Book Review: Blackett’s War

Maybe some of you have seen the recent movie The Imitation Game.  The movie focuses primarily on the life of Alan Turing during and after his and his colleagues efforts to break the German Ultra code.

Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare focuses on the same efforts without devoting as much attention to Turing.

So, why am I reviewing a book about WWII here in my blog on lean concepts and methods?  Well, the book’s title probably gives you a clue but here’s an anecdote from the book:  one of the team members was out in the field with the troops.  He noticed the soldiers lined up to wash their eating utensils.  They were queued in two lines; at the head of each line was one wash bin and one rinse bin.  He further noticed that the soldiers spent much more time at the wash bins than at the rinse bins.  He went over to the operation, turned one of the rinse bins into a third wash bin and formed the soldiers into a single line, so that, when a wash bin became available, the next soldier went to it.  Soon, there was no queue.  The soldiers weren’t waiting at all.  You see the connection with lean thinking, I’m sure.

Continue reading Book Review: Blackett’s War

How to Implement Lean Manufacturing – Strategy and Spread the Word: Part 2

In the earlier post, we talked about the Strategy part of the first phase.  Now, let’s talk about the Spread the Word part.

Communication 2Remember, during the Strategy portion of this phase, we developed a set of goals, metrics, and a calendar for the lean manufacturing  initiative.  It’s time to communicate all that to everyone else in the organization.

Continue reading How to Implement Lean Manufacturing – Strategy and Spread the Word: Part 2

Code Breaking and Lean Manufacturing

I’m reading this book, Blackett’s War, about the WWII code breakers in England and their fight against the German U-boats.  It seems that in 1940, before the German Enigma machine was fully “broken into”, Great Britain was making some progress in its code breaking efforts.  German communications to its army offices were intercepted that indicated a possible German invasion of Norway.  When told of this interception, British officials ignored the news saying that the code breakers didn’t know what they were talking about because information about ship movements would certainly be transmitted to navy, not army, offices.  The thing was…the ships were carrying army troops.

This, of course, is a case of nearly criminal lack of curiosity and imagination.  I know that hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to judge leadership’s reluctance to accept and analyze this new information but how difficult would it have been to ask, “What are the possibilities here?  Why might this be happening?  What might this information be telling us?”  Rather the information was filtered out, discarded, because of rigid preconceptions.

So, what does all this have to do with lean manufacturing?  Well, it speaks to how very difficult organizational change is.  Leaders necessarily develop filters for information, which is coming at them in a variety of forms from all directions, all at once.  They can’t respond to everything they hear or see or they’d put their organizations into chaos. The problem is, of course, that some of that information is vital, conveying new opportunities or threats.  When leaders develop filters that are too “strong”, this information gets rebuffed, perhaps with grave consequences, as was the case in the illustration above.

Kodak invented the digital camera.  Xerox pretty much invented the personal computer and the GUI interface.  But new information was filtered out because of rigid preconceptions as to what was good for the company and what wasn’t.  The companies suffered as a result.

Leaders, then, are continually between the proverbial rock and hard place.  If they filter out nothing, they risk creating chaos.  If they filter out too much, they risk failing to respond to important information.

What’s the answer, then?  There’s no easy one but it starts with an activity that, in my experience, managers have a tough time engaging in: philosophical discussion and conversation.  In particular, discussion and conversation about “warm and fuzzy” topics like organizational vision, values, principles, that sort of thing.  Discussions about what matters and what doesn’t.  Discussions about possibilities and options and scenarios.  Conversations that start with “What if…?”  and “How could we…?” and “Might it be possible to….?”

Do these sorts of discussions guarantee that leaders’ filters will be strong enough to prevent chaos but not so rigid that they prevent action when necessary?  Of course not.  But lack of curiosity and introspection pretty much guarantees that leaders will resist change, even when the data indicates that change is needed, until it’s too late.

 

Another Lean Manufacturing Video

I’m continuing my search for good lean manufacturing videos.  I’ll tell you the truth, there aren’t a lot.  The most interesting and valuable tend to be “a look at the factory” type videos.

In that light, I think you’ll like this one.  As was the case with the Fast Cap video, work place organization is highlighted.

Steering Committee Blues

A central element of any of my lean manufacturing implementations is the establishment of a Steering Committee.  The Steering Committee usually comprises the top leadership in the organization in which I’m working.

Steering Committee Blues

We always hope for Steering Committees that get fully engaged in the lean project, eagerly discussing issues and tossing around ideas.  What we get, too often, are Steering Committees that don’t steer.

Continue reading Steering Committee Blues

Compensate Workers for their Value Added

I found a good article by another practioner, Bill Waddell, at his Manufacturing Leadership blog.  I’ve never met Bill but he’s a good writer and I used to check out another blog he wrote for (and maybe still does), Evolving Excellence., to see what he had written lately.  He and I went a few rounds in the comment section of some of his posts (I tend to have a more sanguine view of labor organizations and the public sector than he does) but his articles were always thoughtful and well written.  (He, like me, can be very tough on management and leadership.)

This article is a good example.  When I saw the title, The Irrelevance of Minimum Wage, I was ready to go another round or two with him.  Then I read the article and found myself in complete agreement.

He rightly calls manufacturers to task:

“The same thing is true with the braying from the old school manufacturers about their perceived inability to find skilled workers. All depends on the skills. When they see workers as merely that “set of hands” they are right. Lean companies, however, see it a bit differently…”

Bill correctly points out that too many companies see their workers, not as sources of strategic advantage, but simply as costs that need to be minimized.

 

 

Lean Measures

I was on a sales call a couple of days ago and was reminded, yet again, of the importance of lean measures and operating metrics.  (In other words, numbers, data, metrics, charts, yardsticks, measures, what have you that allow a manager or associate to assess the level of performance of an operation or process).

