Monthly Archives: October 2011

Signals May Be Just That

This week I learned a valuable lesson about body language and signals.  They may mean nothing at all.

I was involved as the person being judged.  When I sit, especially for long periods of time, I find it quite comfortable to lean back with my arms crossed.  I mean absolutely nothing by it.  I finally had someone tell me they felt I was not engaged and standoffish.  I found this to be odd, because I was asking questions and trying to gain clarity during the entire meeting.  The person then let me know that my body language made them feel uncomfortable.  That is when it clicked.  I let them know it had nothing to do with them.  It was a comfort thing for me, especially in a cold room.

Just by chance a couple of days later, I was taking a course on facilitation.  Again, long days in a chair and I sat leaned back with my arms crossed a lot out of comfort.  When the instructor started talking about body language and reading the room she used me as an example.  She pointed out I was sitting leaned back and with my arms crossed.  She mention most people might think I am not happy about what is going on or engaged BUT that wasn’t the case.  She could tell I was engaged because of my head nods, the questions I asked, and my participation.

The instructor’s point was body language is just a signal to keep an eye one.  You should take everything into consideration and if you have a question about it don’t assume the negative.  In private, ask if everything is alright and how things are going.  You might find something outside of work is causing the distraction or you just might find out there is nothing wrong at all.


Seeing Through a Lean Lens

Seeing the world through a lean lens can be very frustrating at times.  The lean lens helps us to see waste everywhere, in things we do at work or at home.  Seeing systems, processes, and businesses end-to-end with a total cost picture becomes easier.

Because of this, it is easy to get frustrated with others that don’t view the world with a lean lens.  This is especially true with people in upper management roles.  It is easy to think they should see our view easily because they are smart people or they would not have gotten to the position they are in.

I have fallen into this trap myself.  My frustrations have become visible and it did not go well.  I lost a little bit of credibility with the person because of this.

To help me no become frustrated, I have tried a few things.  I try to put myself in their shoes and remember they have been successful without lean thinking.  This can make them feel like they already see things well or with a lean lens.  I also have to give a compelling story for them to change.  In most cases, data and visuals help me make a good case for change.

Like it or not a majority of the people still don’t look at the world through a lean lens.  We have to remember that as we met and talk with people.  Until the scale is tipped in the direction of lean, we will have to work to keep our frustrations hidden from the people we are trying to convert.

The Remodel is Complete

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about single piece flow with laying the tile in the bathroom remodel at our house.  Well, the remodel is complete and my legs are no longer sore from running up and down the steps a bazillion times.

When learning, the bigger the learning zone or safe zone to make mistakes the greater the learning that can occur.  This project had a HUGE learning zone and my wife and I took full advantage of it.  We tore everything out except the corner jetted tub and started from scratch.

The shower pan, cabinets, toilet, everything came out.

I ended up learning about plumbing and how to move water lines, electrical wiring for fans and lights, assembling and installing cabinets, tiling, you name it and we learned it.  We got some cool tools along the way too.  A couple of months later we have a finished product that we absolutely love.

The experience helped me to push my limits with what I can do from a home improvement standpoint.  It was rewarding that we did it ourselves and the knowledge we gained about our home, our skill, and ourselves is invaluable.

Think about the learning zone you allow your employees.  Is it safe?  Is it big enough to allow them to test their limits and learn about themselves?  Or is it a small learning zone where they are not able to learn much and never  gain new skills?

Allow them to stretch themselves and let them struggle in a safe environment to learn.  I bet you will be surprise by the results.  I know I was.

Small Businesses Growing in Wisconsin which is an online magazine focusing on business in Milwaukee and Southeastern Wisconsin had a great article about small businesses that are growing during the economic downturn.

The overall article is good and highlights several companies.  The first company highlighted was Bradley Corp. which makes commercial bathroom fixtures and equipment.  The article mentions the expansion to a new facility with a lean design.  In fact, that is the only mention of lean in the three page article.

What I liked was the approach and and strategy the company took to growth and planning.  Brian Mullet is the president of Bradley Corp.

“As a company, one of our foundations is we don’t look to make changes on a quarterly basis, we look more towards a long-term vision,” Mullett said. “There’s no better time than now, than today, to build a new building.”

In an example of Bradley’s forward-looking investment plan, the company purchased the 32-acre property for its new lean manufacturing plant in 1997, knowing it would allow for flexible use in future expansions.

More from the article…

The key to Bradley’s success, Mullett said, is a family focus on planning far ahead for growth. There are always five-year, three-year and current year plans in place.

“I’m the fifth generation here in the business, so I think that’s been distilled into our family,” he said. “It allows us to plan and be more effective in our business.”

This is more evidence of how thinking long-term has helped a company grow even during uneasy times instead of changing directions several times because of short-term thinking.  It sounds like they may not be a publicly held company which can make it easier sometimes, but it sounds like the family values planning long-term.  The family bought land in the 1990s and held onto it for over a decade waiting for the right time to build on it.  It would have been way to easy to think short-term and build immediately on the land so they were paying for two pieces of property or sell it to get more cash during hard economic times.

