Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Book Review: "Chasing the Rabbit" by Steven J. Spear

Book Review: “Chasing the Rabbit” by Steven J. Spear

It was around Labor Day, 1999, when my copy of Harvard Business Review arrived. As usual, I quickly reviewed the Table of Contents and saw Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System by two guys I’d never heard of, Steve Spear and Kent Bowen. I read the entire article, twice, that same day. As a guy newly into seeing Lean work, the article explained much of what I was already seeing and challenged me deeply. It also seemed as if the writing style connected at a very deep level for me.

Since that pivotal time, I've worked hard to integrate the key findings he presented. I’ve given away dozens of copies of the article and read much of Spear’s subsequent work on the Toyota Production System. In each case, Steve’s writing seemed to resonate to me, being both readable and remarkably clear. Therefore, I was thrilled to review his newest book, Chasing the Rabbit which came out a couple months ago.

This book continues the style Spear showed in his earlier articles. It is clear, to the point and combines two things often held in tension; the rigor of an academic author and the story-telling skill of a fine novelist. As such, the book contains real substance, while at the same time being very readable, nearly a “page turner” for those of us fascinated by the pursuit of process excellence.

But what content? There is one central theme which makes this book compelling to me. That theme is complexity.

Many business books simplify situations for the sake of teaching. It is helpful, even necessary, for the person new to a topic to start with the simple case. Yet, I’ve been trying to drive Lean systems for 10 years now and it is painfully obvious to me that my company and our environment is anything but simple. I’ve thus had to extrapolate from the simple examples to our reality.

Spear takes this problem head on. He contends, with convincing evidence, market leaders simply understand complexity in an entirely different manner than market laggers. The key to the whole book, to me, is captured in this quote from page 229, describing Alcoa’s remarkable progress in worker safety:
Alcoa discovered that perfectly safe systems defy conceptual design but are very close to achievable through a dynamic discovery process in which (a) complex work is managed so that problems in design are revealed, (b) problems that are seen are solved so that new knowledge is built quickly, and (c) the new knowledge, although discovered locally, is shared throughout the organization.

Spear’s core theme is that excellence in any complex system cannot be designed in; we simply are not smart enough to anticipate every possible interaction that can happen. However, if we are philosophically and technically prepared to “listen” to what the complex system tells us, it will show us the breakdowns. If we fix each one, being careful to learn and then intentionally distribute that knowledge, we gain something impossible to replicate.

He repeats this theme in multiple ways, both in how it is done well and done poorly. He makes a significant contribution by drawing on excellence in spots besides Toyota. Aloca’s safety record and the US Navy’s Nuclear Power Propulsion Program are prime examples. He also breaks down significant failures; the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia, medical mishaps in hospitals and the decline of General Motors. The themes of a failure to “listen” to the messages of complex systems coupled with a failure to disseminate the lessons that are learned show up repeatedly in the market followers.

It appears that Spear finished up work on this book in July 2008. I would really like to see some future work, using this method of analyasis, on the bank and credit meltdown which occured only a few months later. Would use of these principles have mitigated some of the financial mess we find now?

Spear’s observations resonate with the reality I’ve seen in my career. By making complex systems more explicit, along with specific recommendations on how to understand them, he does business a great service. Regular readers of Spears will recognize some of these themes from earlier work…his overarching summary, however, is a new synthesis and, in my opinion, a very accurate one.

I highly recommend this book. It is an important part of the business literature.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Engaging Consumers to Fight Clutter

Is it possible to get untrained, uninitiated, unconnected people to participate in your efforts to deliver value? Consider this example that caught me totally by surprise in a very unexpected moment.

In October, I had the chance of a lifetime to take a 12 day vacation in Italy with my three sisters and our spouses. During our trip, we rented a house for a week in the not-too-touristy city of Lucca. Since we wanted breakfast and some other meals at the house, we had to figure out how to shop for groceries in a new city, not speaking any Italian.

Our spouses voted 4-0 that the Ely kids should make the first run to the grocery store. Once there, speaking no Italian, my sisters and I started to find the cereal, fruit, eggs, milk and chocolate...necessities each. In proper sisterly fashion, they dispatched me to find a shopping cart.

I observed other shoppers had carts but I could not see where to get one of my own. Finally, I noticed a covered rack of perfectly ordered carts in the parking lot. I went out to get one. And boy was I surprised by what I found.

The neat row of carts were cleverly linked together. Looking around for some visual clues, I saw some drawings which showed a one Euro coin (about $1.50) as the "key" to release the cart from the one ahead of it. My sister Anne came out looking for me. She fortunately had the right coin and plunked it into the small plastic gizmo mounted on the handle of the cart.

She pushed the red coin holder into the housing, the chain dropped and the cart popped loose.

We didn't exactly start singing opera but felt a little smarter. We did our shopping, were pleased my oldest sister's credit card was multi-lingual, loaded the groceries into our car and then wondered just what we were supposed to do with the cart. Pushing it back to the still-neat row of carts, I reversed the process, inserting the chain from the next cart into the plastic gizmo. Pop, out came the coin. And I finally realized what was going on. I thought "Wow, what a cool system!"

