Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Delivering Humor, with Value

I have tried recently to describe Lean in various ways. I found a new one today in our local paper.

In the many stories about the legendary Bob Hope following his recent death came this quote from Sherwood Schwartz, a long-time writer for Hope.

You knew that if you wrote a joke for Bob, you had to knock our every word that didn’t count. Generally, it had to be a line and a half on a typewriter. If it was three lines, forget it; it took too long to set up. So you learned to respect language."
Wow! What a description of focusing on delivering value!! Hope knew his forte was rapid-fire, one-line gags. I always thought he was just good at it. I was wrong. He worked at it. He understood his craft and honed it, to the point of making sure every single word delivered value to his customers, or in his case, laughs to his audience.

I ask myself (and you) "Do I know my craft that well? Can I clean out all the unneeded fluff? Can I get to value quickly? " I'm not sure how well I measure up.

I hope this is helpful. And thanks for the memories. Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

Monday, July 28, 2003

More on Trust in NYC

Following on the story of Ralph, I asked my daughter-in-law, Susan Ely, to comment. She’s an Industrial Engineer and has spent most of her life in and around New York City. Susan shares some keen insight on processes in the City.
After working about 5 years in the city, I never once saw what he described. The closest I saw was someone who had a pile of quarters on the counter that he would quickly push to you to make change. (I thought it weird that he left money on the counter with his back turned – a no-no in NYC.)

Again, throughput in a situation that makes use of all party members instead of just one would logically increase. Here, he is not only showing trust, but for a moment, each customer is actually participating in the "service" part of the supply chain rather than simply waiting for their change while standing and doing nothing. As the vendor is showing respect, the consumer appreciates that and misses the fact that they are free labor. However, the cost associated with time (as their service time is reduced by taking part) is definitely worth the several seconds spent "working".

What I see much more frequently in these carts is having two employees work the cart. One person handles all customer interaction (money transactions, taking the orders, etc) while the other person processes each order. Here again we see increased throughput, but the cost is whatever this helper person gets paid.

In the case you noted, the cost of increased throughput is whatever small loss he experiences due to dishonesty or bad math. I'm sure that total is much less than what the "helper" individual is paid. All for the same results.

As a person with no reports, I often optimize on resources that technically are not at my disposal. (As the cart person does with his customer.) How do I continue to cash in on "favors" and such? By being pleasant, respectful, and grateful for their help. Much like the cart guy.

Just like everyone is taught in management 101 - treat your people with respect and they will not only respect you, but work harder for you as well.

Thanks, Susan, for your perspective, as a veteran New Yorker. Your Management 101 reminder is most appropriate.

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

Friday, July 25, 2003

Trust your Customers

I had a couple of wonderful responses to yesterday’s blog on Trust. Karen Wilhelm, Web Editor for the Society of Manufacturing Engineers sent me this great story, which I use with her permission.

The donut story reminded me of when I used to work for Fred Ruffner, founder of Gale Research, now the Gale Group. At the time, Gale was primarily a publisher of reference books for libraries. Our customer service people had standing instructions
  • If a librarian complained about a book, the rep cancelled the invoice and the librarian kept the book.
  • If a librarian complained about service, and we'd made an obvious mistake, the rep would send the librarian a free book with an apology.
Sometimes when there was a series spin-off (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism spun off from Twentieth Century Literary Criticism) he would send the first volume of the NCLC to the TCLC subscribers, to be returned if the librarian didn't want to subscribe. If a librarian complained about being sent the new book, the rep cancelled the invoice and the librarian kept the book.

Did he lose money? Not much.

Did he create loyal customers? Yes.

Did he set the company up to be taken advantage of? If someone started abusing the policy, wouldn't our reps recognize that it was always the same library with complaints? Sure.

Another thing he did was to provide free bus service to the American Library Association's annual conference, which was usually held in the summer. That really earned the gratitude of footsore librarians.

He built the company from a kitchen table operation to a company he sold to Thomson for $60-some million 40 years later.

Trust is so crucial. Our actions, not our words, let others know it is there. Thanks Karen for the great story. I’ll share another one from the streets of NYC on Monday.

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

Thursday, July 24, 2003

On Trust and its Benefits

This is one of the neatest stories I've seen in a while. It comes from Jason Kottke, (and my thanks to my pal Frank Patrick for the heads up on this).

"Next!" said the coffee & donut man (who I'll refer to as "Ralph") from his tiny silver shop-on-wheels, one of many that dot Manhattan on weekday mornings. I stepped up to the window, ordered a glazed donut (75 cents), and when he handed it to me, handed a dollar bill back through the window. Ralph motioned to the pile of change scattered on the counter and hurried on to the next customer, yelling "Next!" over my shoulder. I put the bill down and grabbed a quarter from the pile.