Essentially, the manager was frustrated because his organization had no measures of performance.  This meant he couldn’t tell if he had the right resources deployed in the right way or not.

Exactly.

This is why I always start, way back in Leadership Planning, with the development of metrics that will allow the leadership group to determine whether the lean initiative is working or not.

If you’re interested in learning more about operations metrics, do a web search for any of Brian Maskell’s books.

Lunch Room Lean

One of the fun parts about lean consulting (as compared with implementing lean for a single employer) is that I get to see a variety of environments and figure out how the lean tools can be applied.  A few months ago, a couple of colleagues and I got a state grant to help two school districts implement lean concepts and tools in three of their support services departments: buildings and grounds, transportation (the buses), and, yes, the cafeterias.

I’ve especially enjoyed working with the lunch room ladies.  We’re not far down the road but it’s an exciting place to implement lean tools.  I visited the lunch rooms during morning prep and production and service to the students.  I’m telling you, it’s a faster paced environment than you might suspect.

Here are some of the factors that make the kitchens fun for a lean practitioner:

  • There’s no such thing as a late delivery.  Those kids are storming through those lunch room doors at 10:45 whether the food is ready or not.
  • The lunch rooms I visited make about 80 breakfasts, then turn around and make a few hundred lunches.
  • The flow of work is constant from the moment the lunch ladies arrive early in the morning until the cafeteria and kitchen is cleaned up after the last student walks out of the lunchroom.  There are no breaks.
  • Small problems compound quickly.  Can’t find an instant read thermometer to check the temp of the meat loaf?  That might mean the meat loaf cools and has to go back into the warmer.  That might mean the main meal won’t be ready when those students line up with their trays.
  • One of the lunch rooms I visited had five different stations, each with it’s own menu.  That’s a lot more variety than I was accustomed to back in my day.
  • Menus change regularly.  That means raw materials and production processes change regularly.

I could go on.

Right now we’re working to improve the procurement process.  Then we’ll be moving on to the production processes.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

Lean Manufacturing Principles: Consistent is Better than Fast

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, manufacturers have had a devotion to, not to say an obsession with, efficiency and speed.  Everyone talks about efficiency, for example.  I hear folks who couldn’t define efficiency on a dare speaking of its virtues.  I hear references to the need for more efficiency in situations and circumstances where efficiency would be difficult and maybe impossible to quantify, e.g., physical therapy and product design.  Even in those situations where efficiency as a concept and a metric makes sense, it’s used incorrectly as often as not.  And all this is apart from the fact that much of what managers do to promote and improve efficiency actually hinders it.  But that’s another discussion.

I’d rather that managers talked more about consistency and predictability.  Let me give an example:  let’s say it takes me an average five hours to complete a product changeover on a particular piece of equipment.  The longest it ever takes me is five hours and 15 minutes and the quickest I ever get it done is four hours and 45 minutes.  On the other hand, your average changeover time is four hours and sometimes you get it down in two hours but other times it can take you up to eight hours.  Who would you rather have doing your changeovers?  Who is going to make it easier to establish and meet a production schedule?  I’m am, of course, even though I might not be as fast or as “efficient” in some cases.

We can play this same scenario out with any operating factor or metric: scrap, cycle times, errors, delays, uptime.  My view is: better mediocre and consistent than highly variable.

Now I know what you’re thinking:  “But shouldn’t we always be striving for excellence rather than just consistent mediocrity?”  The answer is: “Of course!”  But consistency is fundamental to excellence.  Again, if I can be consistent at less than excellent performance, that’s a step forward from highly variable performance that is only occasionally excellent.  Further, the steps I take to get more consistent will also help me achieve excellence.  The path to eventual excellence goes right through consistency.

Lean Manufacturing Principles: No “Manufacturing Heroics”

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be going over what I consider to be some of the fundamental principles of agile thinking and practice.  Every approach, every model has to have a set of principles on which it’s founded.  To take a really big example, all the laws in the US are built on the principle that all people are created equal and are entitled to equal protection under those laws.

My agile principles won’t be quite as meaningful but you get the idea, I hope.

So, let’s get started.

A few years ago, I was visiting a plant in Kankakee, IL.  I was talking with one of the operators who was giving me chapter and verse of the problems he ran into in trying to produce a quality product efficiently.  Bad material, bad schedules, bad information, bad tooling, bad equipment and on and on.  He concluded by saying, “But, in spite of all that, I get it done.”

In his own eyes, and I’m sure in the eyes of his managers, he was a “manufacturing hero”.  He fulfilled the mission, met the goals, captured the hill in the face of nearly insurmountable obstacles.  But it occurred to me at that moment that his “heroism” was a significant part of the problem.  The company, and certainly the customers of the company, would have been much better off if that operator and his associates at the plant told management, “I’m not running this bad material.  I’m not operating this faulty equipment with it’s inadequate tooling. And I’m not running this ad hoc, reactive schedule you keep handing me.”  Better yet, of course, would be a management team that held inviolable the principle that operators never have to “just get it done”, that they always have adequate, capable materials, tools, equipment, supplies, and information to do their jobs.

I’ve seen “manufacturing heroics” played out in other ways in other organizations.  The supervisor who grabs a wrench and pushes everyone aside to fix a die or a machine that’s not running right.  The managers who spent time each day in long meetings developing operating schedules. Hours of overtime expended because the ship dates had to be met.

I know, I know…there are times when any manufacturing operation has to resort to these tactics.  The question is, are these tactics the norm, as they clearly were in the Kankakee plant?  If the operations are continually dependent on “manufacturing heroics” to get product out the back door, something is clearly wrong.

Agile concepts and tools are designed to get rid of these heroic actions.  But the first step is to quit holding them up as the sort of behavior that’s expected or desired.