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.