I can’t say if they are a lean company or not, but thinking long-term is a good quality to have to build a foundation of lean thinking.  Small businesses are going to be where more jobs come are going to come from to help with the employment rate.  I hope more of them are thinking long-term.

I don’t know what is in the cheese in Wisconsin but I hope it spreads to other states and if it has how do we advertise it more.

Drilling Deep With The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys is a common talked about problem solving method that is taught.   The quick explanation is to keep asking why until you get to the root cause.  It seems simple and straight forward, right?

Then when it is tried people start to see it isn’t as easy as it may seem.  The hardest part people have is knowing when to stop asking why.  Five id just a suggestion to drive home the point to dig deep.

A rule of thumb I like to use, is to keep asking why until the conversation gets uncomfortable.  This isn’t easy because the other person may get upset with not knowing the answer and start to get upset with you or you may have to start asking tough questions that cross into uncharted waters.

Why do I do this?  Because that is the point where the real learning starts to take place for the person asking the questions AND the person trying to answer the questions.

If the person knows the answer right off the top of their head, that seems to superficial and could have or should have been fixed already.  That doesn’t seem like a root cause (although it could be).  Digging to a point where the conversation gets uncomfortable surfaces deep rooted issues that can drive bigger and/or better change.

Learning is the key to problem solving so don’t stop asking why until you have gotten deep enough to cause some level of uncomfortableness.  That is where you will find the root cause.

King County Washington Turns to Lean to Help with Budget

I came across an article on Monday about a county government in Washington state using lean to help reduce the budget shortfalls.

Lean is not traditional top-down budget cutting. It is often a five-day “event” where a single department — for example, one processing car-tab renewals — puts every job on a board and figures out how to streamline and improve the process. Employees are active participants.

While it sounds like they do understand lean isn’t just a budget cutting device cut from traditional slash and trash, they may still need some help to understand it is more than 5-day events.  It is about the thinking and how they operate day-to-day.  At least they are starting somewhere and they are getting some help with it.

Boeing has loaned a Lean consultant part-time to King County to share the wisdom, which is good community involvement.

No matter what you think about Boeing’s lean efforts, it is good to see someone willing to help the government offices get started.  It can show the government office how powerful lean can be so they want to continue.

What was the first process they tackled?  One we all hate……car license plate renewal.

The time between the county receiving an envelope with a check for car-tab renewal to the moment of putting the tabs in the mail declined from 19 days to 5.

Wow!!!  Almost 75% reduction.  Can they help my DMV?!!!

Sounds like the officials were impressed enough to invest more and start to tackle other budget issues.

The sheriff’s overtime budget is up next and could be fruitful. About 6 percent of sheriff office spending, $4.5 million, goes to discretionary overtime.

The county wants to spend $600,000 for Lean facilitators and implementers.

That’s a lot of money in a county lacking funds. But if working with employees to find redundancies and savings can save real money, it may well be worth the investment.

The reason the county government wants to use lean is…

The county takes in 3 percent in additional revenue annually while general-fund costs increase by roughly 6 percent. That has created a need to find an annual 3 percent efficiency boost every year. Lean is all about getting a grip on the cost-spending curve so services remain the same, but new ideas discovered through innovative sessions wring out more efficiencies.

While usually I would say lean is about growth, in this case it is about cost cutting.  Government offices can use lean slightly differently.  They need to keep the budgets low and operate within the tax money they receive.  The key is NOT to let service slip.  In fact, it should increase.  If a government office can do this extremely efficiently, then an ideal state would be to eventually start to lower taxes or have a tax give back because they are operating with such a big surplus of cash.

The government may be the one place where using lean to shrink the right way is what it is all about.

I hope the King County offices continue to have great success.

More Outsourcing Coming Back to U.S.

A couple of weeks ago there was an article in the Hartford Business Journal talking about more offshore outsourcing that was returning to the U.S.  The article sums up why companies are returning the best:

The argument goes: when total cost is considered, production is cheaper locally; there is less concern about quality and intellectual property theft when dealing with a domestic company; and with new lean practices, more streamlined production lowers domestic costs.

“Company after company has learned by keeping things closer together, that leads to a stronger overall value chain,” said John Shook, chairman and CEO of the Lean Enterprise Institute, based in Cambridge, Mass. “I see a lot of companies bringing things back.”

This is a hard lesson for companies to learn.  As mad as I would like to get over companies making the choice to chase cheap labor, I have to remind myself they were playing with the rules as they understood them.  Ten plus years ago, value stream accounting was not known.  The only system most people knew was the standard costing system.  This view did not take into account the quality and lead time aspects of chasing cheap labor.

Value Stream accounting is now more widely known, thanks to efforts like the Lean Accounting Summit.  If companies continue to chase the cheap labor costs, I really don’t have any sympathy for them.  The article lists other reasons Arcor sees offshoring as not a good idea:

Arcor has advantages over offshore companies when competing for local work, Francoeur said. Particularly when a client is developing a new product, there’s a lot of back and forth between Arcor and the customer, which would be slowed significantly if the client had to wait days for a project to be shipped from an offshore company.

