Blog Archives

Want More Productivity? Focus on the Whole

Ever been a part of a meeting after the meeting?  Have you tried to keep resources you had to yourself because later you know need them but now you don’t?  Are you concerned more with how your group does rather than the whole division or company?  Only take care of your own.

These things are hard to avoid and happen quite often.  In fact, we may not even think about them as it happens, but we should.  These things affect the productivity of individuals, teams and the company.

How can these productivity killers be avoided?  Through alignment and establishing high agreement of both the what and the how.

The previous post discussed establishing a true north or purpose.  Communicate this purpose repeatedly.  When everyone knows what will be said before it is said, it is a good indicator it is been communicated frequently.

Also, establish high agreement on both the what will be done and how it will be done.  Most organizations do a good job of agreeing on what must be done: Reduce lead time by 25%; Implement software X by January 1st; or Increase quality by 40%.

What most forget to is come to agreement on how those goals will be reached.  Who will be accountable for certain projects?  How do we prioritize for shared resources?  When will a project start/end?  And the list goes on.

When there is alignment and high agreement on both the what and how then productivity increases.  Meetings after the meetings are reduced.  A manager doesn’t want to horde his resources because he knows he will get them when he needs them.  And everyone starts to work for the goals of the company AS a company, not individual departments.

How to Observe

Last blog, I talked about the most important lean tool being the eyes.  The eyes allow a person to the reality of what is happening and gather facts.

So, if direct observation is important then how should a person go about doing it?

Here are a few pointers I have picked up along the way:

  • Have a purpose before you go out to observe.  Are you going out to see a particular problem?  Are you going to audit a specific process?  Is there a process you trying to improve?  A specific type of waste you are looking for?  Whatever your purpose, understand it before you go out to observe.
  • Explain what you are doing.  People get cautious and worried when someone is just standing to the side watching their every move.  Tell them why you are there and ask them to explain anything they feel is important.
  • Be in the moment. Don’t answer the phone.  Don’t start other conversations.  Just observe.  Stand in one area and watch what is happening with scrutinizing intent.
  • Ask clarifying questions.  If you need to better understand something, ask the person doing the work questions.  Don’t leave without having answers to your questions.
  • Take notes.  You are there for a purpose, so write down what you need to remember.  Notes of what you observed are your facts.
  • Take prompt action.  Don’t wait days to do anything with the facts you have gathered.  Things change quickly so use what have you seen before the facts become outdated.

Good luck and happy observation!

One Man’s Lean Journey: Discovering Lean for the First Time

My time at Thomson Consumer Electronics came to an abrupt end as the company went from 2,000 people in the U.S. to 250 people in a years time. I got a job with Guardian Automotive. The facility I was hired into specialized in exterior plastic trim. Guardian’s customers included almost everyone during the five years I was there: GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Harley-Davidson, BMW, International and Freightliner to name a few.

The first few months was very frustrating. My manager and I were trying to make process changes that made since to us in order to reduce WIP. We wanted to move assembly next to the paint lines so there was no paint inventory, but people fought this at every turn.

Then a big change happened. Guardian got a new VP of manufacturing and he brought in his director of lean. We were going to be a lean company. After years of studying Shingo and using lean tools, this was the first time I had heard the term “lean”.

Everyone got pulled off-site for an intro to lean and a hands-on balloon simulation showing pull vs push. During the simulation, I leaned over to my manager and whispered, “This is what we have been trying to do for months with the paint lines.” I was anxious to see how things would go now. The couple hour simulation was the extent of our lean training. We were told to “go do”.

Talk about ‘deer in the headlights’ after that. No real training and being told to “go be lean”.

The first thing my manager and I did was re-establish the idea of connecting the assembly area to the paint lines. We discussed it with the plant manager and how it would be like the balloon simulation. We had his support and were able to complete the work within a few weeks.

Over the next few years, the facility became a lean playground for myself, Joe Wilson (who also blogs on Beyond Lean), and our manager. We learned something, tried it, screwed it up, fixed it and made huge progress.

Our time was a huge success in that the plant went from $500k in the red on $120 million sales to $8.5 million in the black on $90 million sales in three years. But it was a huge failure as well. We had phenomenal support to make the changes we did, but we didn’t change the leadership’s thinking. After we all left the plant was back in the red in about a year.

I don’t say that to too our own horn, but as a lesson in how important it is to change people’s thinking and behaviors in order to sustain the change.

I will be diving deeper into my experiences at Guardian moving forward.


  • It is critical to not only have the support of leadership but to change their mindsets and behaviors in order to maintain the changes during a lean implementation
  • Top down support makes an enormous difference in the work you can accomplish and the time to accomplish it

Lean at Home…by My Nine-Year-Old Son

The other day my son came up with a great improvement at home.  It saves only a few seconds but it is in the true spirit of continuous improvement and kaizen.

A few weeks ago, I bought a DVD player with WiFi and the internet apps to watch through Amazon, Netflix, MLB.TV, etc…  I set it up so it is plugged into Input 2.  Our cable is plugged into Input 1.

