Lean Is Often All About the Smallest Things

I always start any project with a few days of information gathering about the operations so that I’ll know a bit of the culture and local language when I get to the leadership planning steps. The info gathering phase is always enjoyable as I get to know the folks within the client organization and tell them what I have in mind.  During the info gathering I always come across conditions and situations that, on the one hand, are easily addressed but, on the other, I fear that the client will think, “Is that all you’ve got?” when I bring it up.

I had the latter experience a few years ago.  I was strongly encouraging a client to implement workplace organization and visual factory methods in the plant.  The thing was, the plant was reasonably clean and organized but just in the usual “decent housekeeping” way that plants sometimes are.  The managers didn’t refuse to take me up on my suggestions but didn’t seem to have much energy in implementing 5S.  They seemed primarily interested in “cost savings kaizens”.  (They couldn’t tell me what savings had come from past kaizens, or even how “cost savings” were to be measured, but that’s another story.)

Continue reading “Lean Is Often All About the Smallest Things”

The Lean Farm Follow-Up

A few posts ago, I mentioned I was reading (or was about to read) a book I’d come across, The Lean Farm, authored by Ben Hartman.  Well, I’m about two-thirds the way through and I’d recommend it even for (maybe, especially for) folks who are applying lean concepts and methods in other industries.  (Sometimes, examples and illustrations hit home better when they are just a bit outside our intellectual comfort range.)

The book is very nicely organized.  The author does a good job of breaking lean down into its most important elements.  Further, Hartman provides lots of illustrations and examples of his own application of lean tools and methods on his small farm.  Readers familiar with lean won’t learn much that’s new but will be interested in how an astute practitioner has been able to apply lean tools in an agricultural setting.  “Newbies” will get as good an introduction to lean ideas and methods as there is.

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A Really Crummy Article About Lean

I don’t get to the Interest Groups at LinkedIn as often as I should but I browsed around there yesterday and found a really crummy article.  I don’t want to link to it because I don’t want to give it any traffic but it’s title was “The Dark Side of Lean”.  It was one of those articles, the likes I’ve read a number of versions over the years, that seeks to impugn an approach of which the author makes it apparent that he or she knows nothing.   Continue reading “A Really Crummy Article About Lean”

A Good 5S Example?

Good 5S?
Is this a good example of 5S?

Take a look at this example of 5S.  What do you think….good example or not?  It sure looks good, doesn’t it?  I found this example on LinkedIn, along with some comments as to whether or not it’s a good example. Some of the commenters felt it was a good example given that…well, how orderly everthing is.  Others felt that it’s not such a good example and it’s not the lack of labeling that they mentioned.  Those others asked if five colors of highlighters are really needed. And two different kinds of Post-Its.  And two blue and red pens.  After all the first S is “Sort”.

I would agree that the Sort is key here but we can’t use circumstantial evidence to assume it wasn’t done.  If the user really does need and regularly uses all those highlighters, then it’s a good example of 5S.  On the other hand, if the user generally just takes out the yellow one and keeps the others “just in case”, it’s just an exercise in tidiness.  Same with the pens and Post-Its.

The moral of the story is, it’s not just the good organization that makes this a good example.  It’s the deliberation that went into the effort along the way


Is Whirlpool the best example Industry Week can find?

I check into Industry Week’s site fairly often because I find good articles on a variety of topics relevant to manufacturing. I also sign up for their occasional free webinars.  (In fact, I was the star of one of their webinars several years ago.  Well…actually, I think I got called in off the bench when one of the headliners had to bow out.  But, still…)

IW has an upcoming webinar, The State of US Manufacturing.  (You can sign up at the link.)  One of  of the participants is a VP at Whirlpool.  I think it’s interesting that IW should choose a presenter from Whirlpool for this particular webinar.  I posted a recent article on LinkedIn, entitled “The System IS Rigged”.  (I’d give you a link but I think it wouldn’t work because the link I have allows me to edit the post.  Go to LinkedIn, and search the Posts, not People, using the title.  You’ll find it listed there.)  In that article, I talk about the state of US manufacturing.  In particular, I discuss the fact that US companies 1.) have lots of cash, and 2.) are borrowing lots more cash.  What are they doing with it all?  Buying back their own stocks.  As I say in my article, I have a big problem with this.  The companies themselves will tell you, “Hey, it’s good for our shareholders,” and that’s not a bad thing.  Of course, developing new products, improving existing products and processes, and hiring the best talent available are also good for shareholders.  What the companies don’t tell you is that buybacks are especially good for short term shareholders and, most especially, company execs with stock options.

So, what does all this have to do with IW’s choice of a VP from Whirlpool?  If you go to the signup page, you’ll see that Whirlpool has invested “$1 billion in Whirlpool’s U.S. facilities over the past 5 years”.  That’s a good thing, of course.  What it doesn’t mention is that Whirlpool has authorized the repurchase shares of its own stock.  How much stock?  $1 billion.  Funny that the $1B investment in operations gets mentioned but the $1B stock buyback doesn’t.  Maybe it’s because buybacks are a financial gimmick to reward senior execs and big investors looking to make a quick buck at the expense of operations, employees, and customers.

