Monthly Archives: October 2010

Continuous Improvement for Me – Creating Time to Improve

As I look for ways to improve, I am inspired by other lean thinkers and bloggers.  I see what they are trying and look to how that might work for me.  I try and experiment with things in order to make my job easier and to feel more in control and organized.

I decided to start a series that will be based on what I have tried in order to make my work better.  It may be small or large things and most likely it was an inspiration I got from someone else.  I hope that by passing along what I have learned that it may inspire others the way others have inspired me.

One of the biggest obstacles I have had is creating time for myself during the work day.  Time I could use to complete a project or work that needed a couple of hours or time to work on continuous improvement ideas for my work.  I was talking with a co-worker a couple of months ago about this and she shared with me how she handles it.  I took the advice and added to it and so far it has worked very well.

I work in a company that relies heavily on everyone’s calendar to schedule meetings and work time, etc…  The first thing I did was I blocked out every Friday, all day, as work time.  I spend most of the week traveling back and forth between our corporate office and our three manufacturing plants and one distribution center.  They are all are within an hour drive of our corporate office.  I use Fridays as my catch up day for travel expenses, some emails, reviewing material people asked for help on, networking, etc….

One of the new standardize work tasks I have for Friday is to look at my calendar for the following week.  Wherever I have large blocks of time, typically 1.5 hours or more, I block it off for work time.  I use this time to work on projects and tasks that are longer than 10 minutes to complete.

Because I have blocked this time off does not mean that I won’t add meetings during this time.  it just means that I have more control over it now.  If someone adds a meeting at the last minute, I now have the option and control to determine whether or not it is one I should participate in or if it is as important as the work that I have to do.  I have taken more control of my time.

The results: I have found that I am getting more things done during the week.  I am also more relaxed during busy times because I can see (visual management) the blocked work time and now that I have time coming up to complete some work that needs to be done at my desk.  I can also give a better due date to the person asking for the work to be done.

I hope this is something that can help others can more control over their time.


Lean and the Federal Government

This post is not meant to be about political beliefs.  I want to state that up front.  I believe that most people would agree that the Federal Government has a lot of waste in it.  One way to get at eliminating the waste is to use lean thinking and principles.  It has been successful for state and local governments.  These are some example posts here and here and there are plenty more.

There is one part that I am stuck on with using lean to eliminate waste in the Federal Government and it could be from my lack of experience in working with government offices.  What do you do with the freed up people after the waste has been eliminated?

A lean thinking person does not look at laying off people due to improvements.  If you have ever done that, you have seen how quickly it can stop employees from engaging in the improvement process.  We want to reassign them to other areas where the help is needed or to run more improvement projects or in areas where we want to grow the business.

This last one is where I have trouble.  Should the Federal Government (or state/local government) be wanting to grow?  Your answer may be based on your political beliefs.  But for this discussion lets say that government shouldn’t growing.    At some point, you would have to believe the improvements are outpacing natural attrition.

So if government shouldn’t be growing and the improvements are outpacing the natural attrition, then what do you do with the people?  Is this a case where laying people off is the appropriate thing to do in order to see the savings?

To be frank, part of me says yes.  If this happens, less tax dollars may be needed to run the government, which can be used to pay down the deficit.

But there is a part of me that says the answer is no.  There are ways to continue to reassign the people.  Don’t layoff due to improvements and eventually attrition will take care of it, but in a longer time frame.

What are your thoughts?  How do you see this dilemma?  Should this be treated any differently than a business?

Dilbert and Traditional Accounting

I was perusing some random older Dilbert comic strips and stumbled upon this one.  What a great example of traditional accounting gone wrong.

(Click on image for a larger view)

I couldn’t pass posting this Dilbert cartoon.  How many times as lean change agents do you have work halted or the value not seen because of the way the accounting system calculates standard costing or budgeting?  How many times have you made an improvement that required less people for that area.  The people were reassigned (showing respect for people by not laying off due to improvement), but accounting system claims a labor savings.  At the end of the year, management is asking where is all the savings that was promoted throughout the year?  It’s not hitting the bottom line.

