Agility and Lean aren’t the same thing…

but they are related.

As this article reports, we still don’t have enough of either.

From the article: “A rebound anytime soon is unlikely as manufacturers in the ISM survey mostly described inventories as bloated.
“This implies the goods sector overestimated demand and production could slow further in the next few months, though that too could reflect lingering strike effects if auto parts piled up when production was idled,” said Will Compernolle, macro strategist at FHN Financial in New York.”

Why Is Lean So Damn Hard?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

The quick answer is…it’s not.

It’s getting operators to put their tools back on a shadow board.  It’s getting supervisors and managers to regularly walk around the plant floor.  That’s not all of it, of course, but it’s pretty close.

So, why isn’t every manufacturing operation in the nation “lean”?

I don’t have a clear answer to the question.  As with the examples above, any lean implementation is basically just changing a bunch of behaviors.  Of course, the same is true regarding my efforts to lose 25 pounds…I just need to change certain behaviors around consuming too many simple carbs.  But just as every manufacturing operation isn’t lean, I and many of my fellow males aren’t skinny.  It should be easy but it’s not.

One thing is clear to me though…the real problem is that leadership is reluctant to change its own behavior.  Leadership installs the shadow board, then blames the operators for not using it.  Leadership writes up work instructions and standard procedures, then blames operators for not following them.  Leadership announces an “open door policy” then blames employees for not bringing it new ideas.

So…What’s Your Problem with 5S?

Photo by Jake Nebov on Unsplash

I was just responding to a post on LinkedIn that included a poll one was to respond to after reading the following question:

Picture that an exhaustive, scientific study was conducted at your company. It conclusively showed that 5S/Workplace Organization efforts require significantly more time, money, and effort than just letting people wing it. Furthermore, the study demonstrated that the cost differences are so vast that closing this efficiency gap is impossible.

If the study’s validity was beyond question, what would your decision be and why?

I responded that, while I understood that the question was based on a “thought experiment”, such study findings are impossible to imagine.

One of the post author’s goals was to get readers to reflect on the advisability of engaging in 5S without a clear understanding of its benefits.  I get that sentiment.

But the idea that 5S could “require significantly more time, money, and effort than just letting people wing it” is impossible to get my head around.  Workplace organization and visual management is probably the least expensive, highest ROI initiative an organization can carry out.  Let’s face it, all that’s required is getting rid of all the crap you don’t need, cleaning what’s left, and establishing a marked and labeled home address for everything.  That’s it.

The benefits are improved safety, improved operator satisfaction, improved throughput, reduced indirect time, and improved quality.

None of this is to say that implementing 5S is easy.  If that were the case, every manufacturing operation in the country would be clean and well organized.  (Believe me, that’s not remotely the case!)  Implementing 5S has its challenges and sustaining it certainly requires a good deal of patience, discipline, and commitment.    But that’s very different from claiming that it doesn’t have much value or that it might “cost too much”.


Forget “Efficiency”! Think “Density of Value Transfer”!

I don’t read many books on lean.  Most of them are pretty boring, truth be told.

That said, I’ve had one on my “To Read” pile that was recommended by a client.  It’s been there for several months, so I decided to take a look…mostly just to get it off the pile.

As it turns out, the book (This Is Lean; Niklas Modig and Par Ahlstrom, 2018) has turned out to be  interesting.  The fact that it quickly tells readers to forget about efficiency and to focus on flow caught my attention.  I’ve been preaching this same message for years.

A new idea (new to me, at any rate) that really piqued my interest was the concept of “density of value transfer”.   The density of value transfer gets at the value added time in a process compared to the overall process time.  If I call for a doctor appointment, have to wait for a call back to nail a day and time down, then wait for an hour before the doctor sees me, the density of value transfer is low.  If, on the other hand, I’m able to make the appointment during my first call, then wait just fifteen minutes to see the doctor, the density of value transfer is higher.

My example gets at what I like about the concept…it’s easy to talk about in contexts other than manufacturing.  It gets easier to describe how lean thinking applies to services in general.  We can talk about the value transfer density in just about any non-manufacturing process and it makes sense, from catching a plane, to getting one’s car prepared, to responding to a request for a proposal.

The authors get into another aspect that I like about the idea…it replaces a focus on “efficiency”.  If the doctor is “efficient” once she sees me, that doesn’t necessarily do much for value transfer density.  (In this example, it might even hinder it if I feel the doc is placing more emphasis on “efficiency” than she is on treating me respectfully.)

It also decreases attention to “speed” as a euphemism for “efficiency”…the doctor above can shorten my visit (make it faster) but that doesn’t improve value transfer density.

I also like that it removes the word “waste” from the discussion.  Rather than asking, “Is this time being wasted?”  (No one likes to admit to waste.), we’re asking, “Is this time spent on transferring value or not?”

There were a couple of other things I liked about the book, which I’ll get into in future posts.  So, stay tuned!

Process Mapping and Culture Change

First, it’s amazing how quickly time can fly between blog posts.  I would have bet my last one was no more than three weeks ago.

I just finished a gig that involved a facilitating three process mapping teams.

Here’s how that got carried out:

  1. Leadership picked three core strategic processes.
  2. Three process mapping teams (PMT’s) were launched.
  3. The PMT’s developed a project charter, a current state map of the process they were to target, an analysis of the variances of the current state map, and recommendations for improving the process.
  4. The PMT’s reviewed the recommendations with leadership.
  5. Leadership approved the recommendations.
  6. Three Process Improvement Teams (PIT’s) were formed to turn the recommendations into action plans.