William Lazonick, professor of economics at University of Massachusetts Lowell has this to say:

“It really is an idiotic ideology, that you run the company for the people who matter least,” Lazonick said, referring to shareholders. “The people who can get in and out of the company quickest and for whom that is often their only goal.” (All Buy Myself…The Thinking Behind Stock Buybacks)

My guess is that that Whirlpool exec won’t say anything like: “We couldn’t really think of anything to do with that extra billion other than to line our own pockets and enrich short term investors.”

Bad Problem Solving + Dysfunctional Company = Assured Failure: Part Two

Awhile back (too much of awhile back), I posted about an article I’d read on the Industry Week website about six sigma and team problem solving.  (Here it is, if you want to take another look at it.)  In that first post, I ranted a bit about the worst condition highlighted by the IW article: incompetent managers.  I promised I’d make some comments about the inept approach to problem solving described in the article in a followup post.  Well, three months later, here’s that followup post.

Let me start by saying that I don’t want any of my remarks here to be seen as anything like a defense for the utterly, abjectly vacuous leadership described in the IW article.  When nincompoops take up space in the C-suite, no tactic, no tool, no approach, however well conceived and implemented will save the organization.  It’s doomed to a long, slow, tortuous demise.  (Trust me…I’ve worked for such organizations.)

But the truth is…our antagonist didn’t seem to have learned much at his six sigma training.  Let’s look at the evidence for our indictment.  The article says that our six sigma guy and the team used the DMAIC approach to team problem solving but we aren’t provided with much that indicates that he or the team actually followed the DMAIC path.  In fact, the path they actually did follow looks more like:

  1. Make a chart based on only one of the many possible relevant metrics
  2. Jump to conclusions
  3. Present a limited solution that fits the conclusion jumped to.

Now, the article does say that the team spent several weeks in meetings and analysis but doesn’t give us much as to how that time was spent.  It’s not hard to imagine the team spending its time and energy discussing how it was going to go about getting their penny-pinching bosses to spring for the new computer system.

The question posed by the IW article is:  Would Dr. Deming have been a proponent of Six Sigma.  But the example described in the article doesn’t really help address the question because it doesn’t really portray six sigma methods, and certainly not DMAIC.

Within the next few weeks, the blog at Employer Resource Council in Cleveland will start posting my series on DMAIC, so I won’t go into any detail here as to how that approach should actually be undertaken.  (I’ll post a link when it shows up.)

Team problem solving can be hard work.  It can be fun, too and is nearly always effective given adherence to the process and senior leadership that isn’t bereft of even a scintilla of intelligence.  There’s nothing like implementing a solution developed by a team and seeing that solution work to motivate associates at all levels in the organization.   Everyone in the organization needs to keep in mind, though, that it’s not “six sigma”, or “DMAIC”, or any other set of tools that contains the magic.  It’s smart, committed leadership getting smart, motivated employees involved in making continual improvements to all aspects of the business.  I’m pretty sure Dr. Deming would have been on board with that.





Office Process Mapping

I’ve been working with a client recently as part of an initiative to improve several of its core processes.  This is a non-manufacturing client, so the processes we’re working on are all administrative or “office procedures”.  I’ve done a bit of this sort of thing over the years but have never worked with so many process improvement teams in such a short period of time.  It’s been a regular “office process mapping and improvement boot camp”.

Here are some things I’ve learned over the years and that have been reinforced in my recent experience:

Start with a Project Charter

It’s important that the team start with an energetic discussion of “What are we doing here and what’s expected of us?”  That’s what a project charter is for.  It’s not “getting the form filled out” that’s important, it’s the discussion that takes place that serves to get the team members on the same page.  There are lots of Project Charter formats out there.  Choose one that’s available or design one to match your own needs and circumstances.  There are lots of generic forms on the interweb.  Some are simple, others are pretty complicated.  Whatever works for you.  But, again, it’s the conversation that important, not filling in lots of fields on a form.

Map the Process As Simply as You Can

Choosing the “level” at which the team will map the process can be a challenge.  At too high a level, there can be too little detail, at too low a level, too much detail.  I usually talk about the “2000 foot level”; high enough so that the team doesn’t get into the weeds of describing, in detail, each and every task associated with the process but low enough so that the basic steps are identified.  I’ve found that even fairly complicated processes can generally be captured in ten to twenty steps.

It’s important to map the Current State with the assumption that each step is carried out without anything going wrong.  Teams can get way down into the weeds with respect to all the steps that they undertake when things don’t go right.  So, you present the question:  “How does the process work now assuming everything goes the way it’s supposed to?”  You’ll get to all the bad things and problems later on.  Right now, you just want to get the process mapped, not identify everything that can go wrong.

I use three symbols for mapping processes: a circle for the first and last process steps, squares for all the steps in between, and arrows.  That’s it.  No decision diamonds, nothing.  My experience has been that most of the other symbols are used to account for sub-processes and steps that are made necessary by variances and problems.  That’s not what we want to capture at this point.  That said, I admit that I’ve had to occasionally use decision diamonds in a process map to identify legitimate choice points.  But it’s been very occasionally.  The large majority of the time, two circles and a bunch of boxes and arrows works just fine.

