Category Archives: Lean Startup

Guest Post: Lean and Guitar Building

Joe Wilson has worked in a variety of continuous improvement, problem solving and engineering roles in manufacturing and distribution functions  in the automotive, electronics, and food/grocery industries. He was responsible for site leadership of Lean implementation during the launch and ramp up of becoming a supplier to Toyota and was able to work directly with their personnel and the Toyota Supplier Support Center.  His training background includes courses in Lean/TPS through TSSC and the University of Kentucky’s Lean Systems program.  He is a Six Sigma Black Belt and a Shainin Red X Journeyman in addition to training in Kepner-Tregoe problem solving techniques.  Joe also has a BS degree in Engineering Management from the University of Missouri-Rolla. 

Every now and then, you find someone singing the praises of Lean in a place you’d least expect them.  That happened to me last week.

I was reading called “Guitar Lessons” by Bob Taylor.  Taylor is the co-owner and for a long time main guitar builder and designer for the company that bears his name, Taylor Guitars.  The book is partially an autobiography but more so a history of the 35 plus year old guitar company.  I was reading along about the early days of the company when I hit a passage on page 84 that nearly knocked me out of my chair.  Here’s an excerpt in his words describing a conversation that he had with another luthier, Augie Loprinzi:

    “We were talking about production flow and the fact that I was having difficulty getting my guitars done on time.  He explained how he made his guitars ‘one at a time’, so to speak. In other words, every day he’d set up the jigs and make the parts he needed for that guitar that day.  I argued with him that it was more efficient to set up the jigs once and make all the parts for a batch at a time-heck, even to make enough for six months.  I told him how we made our guitars 10 or 12 at a time to take advantage of the setup times.  He cross-examined me and got me to admit that we never actually finished those batches of guitars on time….

“Augie asked me, “Bob, which would you rather have, one done guitar or 10 half done guitars?”

“It only took a moment for me to get the idea….I immediately recognized this as being a way to help solve everything from cash flow to training new craftsmen.  I would be able to go home and make guitars every day rather than every week.  This became the backbone of the production at Taylor Guitars.”

He goes on to add:

    “Everyone is exposed to some truth, some solution to the puzzle, some overarching concept that could change their working lives, or some idea that they could make their own in order to drive a lifetime of fruitful work habits and improvements.  That is the role this particular principle assumed in my life.  Since then, I’ve had other guitar shop owners ask for advice and I tell them about this, but I haven’t seen anyone take the bait.”

My favorite part is the timing of this conversation…it took place in 1978.  At the time, Taylor was making on average 8 guitars a week.  Taylor refers to the importance of Lean several times (he actually uses the term, although more as a common language point than a technical one), as being critical to their survival and growth to now producing 900 guitars a day in two factories.

I wanted to re-tell his example for a couple of reasons.  First is that it can give us all another example of a company that has adopted Lean to help it survive and grow and become something bigger than it may have ever become without it.  The second reason is that it helps provide a simple reminder of what a Lean mentality should do for us…help us find better ways to do what we do so we can keep doing it.  For academics who want to debate which is the correct 9th waste, the information won’t be satisfying.  But for the more pragmatic, it’s a nice reminder of the value of Lean and the magic of the moment that it became the truth that changed their working lives.

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.

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