Monthly Archives: February 2012

Coaching It or Allowing It

I was recently browsing around for information on Mike Leach, the current football coach at Washington State University and formerly of Texas Tech.  In my reading, I learned about a saying that he had in his office that said, “You are either coaching it or allowing it to happen.”  I’m not sure I’d claim that there is anything especially Lean about the phrase.  For starters, it seems to violate the Deming anti-slogan thinking.  The other arbitrary test that I apply is that it doesn’t sound like something I would see or hear at Toyota.  It also seems pretty convenient to have a phrase like this in an environment where you have a group of 18-22 year olds whose future prospects are more or less dependent on their ability to earn or keep a scholarship that you sign off on.

I still like the quote and I think the reason it stands out to me for the completeness of it.  There really isn’t any gray area at all.  If you are leading people or teaching them (or both), what occurs is often a result either of your action or lack of action.  A lot of what marks companies or facilities that are either starting or in the middle of a transition to Lean is the lack of a complete, consistent, compelling vision that people are following.  Navigating the gray area during a Lean transition sometimes doesn’t lend itself to everyone being on the same page.

To my frame of mind, questions like this go back to how deliberate you are in where you are going and how well people can understand the ‘True North’ vision.  Little checks like this are sometimes a stretch, but I have found that they help to keep me on track with what I am trying to do.


Turning the Question Back on Ourselves

Part of the improvement process is to ask, “What problems, issues or opportunities are there?”

This seems like a very good question to ask.  A question that would get to the root of what can be done to improve.  People start to give answer after answer about problems and issues.  Notes are taken.  Work is assigned.

Not  until recently have I taken the time to look at the responses given to the question above.  Closer examination shows a large portion of the responses are pointing the finger outwardly.  We could do that if leadership does this.  We could have lower costs if our customers would let us design our relationship.  We could have a faster changeover if management would let us buy the newest equipment.

These are TRAPS!  Traps that I have fallen into myself. Traps that lead us to try and justify new equipment that may not be needed or spend energy convincing leadership or customers to do something different so we can stay the same.  In the end, the improvement isn’t made or it is not nearly as significant as it could have been.

We have to turn the question around on ourselves.  Ask what can we do to help leadership help us?  What can we do within the parameters of our relationship with the customer and still deliver on their needs?  How can we get the same effect of the new equipment without buying the new equipment?

We can’t always point the finger outward.  We have to point the finger inward and try everything we can to get where we want to go.  When we do this well, we get greater improvement and others will respect us more for solving the issue.

Pit Stops and Lean

As I continue my mini-series on NASCAR leading up to the Daytona 500, I am going to share some thoughts on  Pit Stops.   Just probably not in the same way you have heard it before.

Most people who have been involved with Lean for any length of time have been exposed to the Pit Stop and the Pit Crew as an example for a SMED/Changeover activity.  It’s a fantastic real world example of the value of planning, organizing and choreographing a changeover.  Honestly, I don’t know what I could write about that aspect of the pit stop that hasn’t already been written by somebody else better than I could.  I’m much more interested in a bit of strategic change that I’ve noticed in the races that has some applications as well.

The aspect of the pit stop that I have taken a big interest in lately is the strategy around multiple changes happening within the same stop.  There are really two main activities in a pit stop, changing tires and adding fuel.  All else being equal, newer tires will allow the cars to be faster and, at 4 miles per gallon or so there is a huge need for fuel.  It takes about 6 seconds to change tires on one side of the car and 13 seconds to change tires on both sides of the car.  It’s about 6 seconds to add half of the fuel capacity and 13 seconds to fill it completely.  It becomes visible pretty fast that the times match up closely to provide several combinations.  For example, If I know that I need a half tank more fuel to finish the race, then I can put 2 tires on and get two improvements in pretty much the same time.  Or if I know I have to replace the tires, I can make sure the gas tank is filled up at the same stop and maybe not come in to stop as many times.

As last season went on and I watched the different strategies play out, my mind began to wander back to the plant.  With changeovers being a necessary fact of life, it’s a given to try to minimize the amount of lost time for the change.  But, if the changeover window is getting about as small as your resources allow, maybe the question shifts from squeezing out time to doing more in the time that you are down.  Can you bring in additional resources to do smaller PM items?   Is there some opportunity to utilize that idle machine operator time for training, housekeeping, or administrative tasks?  I have been in plants before and asked what work the operators were doing or could be doing while machines cycled.  I haven’t spent nearly as much time asking what they could do when the machine isn’t running.  There is potentially a gold mine of options to design our processes as we take smaller steps towards the ideal of zero downtime for changeovers.

