Monthly Archives: January 2011

With No Ideal State, Stagnation Sets In

I repeatedly get asked, “Why do we need to have an ideal state?”  There are a few ways I have answered this.  For example, it gives direction for improvement suggestions.  Is it worth working on if we aren’t improving in the direction of the ideal state?

The best reason I give for developing an ideal state is it helps to eliminate stagnation.

How many times have you heard, “Our process is better than it ever has been,” or “Our process is better than industry standard,” or “People benchmark against our process.”  These are just a few comments that throw up a red flag that the organization is satisfied with their process and not continuing to improve.  When digging deeper, the organizations that have grown stagnate have done so because they have no ideal state vision they are striving towards.

It is easier to keep an eye towards improvement when an ideal state has been developed to help give direction to the organization.  If stagnation becomes a problem people can point out the ideal state and question what the organization is doing to get closer to the ideal state.  This should cause a feeling of uneasiness that jump starts more improvement.

Stagnation and complacency becomes the norm when there is no ideal state to help remind and motivate the organization.  Someone might suggest the process is as good as is going to get if there isn’t the defined ideal state to say, “No.  This is where we want to get to.”  In some cases, we may never get to the ideal state, but we must keep moving in that direction.

The next time you see an area or organization that is stagnant in their continuous improvement efforts ask them what their ideal state is.  I would be they don’t have one.


Train and Do. Do Not Train Then Do.

I have read about three quarters of the Toyota Kata by Mike Rother.  It is a very good book.  One that provokes a lot of thought even from people that have been implementing lean for a long time.  This post isn’t a book review of the Toyota Kata.  It is a reflection on a point made my Mike Rother in the book about training and doing.

In the book Mr. Rother talks about moving from a system where we train in the classroom and then ask them to go out on the floor and do.  Instead, the mentor needs to be with the mentee on the floor training and doing at the same time.  Below is a graphic to try and illustrate that it isn’t two steps, but one combined step.

As I thought about this, I remembered some of the coaches that I got the most learning from.  In every case, the coach was out on the floor with me observing me learning and resolving the problem.  The coach invested a lot of time in me.  He made sure I was thinking about the problem in every way possible and would ask questions and guide me when he saw I was off course.

In contrast, I had coaches that would train me in the classroom and then give me an assignment.  The coach would come back a week or month later and see how my work had progressed.  The coach would try to get an understanding of my thinking but it would be hard.  I learned but not nearly as much or as fast as when I had my coach there with me as I worked.  This isn’t an indictment on the coach.  It was just the way the process was set up.

It may seem that having coaches for a lot of employees that can spend time with them on the floor is not feasible.  In our current system and thinking that may be true.  What is amazing is that Toyota has found a way to do it.  Leaders at all levels are coaches to their employees so they are training and doing at the same time.  This creates hundreds of coaches training and doing on the floor across the organization.

Our organizations may not be able to do this right away.  If it is truly important to the company to create learning an investment will need to be made.  Start small.  Get a few people coached and then have them coach.  Slowly let it spread.  Start with a small part of the organization.  It allows for experimenting with the training and doing process before spreading it.

I know this is easier said than done.  It was a method that worked for me in the past.  To show how slowly it can move, I was coached and then I coached 5 others and then they started to coach.  Just to get to that point took 3 years.  That started with a base of one, just me in our plant.  The whole purpose was I was there with them training on the floor as they were doing.  It is definitely a huge commitment.

I believe this huge commitment and slow process is why organizations are not successful at it.  It takes patience.

I hope your organization is willing to make the commitment.

Creativity from Constraints

Jamie Flinchbaugh seems to post timely blogs with things I am working on.  Last week, he posted a blog about Leveraging Constraints for Creativity.

Now that we are back from the holidays, one of projects I am working on is improving a process to meet the customer cost requirements.  Before the holiday, the team had 4 great ideas that would allow great savings and efficiency gains.  The potential drawback is that it requires our customer to change how they give us information.  The company I work for is one of a thousand customers and we have very little product in their stores.

The challenge to the team is to still create an improved process but with the constraint that the customer will not change the way they give us information.  This is a big constraint and is causing some angst on the team.

I like the constraint.  It is really going to challenge the team to get creative with a solution.  It will push the limits in our ways of thinking about our process.  I expect it to help us make the process better than it has ever been.

Before this constraint, there was too much freedom.  This freedom allowed us to look at the customer and say they need to change or we can’t get better.  I don’t buy it.  Now with the constraint, it will force us to look at ourselves differently.  This self reflection is how we get better and stay ahead of the competition.

Applying Lean to Training

I found this video a few days ago.  It is a video of Todd Hudson, from the Maverick Institute, giving a class about applying lean to training.  The video is about 13 minutes long and isn’t the whole presentation, but it is very intriguing.

Todd asks the question, “Can we learn twice as much in half the time?”  It is a great question.  His point is that people thing that is a crazy idea, but we won’t hesitate to ask, “Can we get twice the production in half the time of equipment X?”  Excellent point.