Over the first few weeks of using the new DVD player we have found that if when you turn on the DVD player it automatically switches the TV to Input 2 without hitting any other buttons.

My TV has a total of 8 inputs.

That led my son to ask if we could switch the cable and the DVD inputs.  When I asked why?  This was the response he gave me, “Because it makes the easier.  When I turn on the DVD player it switches to Input 2 automatically but when I turn it off I have to hit the input button seven times to get the TV back to Input 1.  If we switch them then I only have to hit the button once to get to the TV when I am done with the DVD player.”

HOLY SMOKES!  That is simple and easy to change.  It is the true spirit of kaizen.  Keep make small improvements and they will add up.  Yes.  This was for watching TV, but it is such a great example.

How are you making small changes to improve?

The Power of Direct Observation in Retail

All to often people make changes based on data without taking the time to observe what is really happening.  This can lead to decisions that are not in the best interest of the business.

Recently, in our retail shop the data showed that we had some product that was not selling.  If we would have gone strictly with the data, we would probably clearance out the product and not carry it anymore.  But, we believed the product was something that people truly wanted.

Instead, we observed people as they perused the shop.  What we saw was people weren’t even seeing the product with the way they were shopping the store.

We decided to re-merchandise the store and almost instantly, as in the next day, we had sales on the product that wasn’t selling.

Data didn’t tell us the problem, but it did point us in the direction of a problem.  That is were data is very helpful, but the power came in observation.  Observation helped us see what the problem truly was so we could take appropriate action.

Do you take the time to observe the problem?  Or do you just manage by data?


There is nothing more invigorating than a sponge.

Not the type of sponge you clean with, but a person that soaks up everything and is eager to learn.

I recently have been working with a facility on implementing lean thinking.  At this facility is an operations manager that is trying to take in everything she can.  It is amazing to watch her.  Everything that is said and talked about is taken in, absorbed and thought about how it applies for her staff and herself.

One walk on the floor to spot issues in 5S and questions about if it is important to her whether it is maintained or not turns into a maintained 5S effort over the last month.  She didn’t just go out and demand it be done.  She asked the employees in the area if it was still needed and if so, what needs to be done to meet their needs.  The employees wanted it and now are maintaining it.

The next time more in-depth questions on maintaining material levels led to thinking and study of a process to be sure the material levels are maintained.

In the short time I have been working with the group, I can list of more examples of taking the learning and turning into action than the past year of efforts in other areas.

Seeing others start to soak up the lean thinking like a sponge and grow is an invigorating feeling that gets the blood pumping.

Are you a lean sponge?

Book Review: Value Stream Mapping

Karen Martin and Mike Osterling are consultants that have been helping companies with seeing their business through a different lens.  Karen and Mike have co-authored two books in the past: The Kaizen Event Planner, a well written how-to guide for planning, executing and following up after a kaizen event and Metrics-Based Process Mapping, a how-to for using key metrics to analyze and improve processes.  Value Stream Mapping is their third book together and again they have done a fantastic job.

Name of the Book:  Value Stream Mapping: How to Visualize Work and Align Leadership for Organizational Transformation

Author: Karen Martin and Mike Osterling

Publication Date:  December 2013

Book description: what’s the key message?

Karen and Mike explain the in’s and out’s of understanding and completing a value stream map.  They discuss how a value stream map is a tool that can help senior leaders and executives see their business in a new way.  A transformative way.

Karen and Mike take the reader through all the steps.  They explain the importance of setting the stage prior to the starting the value stream map in order to enable success in changing the business.  Karen and Mike also walk the reader through the best ways to understand the current state of the business and the importance of understanding the current reality no matter how sobering it is.  Next they walk the reader through developing the future state and then the transformation plan.

This book is not just a “Go do it this way,” book.  The book is very complete and explains why the process they describe works.

What are the highlights? What works?

Most people miss the main point of value stream maps.  They are about changing the mindsets of an organization through building a strategic direction with a lean lens.  Karen and Mike do a great of reiterating this point throughout the book.

If you have never seen or been through a value stream mapping session this book is a great guide.  The explanations are spot on.  Karen and Mike hit on the most important metrics that can be used on a value stream map in order to get the most out of it.  They explain how the map is not complete without the metrics, which is something a lot of people will leave off when doing the map.

The examples of value stream maps in the back of the book can help a reader with guidance in building their own.  I know they are in the appendices but it is worth it to study all the examples.

The book also has a link to a downloadable charter and transformation plan templates.  I found them to be very helpful.

What are the weaknesses?  What’s missing?

The book is very well done.  Not only a step-by-step but a great explanation of why for each step.  There is one thought that I believe is missing in doing a value stream map.  That is the concept and discussion around ideal state.

When doing a value stream map, I find invaluable to have a discussion on the difference between ideal state (perfection) and future state (somewhere between current state and ideal state).  Usually, this discussion takes place after building the current state map.  The team writes out bullet points of what the ideal state would look like.  After that is completed, then build the future state.  The ideal state discussion helps to stretch the thinking of the team and as Karen and Mike put it “help change the DNA of the organization.”

