Monday, December 01, 2003

Wisdom from a Lean Veteran

This morning on the Northwest Lean Listserve, my friend Mary Pat Cooper posted a very incisive post, which I want to pass along. She wrote the following in response to a question posed by another reader; "What's in it for me to pursue a Lean strategy?"

Mary Pat's 20 years of Lean experience at Wiremold and passion for people jumps out of this. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And, you go apply some this deeply held and well-learned wisdom!

Dear Jeff,

What's in it for me? Your question is inspiring. I will try to limit my
comments to these 4 themes:

1. Creating a crisis...
2. What you learn to achieve, no one can take away.
3. Improving work working life is improving the quality of our lives.
4. If it ain't broke, fix it till it is.

1. There is a crisis - we just can't see it. Our assumptions about the
stability of our jobs, our work environment, and our own expertise are
all pure fantasy. No one knows what the future holds. We do know that if
we learn how to learn quickly, we can adapt faster than the next guy.
That's basic science, survival of the fittest (which, if you really
think about it, is really survival of the most adaptable...) Waiting
until the doors are closed and the facility is consolidated into
something else will be too late to do anything other than film another
chapter of "Roger and Me..."

2. There is a powerful speech made by the protagonist as he runs for
president in the book "Primary Colors." When challenged to promise job
security, his passionate answer is that our basis of competition rests
in what we put between our ears. Job security is a moving target. You
may not be able to control which base is closed, but you can add to the
employability of your skills.

3. During the weekday most of us spend at least 8 hours at our jobs,
another hour or two in the commute, and another 2 or 3 hours chasing
after the required errands of our lives. Maybe 8 hours asleep. That
leaves 3 or so hours for "enjoyment." We would not expect to "enjoy"
work - that's why they call it work, isn't it? How could anyone enjoy
working all day around stupid processes in a slop heap of wasted time
and energy? Work is a bitter, dirty, junkyard of busted dreams filled
with grey-faced sleepwalkers with a scattering of posers climbing
towards the corporate Olympus over the backs of everybody else.

What a horrible picture! Why do we accept it so readily? Why do we
keep ourselves separate and cynical, never expecting anything more?

Watching successful teams is a multi-billion dollar entertainment
industry. Groups of people overcoming outrageous odds are the highlight
of the human condition. Think about how fun it would be to be a part of
a great team. Learning how to continuously improve a work situation
under difficult circumstances is a high, as natural and as addicting as
physical exercise. You do it once well enough to make a real difference
and you get hooked for life.

4. I saw this bumper sticker on the back of a pickup truck; I think it
was a government service vehicle of some sort. "If it ain't broke, fix
it till it is." I'm sure that it was meant as a cynical dig at the
bumptious, ambitious, crop after crop of program-promoting dimwits that
wear out the "working stiffs" with their endless management fads of the
month. But riding along in traffic behind this pickup, I realized that
this is exactly what we must do to survive. How else can we break
through mediocrity and sustain front-running performance?

Wasted work creates its own false reality. High inventory hides the
waste of bad quality, poor planning, inept equipment and busted
processes, making everything seem just fine. Long lead times, ridiculous
layouts, computer complexities and stacks of paperwork grow illusions of
importance and security; of course we are so badly needed to deal with
this stuff because no one else can! We are trapped in our assumption
that the recipients of our goods and services must be satisfied, because
they keep coming back. Therefore, it "ain't broke, so don't fix it."

But our customers only come back until they can find satisfaction
somewhere else. We are trapped until we "break it", or "break out of it"
or have it broken by someone else who has figured out a better way
before we have.

What's in it for me? What's not?! Thank you for the inspiring
question, Jeff. Best of luck.


Marypat Cooper
Brooks Electronics Division of the Wiremold Company
Philadelphia, PA

I hope this is helpful. Thanks, so much Mary Pat.

Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

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