This is always one of my favorites to explain.  How about you?

Small Buisnesses Are The Backbone To Our Country

There are many small start-up companies out there that create quality products and are trying to survive and flourish.  Some are making new and innovative products while others are trying to fill a need that they see in the marketplace. The former describes my wife’s small business Crimson Hill Soaps and Scents.

My wife started the company because our kids and I are very sensitive to the detergents and chemicals that are in mass produced soap sold in stores. Following the suggestion of a fellow soap maker, we tried all-natural soap and were amazed at how quickly it helped our skin and we were hooked.  After months of research and meeting many people, especially children, who were dealing with similar sensitive skin issues, my wife knew she had found a niche in the market that was untapped.

After months of trial and error and refining recipes, Crimson Hill Soaps & Scents was born. My wife has a complete line of natural adult soaps as well as soaps just for kids. My wife is very entrepreneurial, so she created her own website and online store and also started promoting online. She attracted local customers by attending handmade craft shows on the weekends. The soap business grew and, before she knew it, the soap was selling consistently and most importantly, she was passionate about what she was making and selling.

Isn’t this how all companies start off? A need, a passion, and a ton of hard work. From there some businesses stay small while others grow into giant companies like Apple or Microsoft. For instance, one of the suppliers my wife buys her materials from started with one woman making soap in her home to gain extra income to help support her disabled child. Her vision has grown into a multi-million dollar corporation that still has the best interest of the small businesses at heart.

There are people making incredible products that are affordable and very high quality. These are two concepts we talk about from a lean perspective. Managing cash flow is another metric we use in lean but it also applies to the small business owner too. Getting cash into their hands as quick as possible and not tied up in inventory is not easy for the small business owner, as it takes time to understand the marketplace and product demand. Now that we know the amount of effort that goes into running a successful small business, my wife and I find ourselves supporting small businesses whenever possible by buying unique items as gifts or for ourselves.

With the holiday gift-giving season quickly approaching, I encourage you to shop online at Etsy and ArtFire.  These are great websites that allow small businesses to sell their handmade products to the world with ease.  These websites started because of the vision, creativity and need of small business entrepreneurs. Who knows….one of these people could become the next Warren Buffet.

Atari and Lean Startup

Last week, I came across a great article about Atari and how they started the video game revolution.  I found it very interesting how the article talks about Atari being the original lean startup.  The article points out how Atari used rapid prototyping.

The forerunner in the video game world used a disciplined approach to testing new products and ideas. It followed lean manufacturing principles applied to innovation (such as rapid hypothesis testing and validated learning about customers) and had a disciplined approach to product development.

What really struck me was Atari founder Nolan Bushnell’s ability to see a vision for new technology that was being developed.

Atari came to life in the time of mini-computers, but at $2,000 apiece, those systems were prohibitively expensive as a platform to market games. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell quickly realized this and knew he would have to invent a radically cheaper platform if he wanted to enter the market.

What I did notice was how Nolan had engineers go and see how the games were used and distributed.

Bushnell felt his engineers had to experience being in the shoes of both customers and distributors to experience their pains first-hand. Engineers were charged with running games in test locations, with P&L responsibilities, like real distributors. As a result, these engineers found problems and defects before customers or distributors and got a better sense of which games worked and which didn’t.

Atari also rotated its engineers onto rotation on the assembly line, so they could learn to design products for ease of manufacturability.

Sounds a lot like lean thinking to me.  I’m not saying Atari was a lean company, but they sure seemed to use a lot of the thinking in the early on stages of the company.

Did Atari fall because they got away from this thinking?  If so, why do companies get away from the principles that made them successful in the beginning?

I thought this was a very interesting article to share.

Leadership By Shift

Being in manufacturing for my whole career, I have to work with shifts around the clock.  I know this is quite common in the manufacturing environment.  The other common practice I have seen is 1st shift is considered the place to put the ‘A’ player supervisors and line management team.  The 2nd and 3rd shifts is considered ‘B’ and ‘C’ players plus the new hires.  I have seen this play out in the many manufacturing facilities I have been in.