Having a direct conversation around ideal state is a step that I feel is important and I wish Karen and Mike would have spent some time on in the book.

How should I read this to get the most out of it?

The book can be used in two ways.  One way is by someone that has been tasked to help an organization create a value stream map.  It can be used as a learning text book.  It can help the reader learn the in’s and out’s of creating a value stream map and give them guidance.  Or even as a refresher for an experienced value stream map facilitator.

Another way for the book to be used is as an education piece for executives and senior leaders that want to change their business.  It can help them understand their role in the value stream transformation process and how they can help the facilitator before, during and after a mapping session.

Kudos to Karen and Mike for another great book.

Buying New Equipment? Use What You Got.

During some recent blog reading, I was spurred to think about a past situation when a company I worked for was buying new equipment and how WRONG this decision was.

I had been with the company for about four weeks when I heard about a capital expenditure my director had just approved to buy nine more of a patented machine.  My company owned the patent.  That would give us a total of 99 of these machines.

First question I asked, “Why are we buying more of these machines?”

The response was a typical one, “We they need more capacity because we are meeting the demand.”

I didn’t ask anymore questions at that point.  I decided to go and see for myself.  This was easy because the corporate offices we were in was part of the main manufacturing building.  I had to walk about 100 yards.

During my observations I found two things:

  1. The overall OEE of the 90 machines was around 35-40% when it was running.
  2. At anytime I never saw more than 50 of the 90 machines running.  This was because we never had enough people to run all the machines.


After a few hours of direct observation, it was clear there was no understanding of what was really going on.

First, attack changeovers and downtime to get the OEE of the machine up to the 75% range.

Second, why buy more machines if we can’t staff them?!

By my calculations, if the OEE was raised to the 75% range, not only would we not have to buy more machines we could get ride of about 20-25 machines we already had.  That would mean our current staffing would be pretty close to what we needed.

I presented this to my new boss and the director, but by this time it was too late.  The money had been cut and were pretty much crated and on the road to our facility.

This is why companies should question any new capital expenditures.  Companies should be maintaining and using what they have first.  The OEE should be at least 70% if not higher before considering adding more capacity through spending.

Do not make any decisions about capital expenditures until the current state is thoroughly understood.  The best way to do that is to go and see for yourself.

Counting Down the Top 10 Viewed Posts of 2013 – 5 Thru 1

2014 is now in full swing.  Before 2013 is too far in the rear view mirror, I thought I would recap the Top 10 most viewed posts on Beyond Lean for 2013.

New followers of the blog can use this as an opportunity to read posts they might have not seen in the past.  While, long time followers can use this as an opportunity to re-read some of the top viewed posts.

This post will count down the 10th thru 6th most viewed posts of 2013.  Enjoy!

5.   Making Leader Standard Work Visual (June 2011) – Previous Year Ranked #9 – An example of a visual board from a group I worked with.  The board makes the tasks and if they were completed by the managers visual.

4.  Don’t Over Complicate the Formula (October 2011) – Talks about simplifying formulas to get you directionally correct especially with calculating kanbans.

3.  Need the Mental Toughness of a Navy SEAL (February 2012) – Previous Year Ranked #4 – Inspiration of a Navy SEAL got me thinking about the mental toughness it takes to create change.

2.  Keys to Sustaining 5S (September 2011) – Tips to help sustain (the 5th ‘S’) the gains made from implementing 5S.


1.  5S in the Office (September 2010) – Previous Year Ranked #3 – Most viewed post for two straight years now.  A look at using 5S in the office.  What is going too far and how to use 5S in the office properly.

I hope 2014 is a great year!

Top 6 – 10 of 2013

Blog Carnival Annual Roundup 2013 – Lean Blitz

At the end of the year, John Hunter does a great job of facilitating an annual roundup of business and lean blogs at Curious Cat Management.  The roundup is a review of blogs by other bloggers.  This year I have the honor of participating in the Blog Carnival Annual Roundup.


A blog that I discovered a couple of years ago was Lean Blitz written by Chad Walters.  I like Chad’s unique way of relating lean and continuous improvement to the sports world, because there are plenty of examples throughout sports to do this.

Take the respect for people as an example.  The NFL was ripe with instances of disrespect this year, from the Miami Dolphins’ handling of the bullying in their locker room to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ unclean locker room leading to three players getting MSRA infections.  Not only in the NFL but in college also.  This post talks about Coach Kelly at Notre Dame not listening to his players when something was wrong with the gauntlet machine.  Chad tackles the issue head on in his posts.

Another topic on the blog is error proofing.  Chad talks about how Clemson and Notre Dame handled a color out night at their school for a football game.  Clemson was a huge success while Notre Dame not so much.  He shows some of the differences.  Another favorite is how sprinklers popped up in the middle of an NFL game at the end of last year.

Chad has created a unique blog at Lean Blitz.  It is a fun and different way to demonstrate lean principles in action in any environment.