Are Cell Phones Causing Process Delays?

It’s the beginning of a new year.  OK so we are almost two months into the year.  Being the start of the new year, it means checkup time for me.  Dental checkup, physical and any other routine checks to be sure I am still healthy…preventive maintenance for the body if you will.

Needless to say, I have been spending a lot of time in waiting rooms at the doctors’ offices.  Usually, the first thing I do is get out my smartphone and start reading updates from blogs or checking email.  Then at my last doctor’s appointment I noticed a receptionist.  She looked in the direction of a person who was on their smartphone playing a game or reading.  I’m not sure.  She started to say something then stopped.  Saw the other receptionist wasn’t busy and started talking to her.  After 3 or 4 minutes she called the person that was on the smartphone over for some questions.

That got me thinking about delays.  Before smartphones, a person was lucky to have a magazine in a waiting area to read or even a TV with looping with the same news over and over again.  People found this to be a painful way to be spending their time.  Time that could have been used running errands or doing something enjoyable.  Now people have a way to stay connected and do things that pass the time in a way each individual finds enjoyable.  Whether it be reading a blog, playing Angry Birds, or even watching a video on our smartphones.

Because of this, are people becoming blind to delays and the amount of time they sit and wait?   Do service providers take extra time or delay because they know people are preoccupied with their smartphones?

I like to think not, but after what I saw at the doctor’s office maybe in some cases it is.  Maybe a mechanic takes a little extra time in returning the keys after the repair because a person is preoccupied?  Maybe the DMV is even slower in their responses knowing people are looking at smartphones?

It may only be a few minutes here and a few minutes there but I know I have witnessed it at least once.  Plus, on several occasions I can recall getting lost in my smartphone and before I knew it 40 minutes or so has passed.  When I realize it I have gone up to ask what is going on and within a minute or two I am taken care of.  Why wasn’t I taken care of earlier?  I know my timing isn’t always that good.

The delay may not be a conscious decision but I believe it is happening.  Would you consider this a waste of your time?  Or is the smartphone helping you to multitask so you are doing work in parallel?  What do you think?

NASCAR, Toyota, and Economies of Scale

In honor of the upcoming Daytona 500, I’m going to touch on a couple stock car topics this week.

In 2007, Toyota began racing its “Camry” in the top NASCAR series.  A year later, Joe Gibbs Racing switched brands and began racing Toyota branded vehicles.  For the first 4 years of the partnership, JGR built their own engines while TRD made the rest of the engines for the Toyota teams.  That arrangement is changed and TRD will now supply the engines for the Gibbs teams.

That, in itself, is not particularly interesting especially as it relates to Lean.  The part that I find most interesting is in a quote about the change from TRD’s president Lee White who says in this article, “Building for three teams or less is extremely expensive and inefficient. We’re hoping to recognize the tremendous economies of scale by spreading these costs across six or more teams in the future.”  As ‘Lean Thinkers’, one of the things we initially try to cut out of our vocabulary is the phrase “economies of scale”.   The phrase carries a stigma of filling warehouses with product to satisfy an outdated accounting metric.  What this highlights is that there is some real value to the thought as long as we aren’t using it to justify avoiding changeovers and over producing to keep machines busy.  The reality is that there is a significant investment to obtain a facility, outfit it, and hire and train the people that work in it.  A company can be the most Lean operation in the world in terms of their variable costs, but if the fixed costs are too high at the volume they run there isn’t much left to work with in looking at the ‘Profit = Price – Cost’ equation.  Instead of banishing the words “economies of scale”, maybe we should just move them out of the micro level (process and operation) and in to the macro level (overall customer demand).

There is another Lean theme that comes up in the article.  Both TRD and Joe Gibbs Racing representatives talked about the impact of this change on the people that work for them.  Both went out of the way to say that it would provide stability for the employees and that there wouldn’t be any layoffs as a direct result of the change.  I can only take those statements as face value, but it was refreshing to read about a move like this that wasn’t directly correlated to layoffs.

Making Work Agreements Visual

Whenever doing work with another group or person, it is very important that everyone has agreement with what needs to be done and how it will be done.  Discussions happen between the parties and everyone seems to agree.  Then people go off and do the work and the next time the two parties meet there are odd looks and comments about that was not what the other person meant.

