Sunday, November 18, 2007

Where's Joe?

Where’s Joe?

I’ve not published in this space for a while. I should explain.

I’m on a blogging experiment and I welcome your input.

Early this fall, the Institute of Industrial Engineers contacted me and asked if I’d like to be one of a set of authors for their new blog. After some discussion, I decided to give it a go. There are six of us writing there, three on aspects of Lean and three others on related topics. You can see my blogs here and follow the links to see others. I’d suggest you utilize some sort of RSS feed to make it easier to know when something new is up. Full commenting facilities are there, so weigh in, please.

I only seem to have energy for one blog outlet at a time, so I’m going to run with this for a while, hoping to have more contact with the broader world of Industrial Engineering.

Let me know what you think!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Waste of Waiting


Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers write about what he calls friction, what we would call in Lean Circles the waste of waiting, here.

Take a look at what Apple and Amazon have done to eliminate waiting. And what that does for throughput for them.

It should provoke some fresh thinking for you. It did for me.

Keep on learning.


Friday, August 24, 2007

Shallow Gemba, Deep Gemba


We talk a lot in Lean circles about going to gemba, the place where work actually happens. There we can see, with our own eyes, what is happening. Mark Graban got me thinking more deeply about this recently when he posted about a Presidential candidate visiting the workplace, to “understand how the worker felt.”

The political candidate, by definition, can’t go deep into the workplace. It’s a “drive-by” gemba. No matter how sincere, it is shallow. The politician simply can’t know enough to “see” what is going on to any depth at all. When I drive by a wooded area, I see trees. My friend who is an outdoorsman sees oaks and maples and ash and sycamores. I’m shallow, he is deeper.

After reading of the politician, I turned the question on myself, someone responsible for manufacturing. How many of my visits to gemba are, in fact, really shallow? If I take a quick walk through, greeting people, exchanging pleasant comments about kids and family, I advance some of the human issues needed to show respect for people. Yet, on the other hand, I’m not much different than the politician; indeed, I risk coming across as no better than a candidate pressing the flesh, looking for votes.

I must also spend time in the workplace doing deep gemba. This is almost always focused on a single item or small group of items. One process. One machine. One cell. One loading dock. One cart loop. It also must take time. I don’t know how you do this in less than 30-60 minutes, at a minimum. In some cases it will be several hours or a day or three days.

Further, deep gemba must have some end in mind. While we generically say we are “looking for waste,” I must scroll though the seven wastes with an mood of curiosity, asking “just what am I seeing?” And when I see something that doesn’t make sense, stop. And find out what it is. And this takes time.

Keep learning.


Sunday, August 05, 2007

So make it Standard Work anyway, dude


Had a small-ish project land on my desk about a week ago, one I really didn’t want to deal with. So I buried it under other activities for the week (don’t tell me you’ve never done this).

When I got to it Friday afternoon, unappealing though it was, I noted that in the period of inaction another similar project had landed on my desk and been similarly buried. What to do?

I chose to create Standard Work.

The task was administrative in nature and, as such, didn’t seem to lend itself to describing in a Standard Work form. I did it anyway and noted a few useful things.

First, the very act of making out a Standard Work form busted the inertia. I started breaking down the tasks and discovered it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.

Second, I recalled a key principle of Lean. Start with the existing process and then practice kaizen, small changes for the better. This applied. By getting something down, no matter how imperfect or incomplete, I was advancing.

Third, in the doing of the (new) Standard Work, I saw how to make it better. Having a list to work off of was way better than just playing with it in my mind.

Try making something that seems non-standard Standard today. You might surprise yourself. Like I did.

Keep learning.


Wednesday, August 01, 2007




While doing the dishes tonight, I flipped on a CD I enjoy only to surprise myself by learning something about Lean.

In one of the songs, a phrase stopped me in my dishtoweled-tracks:

"Only the curious have something to find."
How key for the Lean leader to simply be curious! To have a mood of intrigue, of wonderment. To be curious about why things are the way they are. To be curious about why the waste exists. To be curious about why a process takes 3 hours and not 2. Why it takes six people and not five. Why a tool rests on a bench rather than is suspended close to the operator's hand.
And, without curiosity, we have nothing to find.
Be curious today. You just might find something.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Quick and Easy Kaizen-a way to learn


Long-time pal Hal Macomber is at it again. He just put up Quick N Easy Kaizen, a web site that seeks to model, rather than just talk about, how kaizen really works. Influenced by the significant work of Norman Bodek, Hal is demonstrating how powerful yet simple kaizen really is.

Don't just take a look at the site; enter some improvement you've done recently at work or at home. Look at the other entries. Let your mind start whirring. Suggest others try it as well.

We must learn from each other. Hal's done a great service to us by giving us a vehicle.

Keep on learning.


Monday, July 16, 2007

Just Start It

My wife and I usually share the kitchen clean-up duties each evening.  With no particular concern as to who does what, we get the table cleared, dishes done, counters wiped down and tidied just after supper. 
Recently, we were getting the routine started when I received a phone call.  I took care of that business and came back to the kitchen to find my wife had all the hand washing done already, a task that seemed large to me.  I remarked on the speed to her, which was a comment I suspect she had been waiting to hear for some time.  She gave me a wry smile, as if to say "Pay attention here, Mr. Process Improvement Guy, you might learn something."
She pointed out to me that she does not wait to get all the washing and rinse water run before she starts washing.  Rather, she flips on the water, puts in some soap and immediately begins the hand wash as the wash water fills the sink.  She then sets the washed item in the (empty) rinse sink.  Once she has enough wash water, she moves the nozzle to fill the rinse sink, already holding several washed items.
"You see, I don't wait to get started like you do.  I don't get it the water in before I wash.  I just get going and the water takes care of itself.  It's a lot faster."  She smiled and walked away.  I chuckled and dried all the rapidly-washed pots and pans.  
Two key but simple lessons here, one technical and one behavioral.
In Lean terminology, she eliminated virtually all of the "set-up time" from the process of washing the dishes.  By doing the value-added work of washing the pots as the sink filled, the total time to wash the dishes was nearly the total time of the entire process.  It was a rapid changeover, done instinctively.   
Behaviorally, she demonstrated the value of getting started sooner rather than later.  Extending the old Nike slogan a bit, she said "Just Start It."  In many cases, the sooner we start, the sooner we get done, particularly on more routine tasks. 
Keep learning.  Even in the kitchen. 