Why is this?  Why not put an even mix of ‘A’ players across the shifts?

I would think 2nd and 3rd shift would be a good spot for the best supervisors because there isn’t other management at the facilities during this time to help out.  The best supervisors would be good at covering more areas.  Also, it allows all the shifts to have someone that is a go to person.  If they are all on 1st shift, then things just sit and wait until someone comes into work.

Most manufacturing facilities put the new hires on 3rd shift to start (after their training).  Who would you want to have be there for the new hire?  A supervisor everyone things is doing a great job?  Or a supervisor that can barely do their own job?

I’m not saying that if they aren’t an ‘A’ supervisor to fire them.  There will always be someone doing better than someone else.  We should just consider spreading the best supervisors across shifts to give it a balance for learning and responsibility.

How does your organization place supervisors?  Are all the best on 1st shift?  Or are they equally spread across multiple shifts?

My First Kanban Experience at ‘Cookies By Design’

The kanban concept is all around us everyday.  From supermarkets to our toilet paper and paper towels at home.  As I was thinking back to one of my first jobs in high school (early 1990s to date myself), I realized I had used kanban without even knowing it.

I worked for a new franchised store called “Cookies By Design”.  The family that opened it was great.  They treated all the employees with respect and genuinely cared for us.  My job was to come in a few times a week and make the baskets with sticks for the cookies to go on.  This consisted of mixing water and powder to make plaster, lining a woven basket with plastic, pouring the plaster to the two-thirds level, waiting for it to start to solidify, and they place dow rods in the plaster to hold the cookies.  There were several basket layouts so I had to keep them stocked with the appropriate number of layouts.

I would come in a couple nights a week and then Saturday or Sunday.  Again, the owners showed respect for me by giving me (a 17-year-old kid) a key to come in as I needed.  Every time, I would analyze how many were used since the last time I made them, then calculated about how many would be needed before I came in again and if there weren’t enough, I made a standard order quantity of the baskets.

The whole time I was using kanban levels and had no clue about it.  I wish I would have known about visual management at the time in order to make my reorder points easier to see.

I am amazed of how much I used lean concepts before even knowing about them.  And I was using them in everyday life.  Do you have any examples of a lean concept you used before you even knew what lean was?  I would like to hear about any experiences you had.


Lean Misunderstood……….Or Resold?

Last week I caught this article from IndustryWeek online, titled “Small Manufacturers Need to be Agile, Not Lean.

The title alone got my attention.  I had to see what the difference was.

Short story……….no difference.

Now the longer story.  My jaded perspective is that is a consultant that is trying to make money (apparently with small businesses) by trying to sell something new.   Or as I read it, Lean with a different dress on it.  I hate to call people out so blatantly but this article was just wrong.

Much of what is written about lean manufacturing simply isn’t applicable to small manufacturers, most of whom make their money by meeting specific service specifications for specific customers. When lean literature says, “Only make what the customer wants when the customer wants it,” small manufacturers say, “That’s the central facet of our business. You mean there are companies who make things nobody wants?” When lean literature talks about training everyone in lean methods and concepts, small manufacturers say, “Everybody around here is already wearing three hats. Who has the time to conduct or attend all this training?” And when the lean literature talks about . . . well, being lean, small manufacturers say, “We’re already lean. Remember that part about everyone already wearing three hats? Maybe big companies have extra people around but we don’t.”

Lean isn’t applicable to small manufacturers?  Define small.  Less than 250 people seems small to me.  My blogs last week about Milbank and Flextronics showed how small manufacturers are using lean thinking well.  They are just a couple of examples.

This author is taking make what the customer wants a little too literal.  Of course companies are making products that sell, but they make too much of it.  If the customer wants 5 then make 5 and not 10.  That is big aspect of making what the customer wants, but not the only aspect.  I have seen many small manufacturers make too much at the wrong time.  The lean thinking helps with focusing on the customer.