Recently, I wrote about the benefits of writing an A3 around problem solving.  When agreeing to what work will be done and who will do it, writing it down in an A3 format is very beneficial also.  The A3 can help foster a discussion about what was really meant.  Seeing the thoughts on paper in text or drawings makes it easier to communicate.

Another benefit I have found, is when there are disagreements and the thoughts are written on paper the focus seems to be on the content and not the person.  It doesn’t completely eliminate somebody wanting to attack a person and become defensive, but it does help to reduce the likely hood of this happening.

The more people can communicate verbally using a written format, such as an A3, to enhance the discussion the easier it will be for people to agree on what needs to be done and how it will be done.  And the next time the groups meet, the better chance of their being no misunderstanding as to the work that was done.

Regressing to the Mean

With the popularity of the movie and book Moneyball, among other things, the principles of ‘advanced statistics’ seems to be everywhere you look in sports.  As I read about these different methods of analysis, I keep reading of authors referring to people and teams “regressing to the mean”.  To my eyes, it is mostly used as a blanket way of explaining the unexplainable.  If a player goes on a hot streak, a drop in performance is regressing to the mean.  If a team outperformed the historical trends last year, they should regress to the mean this year and do worse.  It all seems like stopping 2 or 3 why’s short in a 5-Why, but this isn’t the forum to argue the specifics of advanced metrics in sports.  However, as I have started to see the phrase “regressing to the mean” show up outside of those arenas I think it provides an interesting topic.

In the interest of time and space, I’ll keep the strawman simple here.  The sports guys and gals have the concept mostly accurate from a big picture level.  Over time, a process will show what its performance will be.  The short term swings high and low are just normal variations that level out over time assuming no other significant factors intervene.  From a human performance standpoint, what does that mean and how can we impact it?

People tend to have their own expectations of their performance.  If they exceed their expectations at something, most are likely to perform worse at the same task in the future.  There are a lot of factors at play in this such as differences in focus, preparation, expectations, complacency, and so on.  The opposite is also true.  When expectations aren’t met, the performance tends to increase.  From a cultural standpoint, I tend to think this is one of the factors that help to propel companies like Toyota and other that are successful in Lean.  There is a constant reinforcement of thought patterns like “ ’no problem’ is a problem” and chasing a True North state.  This helps create an ongoing mindset of not performing at a high enough level.   For the people that can function and even thrive in this environment, it develops a constant carrot to chase and keeps the organization as a whole from regressing.

I fully recognize that not everybody can function in that type of culture.  That isn’t an indictment of them, just a recognition that all people are different and come to work with their own needs.  I also recognize and have witnessed the farther end of the spectrum where the carrot of raised expectations turns in to the stick of failure.  This doesn’t mean that we should stop identifying successes.  It just brings an acknowledgment that reaching a certain level doesn’t mean that the climb is over.  Individually, it can give us an opportunity to ask ourselves how comfortable we have gotten with our skills and performance.  In turn, it’s an opportunity to look at those around us and try to understand how they view their successes and raising the bar of expectations.  If we believe in the old adage that you are either getting better or you are getting worse, regressing to a mean isn’t really a viable option.

Making Your Own Path

Sometimes we get stuck in a rut.   Always doing the same type of things.  Getting bored with what we are doing and wanting something different.  Too often we wait for someone to give us a new challenge or a new project or a new job assignment.  This usually becomes very frustrating because no one else notices or can’t help right away with providing a new opportunity for us.

We can’t wait anymore for anyone else!  We must take things into our own hands and carve out our own path.

It’s not easy making your own path.  It means extra work or venturing into a space we haven’t been before.  This can make us feel uneasy and can stop us from taking the initiative.  The only way to grow and take on new challenges is to overcome that fear and start making your own path.

Below I have listed a few things that have worked for me over the years.

  • Create a Proposal – Determine what you want to do.  What is the next challenge you want to take on?  What experience do you want to gain?  Then create a proposal to gain the experience or take on a new challenge and present it to your manager.  Sell them on what your group would get out of it as well as what you gain.  The risk is your manager saying no.
  • Just Do It – Go out and take on a new challenge without asking your manager.  Volunteer to be on a work team or to do a project.  Don’t discuss it with your boss.  Just take it on.  The risk is managing your time for that work in with your other duties.  You still have to meet all your normal obligations.  I have done this several times and so far it has worked out very well for me.  In the end, my manager is appreciative that I did the work and I gain the experience.
  • Start Something New – Pick something new to start that would give you the challenge you are looking for or gain the experience you want.  Two personal examples are starting a lean consortium in Texas and this blog.  It has helped me achieve many objectives I have had.