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Lean Supermarket, Inc

Lean Supermarket, Inc

I'm pleased to add a link to Lean Supermarket to my blog. Brent Jorgenson, the owner of this on-line resource for us lean junkies, asked me to take a look at his material and post the link if I thought it would be useful.

It is.

Brent has a long experience in implementing lean and saw a need for a one-stop shop to find kanban card holders, 5S aids, quick changeover tools, andon boards and the like. So his effort is to reduce the waste many of us have sensed as we try to move a batch and queue operation into a viable pull system with visible flow.

On top of that set of noble intentions, Brent works out of my home state of Nebraska. Nebraska, you say??? What could possibly come out of the prairie of Nebraska??

Actually, we are very practical, frugal people. People for whom Lean has instinctive appeal. So I'm glad to link up with Brent and commend is on-line store to you.

Keep on learning.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

How Change Happens

Long-time blogging buddy Karen Wilhelm posts a marvelously creative and insightful item on change.
She is, as usual, right on the money.  Take a look and ponder the type of receptivity you and your people might have.
Keep learning.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Mistake Proofing-not 100 Proofing



My wife pointed out to me this weekend this AP article of a toddler served margarita in a sippy cup.  A restaurant kept apple juice and margarita mix in identical plastic containers and, you guessed it, the wrong bottle ended up causing the little guy to get drowsy and vomit. He’s OK now but what an ordeal. 


I read the newspaper clip to our manufacturing team this morning as an illustration of why we pay attention to mistake proofing.  I expected them to get the message. I was surprised, however, at the depth of their reaction.  Audible gasps, furrowed brows, inquisitiveness, genuine attention.  On reflection, I realized that the story has an emotional punch carrying an impact unequalled by any of my typical, more sterile manufacturing presentationsThe message was instantly recognizable and understandable. 


What I thought would be a tool for teaching about mistake-proofing turned into a deeper tool to teach me about how to teach.  The story is far more useful than the lecture.  The word picture tells more than the bullet points.  Connecting emotionally is far more important than merely transferring knowledge.  Difficult lessons for a linear-thinking engineer.  Essential lessons though.


Keep learning.  Oh, and did I tell you the one about…..?



Monday, June 04, 2007

Why Inspections Fail

A few weeks ago, we had an important document circulate recently to various managers.  We were each to review and sign as approving.  There were 8 or 9 signatures as I recall, mine being one of them.  We all signed off, which then triggered some significant purchases.  A week later, however, one of the original signatories (not me!) serendipitously discovered an error.  An obvious error.  One which, when pointed out, made all of us slam our foreheads with our palms and imitate Homer Simpson.  It was as clear as a few mispeled wurds.  But we all missed it.  And it cost us money and time.  Not an insignificant amount.
Last week, another document circulated, this time containing a list of numeric specifications.  Four names were on this list to sign off.  One person did sign as being correct.  The second person caught an obvious error. 
These two events got me thinking; how did this happen?  How did 9 otherwise intelligent, observant people just plain blow it so badly on the first document?  How did one guy miss an obvious mistake on the second?  And, further, what does this tell me about the inspection process in general?
Two things came to mind. 
First, it was not precise what each signatory was to look for.  The general question was "is the document right?" but we were not crisp or clear in defining what "right" was.  Thus, we ended up violating Philip Crosby's first quality principle:  Quality is conformance not goodness.  We had nothing against which to compare conformance; thus we only assessed goodness.  And, apparently, it was "good enough" for all of us to sign off. 
Interestingly, my colleague found the error on the second document when (gasp) he pulled out the original specifications and compared, one by one, the new document with the authoritative one.  Boom.  The error jumped out and we could take action to correct it. 
Second, with 8 signatories, no one person really will take ownership.  There is the very human tendency to see "if everyone is responsible, then no one is responsible."  Conventional wisdom might say more inspectors will improve the product.  But, clearly, it made it worse.  Crosby's second principle said that prevention, not inspection, was the key to quality.  We actually introduced waste by having all these people sign off and delay the document.  We would have been better off with fewer signoffs with clear criteria to get a conforming document, quickly. 
Keep learning.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Using Visual Tools to Herd Cats

