Sunday, December 12, 2010

Lean Behaviors: Mock Up, Part 2

Taking my own advice (and that of a colleague), we did a life-size mock up Friday of a new, pull-based scheduling system.  We did it with the folks who will have to use it.


What did we learn?

·         How much physical space it would take

·         Our initial thought on label clarity was inadequate

·         The concept will likely work

·         Three other assumptions were slightly off target

·         Batching is built into our DNA

·         Flow is tough to learn


How did we learn it?

·         We watched the space it would take

·         We watched clumsiness in working with kanban cards

·         We listened to language

·         We watched moods change from comprehension to confusion to frustration to insightful satisfaction


What will we do?

·         We handed out three assignments to get at by Monday at 9am

·         We scheduled a repeat of the mock up later on Monday morning


In short, we did a pile of learning and a pile of teaching in a mere 90 minutes at virtually no cost just by doing a mock up and simulating three days' production cycle. 


No computer screens in sight. 


Seven people, sitting, walking, scowling, asking, listening, talking, moving, adjusting, clarifying. 


90 minutes. And I truly don't think it would have happened as well had we not done the mock up.  


Well worth it.





Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Lean Behaviors: Mock Up

I was reminded twice today of the criticality of a simple, life-size mock up of a proposed change.  In our virtual, digital world (witness this blog :-) ) we mostly sit, staring at a computer screen.  Subtly, that becomes reality to us.

It becomes more of a shock and of supreme use to make up a model of a process.  

  • Use a refrigerator box as a "machine".  
  • Stand at a kitchen counter to model an assembly.  
  • Use empty milk jugs to simulate fluid flow.  
  • Write with washable markers on a wall to see how a pipe should run.  
  • Use playing cards to simulate kanban pick up and delivery.  
  • Put tape on the floor to show where you would walk between process steps.

Mock it up.  Now.  It's amazing what it will trigger for your learning.  

And then keep learning.


Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Lean Behaviors: Trusting Signals

Fundamental to any Lean implementation is Just in Time delivery. JIT is driven by pull signals, flowing opposite the direction of product, requesting an upstream.  Thus, everything depends on the human reaction to that signal, be it a physical kanban card, an electronic signal, a specified container, or the arrival of a tugger.
And humans want to know; Is the signal reliable?  Can I depend on it?  Does it tell me, every time, precisely what to do?  Does it make my life better?
An answer of "no" or "maybe" or "well, it should" is enough to derail the pull system.
Humans need to trust the signal.
The signals need to be trustworthy. 
When a pull system isn't working, it's usually one of these two. 
Keep on learning.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Lean Behaviors: Hard work, in reality

One of the appeals of Lean is its framework to describe, from a high altitude, how a process or collection of processes should operate.  It appeals to readers. 
To sell books on Lean, one needs only to tell the stories of how those processes should operate.  It appeals to authors. 
Understanding the books and the stories makes one literate on Lean, able to use the lingo, able to fly over a situation and offer advice.  It appelas to senior executives. 
Implementation, however, is the truly hard work of Lean.  By definition, implementation is at a low altitude, encompassing detail.  It's hard to write interesting books about the boring, long grind of implementation. 
And the true leader accepts this, buckles down, and implements anyway. 
The leader does the hard work.
The one who does the hard work is the true leader. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lean Behaviors: Who Behaves Differently?

Long time blogging buddy Dan Markovitz points to an oft-forgotten essential:
Accomplishing biz strategy requires defining, developing & managing specific behaviors at a front-line level

As many of us enter the planning cycle for 2011, ask: "Will this plan actually modify anyone's behavior?"  

Keep learning.


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Lean Behaviors: Focus

Years ago, a friend succinctly described the struggle her son had due to his ADHD.  "All stimuli carry equal weight to him," she said, sadly.  A bird flying by the classroom window carried equal meaning to the assignment written on the board.  He simply could not distinguish between the important and the trivial or irrelevant.  