Rather than the messy, spread-out, disorganized pockets of carts we see in most US groceries, this simple system provided an incentive for shoppers to return the cart. And when shoppers do it right, the use of the cart is free. I simply had to "loan" a coin to the store for the time it took me to shop.

Interestingly, during the course of the week's stay in Lucca, we made other trips to the store and observed another social dimension of this system. We saw several shoppers accept the help to load their groceries into their car. In return, the helper took the cart back to the rack and pocketed the coin; effectively a tip for the help.

I subsequently learned one discount grocer operating in America has the same system for their Aldi Foods shopping carts.

Why do I mention this? Because well-conceived systems with visual tools and simple economic incentives can eliminate a lot of wasted effort. And if it is possible to do this in a grocery store parking lot, how much more inside our companies?? We have a lot of room for creativity.

Updated: I learned, via a comment, I was wrong in my assumption Aldi was an American-based store. It is owned by a German company. My mistake.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Santa Really Does Know

Political cartoonists are at their best when they something widely known, exaggerate it a bit and retell it with a clever twist. Like this:

Interesting to me there is such broad awareness that Toyota and Honda run with a different culture, one of innovation and change. And, sadly, this is absent from domestic automakers.

While this is funny, the bigger challenge is for each of us to build that culture in our own organizations. And a culture never happens overnight.

Go make it happen.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Gettin’ Caught

On a recent vacation trip, I looked in the rear-view mirror and to see a State Police car telling me to pull over. Not having seen those flashers in 38 years, it was an unfamiliar experience for me.

I pulled my driver’s license out of my wallet and awaited the officer to appear at my window. I had forgotten that he was also going to ask for my car registration and insurance certificate; this meant a quick dive into my glove compartment while he loomed large to my left. The glove box had insurance certificates for 1998, 2002, 2003 but no 2008. I fumbled through old oil change receipts, extra fast food napkins, two tire pressure gauges and CD player instructions but found no current insurance certificate. Growing impatient, the officer said “Let me just check out this other stuff and you keep looking.” He headed back to his squad car. I finally found what I needed but was left with quite a mess as I sat and waited.

Eventually, the officer returned with a speeding ticket and an encouragement to “be safe.” I drove on and had plenty of time to reflect. What did this teach me?

5S applies everywhere. The obvious lesson was the mess in my glove box. I had way too many napkins (“just in case” I had a big spill, I had told myself). This excess inventory cluttered the limited space. I also had no labeling system for the crucial documents I needed, by law, to have at my fingertips. The officer could have concluded my sloppiness in the car could further indicate sloppiness in my entire driving record.

Failure of standard work. More broadly, I had done “non-standard work” on the road by exceeding the speed limit. The fact I disagreed with the officer on the degree to which I was “non-standard” did not change the fact I knew I was speeding. And, by doing non-standard work, I significantly lengthened the time it took me to reach my destination.

The audit process. In my day job, I’m often assessing standard work, trying to point out non-standard work. This experience on the highway was useful as it put me on the other side of the coin. It wasn’t fun having non-standard work pointed out to me, even when I knew it was an accurate assessment. It gives me more empathy on how to point out non-standard work.

One problem can point out another. By speeding, I was forced to find another, less obvious, problem; the mess in my glove box. There is a chain reaction when we pursue excellence. That’s a good thing.

Future prevention. Not surprisingly, I was a very careful driver for the remaining 12 hours of driving on this trip. As noble as many of us may think we will be, not needing any checkup, this thought is often an illusion. I haven’t had a speeding ticket since I was a senior in high school; I was pushing the limit. I needed a correction. And the remaining trip was clear and uneventful. At the speed limit.

Learning opportunities are everywhere, sometimes decorated with red and blue flashing lights. Don’t miss them.

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Simple or Simplistic?

A colleague recently returned from a management conference where she heard a presentation by a software firm about their new inventory management package. She was intrigued; it had a fully configurable tool to calculate buffer inventory levels based on shipment levels. As sales rose or fell, the tool would raise or lower the buffer inventory every two weeks according to the methods selected by the user. In addition, the package provided signals to production to ask for replenishment of the buffer as customers purchased goods.

Impressed, she complimented the presenter on coding an efficient pull system. He shuddered at her suggestion. “Oh no, this is not a ‘pull system’, this is a predictive system, driven by the program.” She paused, asked some clarifying questions, the answers all pointing to this as a well-conceived pull system capable of managing inventory levels of tens of thousands of SKUs according to the user’s wishes. Yet, the company was adamant they had not made a “pull system,” as if the term was a label they wished to avoid at all costs.

Why? Why the apparent revulsion?

I suspect it has something to do with the confusion of “simple” with “simplistic.” Most of us are comfortable with the former but less so with the latter term. Pull systems are simple. Take one, make one. That’s it. To manage the huge variety of finished goods most customers want, software can do a dandy job of keeping track of the ins and outs, all the “take ones, make ones” signals. The software is complex; the concept is not.