Maybe this situation is typical of Manhattan coffee & donut carts (although two carts near where I work don't do this), but this was the first business establishment I've ever been to that lets its customers make their own change. Intrigued, I walked a few steps away and turned around to watch the interaction between this business and its customers. For five minutes, everyone either threw down exact change or made their own change without any notice from Ralph; he was just too busy pouring coffee or retrieving crullers to pay any attention to the money situation. ...

Ralph probably does lose a little bit of change each day to theft & bad math, but more than makes up for it in other ways. The throughput of that tiny stand is amazing. For comparison's sake, I staked out two nearby donut & coffee stands and their time spent per customer was almost double that of Ralph's stand. So, Ralph's doing roughly twice the business with the same resources. Let's see Citibank do that.

It's also apparent that Ralph trusts his customers, and that they both appreciate and return that sense of trust (I know I do). Trust is one of the most difficult "assets" for companies to acquire, but also one of the most valuable. Many companies take shortcuts in getting their customers to trust them, paying lip service to Trust™ in press releases and marketing brochures. Which works, temporarily and superficially, but when you get down to it, you can't market trust...it needs to be earned. People trust you when you trust them.

When an environment of trust is created, good things start happening. Ralph can serve twice as many customers. People get their coffee in half the time. Due to this time savings, people become regulars. Regulars provide Ralph's business with stability, a good reputation, and with customers who have an interest in making correct change (to keep the line moving and keep Ralph in business). Lots of customers who make correct change increase Ralph's profit margin. Etc. Etc.

And what did Ralph have to pay for all this? A bit of change here and there.

I'm not quite sure why this moves me. But I think it is in the blasting of a typical way of doing things. By NOT worrying about exact change, Ralph doubled his throughput and, more importantly, he served his customers better. Even more, he did this in the meanest of places...a Manhattan street corner. Surely we can do as well inside our companies.

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

Friday, July 18, 2003

Trystorming vs. Brainstorming

In a meeting this morning with our crack Supply Chain Management Group, we openly addressed a recurring material shortage. It seems that our supplier had a consistent 4-6 week lead time for this key structural building component and even that was hard to meet.

As we started to ask "Why?", Sue pointed out that this supplier had a very similar product, in stock, for 3 day delivery. It was not only available, but also cheaper and stronger. Immediately, several of us asked "So, why don't we use that product instead?" Well, it seems there was one key dimensional difference between the two. The next question: "So, why can't we design around that?" Randy and Ernie, the most experienced of our group with this component, recited the problems but then began to think about how we might work around them. It sounded promising but the details began to fog, at least for me.

At which point I asked "Will someone either put some drawings together or build a model?" Ernie looked around, grinned and said "Yep, I'll have it done by Wednesday next week." That was about 11:15am.

We adjourned. I took a late lunch and as I walked back in around 1:30pm (cringing somewhat, my hamstring is still bugging me) I saw Ernie.

"Hey, Joe, it's done," he told me. My leg hurt...I didn't even realize what he was talking about. My puzzled look told him I was, once again, clueless.

"You know, the model we talked about this morning. I built a prototype. You wanna see it?"

Suddenly my hamstring didn't hurt so much. I had to hustle to keep up with Ernie as we walked out to the area we have set aside for prototypes.

And, as he promised, Ernie had found some scrap portions of the component we wanted to change and built a model of how we could change the design to use the supplier's alternately (and available) dimensioned part. Two hours after we had first talked about it. Why wait till next Wednesday? Ernie just jumped in and did it.

What happened next? The model attracted interest. Other people key to the redesign came by. They could look at it, touch it, bang on it; in short understand the proposal. Action leads to further action. We can make a better, quicker decision with this model in front of us.

Ernie practiced "trystorming". Different from brainstorming, trystorming is the rapid construction of a prototype out of anything that is available. It allows people to visualize, touch and further improve on an initial idea. It also models action rather than talk. As my friend Mary Pat Cooper of Wiremold is so very fond of saying "Ten minutes of trystorming is worth ten hours of talking." I think that ratio is about right.

So, go build something today. Out of paper, Styrofoam, plastic, duct tape, wood...anything. Don't make it pretty. Make it visual. Observe others' reactions. Put your proposal into three dimensions.

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

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Stumbling over Broken Paradigms

Reader Karen Wilhelm, the Senior Editor of Lean Directions, a publication of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers responded to my recent post on "Gee, that seems stupid" with a wonderful story from a recent trip to England. She gave me permission to reprint it here.
Last week I was reading the introduction to the new edition of "Lean Thinking" by Dan Jones and Jim Womack, where they discussed how NOT lean the airlines can be.

I had just come back from vacation in Scotland, Ireland and England. RyanAir, the low cost airline offered an irresistible price of GBP 29.99 to go from Scotland to Ireland. Prices can be as low as GBP 1.00 depending on the time of day you travel. How do they do it? Among other things they have obviously looked closely at cycle time.