Circuitously, I ended up having to lead a neighborhood event over the weekend.  It was one of those matters where a lot of people had a lot of opinions and had a need to express those strong opinions to other neighbors.  Such a proceeding has the potential of being quite adversarial, difficult to control, pitting neighbor against neighbor, something not helpful to the community. 
Despite my objections, the organizers drafted/persuaded me to organize and then run the meeting.  So I worked with a small team to set up the meeting and instinctively applied principles of flow, visual controls and respect for the individual to the meeting, just as I do in my professional life.  The difference though was the "product" to be moved was people and the outcome was an exchange of ideas. 
In helping to lower the blood-pressure of the speakers, we asked people to submit a card if they wanted to speak, rather than just having people raise their hands.  That way, each person who wanted to speak knew he/she would have a turn and could relax with that.  We set up a speaker's podium and two chairs near it.  I called out the names of the speaker, plus those who would be 2nd and 3rd in line, so they could come near the mike and prepare their own thoughts while another neighbor spoke.  It took only about 15 seconds to move from one speaker to the next, as a result.  In front of me, I lined up the cards of the speaking queue.  Another neighbor sat near the speaker's podium and advised each speaker when their time was up. 
Only as the meeting got going did it really hit me what was happening.  The visual tools of the chairs and the podium were obvious to the participants and were quickly adopted.  No "training" was necessary.  By knowing he/she would eventually speak, each speaker could relax and listen better to other speakers.  This small, controlled "buffer inventory" of speakers helped immeasurably and kept the meeting flowing.  The visual tools I had in front of me, as the leader of the meeting, were invaluable, especially when we had some last-minute changes of speakers (as a young father who had to leave quickly to care for a baby) and when speakers stood whom I did not know or recognize.  The simple signs by our time-keeper were an obvious but unobtrusive reminder to keep on time. 
And the meeting went well.  The attendees expressed strong opinions and did so in a respectful fashion.  All of us were better off.  The basic citizenship of the attendees was the key to this happening.  At the same time, visual tools aided the success of the event. 
This was the lesson to me.  Good people will get the job done.  The ease and the effectiveness of that done job is often improved by use of good systems.  So why not make it easier? 
Keep learning.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Gemba Walk -- After a Business Trip

I was out of town last Thursday and Friday, which followed a Wednesday chock full of meetings.  I got back in on Monday to the predictable pile of emails, urgent meetings and stacks of papers to sign, each of which carried the weight of Western Civilization, or so each sender implied.  
Thus burdened, it was not until today, Wednesday morning, I actually took a physical walk through our operational areas. 
What an exercise.  What an eye-opener. 
In a mere 60 minutes of walking, checking visual boards, greeting people and listening to comments, I realized just how much I had missed in those 5 workdays away from physical contact with the operations.  I was ashamed to see directly what I had missed.  I was very proud of our people but felt very amiss at my own unawareness of the condition of our operation. 
It struck me that standard work for me, following a time away, must be to make a walk through the operation a First Thing upon my return.  I would have cut down two day's worth of non-knowledge had I done so upon my arrival on Monday morning. 
Keep on learning.  And walking.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Overprocessing--Excess Decimal Places

Saw a presentation by a sales rep this week in which she described the pace of implementation of her product in various clients.  It was a multi-step process and she wanted to show the degree of acceptance by the various clients at various time frames. 
And she introduced waste which hurt her presentation.
She presented the implementation level as a score of various factors, which she then divided by an ideal score.  The math gave her a percentage of implementation which she presented as a percentage with two decimal places.  This group had it 64.37% done in 6 months, while a less-committed group was only 57.81% done in 6 months.
The base assumptions were so vague that extrapolating them to two decimal places was absurd, even though the math was correct.  She would have been better to round to the nearest percent, or better, to the nearest 10 percentage points.  On discussion, the two implementations were not that different, depending on one's subjective assessments.  She could have stated both groups were "about 60% complete" and have made her point more clearly.
Don't introduce such overprocessing waste.  Just because the calculator works to 8 decimal places doesn't mean you have to use them. 
Keep learning.  Even learning how to use decimal places.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Jidoka meets Jack Bauer

My son Matt, a Senior in High School, regaled us with a story last night that is both a clever practical joke and also illustrates all the principles of (how not to do) rapid error detection and correction, or jidoka.
It seems a few weeks back his history teacher passed around a sign-up sheet in class to take the Advance Placement (AP) exam for American History.  Many seniors do this, as a good grade often results in bypassing first year college classes.  The kids put down their names, with one addition.  One boy scribbled down the name "Jack Bauer," though there was no Jack Bauer in the class nor in Matt's High School. 
If, unlike me, you are aware of pop culture, you will immediately recognize "Jack Bauer" as the name of the lead character in the popular TV series "24."  No, Jack Bauer is not a HS kid.
The ruse succeeded at this early stage, however, because the history teacher took the sign-up sheet, unexamined, to the counselor's office.  The counselor proceeded to compile all the AP exam requests and submitted the full list to the testing authority.  And so, amongst the regular college-bound kids' names was the yet-unchallenged "Jack Bauer."
After the submission, the school counselor began to wonder just who this Jack Bauer was.  Rather than walk to the history teacher's room and ask, however, he did what is now the standard response to most questions; he consulted the computer.  He assumed that Jack Bauer was a student at another school who was coming to our school just to take the AP exam.  Working on that assumption, he queried a list of all Indiana high school Seniors and indeed found a young man in a school in Indianapolis with a name that was similar to, but not exactly, "Jack Bauer."  So, he left a voice mail message at that school, asking if that kid was indeed making the 75 minute drive to take the AP exam.  Never mind the fact that there are at least 20 high schools in Indianapolis where this kid could have taken the same AP exam far more conveniently.  That school never responded, however, and the counselor didn't follow up further.  The ruse continued to live on. 
Only when the official paperwork and test booklets arrived from the testing authority last week did school officials dig into just who this "Jack Bauer" really was and where he was coming from.  Only then did they realize the whole thing was a hoax which had quietly gone on for weeks.  The kid who set it all off acknowledged he did it and school officials asked him to pay the $15 test cancellation fee.  The kid paid and, I suspect, figured it was well worth it for such a good story.  Thinking back on my own high school years, I would agree.  And, hey, the story even made it to this blog!
In a humorous way, this shows what happens when we don't check errors where and when they can possibly occur.  The history teacher was remiss in not looking at the list he had just passed around the class, a small class in which he knew there was no "Jack Bauer."  The school counselor was remiss in not simply trusting his instinct and walking to talk to the history teacher, preferably with the original sign-up sheet in hand.  Further, his "assumptions" about intent only justified his inaction further.  The error persisted for weeks and caused waste of paperwork that probably far exceeded the $15 the kid finally ponied up for the cancellation fee. 
Follow your gut...check the  And keep on Learning. 