Holding fast to the simple principle, while seeing the need for complex tools to implement the idea is key. But denying the ultimate simplicity, the clarity and the visibility of the principle is downright foolish.

Be simple…not simplistic.

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Book Review: Managing to Learn

I just got the new book by John Shook, Managing to Learn. I was surprise and pleased by what I found

The book describes the use of the “A3 Process.” This process is, on the one hand, simple; it uses a piece of 11”x17” paper to tell a story of a problem and how to approach it.

Yet the book is anything but simple. And is anything but a description of how to write on a big sheet of paper.

Shook does the Lean community a great service in the book, comparable to his service in writing “Learning to See” in 1999 describing Value Stream Mapping. Shook delivers this value in two unique ways.

First, he uses the story format, with a young employee learning from a seasoned executive how to produce a good A3. “Oh, no, not another book of forced dialogue” I thought to myself when I learned this was the format. Rather than trying to be Eli Goldratt, however, Shook tells two stories; one from the perspective of the learner, one through the eyes of the teacher. The stories are side by side, in two different colors, presented simultaneously. The learner can’t understand why his early approaches aren’t good enough; the teacher struggles to know how to help the learner be enthusiastic while correcting his short-sighted efforts. The rhetorical tool works well.

I live in both of these roles and Shook’s description was right on the money. Rather than just showing the mechanics of filling out a form, he goes much deeper, to the learning process allowing people to see more, learn better and lead more effectively.

Second, the pace of the book “walks the talk” of the book. Central to the A3 process is finding the root cause of a problem. Shook forces the reader to agonize through this process. It does not happen as quickly as I would have liked. I found myself saying as I read, “John, get me to the point. Please!” And he didn’t. He forced me, the reader, the learner, to grapple with the difficulty of finding root cause, particularly in strategic, non-mechanical problems. For me, with Lean not a new thing at all, this was the most important lesson. The effort to get to root cause is difficult. And worth it. Shook forces me along that journey, a journey I need to take. Too many Lean books illustrate only the easy cases, the obvious paths to root cause. Shook takes a tougher path and it is worth it.

This book is a significant contribution to the Lean community. I suspect it was long in the making, as the book shows much reflection and a distillation of much knowledge. I recommend it highly.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Going Deep into the Basics

Had a wonderful conversation this morning with one of our supervisors. The ostensible topic was a scheduling question. But, from that, she asked a most wonderful, telling and profound question.

“So just what does ‘single piece flow’ mean anyway?”

This supervisor has been in on and supportive of our Lean efforts from day one. She knows about single piece flow. Yet, as she explained the context of her question, it showed a growing depth of understanding. She was no longer mimicking the simple answer to the question; now she was grappling with the principle underneath the technique.

We went into the specific matter prompting her question. It had process criticality, major quality demands as well as logistical challenges.

“So just what does ‘single piece flow’ mean anyway?”

The seemingly simple question was actually deep. We grappled with the application in this setting. We left it for her to assess how best to apply it. She does, after all, know the setting better than anyone else in the company.

And, more encouraging, is asking the question. It challenged me to keep asking basic questions. I hope it does you as well.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Debating Gemba

This is not a post about politics, though it flowed from last night's Presidential Debate.

It struck me that John McCain regularly mentioned how he had been to various trouble spots around the globe. How he had gone directly to opinion makers. How he had been present at the place things were happening.

I don't think Senator McCain knows anything about Lean, nor did he cite Lean as a strategy for competitiveness. Yet he appealed for credibility by stating he had physically been where important issues were taking place. In Lean parlance, this is going to gemba.

Intrinsically, people ascribe credibility to those who are at the point of action. Our modern idiom "been there, done that" illustrates this further.

So, if a politician knows this intrinsically, why is it so hard for many mangers to physically show up at the place value is added?

Perhaps this is a time to learn from, rather than criticize, those running for office.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

There's Clutter, then there's Clutter

When I posted recently about clearing out clutter, I had a couple of queries deserving response.

One of my work associates read the post, slipped quietly into my office and asked, in a hushed tone, “Joe, who did you tick off now?” I got a good laugh; the post was not directed at anyone. I simply was fed up with my own propensity for junk to pile up on my desk. As most of my posts, I wrote this one to myself.

Then, Joanna Rothman posted a comment asking about those who stay organized with everything out. Is this clutter? She poses a great point.

Many jobs require horizontal surfaces to be covered with relevant material. In particular, architects, project managers and building planners often need to work with large sheets of paper. They do no good rolled up in a drawer.

As in many things Lean, identical issues can be value-added in one setting and pure waste in another. Recall our usual revulsion at conveyor lines; yet in the chocolate factory it can add value by letting the gooey mix solidify before going to the packaging line.