The customer (me) wants to get to Ireland at the least cost. RyanAir knows any time spent on the ground is muda. They put you on the plane as soon as they get the last people off it -- no time for dusting, cleaning the coffee pot, etc., but customers like me don't care much on a short flight.

When we started walking across the tarmac to board, we almost stumbled over a broken paradigm. Both the front and back doors of the plane were open! Since we're not using a fancy weather-free jetway, they can shove another set of stairs to the other door of the plane and cut boarding and de-boarding time in half. Don't you wish you could have been at the meeting where someone said, "You know, the plane has TWO doors."

Gee, doesn't it seem stupid to not use both doors of the plane? Yep. And someone with RyanAir figured it out. Karen, thanks for the story. By the way, you can subscribe here to the free e-newsletter which Karen edits.

Karen, thanks as well for the great turn of the phrase "stumble over a broken paradigm"! May we all start tripping regularly!!

I hope this is helpful and that you don't pull your hamstring when you trip on the next broken paradigm you see. Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

Monday, July 07, 2003

Automatic Icemakers

Recently, I've tried to describe various ways to undersand what lean looks like. Here's another try.

Last Saturday, in yet another example of how grown men tend to forget just how old they are, I made a quick movement in a game that I used to be able to make easily. No more. I pulled a hamstring. I felt it pop. Oh no, down I went. Embarrassed. In pain. Unable to walk for a day. And with more time to sit and think than expected over the long holiday weekend.

Standard therapy for a pulled hammy is called RICE; Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. It is the "ice" part of this that hit me as another example of lean.

As I made and replenished ice packs to put on my hamstring, it occured to me that the automatic icemaker in the freezer portion of our refrigerator is a great example of a lean system. It uses a limited amount of inventory (filling the container) to satisfy the normal needs of a family. It makes ice only when ice is needed. It has an automtatic, simple, mechanical flapper that gives a signal to either make more ice or stop production. When demand goes up (thanks to the silliness of it's owner, for example) it cycles more frequently. When demand goes down (as in the winter), it cyles less. It converts a batch process (12 cubes per shot) via the small "finished goods" inventory into a flow process (take as many cubes as you want). It is properly sized. Our unit would be totally inadequate in a resturaunt. But, it works fine for a family.

All of this is perhaps obvious. But consider this.

The icemaker sits idle for much of it's life. It does not maximize efficiency. If the container is full, it simply sits. Isn't this a waste? Isn't this inefficient? Didn't I pay for that ice maker? Don't I want it to keep going, flat out?

No. What I want is ice. I don't want an efficient ice maker. All I want is ice. In the amount that I normally use, whenever I want it. And if it sits idle through most of the cold Indiana winter time, what do I care? I already paid for it. The incremental use of water and electricity is not important. I just want ice.

The icemaker is correctly sized. It does just what I want. When I want it. And sitting idle is just fine.

It is a great example of what a lean machine looks like.

I hope this is helpful. And do be careful of your hamstring. Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

Sunday, July 06, 2003

The "Gee, that seems stupid." Principle

I’m often asked how to see opportunities for improvement. I all-too-often answer in a principle-based way, wanting to force an overarching understanding and clear solid philosophical underpinnings.

Yeah, I don’t know what that means either. Yet, I fight this tendency with little success. Until my colleague Ken described three specific improvements he made to one of his processes last week.

In rapid-fire succession over a couple of days, Ken improved both the accuracy and the speed of a repetitive purchasing task he performs. In describing each, he kept saying "So, I looked at what I was doing and said ‘Gee, that seems stupid’ and so I improved it."

Isn’t that it? Didn’t Ken capture a profound truth simply and clearly? Is it really any harder than looking and seeing those tasks for which we say "Gee, that seems stupid"?

Here are some specifics I've seen around here recently.

  • Ken made up a set form with all the information he needed on it to do one task. He no longer had to look anything up. Instead, he simply checked off the applicable items. Cut his processing time from 5 minutes to less than 1 and assured quality.
  • Another colleague, Randy, found one color-based visual signal to be confusing. To correct it, he redid the visual signal with the specific name of the action to take on each one. Cut errors and made the process understandable to all 20 people who needed to see it, rather than just the three who knew the code.
  • One of our salesmen, also named Ken, asked why we were mailing him reports that were easily emailed. Duh. "That seems stupid." We now email the reports. No paper or postage cost. Quicker delivery. No clutter on his desk.
Can you please try this in the next three hours? Can you look around for something to which you can say "Gee, that seems stupid."? Then, can you change it rapidly?

And, if you do, can you please email me with a summary? I’d like to share it with a wider audience.

I hope you don’t find these weblogs stupid. But, if you do, tell me about it too!!

I hope this is helpful. Ken’s idea was sure helpful to me.

Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me