Friday, May 04, 2007

Batch vs Single Piece the mind

It was an annoying task.  Seemingly simple, but I've avoided it all week.  As such, it sat there, as unprocessed "inventory" that could be done and helpful to others.  But I just kept avoiding it.
I finally sat down and got it done this morning.  And realized in it was a principle I know about but haven't applied to this corner of effectiveness. 
In the Lean Community, we rail against the "batch and queue" model of production, promoting instead the virtues of "single piece flow."  It is correct to do so.  Yet how deeply do we apply this passion??
I viewed this task as a "batch," which in fact it was.  The single task actually involved multiple steps to get done.  Look up this amount.  Speak with that person.  Get this form signed off.  Update a database.  Confirm entry.  Check the accuracy.  Inform the requestor the task was complete. 
Yet, I listed the task (and, more importantly, though of it) as a single event.  And this "batching" of the task blocked the flow of task. 
David Allen in his most excellent book "Getting Things Done" describes the solution to this blockage this way:
"Now write down the very next physical action required to move the situation forward.  If you had nothing else to do in your life but get closure on this, where would you go right now, and what visible action would you take?"
Note the Lean principles here.  Write it down.  Make it actionable.  Do it now.  Be visible. 
I did this.  It got done in 8 minutes.  A batch that stuck on my back all week took a mere 8 minutes to complete.  Once I started thinking about it. 
The Batch turns into flow.  And gets done, adding value. 
Keep Learning.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

One more time...go to Gemba

Had breakfast earlier this week with a good friend who has a leadership role in a classic office complex.  He mentioned that his CEO came to him recently, wondering why my friend had a better "finger on the pulse" of the organization than he did.
My friend pointed out that the CEO's travel schedule had him out of the office 3-4 days each week.  On the other had, my friend was simply there, almost every day.  As such, he was highly visible and saw what was going on.  In person.  Daily.
My friend works in Gemba.  His CEO does not.
Gemba ( is the workplace, the physical spot where work happens.  There is simply no substitute for being there, for watching, for observing, in gemba. 
This is not a new concept in Lean.  And like most of the basic concepts, it bears repeating. 
Go to Gemba.  And keep learning.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Why Read?

I'm a pretty voracious reader.  I'd much rather read a book than go to a training seminar.  Cheaper, easier and I can to it in a sweatshirt at home in an easy chair with the Cubs playing on the radio in the background. 
And, at the same time, I find many others balking at reading an article, let alone a real book.  How can I learn more about Lean (or any other subject) without reading?  I can't just absorb it...I need to read. 
One of my favorite writers, Seth Godin, just posted on this subject and expresses my opinion better than me:
You can't learn if you won't read. 
Thanks for reading this!!  And keep on learning.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

How to Make a Lot of Money as a Sales Representative

First, you listen.
Second, you write down and ask clarifying questions of the person who will make the buying decision.
Third, you don't let your last three sales calls influence how you handle this sales call.
Four, you ask about the end state the client wants to achieve.
Fifth, you listen more.
Sixth, you ask about the details of the installation.
Seventh, you actually take notes.  And, when the customer asks you to take notes, you don't say "Oh I have it all down in my head."  Especially when you have demonstrated you aren't listening anyway.
The first key in Lean is to understand what the customer values.  Then, you deliver what the customer values.  Anything else is muda. 
The sales rep who can do this will not have to negotiate price.  She'll be a partner and will be welcomed back. 
Unlike the guy who visited us on Friday.
Keep learning.  Especially if you are in sales.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Noticing--at arm's length

After writing Tuesday afternoon about going to the workplace (gemba), making direct observations, then noticing the good efforts of people, I was confronted on Tuesday evening with how NOT to do this.  Man, was it uncomfortable. 
At a committee meeting of a local volunteer organization, the chair had gone to some effort to express gratitude to several volunteers who had put in some considerable effort.  The kicker?  The chair had not seen the work, had only heard about it.  Yet, sincerely, he wanted to thank these people. 
Unfortunately, it got more distant.  He prepared beforehand a generic "thank you" letter for the seven people.  Each letter was identical, with no name on it.  The platitudes on the letter were nice but vague.  He then asked all of us on the committee to sign the letter so he could send it to the seven volunteers. 
I stopped the group and asked "So which letter is going to which person?" 
This seemed to stymie the group.  "What do you mean?"
"I mean, let's make this just a little bit personal.  I'd like to add something specific about what each person did.  But I can't do that unless I know which of these identical letters is going to which person."
My concern caused a bit of a stir.  It prompted quite a discussion about whether to put the name of the person on the front or on the back of the letter, in pencil or in ink.  I tried to be polite but it took some effort.  Eventually the group decided to put the names in pencil, on the top front corner of each letter, so the chair could later erase them when he mailed them out.  So goes the committee decision-making process.
The letters went around the table.  Most people dutifully signed their names, some added a hand-written generic greeting such as "Nice job!" or "Thanks so much!"  A couple of us put something personal that related to the specific task and/or the specific person. 
I suppose the recipients will appreciate the letter.  The letter did, after all, notice their efforts and we all crave notice.  Yet it would have been so much easier to make it so much better. 
Try thanking someone directly today.  See what you learn. 
And keep learning.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Is there anything much more motivating than simply being noticed? 
"Hey, nice catch on that detail."
"Your area looks good...thanks for keeping it so neat."
"You took care of the details really well."
And where is the best place to notice? 
At the workplace.  In the midst.  While, quite literally, putting your hands on the work people do. 
I had the chance today to do this.  I was wading through a big pile of raw material purchase orders, part of my regular job.  I began to notice a pattern of attention to pricing discrepancies by one of our team.  Subtle stuff, simple corrections, a couple of improvements she just implemented.  I'd never have seen it by looking at the next level of reports.  It would all have been homogenized into a beige blob.  Instead, I saw the striking bold colors of her work.  So, I told her.  And her boss. 
Had I not been in direct contact with her work, though, any complement I might make would be more distant: 
"Hey, your boss told me you had a nice catch on that detail."
"I saw a 5S audit report that said your area looks good and is neat."
"I understand the details of your report rolled up well into the big spreadsheet." 
Doesn't ring as true. 
Do I need more reasons to spend time in the workplace? 
Keep learning.  It happens best where the work is done.