The Lean leader must have eyes to see the important and ignore or downplay much else.  This is doubly difficult because events irrelevant to the delivery of value maybe very important to others, even senior people, in the organization.  

It isn't easy.  But everything is not important.  Only a few things truly are. 

Keep learning.


Friday, August 13, 2010

The Behaviors of Lean

It has been a while since I've posted in this space.  The inactivity is not because there's a problem or that I'm not learning anything about Lean. 
Rather, I have not been able to put a mental handle on just what I have been Learning About Lean.  And with nothing clear-headed to say, I chose to simply say nothing. 
There are a lot of great sources out there to discuss the tools and methods of Lean.  We've now been implementing these tools for 6+ years in my current role and it has been and continues to be a blast.  I don't see much reason now to try to add to those who are way better than me in describing tools.
Yet, Lean is more than represents a way of thinking, a way of viewing the often-chaotic world of business.  Ultimately, it is about the actions one chooses to take in a variety of situations.  Do the actions make sense?  Are they reasonably consistent over time?  Does the leader demonstrate those actions clearly for those with whom he/she works?
In short, a lot of Lean is about behavior.
I've been observing more closely those behaviors over the past year or so.  Yet, only recently have I sensed a framework for describing what I see, behaviorally.
So I'll be writing about these observations in this space.  As it has been in the history of this blog, the writing is a work-in-progress, a way I try to explain to myself just what I am sensing.  If you enjoy coming along for the ride, so much the better. 
Keep on learning.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Over overprocessing

In the context of our digital world, where we can reach out and touch (or annoy) people at any time, think briefly about this example of the waste of over-processing.
Just because we CAN send a note to "all" does not mean we SHOULD send a note to "all."
Keep learning.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The "gut punch" of poor quality

My longtime blogging pal Karen Wilhelm just posted a fabulous story on how poor quality hits a customer.  Her crisp, creative few paragraphs communicates marvelously. 
I suggest you read it and then use it with others in your organization to talk about quality.
Keep on learning.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Cutting Meeting Waste--you can do it privately

We recently invited folks to join in a group effort to cut the waste of meeting time.  I've been encouraged by the comments we've received.

One improvement we have made, already, is this.  The original idea Dan Markovitz and I had was to do A3 analysis in public...all of us would post the A3 our company was working with and we'd all be able to learn from each other.  

Yet, for some of you, that's uncomfortable.  First, it's a concern of looking "dumb" in public.  I understand that, having been visibly "dumb" lots of times.  Second, there is a legitimate concern about exposing any company information.  

So, if you'd like to participate but want to remain anonymous, let us know.  Dan and I will comment but no others.  

We have a few slots left in our maximum of eight participants.  Let us know if you want to be in!


Thursday, April 22, 2010

Join us in an experiment to cut meeting time

Intriguing idea often come through unusual routes.  The idea in this post is one of them.

When I was at the Lean Summit in March, Jim Womack spoke quite passionately of a need to move beyond just the tools of Lean to an emphasis on Lean Management.  How do we better use the principles of Lean to run our companies, not just make our products?  This got me thinking much.

One evening at the same event, I finally got to meet Dan Markovitz, a cool guy and fellow blogger, author of Time-Back Management.  Dan has a real passion for how we use Lean to manage our time and do a much better job of getting knowledge work done.  We had some marvelous conversations, discovering many shared interests.  

Dan published a wonderful post last week; Meetings: The Plaque of an Organization.  In it, he quoted one of my heros, Peter Drucker, who wrote:

Too many meetings always bespeak poor structure of jobs and the wrong organizational components. . . if people in an organization find themselves in meetings a quarter of their time or more — there is time-wasting malorganization.

This lead to further conversations.  We all know that inventory, per se, is not waste though excessive inventory is waste.  Similarly, some meetings are necessary but excessive meetings are true waste.  And, since we know we can often cut unexamined inventory in half with little ill effect, can we do the same with meeting time?  We want to know.  So, acting on Jim Womack's assessment that "management is learned by experimentation, not by dogma", we are posing an open, on-line experiment. 