In the video, Todd starts to talk about the waste in training.  He provides a statistic that says only 15% of what is heard during training is retained.  WOW!  I never put a measurement on it but my experiences seem to be very similar, which is why applying and reflecting after learning is very important for the learning cycle.

I’m disappointed the video is not longer.  I would like to hear more of what Todd has to say about applying lean to training and learning.

Has anyone applied lean to their training?  I would be interested in hearing more.

What the Books Don’t Tell You about Being a Coach

Over the last 5 years, I have read a lot of books, articles, and blogs about lean.  At first, I read about tools and concepts.  Then I started reading about the people and management side of lean.  Now I read about determining my own strengths and weaknesses and how to become a better coach.

Books on the subject of coaching talk about how as mentor it is best to coach the mentee to a process.  That way way the mentee starts to learn the process and takes ownership for the solution because it is something they designed.  Teach the mentee to fish, so to speak.

After reading several books and articles, it finally dawned on me that all of this material had an underlying assumption to them.  The person receiving the coaching or mentoring has developed some basic skills.  In the case of the fishing metaphor, the person knows what a fishing rod is and what casting a line is.  In the lean world, the mentee knows what 5S, visual management, or kanban is.  They may not know the purpose of the tool or when is the appropriate time to use the tool, but they have some concept of what it is.

The mentor is there to help this person understand the purpose and time to use the tool by coaching to a process and not giving the solution.

What the books don’t tell you is that you need to be a teacher too.  A teacher is someone who can educate about the tool and concept.  Teaching adds tools to the toolbox, so a mentor can help the mentee use that tool.  It does no good to coach someone on making a problem visual if they have not heard of or know about visual management.  You have to step back and teach them about visual management and then coach them through a situation that uses visual management.

There are several ways to teach.  One is in the classroom.  Give training on what something is so people are exposed to it.  Another way is during a project or problem solving.  Teach a new tool or concept as it is being applied so the mentee learns about the tool and can see it in action.

Sometimes I think we assume that people know what we are talking about as coaches and that is dangerous.  If you are coaching someone and it looks as if they are not understanding or making progress, take a step back and ask yourself if they need to be taught something first and then coached.

Indirect Employees Do Add Value

Lean as the cost cutting tool is a paradigm most of the lean community has to struggle against everyday.  Then the most common way is too reduce headcount.  The first comment I most commonly hear is, “Reduce the number of indirect employees.  We have too many.”

While a company may truly have too many indirect employees, it isn’t having too many, it is using them properly.  Most efforts I have seen go out and eliminate supervisors, material handlers, and clerks in one fail swoop.  What usually happens is the work they were doing must still get done and it gets put on the direct (or value-added) employees.  These are the employees that are working on the product or service directly.  When they pick up the duties of the indirect employees it takes time away from working on the product and therefore makes them less productive.  Management can’t figure out why this is happening.

My suggestion and a concept that Toyota uses is one team leader for every 4-7 team members.  The team leaders responsibilities are to provide immediate support to their team members each and every single time they have a problem and complete non-value added work like paperwork, finding parts, or getting someone to help with an improvement idea.

This structure takes the burden of non-value activities off the value-added team member so they become more productive.  The rapid response to problems allows for better understanding of what actually is happening and leads to more problems being resolved.  All-in-all this reduces the companies total cost by having these indirect employees.

I know going from a traditional supervisor structure to a structure mentioned above is not easy in most cases.  Usually, you don’t have extra employees sitting around that you can just train and insert.  One way to free up someone for this role is through improving the work of some indirect employees.  For example, improve the work of the material handlers so they are more efficient.  When they are efficient enough to do the same work with less material handlers, use that person to become the first team leader in an area.  As the area with the new structure gets more efficient then you may be able to free up some people to become team leaders in other areas.  And so on.

I have used this method before and it worked but it does take patience.  The good news is once results are shown the process seems to speed up.

So the next time you see indirect labor as $$$…..stop and think of how you can better utilize them to remove waste and cost from your process through continuous improvement.

Quick Assembly of Pre-Fab Shelving Unit

A few weeks ago, I bought a shelving unit from Target.  The kind that comes needing a bunch of assembly and most people dread putting together because the instructions aren’t written very well.  I have done plenty of them and look at it as LEGO for big boys!

One reason people hate the assembly kits so much is the big bag of screws, washers, Dow rods, etc… that is always a nightmare to sift through to find parts for each step.  Well, not this time.  Apparently, the manufacturer must have had some customer feedback about how much of a hassle it is because this time all the hardware was pre-sorted for each step.  The front shows the hardware separated for each step and the back of the packaging tells what step the hardware is for.

All I had to do each for each step was open the appropriate compartment and use the hardware.  It was sorted and counted out properly.  This provided visual queues as whether or not if I forgot something.  If all the pieces were used, I should be alright and if there was a component still on the floor then I missed something.

I compare this to how some companies use material handlers to do the non-value added work to present parts to the value added operator so less time is taken by the value added operator to assemble the finished product.

The manufacturer took the non-value added task of sorting the hardware needed for each step and packaged it together.  This meant me, the value added operator, didn’t have to spend the time looking for the right hardware during each step.  I took less time to assemble this shelving unit than I have for any other unit in the last 10 years.  It was great.