To Joanna, I’d suggest the difference is in the intent. To answer the question “Is this piece of paper out because I need it or because I’m procrastinating trashing it or filing it?” If the former, leave it out; if the latter, well, it’s just plain clutter.

And each of us knows the difference.

So, keep getting rid of clutter. It just gets in the way.

Saturday, August 09, 2008


Why do we tolerate clutter? Is it a crutch? Is it an effort to hide the work we don't want to get done? We'll never know while it surrounds us.

Gotta get rid of the messes. The physical messes. The email messes. The relational messes. The structural messes.

All of them are clutter. Getting in the way. Distracting us.

The leader has enough distractions already. Why do we put more in our way?

Start with your desk. Then de-clutter your email inbox. Then, go make an apology to someone you’ve offended.

De-clutter. Daily.

It is essential.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Passion and Tools, Part 2

I wrote recently about passion for a topic and the tools to excel in that topic. Here’s an example.

GTDtimes is a blog surrounding David Allen’s excellent book “Getting Things Done.” GTD is a wonderful system to help us deal with the crunch of “stuff” coming our way. In mid July one practitioner published Cool GTD Gear to Motivate Everyone in your Organization. A very good post, well conceived on tools for doing GTD.
In the comment section of the post, one reader said:
I was enthusiastic to the point of trying to mandate GTD among my team of 20 about two years ago. I only had spotty success and found myself doing what you have just described here…REMINDING people to follow the program. I have found that this road is a tough one. A different road I chose was to have everyone work on projects together in a group collaboration system. At least for those projects, we were getting things done and communicating about it. if they were not working on a project for me, I learned to let them do what worked for them.

There you see it. A leader gave out tools and sought to motivate his team. Yet it didn’t really take.

The passion never took. And, left only with tools, the implementation was spotty.

Last week I heard a consultant present on the change process. He described two needs. The first was for alignment; getting all folks to understand the direction of the organization, in the right spots, equipped to achieve organizational results.

Yet, a second need remained which he termed atunement, the ability of people to buy in, at an emotional level, with these goals.

Alignment gives tools, yet atunement breeds passion. How does this happen in an organization? How do we, as Lean Leaders, build this passion? I’m learning this myself and welcome your input.

Be passionate and live it.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

I want to build a house; What hammer should I buy?

My favorite marketing writer, Seth Godin wrote this brief bit of wisdom last week. I quote here the essence:

I want to write a novel. What word processor do you recommend?

Yesterday on the radio, Jimmy Wales was talking about the Wikipedia movement. A caller who identified himself as a strategist at Amnesty International asked: We're going to build a website to promote freedom and democracy and human rights. What software should we use?


If you want to do something worth doing, you'll need two things: passion and architecture. The tools will take care of themselves. (Knowledge of tools matters, of course, but it pales in comparison to the other two.)

Sure, picking the wrong tools will really cripple your launch. Picking the wrong software (or the wrong hammer) is a hassle. But nothing great gets built just because you have the right tools.

This hit me at several levels.

How often have I failed in explaining Lean because I focus on kanban cards or kaizen events rather on a passion for operational excellence?

How often have I failed by talking about seven wastes rather than the enjoyment of every work day for all workers?

Do I provide an example of a passionate operational leader or a bureaucratic box-checker-offer?

Lean offers tools which the passionate individual and company can use. The passion needs to be for the result, though, not the tools; even we need to know the tools every bit as well as the finish carpenter knows her miter saw and laser level.

This hits me deeply…I hope it does you as well. Let your passion show.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

A Tale of Two Meetings

In attending back-to-back meetings last week, I saw much.

Meeting one involved three of us trying to solve a logistics problem. The organizer set it up at the spot of the problem and involved just the people who had a stake in it’s solution and had the tools to fix it. We stood up for about 35 minutes, touching the offending product problem. The organizer had compelling and clearly presented data, plus she offered some solutions. The meeting had both facts and emotional punch. We settled the issue quickly and the solution was soon implemented.

I then attended a more traditional meeting. We gathered around a conference table in comfortable chairs. We looked at Power Point slides of black text on a white background. One person attending brought some product samples, which added a visual clue to the problem we were trying to solve. Yet, it didn’t have the energy or the punch of the first meeting.

Now, the Lean folks among us will say, in Pavlovian fashion, “Yep, that’ll show ya, gotta have the meeting in gemba, get to the workplace.” True. But why?

My favorite marketing writer Seth Godin wrote recently about how to organize the room for a meeting. Well worth the read, he makes the point we all walk into a meeting room, look around and quickly pick up clues about how we should behave. Often, this is at cross purposes with what we need to get done. So, he says, change up the clues! Make it look different…you’ll get a different response.

Which is why meeting in gemba so often works. It changes the clues. What do I do when I don’t have a chair? What do I do when there is noise in the room? What do I do when I’m faced with a wall full of product rather than a nicely paneled wall?

Try it.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Getting to Email Zero

Following my recent post on Minimizing Work-in-Process for Knowledge Workers, several folks wrote and asked me to write more on getting their email inbox to zero. I put together an outline for such a post.