New products tend to be more sensitive to copying and intellectual property concerns, and clients trust local companies more when dealing with sensitive information, Francoeur said.

With more and more companies learning total cost is better the more local you are to your market, no matter where in the world you are located, hopefully, it will be come the norm to stay local. We have to continue to talk about total costs and keep pushing the topic with leaders in our companies.  We can use the companies that left and came back as examples and eventually we will get there

Lean Assessments Are Not for the Faint of Heart

Last week, a few of my counterparts and I completed our first deep dive lean assessment of an organization within our company.  Overall, it went pretty well.  We got most of the logistics right and divided the work up appropriately and even scheduled just about the appropriate amount of time with each group.

There was plenty I was not prepared for though.  Most of all was the energy drain.  I have always enjoyed learning what others are doing and have been on quite a few benchmark trips, but taking a specific focus and drilling deep into it was mentally exhausting.  I slept like a rock after the assessment was over.

We also had to spend more time than I thought reassuring people this was not a test or an audit.  The assessment results were to be used to help them improve or thrown away.  Their choice.  No skin off our back except the time to prep, conduct and wrap up the assessment.  People were convinced it was to evaluate their job performance.

I took pages upon pages of notes in order to remind me of things when I had to go back and score the assessment topic.  As simple as it sounds, it took several hours for our team to score all 27 topics and provide feedback as to why we scored it what we did and opportunities and good things for each topic.

This leadership group was very eager to have the assessment done and I believe will use it properly to help them improve, not rank and stack.  The report out went very well and I will be interested to see what they use from our feedback as well as feedback from them on how we can improve our assessment process.

It was a lot of work, but done properly I believe it will help the organization continue to move forward with their lean implementation.

Don’t Over Complicate the Formula

People are enamored with kanban systems.  This can be a good thing, but all too often they don’t understand kanban systems are there to help highlight make problems visual.

The first thing almost everyone jumps to is the calculation for the minimum and maximum levels for the kanban.  I have seen some formulas that would make a mathematician with 3 PhDs blush.  I don’t understand the need to have a complex formula.  For years now, I have used what I see as a basic quick and easy formula to calculate the min and the max.

Min = Lead Time + Safety Stock

Max = Min + (Min/2)

Lead time is the time it takes from the moment the component is ordered until it is received and ready to be used.

Safety Stock is the amount of stock to hold because of something that could occur to delay the lead time.  Base this on where you are getting the parts from, how often does something go wrong, etc…  For example you might hold a little more safety stock for something you purchase from a company 300 miles away versus a component that is made in-house.

If the process is working smoothly, you will receive the component you ordered right as you get into the safety stock.  When the minimum level is set properly, you will feel freaked out because you believe you will run out and right about that time the components will arrive.  It is a weird feeling that you will adjust to, but makes you heartbeat fast the first few times until you get used to it and trust the process.

The maximum is something a friend and I completely made up several years ago.  There is no reason it has to be this.  I continue to use it because so far it has worked well for me over the last decade.  I always round up to the nearest full day.


Min = 2 day lead time + 1 day of safety stock = 3 days

Max = 3 + (3/2) = 4.5 round up to 5 days

The only other number that is needed is the quantity of the product used per day.  This is used to translate the number of days to a quantity of the component.

1 day usage equal 500 parts

Min = 3 days x 500 parts = 1500 part

Max = 5 days x 500 parts = 2500 parts

The point of the kanban min/max levels are to get you in the ballpark.  It shouldn’t be an exact science because you will probably round to nearest full carton or order quantity anyway.  Plus, min/max levels should NEVER stay static.  They are dynamic and change.

I wold recommend on having what you might think is a little too much inventory to start.  You can always adjust your kanban min/max levels down as you understand your process.  If you start with too little of inventory, you will run out of parts and people will not have faith in the new process and give up early on before it has a chance to work.

Get rid of the waste in your kanban calculation and go and see your process to understand if your kanban min/max are appropriate.

Supermarket Pull System

A couple of years ago, I was working with a group to create a complex supermarket pull system.  The supermarket was centered around a component that was manufactured inside the assembly facility and feed several assembly lines.  A timed delivery system was going to be used to deliver components to the each assembly line every two hours.  The deliveries were based on the orders the lines placed during the previous two hours.  Only four hours worth of components would be stored at the assembly line and the rest would be stored in the centralized supermarket.

Below is a quick presentation I gave to the leadership to help them understand how the system would work.  Slides 5 -15 show the specifics for this supermarket delivery system.

This is a specific example of how to use this supermarket system.  However, the concept is the same no matter what supermarket you use.  There should be:

  • Centralized storage location for the components
  • A small amount of inventory at the point of use
  • A signal to replenish the point of use inventory
  • A signal to replenish the supermarket inventory
  • Replenishment triggers should be based on lead time to receive inventory from supplier

A well designed supermarket system can be a very powerful tool to help reduce inventory and simplify operations.