Monday, April 23, 2007

When a Laudable Intermediate Goal becomes a Cop-Out

As a reward for taking a week off in early March, I was greeted by over 240 emails on my return. I whittled and deleted and responded, with the objective to get the pile down to no more than 10 unread emails at any point in time.  That goal of 10 became a lure for me, beckoning my efforts, mocking me when I'd go to a meeting only to return to 25 more emails that arrived in the meantime.
It took a couple of weeks, but I succeeded.  I got the unread pile to 10 and have kept it there since. That's the good news.
I observed last week that the 10 unread email remained the same 10 as days earlier.  I was not dealing with emails and then seeing them replaced with a new crop.  No, I was consistently (and quite comfortably) ignoring the same 10 requests for action that I really didn't want to deal with.  The goal of 10 became a cop-out. 
A very human reaction.  But it illustrated to me the allure of goals that are almost, but not quite, an ultimate objective.  I failed to push the goal farther upon reaching it.
It can happen in any process.  It was simply painfully clear to me when it took place on my inbox. 
Interestingly, I cut the goal to 5 today.  As I left work, there were only 2.  And they just came in today...they will be dispatched in the morning.
Keep pushing your goal.  And keep learning.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Eliminating Waste at the Desktop

For those of us who battle email/voice mail/interruption clutter and long for a "5S" of our work lives, here is a radical and thought provoking treatment:
Brian does a nice job here and it merits your attention.
My current technical roadblock:  I can't get my MS Outlook Email to turn on and off automatically.  I'd like it to only receive emails at certain times of the day (10, 2 and 4, as Brian suggests, is a good start).  Does anyone have a good hack to cause it to do that??
Keep learning.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Engine and The Gas, Part 2

I wrote a couple days ago on the difference between the engine of a lean operation (the observable tools) and the fuel or gas of a lean operation (how the people relate, how the culture performs).
This morning, I had a chance to use this illustration with some associates.  The learning was useful to me.
The context was an awkward personnel issue in a process-oriented work group.  I needed to listen carefully to some associates with concerns. 
As I listened, the folks were polite and respectful about the people issues.  They also had a fair degree of angst about the actual and potential degradation of process performance and accuracy.  Both sets of concerns were legitimate and sincere.  Yet, as I listened and asked questions, the two were also tightly intertwined.  In most efforts towards driving out waste, I typically turn to the process issues first.  "Whoa, if we mess up that particular standard work, we're all in trouble!"  And we'd go to work on the process. 
Yet it didn't seem right in this context. 
So I tried the distinction between the engine and the gas.  I asked the team to separate the human and the process issues.  I used hand motions as a visual tool to "set aside" the process issues for a moment (stating I'd come back to them) and explored the human issues.  Fascinatingly, the shoulders of the associates relaxed, tension on their faces eased and we spoke compassionately and openly about the human issues, our own foibles included.  I tried to reinforce the quality of character of each of them and the rest of our team and our common goal of a humane workplace doing excellent work.  I stated some organizational values in this regard, with which they agreed. 
Only after this did I touch on the process issues and then only lightly.  I affirmed to them that they knew the process details way better than I did and I encouraged them to simply use the process improvement tools they already had to deal with their concerns.  It seemed to connect. 
Using process tools to fix a human problem is like bringing a box-end wrench to a counseling session. 
Understand the Gas.  Understand the Engine. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Why didn't I introduce myself?

Why Didn't I introduce myself?
This has bugged me all day.
I did a walk-through of our manufacturing space this morning.  Pretty much a standard path, looking at certain supermarket levels but, more importantly, greeting each associate, chatting and listening.  As usual, had a couple of very useful comments from several folks about opportunities for improvement.
At one work station, though, I saw a person I didn't recognize. I knew we had just hired a new associate and this, therefore, must be her.  She was in training with an associate I know well.  I talked with that familiar associate, as if the new person wasn't really there, then, as I walked away, I gave a lame "Glad you are here" to the new person. 
What a stinky job that was. 
And it has bugged me all day as to why I didn't just accept the fact that I spaced on her name, introduce myself, apologize and ask her name again and treat her with some respect. 
The unsettling answer to the question of "why" here is that I simply had too much pride.  Hey, I'm supposed to be responsible.  So, I'm supposed to know names and recognize people and chat amicably with them all.  So it would look really dumb for me not to just "know" this person's name.  And I was too proud to look dumb. 
And, if I'm too proud to simply ask a person her name, why on earth do I think I'll be humble enough to listen to her when she has a good idea for improvement?  Worse, why would I think she would bother to tell such an idea to a guy who treated her like a houseplant?
I have an apology to make in the morning. 
I also have to learn to introduce myself, all over again. 
Keep learning. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Chop Chop

<h2>Chop Chop</h2>
Today's observation:  Sometimes you need to reflect.  Many times, however, it is more important to just go do something.
Now.  Just get something done.  It often clears the clutter more effectively than mulling more.
Gotta go.  Have some things to do.

Monday, April 16, 2007

What's the Engine? What's the Gas?

What's the Engine? What's the Gas?

I had an odd word picture clarify in my head over the weekend.

