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Guest Post: Reasons Lean May Fail

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.

I have been a part of  a handful of conversations lately with people in what I’ll call “non-lean” organizations.  Because of my background, these folks will tell me about how they have a Lean position or Six Sigma position or they know of someone trained in the toolbox.  The common laments that I hear break down as either “We have this person, but I don’ t know what they do” or “This person has the training, but doesn’t seem to do anything with it.”  This is certainly not the first time I’ve heard these type of comments, but they have come with an alarming frequency lately.  Being a self-described Lean Thinker, I can’t help but begin to ask Why this seems to come up so often.  Not only that, but what does it mean in the big picture for Lean and/or Six Sigma as movements.

Why do people perceive this situation?

I guess there are a few reasons why people could see things this way.  One of the first possible reasons is that people in the organization don’t know or understand what is going on could be trying to avoid contact with the individual(s) or the initiative.  I’ve seen this happen for several reasons.  Sometimes it is out of fear of what the initiative is intending to do.   (Not wanting to get too close to the perceived ‘axe’.)  Others could ignore it out of a ‘Flavor of the Month’ cynicism.  I can understand both of these mindsets blocking the message or the messenger.

Another reason the perception exists could be a company/system failure.  Maybe it IS a Flavor of the Month or a side project and not a true commitment from the organization.  Maybe it’s a pilot program that isn’t ready for mass communication yet.  Maybe the organization just stinks at communicating and this is symptomatic of other issues.

A third, and by far the least comforting to me, option is that some of the people in these roles just aren’t the right people.  Sometimes these roles get filled by people looking to add some training or a job title to their resume.  Sometimes they get filled by people who had some available time or were expendable from their current roles.  Maybe they aren’t either of those and are truly interested, passionate people who are missing a trait that helps them be effective in their role (i.e. communication skills, technical aptitude, ability to teach others, ability to influence others to change, etc.).  These aren’t the easiest jobs to do and sometimes it is difficult to define exactly what traits you are looking for, especially for new initiatives.  Sometimes these gaps can be filled as an individual grows and develops, sometimes they can’t.

What do these problems mean?

Aside from the avoiders and willfully ignorant group in my first possible reason, the other two causes should be real concerns for those of us in the Lean community.  The more people are exposed to bad views of Lean, the harder it becomes to sell the good stuff.  (As a side note: I am distinguishing between Mark Graban’s LAME and just flat out poor execution of Lean here.)  The less people are willing to buy in to Lean because of previous bad experiences, the more entrenched people become in the ‘old way’ of doing things and the more trouble industry as a whole will have working to compete.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a clean solution here.   We can do the best we can and hope that our good outweighs some others not so good.  Either way, I find myself much more interested lately in failed lean initiatives than successful ones.  Maybe there are as many lessons for all of us in places that it hasn’t worked as there are in Toyota’s (and other companies’) successes.

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Overlooked Waste Reduction of Kanban

Kanban is a very powerful tool when used properly.  It can lead to significant waste reduction.  Most people tend to think of the inventory waste reduction.  While kanban can lead to inventoryreduction, it could also lead to an inventory increase.  If a company is running so light on inventory and always creating shortages at the customer, kanban can help but it will most likely add inventory to the system.  Or if a company tries to use kanban on items that are not used but a couple of times a year, most likely the inventory will be increased in order to keep them in-stock year round.

No matter the circumstance though, if used properly, kanban will reduce the waste of information and material flow/transportation through the facility.

In a traditional environment, information flow is separated from the material flow.  The information comes from the office to someone out doing the work.  The person doing the work creates a schedule to be published.  When the schedule is published the material handler moves the material to the area to be worked on.  Then the material is processed.

The genius of kanban is taking the information flow and the material flow and combining it into one.    When the kanban is returned to the supplier, it triggers the work to be completed and when to be completed by.  It becomes the scheduling and the inventory control, as well as directing the where and when for the material to flow.  The kanban travels with the matieral and describes what the material is, the quantity to produce, who ordered it, and when it is due.  All in one package.