Dan and I  invite you and your group/company to join us in a group experiment to see if we can lower the quantity of meetings in each of our organizations. 

Here are the details:


  • To reduce the plague of meetings so that we can, you know, actually do some work


  • Participation is limited to the first eight companies (or groups) to respond
  • All members of the lean community are welcome to review the A3s at any time, or comment on the open access Google Doc


  • Dan Markovitz & Joe Ely will provide the problem statement for the A3 (this creates a uniform starting point for all groups)
  • Each company works simultaneously on its own A3
  • All A3s posted and readable (but not editable) on Google Docs to anyone who is interested during and after the course of the project
  • Comments/updates/funny cat pictures can be submitted on a separate Google Doc so that everyone can read them

Timeframe (75 days):

  • Target launch date: Monday, May 3
  • Target completion date: Monday, July 12
  • Two weeks to fill out the left side of the A3 (background; current conditions; goal; analysis)
  • Eight weeks for Do-Check-Act (proposal; implementation plan; follow up)
  • Report out/reflection by July 19

If you're interested in joining us, please send an email to Dan Markovitz (dan ATSIGN or me (joeely618 ATSIGN with your name, organization, and contact information.  We'll send you the link to the Google Docs area with the A3 template and problem statement.

Questions?  Comments?  Contact either of us

We hope you can join us.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mental Models

It is way too easy for me to have a mental model of Lean as a straight process, much like going to University.  First you take the 100 level course, then the 200 level course and, if you persevere and get some funding, you might eventually finish graduate school.  Knock off the courses, check the boxes, get the diploma.  

Which is a disservice.  

Last week, we were grappling with a problem of inadequate supply of an intermediate component assembly.  We should have had enough but ran out, severely affecting the supply of final product to a customer.  Bad news.  Drilling into the issue with the folks involved, it became clear we had missed on one element of our pull system.  Basic stuff.  But we lost track of it. 

Gee, I thought we had passed that course.  Felt we had conquered that city, slain that foe.  I guess not.  And why did we miss it for several weeks?  Fundamentally, it was the wrong mental model in my own head.  I didn't circle back quickly enough to the basic pattern which triggered the problem.  I wanted to relentlessly move forward.  Even though I have written here just last fall about linear vs. circular learning, I still was stuck in a linear mental model.  Linearity runs deep.

Take a look if you are too linear today.  


Sunday, April 04, 2010

When Systems Annoy

At a recent local business luncheon, the conversation at my table turned to diets.  It became quickly evident that five of the eight folks were on one of various current diet methods and, boy, did they five of them enjoy talking about it.  Good carbs, bad carbs, nice calories, bad fat, happy fat, omega 3 (or 5 or 7, I can't remember), salted vs. unsalted frog tongue.  The detail, the intensity, the animation were all amazing.

The other three of us, unfortunately not seated next to each other, were caught in the withering caloric crossfire.  We sat silently, having nothing to contribute in the face of such enthusiasm and controversy.    

Yet one really good thing came from the otherwise dismal lunch event.

It reminded me, in the clearest possible way, how I can annoy as well if I prattle on about Lean systems around those who do not find it interesting.  

It's great fun to talk Lean systems with those who are interested.  Let's spare the rest of the world who just want stuff that works and doesn't care how it happens.  

Keep on learning.  Even learning when to keep quiet.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why Variation?

"What makes this metric change?  Why is it up and down?"

The senior executive was both adamant and insistent.  He wanted reasons.  Now.  

The question is valid.  The answer is elusive.  But NOT impossible.

Why DO the numbers go up and down?  Why does the yield seem good one week and lousy the next?  Why does the labor used for Process X change from day to day? Why do the same steps in the same work sequence yield differences in quality over time?  


As in many cases, Dr. Deming offers guidance here.  

His view of variation is captured in his description of common cause and special cause.  How does this work?

In short, he urges users to plot the metric and calculate the control limits of the data series, generally two standard deviations above and below the mean.   Inevitably, the data will move around.  How to explain the variability??

