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Guest Post: The Value of Benchmarking

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.

Lean teachers have taught us things like “go see”, “ask why”, and “thoroughly understand what is happening at the gemba”.  Enough practice with these mindsets can teach you how to quickly and effectively evaluate current states and identify where our gaps may exist on the way to our ideal state.

If you are like me, you probably really enjoy touring other people’s operations or even watching shows like “Ultimate Factories” or “How It’s Made” on TV to see how other people do what they do.  You’ve also probably tried to copy an idea or two that you’ve seen doing one of those things.  I know I’ve tried several tips, tricks, or notions that I’ve picked up through these observations.  Some have been fantastic.  Some have been total, immediate failures.  And some others may not have worked right off the bat, but have triggered discussions that have led to some really great solutions.  Those types of activities aren’t really what I think of when I picture benchmarking.  I would put those in the same group as reading a book or taking a class and applying an idea from one of those.  Great places to get a seed to plant or to identify rough milestones, but you shouldn’t really be finding blueprints in them.

The danger in a benchmarking mindset from some circles comes from looking at similar processes or industry data and working in a “We should do it just like they do” mindset.  Don’t get me wrong, it is extremely valuable to have an understanding of where the competition is or where the bar is set at.  One of my favorite examples of this in lean lore is how, in the early days, Toyota believed that German manufacturing was 3 times as productive as Japanese manufacturing and the Americans were 3 times as productive as the Germans.  Toyota then determined they had to become 10 times better than they currently were to be better than the best manufacturers and compete on a global scale.  This scale wasn’t used as an excuse to copy American manufacturing, it was used as a line in the sand to set a goal.

Another mantra that I continually remind myself of comes from statistics/data analysis guru Dr. Donald Wheeler who says “No statistic has any meaning apart from the context for the original data.”  All of our observations or industry data studies or side by side comparisons of plants only work if we can phrase them in terms of the context.  If they lack context or we don’t understand the context well enough, we may not get any valuable information from which to build.  In the wrong hands, this can lead to a tremendous waste of time and resources to try to be like someone else.  I don’t think that’s why we do what we do as Lean thinkers.  Our greatest abilities as lean leaders don’t lie with our ability to recognize and copy someone else’s answers.  Our greatest strengths come from our ability to thoroughly understand our own states and solve our own problems.

Guest Post: The Tone is in the Fingers

Today’s guest blogger is Joe Wilson.  Joe is a great lean thinker that worked for an automotive supplier for several years.  Developing his lean thinking by diving into the deep end.  Joe now works for Tyson Chicken working within their Industrial Engineering group.  I am happy to post his writing here.  Joe is a great lean thinker.

A couple of years ago I decided to try my hand at playing guitar.  I still stink at it, so I can’t give you any shortcuts to musical genius.  I picked up a cheap guitar at the local guitar mart and immediately dug in, making some of the most painful noises in the history of sound.  Realizing I had no idea what I was doing, I harnessed the power of the internet and started searching around for resources, ideas, theories, practices, pretty much anything that would help me be slightly less terrible at this new adventure.  One of the things that stood out to me was how often people were asking questions about how they could sound like their favorite well known artist.  One of the more popular subject for these inquiries seems to be Eddie Van Halen (sort of the Toyota of Tone, if you will.)  The questions would usually end up with a handful of answers or guesses as to what model guitar he was using, what amp or amps he was playing through, or even what pickup model or strings or effects pedals were in the mix and what equipment he was recorded on.  Inevitably the question would always end up with someone saying that his tone comes from his fingers, not his gear.  The truth being that Eddie Van Halen (or anybody else for that matter) sounds like themselves no matter what gear they are playing on and no amount of gear collection is going to make you or me be able to duplicate every nuance of “Eruption” in our basement or the local open mic night.

What does this have to do with Lean?  Pretty much everything.  At one time or another we’ve all asked ourselves What Would Toyota Do?  Or, we’ve borrowed a concept from a book or a colleague or a benchmarking trip without fully understanding why something looks or functions the way it does.  Toyota manufactures cars like Toyota because that’s who they are.  Our companies make our widgets the way we operate because that’s who we are.  That’s not an excuse to avoid change.  It’s a challenge to all of us in the Lean/Six Sigma/Continuous Improvement/Whatever-Name-You-Choose community to understand who we are and what our environment is before we layer things in place that work somewhere else.  Our path should be about chasing greatness in our own world, not trying be like Toyota.

Unless, of course, you are in a Van Halen cover band.  In that case, happy searching.