in Lean language, it is called "going to gemba," Japanese for "workplace."

It is in the workplace that change happens. Dave and I saw it today. Take a walk to your workplace today. Please.

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

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Challenging Assumptions

Friday, I met with my colleagues, Al and Ken, to solve a perplexing problem. One of our staff had proposed a terrific idea to improve our buildings’ value by modifying a commonly-used component. It was compelling, logical, brilliant. Yet, there was one fundamental problem that prevented us from implementing it. Also compelling, logical. And prohibitive. We had a dilemma. We could not do both.

After a brief review of the situation, I suggested we each list the assumptions we made about this seeming impasse.

One stated assumption triggered another, and then another. Amazingly, in a matter of 20 minutes we had a totally new take on the proposal. The logjam broke. We documented how the new plan would work. The finances worked. The engineering worked. The implementation appeared to be straight forward. We each took on a couple of tasks to validate the proposal. And we split. A total of 35 minutes after we sat down.

Why did this work? I mulled it all weekend and a few ideas came to me.

  1. We faced the dilemma head on. We didn’t dance around it. We called it for what it was.
  2. We focused primarily on the end result, about which we agreed.
  3. We used “and” rather than “but”. We used language which, literally, said, “We must do this AND we must not violate the other concern.”
  4. We avoided a win/lose situation; Compromise was not an option. Rather, both concerns had to be satisfied.
  5. We operated in a culture of respect. Nothing kills a discussion faster than the implied statement “Well, if you weren’t such a jerk, you’d agree with me. Fatso.”
  6. We stated, in specific words, our assumptions. All of the above led us to be open about what was sitting under each of our statements. Some were very valid; some were downright silly. A good laugh helped.
And so, by doing this, we got to a very new solution, very quickly. It was astounding.

I encourage you to identify dilemmas and see if you can’t practice this yourself. I’d appreciate your observations.

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

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Flow, or lack thereof

My colleague Dave, an insightful and deep thinker, noted for me today "We cannot achieve flow unless we are willing to clarify our processes."

He’s right on the money. And, try putting the statement in reverse: the measure to which we achieve flow allows a well-grounded assessment of process clarity. When flow stops, the root cause is often in clarity of the process. I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know who gets this. I don’t know how “good” is “good.”

Disruption of flow may be the best thing that could happen to you. It may well drive clarity for you in a brand new way.

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

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Taking Effective Action

Perhaps great minds run in similar channels or maybe it is just coincidence. But when I read Hal Macomber's blog entry yesterday, it resonated with what I posted yesterday as well. No collaboration here, just a similar set of thoughts, put up about an hour apart from each other.

Hal quotes a terrific article from Business 2.0, urging us to stop talking and start doing. Mary Pat Cooper urges us to realize that "10 minutes of doing is worth 10 hours of talking."

I'll quit talking and let you and me start doing. I hope this is helpful.

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Monday, May 12, 2003

Generating Ideas

My friend MaryPat Cooper is a leader in implementing Lean. She has been a key leader at Wiremold, one of the Leanest of the Lean companies in the US. She's a lead reviewer in the new book Who's Counting? A Lean Accounting Business Novel. (I just got the book from Amazon today and have scanned it...written in a style like "The Goal". I'll review it here once I get through it.) She also is the first person thanked in the author's intro. Yeah, she gets it.

So, when Mary Pat speaks, I listen. Last week, she posted a great summary of how to come up with new ideas on the NWLEAN Discussion Group. You can read her entire post. Here's the part I want to highlight, though:

There are lots of flavors of this approach - "moonshining/trystorming" "3P -production preparation process" - for products, for processes - ranging from very formal and institutionalized to down/dirty/quick&simple - but they share these attributes:


Trying it in cardboard is better than trying to predict it in steel.

Customer (internal and external) Criteria is paramount and must be clear and measured and expressed in company targets at the outset.

You can team up and come up with 10 ideas that fail and one that succeeds FASTER than you can engineer one project.

It is team based with constant reviews with leaders, leaders who challenge the team to "go back to the drawing board" over and over and over again WITH JOY! ! ! Joy because there is so little time, trouble and money invested in the idea development stages.

It is easily understood and highly successful in those companies that practice it in the spirit of kaizen teamwork, leadership commitment and continuous improvement (TOYOTA, BOEING, HON, name a few...)

If you really want to get into new ideas, follow the links from Frank Patrick's recent post on the topic of new ideas.

I have to work hard to stay out of a rut. I'm guessing you do too. I hope this is helpful for "derutting" yourself.

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Saturday, May 10, 2003

So, is this what "Lean" means??

Walking through the local mall this afternoon, I noted a kiosk selling "Fat Predator", advertised as "the pill the burns fat while you sleep." Lean Thinking? Lean Sleeping? I dunno.

I then observed that the sales person at the kiosk was considerably overweight. Hmmmmm......

I took a pass and went for a long walk when I got home.

Keep smiling...there are not short cuts to "Lean", in either the physical or business realms!!

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Two Hectic Weeks

The past fortnight has been a whirlwind, packed with professional and personal activities beyond the norm of even 21st century busy-ness. As such, I have had precious little time to reflect and even less to post observations on this site.

But, I’m still here and thriving!! Stay tuned. Thanks for your interest.

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