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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