Dr. Deming says movement within the control limits is due to common causes, the inherent variability in any system, the noise, the general changes which read on any process.  How to improve it??  You work on the system, apply continuous improvement.  There is not a one-to-one correspondence between cause and change, however, much to the chagrin of the questioning executive.  

Conversely, movement beyond the control limits is due to special causes, one-time, traceable aberrations, both for good and bad.  Unit costs suddenly improve?  A one-time purchase of raw materials from a supplier who ran out of warehouse space.  A rash of late deliveries?  A broken, important piece of production equipment.  How to improve it?  Go to the source of these one-time issues and fix them.  You can also get a smile from the executive with your crisp explanation. 

Teaching about, understanding, charting and measuring the key variabilities in a system is a wonderful training tool for any organization.  It forces correct conversations about important issues.  It can turn opinionated arguments into data-driven solution-fests.  

One of the most concise discussions of this tool is in Marypat Cooper's excellent Kaizen Sketchbook.  I recommend it highly. 

Keep on learning.


Thursday, March 04, 2010

Lean Transformation Summit-Day Two

The second and final day of Lean Enterprise's major meeting was a good one.  Day One was very insightful for me.  Day Two went deeper into example and practice of effective leadership.  My initial highlights:
  • Mike Pulic of Grainger described his experience that a myriad of small, local improvement efforts trumps a few large projects. 
  • He offered one key quote:  "The central role of leadership is to foster candid conversations on the right topics."
  • Greg Peters of Goodrich, the aerospace firm, described his 15 years of experience driving Lean.
  • His summary of change?  "Awareness and Understanding can come through the brain but Commitment and Habit have to come through the heart."  An engineer by training and temperament, he nevertheless really understood the emotional component of the change process.
  • Jim Womack provided the final address with a measured and emphatic challenge to change how we manage.  I'll have much more to write about the topic as I try to absorb his emphasis.
It was a terrific time and I have much to mull and apply.  Stay tuned...I'll share my learnings. 

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Lean Transformation Summit--Day One

I'm attending Lean Enterprise Institute's event in Orlando, the Lean Transformation Summit.  I've been hoping to get here for a couple years and it finally worked out this year.  It has been wonderfully challenging and helpful.  Highlights of Day One.
  • Lantech gave the most compelling presentation I've seen on building standardized management work.  They had striking demonstration of how this effort secured earlier gains and saw them through a very difficult 2009.  I have tools from this to allow us to save time and be more effective managers.
  • Jim Luckmen led a remarkable session on building Lean culture.  His insight on why culture changes, combined with Lantech's demonstration of specific management actions, was worth the entire price of admission.
  • I met fellow Lean Bloggers Mark Graban and Dan Markovitz.  A photo will follow as proof...but what a wonderful conversation with those two guys.  Dan offers insight on management work which is unique in the Lean community. 
  • LEI walks the talk.  The way they run this meeting exemplifies best practices in Lean.  I'm impressed with their attention to detail, customer satisfaction, waste-free efforts and rapid problem solving.  Very impressed.
More will follow in weeks to come.  I'm learning much. 

Saturday, February 27, 2010

In Awe of Process Excellence

At some point, I may find things like this boring.  But I have no idea when that might happen.  Look at what is possible, just due to process excellence. 

I have a personal project coming up which requires a small, portable digital camera.  The project will take place outdoors, however, in some rough territory and the probability of losing, dropping or soaking the camera is sizable.  So I didn't want to invest much.  I looked at low-cost cameras in a discount store but they didn't quite fill the bill.  I then thought to try eBay...could I find a low-cost, used camera to fill the bill? 

Last Sunday night, I looked at several auctions and found a 3-year-old Nikon L3, 5MP camera with some cosmetic defects which fit my requirements perfectly.  The bid price of $8.50 only added to my interest.  With 7 minutes left on the auction I put in a maximum bid of $15 and headed out the door to a previous commitment.  I got home, and found I got the camera for $12.00; with shipping, my total cost was a mere $25.  All of which happened in about 10 minutes of my time on line. 