We so often in get interested in the tools of Lean. Kanban cards. Pull systems. Value Stream maps. I sitting here right now, for example, finally clicking on producing an X-chart, linking lower level goals to higher level activities. It is making sense. Produces a cool tool to communicate with.

And will this get waste-free manufacturing rolling?

Not by itself.

Enter my word picture.

The tools are the engine. The "stuff," the mechanics, the tangible things you can see and feel. The items that are fairly easy to observe, copy and talk about to others. The engine looks good sitting there. Especially when you can add chrome.

The gas, on the other hand, is the fuel that makes the engine turn. If the engine won't turn, it is of no more use than a boat anchor, chrome or no chrome. In a Lean system, the gas is the passion, the energy, the fuel that drives productive activity. It flows from a sense of purpose, a sense of rightness, a respectful use of people who use their strengths and support each other.

Driving down the street, I can easily view other people's cars. From it's make or from the sticker on the back, I can often tell just where they bought the car as well. If the car is moving, I can make the assumption it has fuel. But I never can see the gasoline. Much less can I even hazard a guess as to where the owner bought the gas. It is invisible to me, though I can see its effect.

The Lesson? I have to put a whole lot of energy into the fuel. The engine needs maintenance, even some polish. But it is the gas that makes the engine go.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The "Visual Walk By" test

The “Visual Walk By” Test


We just added two new engineers to our manufacturing team.  An ongoing project for us is to learn how to handle the myriad of project requests that are falling their way, even four days into their tenure.  

The three of us worked on developing a visual tool to help manage this.  They had several good ideas and they mocked them up, putting the tools on the wall.  Handwritten, rough, visual.  Taped up.

Another colleague of mine, familiar with our method of creating visual tools, saw this and walked up to the hand-written charts while the engineers were not around.  He knew, without having to ask me, that the test was if the charts explained themselves in two minutes or less, with no one around.  His report? 

“It told me about 75% of what I needed to know.”

The good news:  it drew him in and told him some of what he needed.

Today’s learning:  we need to fill in the other fourth of what wasn’t obvious.

The test itself is worthwhile.  You might try that on your charts and graphs.  

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Comment Spam

Comment Spam

The scourge of comment spam has hit this blog. Thus, I'm going to have to enable a tool to let me review comments before publishing. I'm really sorry to have to do is far better to let comment post and further the learning.

However, I'm not going to tolerate the scum that some would put here.

Thanks for understanding.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Why write it down?

Why Write it down?

The longer I pursue Lean, the more I am amazed with its fundamentals. I may write more about this in the near future.

Like the emphasis to write things down. Lean is built on standard work. We write down work instructions. We write down paths for material handlers. We ask associates to write down small improvements. We write down kaizen plans.

Why write? Why not just do?

Last week, we ran into a particularly vexing supplier problem. It almost pushed me into complete disfunctionality; it was all I could think about. I was staring out my office window, stewing over it, and then just started to write in my single notebook (more about that another day). I drew a large outline of major issues and major frustrations. I started to fill in the gaps. Action steps started to emerge as I wrote. I saw separation of the crucial and the trivial, the annoying and the important. I wrote up a series of next actions to take and took them.

Why write?

On Tuesday, one of our supervisors asked me if I could join her team as they struggled to find the root cause of a process concern. “Could you show us how to do 5 Why?” she asked. She didn’t have to ask twice.

We gathered at a large white board near the workplace. I started with the observable problem at the top left of the board and asked why. They answered. I wrote both the statements (“We did X process incorrectly”) and then each Why ("Why did we do X process incorrectly?”). I followed that with another written statement ("We did X process incorrectly because…") and we followed where it led. At Why #3, we desribed three distinct branches of cause and effect. We pursued each branch and came up with 3 root causes and 5 simple, doable, action steps. All in about 30 minutes.

I covered the whiteboard with writing. The team caught what we were doing. Simple questions with clear answers; no trickery involved, no complex story problems about trains leaving Boston. They engaged and owned both the problem and the solution. Three of them wrote extensively as we talked.

And the team will fix this problem. Quickly. We found root cause.

Why write?

I think writing clears out waste in the brain. It forces one to distill random thoughts into cogent drawings or clear sentences. It forces one into useful logic and away from speculative dreaming.

Try writing today. See if it helps.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A cool resource from the EPA

A cool resource…from the EPA, of all places!

Long time Lean buddy Gary Stewart of just passed along to me a very nice Lean resource which is new to me.

The Environmental Protection Agency has published a free handbook, Lean and the Environment. No, it’s not about Al Gore’s new weight loss program. Rather, it is a very nicely prepared introduction to Lean with specific applications to identify and eliminate hazardous waste usage and discharge. It covers the basics of Lean, Value Stream Mapping, Kaizen Events, 5S and other useful topics. It is printable and, at 90 pages, has substance while being accessible.

It is encouraging to see a resource like this from the public sector. I hope you find it useful.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Palletizing Pallets

Palletizing Pallets

We had a need recently for two plastic pallets, so we ordered them. And here they are, just off the truck, sitting on our dock.


How do you ship pallets? Sure, you just stick ‘em on a pallet, slap on some shrink wrap and off they go!! Is this nuts or what?

Why pay for the wood pallet? Why not just secure the two plastic pallets together and ship them, with the label on top, which obviously works just fine? Now we have to dispose of the wood pallet. It fills up a landfill unnecessarily, is a hassle, is a home for rodents while it sits outside waiting for a disposal truck.

And who pays for the wasted pallet?? Yep, we do. We pay for the waste of our suppliers. We pay for this waste of overprocessing.

One of my Lean mentors, MaryPat Cooper, is fond of saying “You don’t have to worry about eliminating waste. You have to simply learn to see it. When you see it, you can’t stand it until you get rid of it.”

And I really wonder if this isn’t the case for our palletizing supplier. They put all their outbound stuff on pallets, so shipping pallets is simply no different. They just don’t see it.