The real insight is when the author talks about wearing too many hats.  Lean doesn’t want people to wear more hats.  Lean wants people to wear different hats.  Think differently.  Manage differently.  Behave differently.  Not an addition to what they are already doing.

Here is more:

The value of lean tools for small manufacturers lie, not so much in their cost cutting potential, as in their potential for creating agility. A company I know has promised several of its largest customers that it will keep a month’s worth of the products it needs in the warehouse at all times. In other words, the vendor has promised the customer that it can order a month’s worth of any of the products it uses with no lead-time. If this weren’t challenging enough, the customer will sometimes order a full month’s worth of several products, then order another month’s worth of those same products within a week or two. And if all that weren’t challenging enough, the sales office often promises similar service to lesser customers. If this company implements lean, hoping for “promised” cuts in payroll, improvements in efficiency and reduced costs elsewhere, it’s missing the largest strategic use of lean: the ability to meet customer service demands while keeping inventories as low as possible. In fact, it might actually go the wrong direction if the initiatives the company takes to make it “leaner” actually diminish service. This company needs agility, the ability to meet the sometimes capricious and unreasonable demands of customers each time, all the time.

This really shows the lack of understanding or the blatant attempt to sell “agile” versus “lean”.  Lean is not a set of tools.  Lean is about the way we think and behave.  There are tools to help people change the behaviors and make problems visible, but it is not about the tools.  The first thing the author jumps to is lean as a way to cut cost.  The example he uses about the inventory is completely wrong.  Lean would never say lower your inventory so low that you are never serviceable.  The inventories should be as low as possible to expose problems but at the same time not allow you to be unserviceable to your customers.


What’s the small manufacturer to do? Focus on manufacturing cycle times, inventory levels and customer service rather than cost cutting. Focus on improving efficiencies as a path toward operational excellence, not as a move toward labor cost reductions. Understand that smooth, consistent flow of information and material is more important than occasional bursts of speed. For products that have long lead-times, ask, “If we could reduce the lead-time to the customer for this product, would we realize an advantage over our competitors, even if the cost of making that product stayed the same?” Where lead-times are short because you are keeping product in the warehouse (as in the case above), ask, “Can we maintain or even improve customer service even as we reduce inventories?” All that said, make sure you know what your inventory buffers are costing you. What could the company above save in inventory if it were to ask the customer for one-day lead-time? Two days? The company may or may not decide to make changes to its promises, but it needs to know what the costs of those promises are. (This may seem to contradict my earlier statements, but giving the customer a shorter lead-time than it needs is as wasteful as keeping inventory on hand to meet a short lead-time. The company mentioned earlier sometimes risked providing poor service levels to large customers that very much needed a very short lead time in order to offer equal terms to much smaller, less frequent customers that may have been willing to have a one or two day lead-time.)

EXACTLY!!!!  This is exactly what lean thinking would have a manufacturer of any size do.  I couldn’t have said it better myself.  The issue I have is in the next paragraph he calls this agile with the use of lean tools.

Does a focus on agility rather than cost cutting require different “lean tools”? No. Workplace organization, quick setup, work standardization, pull systems, error proofing are very much a part of agile manufacturing. If anything, their connection to agility is more intuitive and straightforward than is their connection to cost cutting. (I’ve often had looks of disbelief, not to say arguments, from supervisors and operators who I told we were reducing setup times so that we could do more setups. They couldn’t see the connection between more setups and good efficiency. When I explained the advantages of improved agility on customer satisfaction, they got it.) On the other hand, a focus on agility does require a different strategic view on the part of leadership and a great deal of discipline on the part of supervisors and operators. It requires everyone to see lean initiative as a “top line” (better sales) strategy as contrasted to a “bottom line” (lower costs) tactic.

This article really got to me.  I believe the author has the right thinking of how manufacturing should be done.  Lean is about flexibility and agility.  But going against lean with lean?  It really seemed like a way to make money by dressing lean up in a different dress and then trashing the old dress to feel good about yourself.  The odd part is the consulting group the author works for promotes lean and does lean training.  So do they understand lean?  What is their training like?  I am confused by this one.