When I discovered I didn’t need to write anything further.

In Yes, You Can Stay on Top of Email, Michael Hyatt describes all you need know to empty your email inbox. Daily. Yes, daily. Hyatt writes the blog From Where I Sit. As the CEO of a major publishing company, he’s a busy guy who also thinks a lot about process. Long time blogging buddy Frank Patrick clued me to Hyatt’s blog a while back and I’ve come to appreciate his input.

Go read Hyatt’s post. Then, start applying it. Today. Not tomorow. Now. I highly commend his outline. And add two more points.

First, find a way to turn off email. In July 2007, unannounced, I started only sending and receiving emails once an hour at work. I found the way in Outlook to automatically send and receive email once an hour. I write them anytime I need to...but they only go out once and hour. Amazingly, not one single person I work with has asked me about this. For a full year. Now maybe they think I'm a jerk and haven't told me. I suspect, though, it simply hasn't been an issue. In fact, the only way any of them will know I do this is if they read this post! Yes, you can do the same. It really eliminates a LOT of distractions.

Second, find a way to separate personal and business emails. Most of us with regular jobs have a mandated email program for work. So use it. I strongly suggest getting a web-based email for your personal use. I’ve used several and Gmail is my vastly preferred choice.

Don’t let email run your life…get on top of it. Now.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Minimizing Work-in-Process for Knowledge Workers

We all know the drill; work-in-process is a problem in manufacturing. It ties up cash, limits flexibility, masks problems, decreases customer satisfaction. We’ve seen the “lower the water level; expose the rocks; fix the problems” illustration.

It’s no different in non-manufacturing setting. Making it personal, it’s no different for me, either. I’ve been bugged the last few years by this concept and, finally, have seen some progress over the last few months. Let me illustrate, in hopes you might find something useful.

My first step was to isolate just what constitutes WIP for me in my managerial role. I concluded it is all in two places:

  • My physical in-box. This is all the physical junk that lands in my office. Papers, forms, mail, memos.
  • My email in-box. All the electronic junk that comes my way.

Some folks might add Voice Mail to this list, making three piles. For me, VM is not a big deal so I simplified it to two.

And these two are crucial. Virtually everything I do which does not involve face-to-face meetings flows through these two portals. And the degree to which I do or do not deal, promptly, with both flows does all the things WIP does in the manufacturing setting. It ties up cash (slow decisions), limits flexibility (“we’re waiting on Joe”), masks problems (I don’t respond), decreases customer satisfaction (“he's avoiding me”).

The breakthrough that hit me a few months ago is classic lean. I have always tried to minimize and optimize these two queues. Not good enough. I realized I had to take them to zero. Empty. Zip. No email in the in box. No paper in the in box.

Zero is easy to measure and observe. Impossible to fudge. And, I have found, amazingly liberating.

The further breakthrough was pragmatic. In a dynamic business environment, I can't keep the boxes empty. So, my quest is to get to email zero and/or in box zero once in every business day.

Here’s my current metric. A simple blue 3x5 index card. With an “E” for days I get to email zero and an “I” for in box zero.

You can see I don’t get it done every day. I've had some bad streaks. The metric, though, is huge. It sits there on my desk as a brutal reminder I have not flushed out email for 3 days, that I’m avoiding something in my in box.

It’s not perfect. But it is way better than my other efforts. And, as goofy as it sounds, it's fun to get to zero and record the "E" or "I".

How to get to email zero or in box zero? That’s another discussion…if you’re interested, please let me know and I’ll write on either.

But, until I settled on a) the location of WIP b) the zero standard for WIP and c) the simple measurement of WIP, I was not making progress at all.

Hope you can find something here you can use.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Why do visuals help?

Several recent observations converged for me.

  • A colleague drew a Value Stream Map for a new process we were developing. Two major barriers became clear. In 45 minutes, we had a plan to overcome them, problems that had bugged us for six months.

  • We had a struggle over a particular system of nomenclature; the group of six were stuck. One member then walked to the whiteboard, drew a simple diagram of his understanding. Then another person modified this diagram with her perspective. Soon, all six people had added to the drawing. And a solution became obvious.

  • A vendor was preoccupied with the splendor of his proposal and talked and talked. One of our engineers then asked him to draw how his system worked. Reluctantly, he began putting boxes and arrows on the board. And the conversation turned to solutions. Egos faded.

  • A friend of many years invited me for lunch to discuss an important decision he faced in his career. A visual person to begin with, he had put an elegantly simple line drawing capturing the history, context, and trajectory of his options. Making the drawing, coupled with the active discussion, made choices clearer.

Why do drawings make decision making clearer? People a lot smarter than me have looked hard at this. I simply see that it works.

Somehow, the drawing, however simple or clunky, engages a different part of the brain. Flowing through both the eyes and the ears, the idea finds a different path to the processing parts of the brain. In this way, new understandings of tough problems emerge. The original idea then burns more brightly, more clearly, with more focus.

