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.