Am I off base?  What are your thoughts on this?


Guest Post: The MAKE Movement a.k.a. Do-It-Yourself (DIY)

Today’s guest blogger is Justin Tomac.  Justin is involved in the Maker movement that I thought it would be a nice follow to manufacturing week last week.  Justin is an immersive learner and maker, with an entrepreneurial mindset who’s diverse background and experiences tend to show in his passion for developing and improving people, processes and products.  When not plotting his next move, Justin resides in the greater Kansas City Metropolitan area with his continuously growing family of soon to be Seven children.  He sits on the Advisory Board for the Kansas City Manufacturing Network as well as the Board of Directors for Make KC and is leading the planning for the 2011 Kansas City Mini Maker Faire.

I would like to introduce the Beyond Lean readership to a trend that is rapidly growing commonly called the MAKE movement.  MAKE is actually the name of a magazine which provides stories and plans for Do-It-Yourselfers (DIY). MAKE is published by O’Reilly publishing and is an attempt to bring together science, art, craft, engineering and music.

This article will be referring to the MAKE Movement, which is about the intersection of Art & Technology.  The Movement consists primarily of Makers, i.e. those who create, invent, hack or re-purpose items for some useful function.  Some distinguishing charactericstics of a Maker are a DIY & Safety Third (i.e. Dream the Big Dream, Understand the Risks & Use Safety Precautions) mindset coupled with a boundaryless curiousity and strong desire to learn.  Most are self starters and would venture to say are entrepreneurs at heart.  In my opinion, the Maker epitomizes what the United States manufacturing was founded upon and has fostered for the past 225+ years, in some ways you can say it is the foundation that helped build the USA into a dominant World Power.

The MAKE movement is visible in several ways.  One way is through local DIY or MAKE groups, some of which are called HackerSpaces.  These spaces have grown from just a Dozen or so in 2006 to 100+ in 2010.  The growth is attributed to a Second way called a Maker Faire.  This is where Makers (both technology and craft) meet to show to any and all, what they have created, invented or re-purposed.  Shared Learnings and Immersive Interactions are typically what a Maker Faire attendee would expect.  This blends well with what most Makers believe and promote, which is ‘Open Source’ sharing and learning.  What is the sense of making or ‘hacking’ something if you cannot share what you have learned is a typical comment voiced.  It is the openness that most would agree is the Power of this grass roots movement. ‘Hacking’ here is referenced as a way Makers are learning, testing or using a product in different ways then the intended use.  Some may call it ‘tinkering’, irregardless of what you call it the outcome is usually interesting and most times an incremental improvement over what it was.  For most companies this may be seen as a threat (i.e. think reverse engineering), some companies are actually using this to their advantage by offering products that can be ‘hacked’.  In studying this you find these companies are really using the Makers and the Movement as a way of Rapid Prototyping and very cost effective forms of Product Development.  In my opinion, this is where most manufacturers may find some interest, along with some really cool ideas for product.  Since most Makers do this as a hobby in their spare time, primarily because their ‘cup’ at work is not being filled (think underutilized intellect), and for the love of learning they have and can offer their expertise for some ‘moonlighting’ fees.  In my opinion, this is a true win-win.

Becoming involved in this Movement is quite simple.  Here are two suggestions:

1)     Find your local MAKE or HackerSpace group and begin to make things either there or at home.  Use the imagination of a young child and then do it.  Once you begin, it is hard not to look at something without wondering how you can re-purpose it.  For ideas check out or  Along with MakeZine, these sites have a lot of low cost great ideas.

2)     Attend a Maker Faire (either one of the Three Main National Events or a local Mini Maker Faire), become inspired and do-it-yourself.  If you are a CEO/COO or Innovation Leader check out the Faire or local group and see what makes sense to your category or line then leverage it.  For example, within the next 5 – 10 years every household will own a 3-Dimensional Printer (i.e. a printer that has the ability to replicate a product in 3D using a material) for items that have broken and need to be re-made or for items that are dreamt of.  The Price Barrier has been significantly reduced from a 2006 price tag of $25,000+ to a 2010 tag of $750 ( With this type of technology the homemaker has now become the rapid prototyping queen of tomorrow.