Go doodle somewhere. It usually helps.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Toyota Tour, opus 5

Last Friday, eight engineers from our group of companies and I had the chance to tour Toyota’s North American Fork Truck manufacturing facility, Toyota Industrial Equipment Mfg (TIEM). I continue to be astounded and grateful for the openness, transparency and astounding skills of Toyota.

This was my fifth walk through this plant. My first trip was in August 2000 and I was there most recently in October 2005. I wanted to use this visit to grasp more of the “how” of the Toyota Production System.

My colleagues were making their first visit to a Toyota facility. Not surprisingly, they were blown away by the cleanliness, systemization and flow of the place. The innumerable small tools, carts, jigs, jib cranes, rollers were astounding, as was the ergonomics, the attention to detail, the visual communication and sheer energy of the place.

And this plant let us get up close and personal to the energy. Unlike Toyota’s large car plants, this facility employs only about 650 people, making about 130 fork trucks per day on four final assembly lines. Thus, we could easily walk the entire plant in a little over an hour, with time to stop and observe items of interest. There was no catwalk tour or trolley train…we were on our feet, very much in gemba.

Two events while there capture my observations.

When we arrived and were greeted by our host, she led us to a table holding our name tags. She then requested we make sure our names were spelled correctly. One of my colleagues with a complex last name chuckled softly to herself observing two transposed letters; it was not a problem to her. Our host was listening carefully, however, to the response to her question. Immediately, she asked what the correction was and, over my colleague’s mild objection, took the name tag to correct it. Her assistant disappeared into an office, caught up with our group about 3 minutes later and personally delivered the now-correct name tag.

What happened ? It was a line stop. There was an error and, at Toyota, you simply do not allow a known error to proceed. Ever. In this case the error detection method was inspection by a qualified person; each one of us checked our own name. More specifically, this was a pull on a yellow cord (signaling an error but not stopping the process) rather than a pull on the red cord (signaling a complete stoppage of the process). Our tour continued to the next stop yet they corrected the error. My colleague was wowed; I commented to her it was impossible for them to NOT fix the mistake. This is consistent with foundational principles of the TPS; rapid error detection and correction (jidoka) and respect for people.

Late in our walk around, our host invited us to look at an area of the plant displaying extensive manufacturing data. As our tour group of 9 looked, I noticed the area rapidly filling up with Toyota staffers. Our host introduced me to one of them, the plant's Director of Quality. He quickly explained: “This is our 2:35 meeting. We gather daily to discuss quality problems in the past 24 hours.” Conveniently, it was 2:35pm…I stuck around to hear what went on.

Attending were the Plant Manger, the senior managers of functional areas and a number of Team Leaders. With no fanfare and all attendees simply standing up in the metrics area, the meeting promptly started with a discussion of an error discovered late in the day Thursday. The Team Leader of the area briefly described the problem (a missing latch). He then introduced an associate from the line who gave detaila on what went wrong and how he missed installing the latch. The Team Leader then resumed the brief presentation, describing the countermeasure their group had already installed to prevent this from happening again. The whole discussion of this single problem took perhaps three minutes. The senior managers of the plant heard directly from an hourly employee what happened and how his group planned to fix it.

Describing this in text loses the impact of the moment, though. I observed the body language, the tone and the mood of the meeting. It was these factors which astounded me. The group was attentive and welcoming to the associate and Team Leader. Their walk matched their talk of wanting to know about problems. There was no hint of blame or punishment. The obvious expectation was the work group itself could fix problems and their fix would eliminate errors. Further, was the expectation the group could act promptly. I could feel it…and it was mind-boggling to see the culture this plant had built through thousands of repetitions of such discussions.

At 2:45, the meeting ended and the group which had assembled so promptly dispersed just as quickly…again, the context of speed and action rang true.

Two brief vignettes illustrate what must happen hundreds of times each day at this small plant in a quiet corner of Indiana. It was a moving and challenging day. My nature is to mull this for some time…yet I’m also challenged to make something happen soon.

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Walk the Talk

At a recent community business luncheon, a local executive told us about their training program, showing video of manufacturing simulations, showing the number of hours they give each new employee, describing the industry attention the program had attracted.

That afternoon, our firm interviewed a candidate for an open manufacturing position. On his application, the candidate indicated he had worked at the firm with the exemplary training program. Having just heard about it, I asked him to describe his training.

“What training?” he asked. “I was pretty much just put on the line, watching another guy and trying to figure it out.”

We explored this further; he had received no training at all.

Do we walk the talk?

My oldest son is currently “out-processing” from the US Army, having completed two deployments to Iraq. I phoned him this week on his base and heard a lot of voices in the background. “Yeah, I’m just waiting in line for a medical review,” he told me laconically. “I’ve been in line about three hours. I brought a book.” We chuckled about this and talked of his final days in the Army.

“Oh, Dad, I saw something you’d like here,” he told me as I started to let him go. “On a bulletin board here in this hallway is a poster about a Lean Six Sigma project. I figured you were the only person who might even understand it.” I asked him if it had anything to do with shortening the medical wait time. He laughed, saying it looked just like a poster.