This reduces a lot of transactional waste of transportation and can eliminate non-value added work done by some people, freeing up time to do more value added work.

This is often missed because many people focus solely on reducing inventory through kanban and not reducing inventory through flow.  So, in cases when the inventory is increased, and rightfully so, due to a kanban system then kanban gets a bad name because “it isn’t lean.”  As Mark Graban would say, that is more L.A.M.E. then Lean.

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S.L.A.T. is a Sign of L.A.M.E.

Last week I was fortunate enough to take a benchmarking trip to two companies that have been doing lean.  Both companies had one thing in common, they used the lean team members to to decide what projects needed to be done and then to execute those projects.  While they said they were about employee engagement, what they meant was they told the employees what the change was going to be and used them to help the lean team get to end results.  When I asked how they planned on changing the culture, there was no plan.

This stuck out as a great example of L.A.M.E. (coined by Mark Graban at the Leanblog.org) or Lean As Misguidedly Executed.  Their efforts were solely centered around creating cost savings by executing projects they deemed worthy.

As I reflected back on hearing about other companies and their implementation of lean, this came up as a common theme.  They are like S.W.A.T. that comes in and controls a situation until it is better and then leaves, but around lean.  I started calling it the S.L.A.T. method or Subordinate Lean Assault Team.  They come in and run an event to make your area better and then leave with no plan of sustainability or engagement.

Both places that I visited mentioned how their S.L.A.T.s had to go back to the same area because results weren’t sustained.  That isn’t surprising since the S.L.A.T.s were “doing lean to them” and not “with” the employees.

S.L.A.T.s are a very strong sign of L.A.M.E. being done at a company.  We must make sure kaizen events are used to truly engage employees and leaving sustaining results because the employees understand why the changes are being made and they have contributed and bought into the changes.

Stop the S.L.A.T.s!

Nissan – L.A.M.E. or Lean?

Nissan has recently had an issue with production.  They are running short on one of their engine-control chips as they ramp up in production and their supplier is not able to keep up.

There is an article about it in the Wall Street Journal (here).  The Wall Street Journal is know for its understanding of lean and it shows.

The pitfalls of lean manufacturing methods, a hallmark of cash-rich and efficient companies, arise when parts either prove to be faulty or in short supply. Production delays or stoppages are a common occurrence in the electronics and car industries.

WOW!!  Lean went from people not understanding it completely to being a hallmark of cash-rich and efficient companies.  I didn’t know lean and cash-rich were synonymous.  This quote also shows how the authors view problems……….definitely not in the “No problem is a problem” light.  If you are truly practicing lean thinking you are asking, Why did we run out?  What in the process caused us to run out?  Did we not see the jump in demand coming?  Why?  Etc…..

Also, I worked in consumer electronics for 3+ years and for an auto supplier (supplied Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Ford, Chrysler, GM, and Harley) for 5 years.  Production stoppages were NOT common occurrences (unless at Toyota).  Mostly because they had enough inventory around to build cars for several months.  Even when we supplied Toyota, they rarely stopped the line due to stock shortages, but again they look at that as an opportunity and not a negative impact on the business.

So how is Nissan reacting?

In the early 2000s, Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn streamlined the company’s supply chain by slashing the number of suppliers as part of the company’s turnaround from the brink of bankruptcy. However, Nissan is now expanding its supplier base again for some parts after being burned in recent years by hiccups in procurement.

This sounds like L.A.M.E. (Lean as Misguidedly Executed as coined over on the Leanblog by Mark Graban) and not lean.  If you had hiccups in procurement, lean behavior would ask questions around what are the hiccups in procurement and why is Nissan having this hiccups.  Then Nissan would solve this problems, not arbitrarily start to add more suppliers “Just-In-Case” they have a similar hiccup in the future.  From the tone of the article, it sounds like it is one particular part and this usually doesn’t happen.  So why this part?  Why now?  Nope.  Just add another supplier.

It sounds like Nissan was heading in the right direction.  Scaling back on suppliers and building relationships with them.  I hope they don’t let what sounds like one incident shake them so much they revert back to their old ways.

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