And it got better. 

  • On Monday morning, the seller shipped the camera to me
  • He gave me a tracking number with the USPS
  • The Postal Service sent me an email at each transition of the package through it's system
  • On Wednesday, I received the camera.
  • On Thursday, I picked up a 1GB memory card for $10, along with some milk and cereal, at a neighborhood store. 

I was set for a mere $35.   

Think of the processes which delivered just what I needed, right when I wanted it.

  • eBay has a market allowing buyers and sellers to connect efficiently
  • The Postal Service tracks packages and makes it public
  • The supply chain delivers a gigabyte memory card for the price of a quarter tank of gas.
 Each of these happened due to effort to pull waste out of the process.  The efficiency of it all was amazing.  

The challenge to us?  How many of the processes which my customers see move as smoothly??  How many act on what the customer wants with this level of precision? 

No room for arrogance for most of us.  

Keep on learning.



Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Biggest, Most Public Line Stop Ever

It has been fascinating the past two days to follow Toyota's much-publicized cessation of selling and production of half of their product line.  As you probably know, the auto maker discovered a problem associated with gas pedal assemblies which ran the risk of an uncontrolled acceleration.
Much of the press is focusing on the damage to both finances and reputation.  The models in question represent 54% of Toyota's 2009 sales.  Many suspect it will be a major stumbling block to the nascent automotive recovery.  Others seem to enjoy watching the now-market leader stumble.  Local reports cite anxious car owners calling dealerships in some panic. 
All of this is valid.  And yet there are other reasons to watch this unfold, not obvious to the press. 
As Lean practitioners, we know Toyota systems.  What they have done here is a line stop.  Line stops are central to quality.  To do it well involves four steps: 
  • Detect the error
  • Stop the process
  • Correct the immediate problem
  • Find root cause and install a countermeasure
Any team moving to excellence must be fluent in the language and practice of a line stop.  Thus, I was pleased to hear the discussion in a biweekly production meeting the morning the Toyota news broke.   Our production manager simply asked "Did you hear the Toyota news?"  Indeed, most had.  "What happened?"  Immediately the reply "They pulled a line stop."  
Interestingly, I personally witnessed a line stop at Toyota a couple years ago at the opposite end of the complexity spectrum for the company.  In a totally different setting, I was WIP during a line stop at the Portland Airport security check in 2007.  Line stops are one of the best policy examples any company can make. 
So, what is Toyota doing?  Just what they have always done.  They simply do not pass non-conforming product along.  The burden is the company's as well, not the workers.  No layoffs for staff at the production facilities; instead, the teams are doing maintenance and kaizen activities.  It is probably almost impossible for Toyota to do anything else.
Error correction via a line stop.  Respect for people. 
Behind the scenes, we can be sure intense, round-the-clock effort is happening to fix this problem.  How long will it take?  I've read expectations of anything from 7-10 days from now.  How do you rapidly retrofit hundreds of thousands of cars?  
The intelligent company will watch closely and learn much in the next two weeks. 

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Value Adding on First and Ten

Would you like another illustration of Value-Added vs Non-Value-Added time?  Do you like football?  Do you make fun of people who like football?
If yes to any of the above, this is for you.
In the Friday, January 15 edition of the Wall Street Journal, David Biderman wrote a most entertaining article "11 Minutes of Action" . In short, a group of WSJ folks timed, frame by frame, broadcasts of four late-season National Football League games.  They measured a mere 11 minutes of actual action in each broadcast. There was 174 minutes of non-action!  Yes, that means only 11 of a total of 185 minutes actually showed the ball in play...5.9%. 
And what filled up the rest of the time??  A full hour of the broadcast was commercials.  74 minutes showed players standing around.  Surprisingly to me, only 17 minutes showed replays...yet even that was 6 minutes more than the actual live action. 
What is the cost for filling all the rest of the time?  According to the article, the networks employ 80-200 people for each game, flowing the broadcast through seven (yep, seven!) production trucks.  Total production cost??  $150,000 to $250,000 per game. 
As we have learned since Rother and Shook wrote Learning to See, it is crucial for us to measure how much time a production process adds value to our products, actually modifying and transforming raw materials into something for which the customer is willing to pay.  And, when we make this measurement, we are invariably shocked at just how little time adds value.  In fact, by most manufacturing measures, a football broadcast adding value 5.9% of the time is way above average.  Often, the proportion is measured in fractions of a percentage point. 
Measure we must, however.  And assess the cost of the non-value added time.  If the non-value added time triggers costs (read:  lots of fancy graphics to fill the dead time between plays), we'd better know those costs. 
And don't laugh too hard at the NFL.  As I was chuckling while reading this article for the first time, my wife wryly asked me just how I would feel had the WSJ done a similar study of my beloved sport of baseball.  Ouch. 
Keep on learning.  Even if it is third and long. 