Do we walk the talk?

I had a business lunch on Thursday at a local restaurant. The businessman next to me requested a “sweet potato,” placing his order perhaps absent-mindedly in the middle of an engaging conversation. The server delivered the sweet potato with the rest of the food.

“I didn’t ask for a sweet potato, I wanted a baked potato,” he told the server, though he offered to eat the sweet potato. Before anyone could say anything, the server apologized, said he’d go get a baked potato and, whoosh, away went the sweet potato. About two minutes later, a baked potato appeared. By my ears, the server heard right the first time; yet he didn’t argue and served the customer quickly and courteously.

Do we walk the talk?

When our talk goes one way and our walk goes the other, we become a headless oddity. When our talk moves with our walk, credibility rises.

The waiter had it, in spades.

I wonder how others view me.

I’ll try to keep my head.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

What is Value, anyway?

One of my fellow engineers recently shared this story and gave me permission to share with you. It speaks for itself.

I had an experience this weekend which really made the idea of customer-specified value clear to me. I thought I'd share it with you.

As some of you know, I recently discovered that the diamond in my engagement ring had a chip in it. So, my husband and I took it back to the point of purchase last week Sunday and we were informed that the stone would be replaced free of charge, no problem. Great! I couldn't wait to pick the ring up a week later (yesterday) and get on with it. I do, after all, wear it every day and well, I sort of missed it.

So I go in yesterday to pick it up and I'm told to go back to the service area to retrieve the ring. I do this and the lady behind the counter very cordially greets me and goes off to retrieve my ring. She returns and hands me my ring and I excitedly replace it on my finger. And then I notice that my ring looks nothing like it did before. The diamond used to sit up much higher and frankly looked a lot bigger. This ring that I now have on my finger looks much smaller and a lot less attractive. It looks like someone took a hammer to it and squashed it down.

So, I told the woman this and she looked confused but then called the person who actually did the work. And he told me that "this setting is a lot more durable and less likely to wear". He added "You're going to like this a lot better."

For the record, I don't like it better. I hate it. It looks nothing like my ring and I have the wedding pictures to prove it :)

And the light went on. He incorrectly specified value rather than asking his customer to define it. The value of the ring, to me, is the aesthetic look of it. It is NOT its durability. When women talk about our diamonds we do not discuss their durability. We do not discuss how likely the ring is to wear and whether or not the ring will hold up during our next home improvement project. We talk about how sparkly they are and how large they are and how pretty they are. And since we are by and large the customers (directly or indirectly) of these rings, should they not be designed with our desires in mind?

So now I enter phase 2 of my ring saga where I must decide whether to trust the store with a further modification of my ring or whether I take it to a jeweler in my home town who can do absolutely anything and will, I know, actually listen to me!

Who decides “value”? The customer. Who delivers value? We do. How does this define waste? In terms of what the customer things value is.

Worth remembering.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Upside Down Visuals

Circuitously, I ended up shopping for shampoo recently. Actually, I was shopping for a shampoo bottle, not shampoo. My wife had found a deal on shampoo but it came in a big batch, a huge bottle. I wanted to find a smaller bottle to put in the shower.

As I wandered down the aisle, a fully clueless male clearly out of my element, I noticed some bottles were right side up, others upside down.

I decided I’d like one of the upside down bottles…it would keep the shampoo closer to the opening…less “waste of waiting” you know. I reached for one bottle…oops, the label said “conditioner” not shampoo.

I kept looking…and then it hit me. Sometime in the last decade, multiple manufacturers decided all shampoo would be in right side up bottles, while all conditioners would be in upside down bottles. BRILLIANT! A wonderful visual tool for a place when many people have impaired vision…no glasses, no contacts, not awake yet…the reasons are many.

Which got me thinking…what a great way for simple A-B differentiation of tools, supplies and other needed items. Upside down, right side up. Add color to the mix and it is even more useful. I’m looking for opportunities.

Keep on learning.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Eight Reasons for Buffer Inventory

Why have any Work-In-Process Inventory? Why have any intermediate subcomponents in your system?

  1. It is a shock absorber for uncertainty.
  2. It shows you where flow ends…thus you must do pull.
  3. It shows you where you sense variability in your process.
  4. It insulates you from vendors who don’t deliver on time.
  5. It provides a tool for managing your entire process by observing buffer quanitities.
  6. It gives you a quantitative way to see changes in customer demand.
  7. It forces you to “declare” your process steps to others, making the process more transparent and visible.
  8. It allows you to measure your progress to the degree you can decrease buffer inventory sizes as a proportion of your total inventory.

WIP, in itself is not a waste. Too much of it is a waste. And paying attention to it is central.

Keep learning.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Just what DO you do, while in Gemba?

The more I learn about Standard Work, the more I learn what I don’t know. Like peeling an onion, just to see another layer underneath, so working through Standard Work is an unending process for me.