With all three ways, you have to do some self reflection and understand what it is you want to do.  What is it that you want to accomplish or develop?  This self reflection is what can make it so hard to make our own path.  Sometimes that answers aren’t easy, but if we are true to ourselves we will definitely benefit by making our own path to something better.

More on Lean vs Non-Lean Reading

As part of my personal reflection and quest for learning I decided to sign up for a business Book Club offered through the local university.  The ‘club’ would meet once a month and discuss books chosen by local business leaders as a way to share among the business community.  Unfortunately, not enough people signed up to fill this session, so I’m a little bummed out.  For me, I was hoping to use the ‘club’ as a way to stretch my mind a bit on the type of books I seek out.  Unlike Matt’s break from Lean books, I am more looking for new things to balance the Lean material.

Let me explain my thinking…

I recently took an inventory on the last 20 or so books I have read.  Every book I read was either directly a “Lean” book or a book that ended up dovetailing with some aspect of Lean.  This reflection really frightened me.  My worry is that I am stuck in a groove where I’m not really seeking material to stretch my thinking, but more to repeat what I already think in different ways.  My book selection seems to be part of an ongoing confirmation bias where what I am reading echoes what I already think.

I guess there are two ways to look at this.  The first is that I am picking from too shallow of a pool of books and keep ending up with more of the same.  The second is that there is a common thread among the stories of the people and companies that also flows through Lean thinking.  I guess you could say I want to run an experiment where I am using the first way as my hypothesis and trying to prove or disprove it.

Here’s where I could use some help.  I’m looking for recommendations of non-fiction books that aren’t related to Lean.  Preferably ones that you would recommend that seem to be an opposite or counterpoint to Lean.  I’ve heard a saying that the most interesting books in the library are the ones that haven’t been read yet.  The unknown provides a blank canvas that could teach us anything or nothing at all.  I am hoping one of you can provide some inspiration to me or a fellow reader to grow.

Thanks and happy reading.

LEGO Showing Lean Like Behaviors

A few weeks ago, Ultimate Factories on National Geographic premiered an episode about LEGO.  My son is a HUGE LEGO fan and seems to have almost the whole LEGO City setup.  So this episode really caught our attention.

My son loved watching the artist/builders design the new Police Station and seeing all the sets being made in the factory.  What caught my attention were the things that seemed lean like.

Here is the full episode.  It is 45 minutes long.  Below are some highlights I picked out with time markers as to where they are at in the video.

(1:15 – 4:10 in video) Right off the bat, the show describes how the artist/builders go about designing a product.  The product manager takes his team out to real life sites of what they want to build to study them.  They look at what the site has and needs to feel authentic.  It is truly direct observation of what the team wants to build.

(6:40 – 10:00 in video) LEGO takes full advantage of standardization as much as possible.  The Police Station turned out to be a 700+ piece set, but none of the pieces are new and require tooling to be made.  Because the designers were able to build the Police Station out of existing pieces they were able to use that budget to design a police dog that is brand new adding to the experience.  My lean lens sees this as cost management in order to reinvest in innovation.  The innovation leads to a better experience and more revenue.

(36:12 – 36:20 in vide0) The video does not talk about 5S but there is some evidence of it.  In this clip, you can see the tape outlines on the floor for the staging of finished product.

(36:20 – 38:10 in video) In the 1990s, LEGO went through a period when sales were declining.  LEGO decided to go and see why this was happening.  They discovered their products were not meeting the needs of the adult customer, which is 50% of their market.  People were hacking the Mindstorm systems and creating bigger sculptures with the robotics.  They didn’t try to shut the hackers down.  LEGO embraced them and created new products.  They still invite customers to come in and help with designs.  They are focusing on customers needs.  Everything starts with the customer.

These are some of the quick examples I picked out.  If you notice, nothing I saw focused on lean manufacturing although I believe I saw some lean like things in manufacturing and distribution too.

I would highly recommend watching the full video because it touches on every aspect of business.   From customer focus to product development to manufacturing to logistics.  It is very complete.  If you are a LEGO fan, this video is a must see.

In the comments below, tell me what you saw from a lean perspective.  What did I miss?