One last thought on the manufacturer.  I would imagine they fought conventional thinking to do this, because it would be easier to package all Hardware A together and all Hardware B together in their silos and then throw that in the box.  Instead they probably had to get all the components into a common area before separating them.  Plus, the packaging I would assume cost more than a plastic bag that is heat sealed.

Over all, I liked this convenience.  It definitely added value for me.

Learning is Frustrating

Last week Jamie Flinchbaugh posted a blog entitled “If you’re not frustrated, the you’re not working on the right problem”.  I even posted a comment about it.

The timing of this post was perfect.  A couple of nights later, I was working with my daughter on some reading homework.  There was one section of work that completely frustrated her because she couldn’t get the right answer easily.  So far, almost everything in school has come naturally for her.  She picks up and she gets it.  So when she has trouble with something and can’t get it after the first try she gets very frustrated and upset.

That is when I realized, her limits are being stretched for the first time in a very long while.  What was important was re-enforcing that it was alright to make mistakes.  When mistakes are made, we learn from them and our limits/knowledge expand.  We were trying to show her the goal wasn’t perfection, but learning.

When I have been learning something that stretches my limits I know it can be frustrating, but once I get over that proverbial hump, I feel great about the learning that has occurred.  Because of going through that frustration, the learning is internalized better and I don’t forget it.

This is another cultural aspect of lean that can’t been seen as easily as 5S or visual management or quick changeovers.  But if you see people getting frustrated with problem solving and learning then you are probably learning about the things that will make your organization much stronger.

Flip the Thinking – Can Lowering Taxes Help a City

Over the holidays, my wife and I visited family.  We have family outside of St. Louis, MO.  On our drive through St. Louis we talked about how the quality of living and the safety of the city has dropped.  St. Louis is now #1 on the most dangerous place to live in the U.S. list.  Houses are dilapidated, streets are run down, and manufacturing jobs are leaving at a rapid rate.  Nine years ago we wanted to move to St. Louis to be near family.  Now we don’t.  The city doesn’t present many opportunities or at least not as many as it used to.  Throw in the crime rate and it isn’t appealing.

What amazes me is the cost of living for St. Louis and the surrounding areas.  It is expensive compared to where we live (Kansas City, KS) and used to live (Indiana and Texas).  The cities we have lived in have been very nice.  They have their run down parts but there aren’t as many as in St. Louis.  We discussed how downtown St. Louis (as other cities I’m sure) raise taxes in order to get the lower income to move out and create revitalization.  Raising taxes to force out low income means those with low income get hit harder and are forced to stretch their means further.  Moving isn’t cheap either, so how can low income families (bordering on poverty) even afford to move out.  This could lead to more crime as people take drastic action to help feed and provide shelter for their families.  I know the city gets more revenue or at least they perceive they do. If people can’t pay it, then the city really doesn’t get the money.

In lean, we want people to flip some of their thinking.  “Don’t think in silos, think flow,” or “Don’t look at the price per piece, look at the total cost.”

What if a city flipped their thinking about raising taxes to revitalize the city.  Instead of raising taxes, the city lowers taxes.  People would get to keep more of their pay check which means possibly spending more in the local shops or being up-to-date on bills and not feeling stressed about what to do this month or keep their house in good shape.  The city would actually get the money and be able to reinvest in the city’s infrastructure.  This reinvestment could then attract more people and business because it is nicer plus the cost of living isn’t as high as surrounding areas.

I am no political or economic expert and I will never claim to be.  These are ares of little interest to me.  I know none of what I proposed has been proven.  It may or may not work, but isn’t it worth a shot after many years of a city eroding?  Isn’t it worth trying something new?  It isn’t a short-term strategy, which people love to see results now, but a long-term strategy that takes time.

What if a city flipped it’s thinking?

Music Industry is Shifting from Batch to Single Piece Flow

The digital age has been here for quit some time.  One industry that has be changed significantly is the music industry.  For over 50 years the music industry was a batch industry.  Musicians released music in batches to the public in the form of albums.  Then batches of albums would be manufactured and sent to stores before finally a consumer would buy a copy of the album.

The digital age has made it possible for the music industry to go to a single piece flow.  The middle man or seller has done taken advantage of it.  Now you can go to iTunes or Amazon or other websites, pick what songs you would like and download them one at a time.

Why haven’t the musicians taken advantage of this though.  Musicians are still releasing songs in batches (albums) even though the consumer is downloading just certain song off the album from the internet.  Why don’t musicians create a song and then release it and not wait for batches of songs to release together?  It might allow more songs of theirs to be downloaded because a song is getting played, the fans hear it, and then buy it.  When done in batches, only a couple of songs get played and the rest of the album may be heard by the fans if they buy the whole album or it may not.

Leveling the release of the songs in a single piece flow seems like it would be beneficial to the musicians.  Allowing more of their songs to be played on the radio, which I would think would lead to more downloads and more revenue for the musicians.

Just a thought in a way to use the digital music age to their advantage.  What are your thoughts?