My fascination with this Movement was re-kindled a year ago.  My kids and wife have enjoyed the time spent together making crafts and learning certain types of technology.  Talk about some low budget, quality family time!  I encourage each of you to explore this movement.  Chances are you will be surprised at what you learn!


Making Manufacturing Real in North Carolina

Last week North Carolina State University Industrial Extension Services hosted a Making it Real event across the state.  It was designed to show off all the manufacturing that takes place in North Carolina.  Gray Rinehart was kind enough to share some of it with me.  I wanted everyone to know the grass roots effort that is going on to promote the wonderful manufacturing that is taking place in the U.S.  I hope more states can follow in their footsteps for more events like this.

Because I’ve driven across the country several times, from one Air Force assignment to the next, I sometimes think in terms of the nation as a whole and forget just how big some states are. Last week I helped the NC State University Industrial Extension Service (IES) conduct the “Manufacturing Makes It Real” tour, covering over 1100 miles in 5 days, and trust me: North Carolina is a pretty big state.

The central message of the tour was that manufacturing — the actual production of durable and consumer goods — matters to all of us, because it is the source of almost everything we have and almost everything we do. As Dr. Terri Helmlinger Ratcliff, IES Executive Director, wrote before the tour, “Manufacturing makes the difference between imagination and reality in ways that make modern life possible.” Invention creates new products, but manufacturing brings them into all our lives.

To spread the message about how much manufacturing matters, we went to every region of North Carolina: the piedmont, the mountains, and along the coast. As we traveled, we held rallies where manufacturers showed off their products and praised their workers. The host sites made the rallies truly “local” events: some had employees sing the National Anthem, some invited Junior ROTC or other school groups to perform, and one invited the local area’s apple orchards to bring some of their products for attendees to sample. Local, State, and even Federal elected officials attended various events, which usually included plant tours to show off the host sites’ capabilities in more detail.

Our convoy included a tractor-trailer with dozens of different “Made in NC” items that showed off the diversity of products made throughout the state. At each rally, people lined up to walk through the trailer to see their handiwork as well as others’. Many people expressed surprise at the variety of products made in the state: “from tortilla chips to microchips,” as IES Deputy Director Dr. David Boulay said.

I like to think the individual rallies were like “county fairs” for manufacturing, and we were pleased at the number of companies that attended, even though we didn’t have blue ribbons to award. And considering the weather we had — record levels of rain along the coast, making us travel on nearly-flooded roads* — we were very fortunate to make it to each stop and hold each rally on time.

The most memorable rally for me was held at Scott Health & Safety in Monroe (east of Charlotte). The Monroe Fire Department had set up two ladder trucks and suspended a huge U.S. flag to help the companies demonstrate their “Made in the USA” pride. That pride-of-workmanship theme was repeated at every stop, but the Monroe event was special to me because I relied on Scott Air Pak breathing gear when I worked disaster response in the Air Force. Their workmanship can literally mean the difference between life and death in dangerous situations. (I wrote more about the Scott Health & Safety rally on the tour blog**).

All week long, from companies big and small and representing many different industry sectors, we heard stories of continuous improvement through lean and Six Sigma, expanded markets through ISO certification, and risk-taking through entrepreneurial ventures and new product development. Company leaders admitted to a lot of belt-tightening and uncertainty in the last couple of years, but seemed pleased that people were paying attention to the good work they do.

The tour ended with a final rally at the NC Legislative Building in Raleigh, where NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson symbolically presented the truckload of products to NC Secretary of Commerce Keith Crisco. The speakers at the final rally, along with the companies that sponsored and participated in the “Manufacturing Makes It Real” tour, testified that manufacturing is alive and well in North Carolina. We are all committed to keeping it that way.


*Not complaining! We needed the rain to counteract the summer’s drought.

**For more from the tour blog, including pictures from most of the sites, see