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.