Brainstorm Process Step Variances

A variance is something/anything that goes wrong or might go wrong at a particular step of the process.  For example, variances for the process step, “Ship the product”,  might be:

  • Product doesn’t get shipped
  • Wrong product gets shipped
  • Wrong quantity gets shipped
  • Product is shipped to the wrong address
  • Product is shipped via wrong carrier
  • And so on.

The team brainstorms these variances and the usual guidelines to brainstorming apply.  In other words, don’t get wrapped up in long discussions of each possible variance; just write it down and move on.m  You’ll sort through them later.

One useful parameter on the brainstorming of variances to keep in mind:  The variances should occur at the step being focused on at the moment.  If a variance occurred at an earlier step but is caught or observed at the focus step, it goes under that earlier step.  For example, if the step under focus is “Budget requests are reviewed and approved”, a variance like “Manager submits wrong budget format” isn’t a variance at that step.  The manager submitted the wrong budget format at an earlier step, not at the inspection step.  Variances that occur at the “review and approve” step might include:

  • Review and approval is delayed
  • Incorrect format gets approved

By the same token, be careful of brainstorming variances that are actually desired outcomes of the step.  Let’s imagine that you’re mapping the process for hiring and you’re focusing on the step “Review resumes”.  In that case, “No suitable resumes are identified” wouldn’t be a variance.  Weeding out undesirable resumes is exactly what the step is designed to accomplish.  Sure, “no suitable resumes”  might be a hassle for the organization but it’s not because mistakes or errors took place at that process step.

You’ll find that this step of brainstorming variances creates a lot of team energy.  The members will engage in lots of discussion of the variances, even when you remind them of the brainstorming guidelines.  That’s OK…mostly.  You don’t want to squelch energy.  Let them talk about variances a bit and keep them moving.  So long as the team doesn’t get engaged in “debates” as to whether a variance is a big deal or not or discussions of solutions, you’ll be OK.

Prioritize the Variances

The most useful tool to use initially in prioritizing any brainstormed list is polling. I usually give the team members more than three tallies when polling process variances, maybe five to seven, depending on how many variances were brainstormed.  At this point, you’ll have a good visual as to which process problems are front and center for the team.

Develop Improvement Actions for Important Variances

You’re on the home stretch here.  I put up a good, old-fashioned four column action planning page on the flip chart (Action/Assigned To:/Target Date/Status) and go to the variances with the most tallies.  I ask, “What actions or steps do we need to take to reduce or eliminate this variance?”  There is generally a good bit of discussion at this stage.  Some of the “action ideas” will be pretty broad (“A training program for new hires”) and will need to be broken down into specific tasks (“Work instructions documented for all tasks”).  Others will be more specific (“Purchase new copier”) but might need some preliminary work carried out (“Develop business case for a copier and get three quotes.”)

But, hey, you know how to put together an action plan, right?

Follow Up Meetings

Now, we get to, what might be, the toughest stage of the whole enterprise…following up on all that initial work to actually get something done.  Brainstorming and coming up with new ideas is lots of fun.  Developing standard procedures and getting quotes for a new copy machine…not so much.

The team will need to meet no less often than bi-weekly to make sure that improvement efforts move forward.  In most cases, management will need to actively encourage these meetings.  It gets very easy to cancel meetings or for individual team members to miss meetings because of the regular workload.  Managers need to make certain that meetings are being held, attendance is good, and time frames are being met.

Even after the improvement actions are implemented, the team needs to meet to evaluate their effectiveness.  Six to twelve months of bi-weekly meetings can be difficult to sustain but it’s necessary if you’re to have any hope of creating real, lasting change in your business processes.



Bad Problem Solving + Dysfunctional Company = Assured Failure: Part One

Industry Week has a series of articles that you should read: Lean and Continuous Improvement: Twelve in 12.  I haven’t read them all yet, but it looks like a good collection.

Right now, I want you to read the first article, “Would Doctor Deming Have Been A Black Belt?”.  It’s more interesting than it sounds, so go ahead…I’ll wait right here.  I’m especially interested in having you read the case study embedded in the article.

On reading the article, I went down to the comments section, thinking I’d read a set of sharp denigrations of the company and the approach to problem solving portrayed in the example.  None of the commenters mentioned the example.  My guess is that Deming would say something like, “Neither Six Sigma nor any other improvement approach has a chance of providing value in this organization until it replaces some managers and significantly changes its culture.”

ANY manager who would put a team to work on order entry, then threaten the team leader with losing his or her job because the costs of the process weren’t reduced isn’t fit for his or her job.  ANY leadership team that would see fit to take advantage of process performance improvement by reverting back to previous performance so as to enable the reduction of capacity, needs to be replaced by the board.  Right now.  We’re talking about a dysfunctional organization led by utterly incompetent “managers”.  There’s no chance that any approach to continual improvement would work under such circumstances.

All this is apart from the bad approach to process improvement carried out by the “black belt”.  But I’ll address that in my next post.