That’s a management problem. That’s a leadership problem.

And all of this makes me wonder where I’m palletizing pallets and just don't see it. Just won't see it.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Prediction is for Wimps

Prediction is for Wimps


Pull vs. Push

I was in a small conference facility recently, looking for a cold soda during a break in the meetings. I saw vending machines, went to the Coke machine and looked for a Diet Coke. This machine was the type with the clear plastic front, through which you could see the various offerings. I looked and I looked; plenty of other sodas, but no Diet Cokes, though there were two empty “runways” right next to the regular Coke,

So I went to the Pepsi machine, content to have a Diet Pepsi if I could find it. Again, many offerings but only after scanning the entire machine did I see three Diet Pepsis remaining. I bought one and sat down nearby to continue a conversation with a friend.

A few minutes later, a trim, fashionably-dressed lady walked to the Coke machine and I noted that she was doing the same search I had just done. Hands on hips, she walked away from the Coke machine to the Pepsi machine. Scan, look, finally find the Diet Pepsi, which she bought.

Both machines were chocked full of various drinks; but not the one we wanted. I then wondered how much money the vending machine company was losing and how it could improve their offerings at this vending site.

What would happen if the company offered a simple set of rules to the person filling the machine, such as:

  1. If the machine is sold out of Diet Coke, fill one additional runway with Diet Coke. Take the lane from Coke.
  2. If the machine is not sold out of a drink, refill the existing runways
  3. If a drink is down to a single runway, leave it.
  4. If a drink on a single runway has sold zero items since the last refilling, put a small tag on the front.
  5. If a drink on a single runway has sold zero items and already has a small tag on the front of it, remove that drink from the machine and report it to HQ.
  6. If a drink on a single runway has sold some items and has a small tag on the front of it, remove the tag and refill.

In this way, the vending machine company would allow the customer to tell them exactly what they want to buy in this setting. The company could then supply the most inventory of the most popular items and stop using valuable cooler space for items that don’t sell.

This is pull vs. push. If the vending machine company presumes to “know” what the customer wants and fills its vending machines accordingly, they are pushing this on the public. If, on the other hand, they make an educated guess about what to put in the machine at its initial installation, then rapidly change the offering according to standard work as I proposed above, it is allowing the customer to pull what they want. This is nothing more than a series of rapid PDCA cycles that will, in short order, get to a place of maximizing cash flow through a fixed asset.

Put another way, it is silly to predict what the customer wants. Push is all about prediction. Far better to have a system which makes no attempt to predict but makes every effort possible to respond.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Living through a Line Stop

Living through a Line Stop

I was standing in the security check line at the Portland Airport on my way home from a Christmas visit to my son Nathan in Oregon when I got to be a living, breathing part of a classic process check. Stay with me here.

We were schlepping through security in the usual way when I heard one of the TSA staff yell “Code Blue”! This obviously meant something; immediately, three other TSA officials echoed the single statement “Code Blue”! At that point several things happened, in less than five seconds;

  • All six security lines stopped; a junior TSA official physically blocked each line.
  • All Xray machines stopped.
  • All TSA people had a single, calm instruction to us in the lines; “Please remain where you are.”
  • Five senior TSA people RAN to the exit point of the security area, where there seemed to be some activity that took their attention.

And I stood there thinking “Cool!!! This will be really neat!! What can I observe?” I suspect I was alone in that perspective amongst my fellow travelers.

Toyota is famous in its automotive assembly lines for “line stops”; using a pull cord, any work associate can, literally, stop the entire assembly line to correct a quality problem, on the spot. On that signal, supervisors and technicians move quickly to the area to correct the problem and then restart the line. Longtime friend of this blog, Mark Rosenthal, has written well about the four key steps of a line stop:

  1. Detect the error.
  2. Stop the process.
  3. Correct the immediate problem
  4. Install a countermeasure

And I witnessed TSA do three of these four steps. They had clearly rehearsed it and did it very efficiently and professionally.

First, the TSA team detected the error. I don’t know what “Code Blue” is and I couldn’t find a reference on the web to TSA’s use of it. That’s probably their intent. From the commotion I observed, it could have been a person leaving the search area without being released. I don’t know. But, it was clearly a problem TSA considered serious.

Immediately, things stopped. There was NO movement and I mean none. The entire set of six security lines shut down immediately. No bags moved. No people moved. It got really quiet. The ONLY motion was designated TSA people running to the exit area. It felt almost like a cartoon sequence, in which a bustling, busy process stops. Instantly.

In about 60 seconds, TSA fixed whatever the problem was. An official standing near the exit area stated, authoritatively, “All Clear.” Other officials repeated “All Clear,” and, as quickly as we had stopped, the process came back to life. We moved through security as if nothing had happened.

I have no idea if TSA pursued a countermeasure, if they did a “post mortem” to see how they could have prevented whatever triggered this Code Blue.

While observing all of this, I got to be “work-in-process.” Really. I was “unsaleable.” I had removed my hiking boots and plunked them in the tub queued for Xray machine. My liquids were out and visible. I was separated from my briefcase. In my stocking feet, I was hardly “finished goods.” (I was a little better off than the guy in front of me. He had a huge, metal belt buckle, which he had put into the Xray line. He was at risk of his jeans going to his knees had we moved.)

What did I learn?

  • Line stops work. In this critical security issue, the basics made it go.
  • Rehearsal is vital. I was impressed with the combination of speed, urgency and calm by the TSA folks. This only happens with practice. This is how effective teams work.
  • Minimize WIP. Only a relative handful of us were WIP…most of the people in queue were still fully dressed. When we minimize WIP, we can do line stops, repeatedly, to drive quality while not hammering throughput.