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Customer Impact of Process Flow

A surprising (and painful) inflammation of my right shoulder last night around 3:00am prompted a highly-motivated trip to the Doctor's office this morning as soon as they opened.  Diagnosis was straightforward, and the clinic electronically transmitted my prescription to our local pharmacy of choice.  

Arriving at the pharmacy, still holding my right arm in pain, I checked in.  Yes, they said, my prescription had arrived already but they had a question about my insurance plan.  Indeed, I said, our company changed it at the first of the year, here is my new card.  They updated my information promptly, invited me to have a seat and went to work to fill the prescription. 

As I eased my aching body into a nearby chair, I realized I had a front-row seat on process flow.  The layout of the pharmacy let me see clearly eight pharmacists and technicians all working furiously.  There was activity everywhere; big bottles being pulled, filling smaller bottles, printing labels, stuffing sacks, stacking orders, three phone lines ringing.  I was impressed with how hard everyone was working on a Tuesday morning.  

Yet, with my process eye, I had concerns.  All the activity did not seem to have an obvious direction.  Two members of the team seemed to be stacking, re-stacking and then subsequently moving stacks of plastic baskets with partially filled prescriptions.  Several team members shouted to others.  Almost all members were interrupted a least a couple of times to go help another or respond to some other stimulus.  My ten-minute wait stretched to nearly thirty.  And the pace of activity of the eight team members never let up.  (Note to long-term readers; my perception of pain subsided as I analyzed process flow... who knows, maybe the geek factor is actually an analgesic.)

Finally, my order was ready.  The pharmacist took her time and reviewed carefully with me the timing of how I needed to take the medicine, even giving me a small calendar page with the specific instructions.  I asked a couple of questions, which she knowledgeably answered.  Nevertheless, in this moment where she was obviously speaking with a customer, one of her colleagues interrupted with a question as she spoke with me.  

I paid, eased back into my parka and drove home with an uneasiness unrelated to the continued pain in my shoulder.  In all that flurry of activity, did they actually get the proper medicine in the bottle?  Did they mistake-proof the process somehow?  How many hundreds of pills flowed in front of my eyes during that thirty-minute wait?  And did the correct ones get into the bottle now on the front seat next to me?  The best error checking I saw was the validation of my method of payment...did that system extend to the pills themselves?  My observations did not give me confidence it did.  

I realized I had one more check I could make at home.  I went to and entered the markings on the pills themselves, figuring the imprint on the tablet was the closest possible identifier of the actual medicine.  To my relief, they matched, precisely, the prescription written out and handed me by the physician.  Only then, did I take the meds.  And, as promised, I had considerable relief within a couple of hours.

What do we take from this?  I've done business at this particular store for over 20 years.  I've always had good service there.  Yet observing that chaos gave me pause, such that I didn't trust them to fulfill the most basic element of a pharmacy's task.  

If I brought a customer into my shop, would she leave saying "Wow, do I have confidence in what they do?"  Or would she have an uneasiness, trying to figure out how to independently assess what we do? Would what we do and how we do it silently speak thunderously to the validity of our product?  

Got me thinking...hope it does you too.

Keep learning.