There are stories to be told about each of those steps but I want to talk about #3.  That’s where all the action takes place that holds the potential for culture change.

How does culture change happen?

And what, exactly, is it that “happens there” that serves as the source for this culture change?  In a word…conversation.    In two words…facilitated conversation.  In…several words…facilitated conversation among members of a team with a mutual goal.

The conversation:

  • Generates ideas and discussion of those ideas.
  • Highlights disagreements and prompts discussion of those disagreements.
  • Exchanges information and transfers knowledge.
  • Provides opportunities to practice team-based decision-making and problem solving.

Why don’t these things happen in everyday meetings?

Don’t these things happen in the every day meetings that employees take part in?  In my own experience, the answer is no.  Why this is so is probably worth another blog post…if not an entire book.  In general, the guardrails are just too tight in those routine meetings.  The topics are narrow, the roles of team members are set in stone, everyone knows what he or she is allowed and expected to say and not to say.  The meetings take place well within the parameters of the existing culture.

Boxes and arrows = Culture change

The same simply isn’t true of process mapping meetings.  One reason is that too many organizations simply haven’t engaged in mapping their core strategic processes.  It’s a novel activity that leads to new ways of talking to each other and fresh insights as to why things are the way they are in the organization.  Repeated enough times (e.g., lots of process mapping teams and process improvement teams), these new ways of talking and  the continual development of fresh insights become commonplace.  The organization becomes more agile, more responsive, more able to gather and analyze data and information.  That, in turn, leads to better decision making, planning, problem solving, management of agreement, and collaboration.

So, yeah…boxes and arrows can lead to real culture change in your company.

“Work Intensification” Isn’t Lean

A few weeks ago, I posted about an article,  written by someone who referred to himself as a Marxist.  That article was a critique of lean.  It emphasized the point that lean was mostly about “work intensification” that was unsafe and unhealthy for workers.  I was a bit puzzled by that critique;  I’ve always told clients that lean leads to a calmer, less intense work environment.  I couldn’t figure out whence the accusation of making work more intense came from.

I’ve been reading a book, Just Another Car Factory?, about the lean initiatives at a General Motors/Suzuki auto assembly plant in Canada.  The book reports on a study that focuses on the impact of the lean efforts on the workers themselves more than it is on the operating processes of the plant.  It’s a well-referenced book that doesn’t seem to have a strident agenda.  It does a good job of presenting “just the facts”.

The plant sought to emulate the Toyota Production System (TPS).  TPS puts a great deal of emphasis on controlling process variability through work and task standardization.  In addition, it fosters a fierce attention to identifying and getting rid of “waste”.  This hyper-attention to waste seems to result in a continual shaving of seconds of “breathing time” (my words) from each minute of work.  Workers complained of being overburdened.  Further, the pace and nature of the work led to high incidence of ergonomic injuries.

All to say, I see now where people can get the idea that lean is bad for workers.

I’ve never worked in or consulted for an auto plant.  The only “assembly” operation I’ve worked with was the maker of a popular blender, where workers performed their tasks, then passed the partially completed item down the table to the next assembler.  The last employee on the line put the blender and an instruction manual into a box and the blender was ready to ship.  The workers, rather than “the line”, set the pace.

Most of the places I’ve worked were paced by the workers themselves.  In none of these cases did I think that my job was to get them to be more “efficient” by getting a few seconds of additional work out of them.  In fact, I viewed my role as one of making their jobs easier and less frustrating.  The “waste” embedded in operators’ time isn’t due to laziness or negligence.  It’s due to high process variability.

Let me say that again…far and away, the largest source of waste in any manufacturing organization is process variability.  

About twenty years ago, I had a client that extruded PVC conduit and pipe.  A team at the client’s plant in Florida sought to reduce scrap.  Digging into the metrics, the team couldn’t see a pattern as to which causes of scrap were most prevalent.  The Pareto chart of causes was flat (or nearly so).  A scrap cause that was prevalent one month would be nearly gone the next month but no changes in process had occurred (that we could identify).  Somewhat frustrated, I suggested that the team “go back to basics” and look for standard that weren’t in place or weren’t being adhered to.  Our first step was to walk each extrusion line, taking note of any “out of standard” condition with respect to the machinery and equipment.  

We found that the machinery and equipment provided a “target rich field” for conditions that were out of standard.  In fact, it was all pretty much held together with bailing wire, vise grips, and C-clamps.  (I run into this same condition almost everywhere I go.)  Individually, each vise grip or C-clamp seems to be a small thing.  Collectively, though, they create vibration, slippage, a continual need to monitor, and a variety of other conditions that make it difficult for operators to make a good product.  Collectively, these small sources of variation add up to what amounts to “work intensification” for many operators.  They are continually having to watch, adjust, correct for, and solve problems that shouldn’t be occurring in the first place.  Remove these sources of variation and operators’ jobs get easier even as quality and throughput improve.  No “work intensification” is needed.

“But,” you might ask, “isn’t there opportunity in finding waste in how operators and associates use their time?”  Yes…but all that opportunity lies in the fact that those operators and employees are forced to address and manage process variability.  Focus on how to get a few more seconds of work out of operators who are already burdened with fighting fires in unsafe conditions will just lead to high turnover.  Focus on getting operators to help you identify sources of process variation, no matter how seemingly small, and you’ll create a culture in which quality, throughput, and employee retention are high.