Think through where your “Code Blues” show up. And smile and thank a TSA agent next time you travel.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

How to Learn Stuff

How to Learn Stuff

We had our monthly meeting of the Wabash Valley Lean Network last week. On top of an excellent regular program, I also saw a marvelous demonstration of how to learn something new.

During the closing portion of the meeting, we usually ask if people have “hot issues.” An engineer from one company asked if anyone in the group had experience eliminating waste in utility bills. Several volunteered and continued the conversation after the close of the meeting.

Watching the interaction was fascinating. The engineer asked questions, listened carefully, asked follow up questions. And she got a lot of very practical information.

Which showed several principles of learning.
  1. She sought a context to find experience. She didn’t ask the question at a local restaurant. She asked at a gathering of process improvement geeks.
  2. She asked specific questions. Thus, she closed the scope to something people could respond.
  3. She was genuinely interested. Her eye contact, tone of voice and follow up questions all reinforced the perception she was interested in what others had to say.
  4. She was not defensive. When someone made an odd comment, she still accepted it. She did not reject any idea, though several may not have been applicable.
  5. She said “thank you” to all contributors. She knew no one “owed” her a response. Thus, she showed appreciation for the knowledge each shared.

Watching this from a slight distance was fascinating. In a matter of 5-8 minutes, she had a tutorial in cutting energy usage in her complex industrial setting. Central was her specificity of question and her openness to whatever information came her way. In my opinion, it is this lack of defensiveness that is central to learning. Any kind of learning.

Try asking a specific question about something new today, be nondefensive in response and body language and say “thank you.” What you learn might surprise you.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Compact Flourescent Bulbs...a blogging effort

Compact Fluorescent Bulbs…a blogging effort

Influential writer Seth Godin posted How many bloggers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? and invited other bloggers to describe their view of compact fluorescent energy-saving bulbs. Why have these bulbs not caught on, Seth wondered aloud? Good question…I offer my thoughts and, not surprisingly, I decided to do it from a Lean perspective.

First, I went to gemba, the actual place where the action happens. On my way home from work, I bought a CF bulb, to experience it for myself. Then, knowing we had extended family coming over for supper, I emailed my wife that we’d have a discussion over dinner about CF bulbs. She was thrilled. When I got home, I then installed the bulb in a lamp on my bedroom dresser, where a conventional incandescent bulb had just burnt out.

What did I learn?

First, the bulb is expensive. I paid $4.82 for a single 60W-equivilent bulb. The purchase broke a $10 bill. I probably could have had 8 regular bulbs for the same price at the same store.

Second, the package labeling was intimidating. There was much fine print on the back, with dire warnings about mercury contamination. It made the bulb seem complicated.

Third, each of our dinner guests had opinions about the bulb…many of them negative. Chief amongst them was the cost, the lack of quick recognized savings and the harsh hue from a fluorescent bulb. As Don put it, “I spend all day at work under fluorescent bulbs…I don’t want to come home and to more of the same!”

Mercifully, the conversation then shifted to the grandchildren and whether any more are on the way.

Though others grew tired of talking about CF bulbs, I further examined this myself. I installed the bulb in our bedroom and stood back to look at it. Not as bad a hue as I had feared. In a small light fixture, under a lampshade, it really looked OK.

So why haven’t CF bulbs caught on? My thoughts from my observations today.

The energy savings of CF bulbs are clear. The cost is intimidating. Isn’t this a business opportunity for someone with a Lean design perspective? To set a retail price target of, say, $1.00 for a bulb and then set out to wring waste out of the process to meet that aggressive target?

And what about the consumer? Many enthusiasts feel that we should buy CF bulbs because of the “cause” of energy savings. That won’t carry the day for widespread acceptance. The bulb has to be cheaper. A strong customer focus could help this…probably better design wouldn’t hurt either…the bulb doesn’t look like what we think of when we say “bulb”.

It is a tough sell to take hard cash out of my wallet to buy the bulb and then hope that small decreases in electric bills that don’t go back into my wallet will come, distantly, on some future day.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Mistake Proofing--unraveling a throrny issue

Mistake Proofing—unraveling a thorny issue

When we think about mistake proofing, we most often think mechanically. The best example is the humble electrical plug. It takes no instructions, can only go in one way, won’t connect to a telephone plug, is safe…in short, truly mistake proofed.

But many processes involve instructions. The (usually) unstated expectation is that the person doing the process can and will read the instruction and follow it. Which often does not happen.

Since I think about such things even while on vacation, I stopped and pondered this sign I saw on a vacant lot while visiting my son in Oregon over Christmas. “No Dumping” seems simple enough. A written instruction which should be followed. And, as my Dad used to say cynically, when seeing such a notice, “Yeah, all the honest people will follow that sign.” I suspect the owner was not really worried about the "honest people."

Stepping back a bit, you can see the owner of this property mistake-proofed her written instruction. This entire vacant lot was completely overgrown with a thorny, gnarly, entangled mess of mutliflora rose vines. Forget the written instruction; this lot screamed silently. "Dumping?? Here?? No way. Go dump your junk elsewhere. "

Why did this intrigue me?? Because it challenged my thinking so substantively. I’m now asking myself how I can “put in some thorns” to assure a written instruction gets followed. I think of my friend Al, a structural engineer, who has to make sure construction crews follow his drawings, to ensure structural integrity. How does he put in some "thorns"? This is not an unusal problem.

What are examples of “thorns” ?
  • a computer entry, requiring a code to proceed
  • a sign-off by a coworker, checking accuracy at the moment
  • a check-out/check-in of specific parts one is instructed to use

There are many more...I'm just brainstorming.

Perhaps this will trigger some creative thinking for you as well. Whatever you do, though, throw your trash somewhere else!! And, if you need to find a cool place to stay along the Oregon coast, I'll put you in touch with my son...thanks, Nathan!