Today’s observation. I’ve written quite a bit about "going to gemba", physically getting to the place where work is done to see for myself what is happening. And I’m now implementing my own standard work for the trip to gemba.

In each of several work areas, I have particular concerns. For me, as a leader and manager, I have to take specific actions to communicate to others my concerns. My objective, after all, is to engage others in addressing these concerns; I can’t operate under the illusion I will fix all problems. So, standard work for me is a) to go to the work place and b) take specific actions to reinforce action on the key concerns.

For example, in one work area, we have had issues scheduling daily work assignments. We now have a simple white board at the place of the morning start-up meeting. Yet, to make this more standard, I go to the board once each week and write encouraging comments on the board. In so doing, I want to communicate I see what is happening and encourage it to improve. I currently have four such activities to do weekly. I chart my done/not done on each. It is very humbling and alarming and encouraging...all at the same time.

At a deeper level (look out, onion), it is very arrogant of me to expect our team to do Standard Work if I am unwilling or unable to do Standard Work myself.

I have a long way to go. At least I know the road I am on.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Hoshin Kanri--a Surprise

Last week, I made a presentation to our local Lean network on Hoshin Kanri, the Lean system of strategic planning (you can look at the presentation here; I’ve also listed as a download on the sidebar). The group was attentive and gave good feedback.

But some of the feedback surprised me.

In our group are folks with a lot of Lean experience. They’ve been exposed to some of the best teachers in the field. Yet, these folks said they have been unfamiliar with Hoshin Kanri or unsure how to apply it. My attempts to make it a bit understandable seemed to help; which surprised me, since I’m a novice at the topic myself.

Which shows me one point; never assume you can’t make a contribution. In the effort to eliminate waste, to make organizations work well to deliver value quickly, we can never know everything. And each one can add to the understanding.

For me, when I try to teach something, I learn it better. I think most are the same way. Encourage those around you to teach; try to teach something yourself. Soon.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Waste gives birth to more Waste

Yesterday, I reviewed a large stack of invoices flowing through our company. In the midst of the pile, two caught my eye.

One particular vendor had two invoices. This vendor sells us some common, widely-available, commodity-like items. Each of the invoices had, along with the regular purchases, a single no-charge listing. One was for a T-shirt for a very popular NFL football team (size XL). On the other was a nice 2008 calendar. This triggered a memory of seeing a sleeve of Maxfli golf balls listed from the same vendor before.

Which got me wondering.

Is this vendor seeking to differentiate itself in a business where all of its competition sells pretty much the same stuff? By itself, that’s commendable. But, by giving away freebies, is it subtly enticing our company to NOT compare prices and service with other competitors? Look, I know the golf balls and the T-shirts are not free. I know we are paying for it, indirectly. It adds no value to our company, though it probably adds value to the golfers or football fans who benefit from the give-aways. Does it also drive waste for us, by paying too much for basic goods our company needs?

The realization triggered a direct review on my part of this vendor. You may want to poke around and do the same.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Standard Work for Managers = Go to Gemba

As many times as I've heard it, as many times as I've said it to others, I still have to relearn the lesson. Over and over.

Get to the workplace. Look. Listen.

It seems the culture of our supposedly modern managerial world is so driven by meetings and emails and reports to read and papers to sign we squeeze out what is truly important and transforming.

It it me afresh this week as I attempted to build into my routine a regular walk-through of each of our production areas. I made it standard work for me, as a manager/leader.

Like most aspects of standard work, it was not hard to do. It seemed routine. Yet, when I did the standard work of walking, looking at certain workplaces, greeting people by name, listening to their observations, good things happened. Very good things happened.

Further, how bogus is it for me to expect our production team to follow standard work in their processes if I don't follow standard work in mine? Yeah, embarassingly bogus.

I remind myself. If you need reminding too, consider your self reminded.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Wasting Attention

Kelly Forrister, a coach with David Allen of “Getting Things Done” fame, wrote recently on How much do you value your attention? She argued for the supreme value time has for each of us and how foolish we are to waste it. Specifically, she asked why we would hit “reply all” to an email when only one person needed the response. The response to all the others represented waste of their attention to open, read and process yet one more email.

Thus, I can contribute waste by asking someone to give up their attention to see something I pass along not worthy of their attention. I create muda with the simple click of a mouse.

Think about not wasting attention today in your email interactions.

And I truly hope I did not waste your attention with this post!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Blogging Update, plus links

Even though this space has been quiet for a while, I’ve been blogging quite a bit here during the fall.

I’ll be adding more items in Learning About Lean over the next few weeks. Mostly short, pithy items I hope get you thinking without wasting your time. I've also cleaned up the layout here, hope you like it.

Here’s a summary of my recent blogs on the IIE site:

Cut the batch size

What does standard work look like?

Waste not...even welding slag

It is the size of the scoop that matters

Yeah, but... (bad words to use)

Kanban the coffee!

I’ll add links here as well to those articles as they come up.