Blog Archives

The Most Important Lean Tool

Your eyes.  Plain and simple.  Without them you can’t go and see what is actually happening.

There are stories about Taiichi Ohno leaving engineers in a circle for hours to observe the process.  The engineer was to discover the waste in the process.  What was not creating value?  Then address it.

Organizations have instituted a policy stating that a person can’t talk about a problem unless they have seen it.  The goal is to get everyone to understand what actually is the problem and not what they hear is the problem or jump to solutions.

A person can walk out their doors and onto the production floor in order to observe what is happening.  But observation may not always be easy.  What if it is an order entry person that does all their work in a computer?  Sit with that person and actually watch them enter orders.  Ask questions.  Use tools like process or value stream maps to create a visual of the work to see.

Even leadership work can be made visible in order to observe what is actually happening.  I put my scheduled on a white board so the area could see when I was going to be there to look for waste.  Every Tuesday at 2:30.  If I didn’t show up, people knew it and asked about it.

Are you using your most important lean tool as often as you should?

Use the Right Visual

Visual management and visualization is a concept that lean relies heavily on.  There are a lot of standard visuals like metric boards, kanban signals, 5S and value stream maps.

Visuals really help people understand the information.  Everyone sees the same visual and it starts a good conversation allowing people to gain high agreement.  The issue is all the visuals I listed are tools and as with any tool you need to understand when to use it.

To be effective with using visuals, you need to understand what information the group is trying to understand.  What is the purpose of the visual?  Who is the audience?  What do they need to learn from it?

Most of the time the standard visuals will be perfect.  You can use them and get everything you need.  That is why those tools are well known, because they are used all the time and work.  But sometimes, they won’t.

Don’t be afraid to make up a visual tool to present the right information in an easily digestible manner.

Here are a couple a colleague and I came up with for a recent event:


This one shows the % of time people spent doing different tasks throughout the day.  It helped the group better understand who was doing what and for how long.


This one shows the frequency of tasks.  Daily, Weekly or Monthly?  What was the task done on?  Who many times on that day?

In both cases, the different colored post-its represent different areas of the company doing the work.

As you can see, the standard visual tools would not have shown this information in a easy manner to understand.  We designed this for the group and it worked very well.

We can’t always rely on the tools we have and know in our toolbox.  Sometimes we have to think outside the toolbox.  It is important to understand what your customer/group is trying to accomplish and design the visual accordingly.  Don’t meet the needs of the tool.  Meet your group’s needs.

Process Before Technology

Before I start, technology is a wonderful thing.  It has helped to make processes more efficient and work to be done much easier.

With that being said, before technology is used or put into place, the processes that technology will support should be examined.  Take the time to create a value stream map or a process map and examine the process for waste.  Design the future state of the process.  Then define what are the changes where technology is not needed and what changes where technology is needed.

The technology should be designed to support the process.  Not the process designed to support the technology.  This is an issue that occurs quite often.

Improving the process first creates a better understanding what is truly needed from the technology.  A company can save a lot of money by improving the process first because technology may not be needed at all or fewer components may be needed than originally thought.  Also, if your put technology into a bad process all you have done is make a bad process go faster.  That means you are throwing away money faster than you before because of the waste in the process.

The key to remember is the technology should support the process.  We shouldn’t be putting in technology as a substitute to better the process.

Technology is here to stay.  We should use it to our advantage, but we should use it correctly to support our processes, not to define them.

Directly Observing in a Transactional or Service Environment

One of the lean principles I use is directly observe work as activities, connections and flows.  This sounds like a principle that would be easier to change.  In an environment where the deliverable is physical and moves between physical work spaces this principle is easier to live.  An example would be a manufacturing environment, where a widget is moving from machine to machine.  Is is easier to take the principle literally and go out and directly observe the widget.  A person can see the widget and the changes made to it.

Lean is not just applicable in these type of environments.  Lean is applicable in a transactional office or service environment as well.  This does not mean directly observing work is not possible.  It just means it is harder.

In a transactional/service environment you can sit with the person doing the work and ask questions as they do the work.  You will be able to learn a lot on an individual basis.

What if a group needs to learn and wants to observe?

It is really hard to cram multiple people into a cube or office…believe me, I have tried.  A different way to directly observe the work as activities, connections and flows is by creating a visual map of the process on a wall.  There are many types of maps and ways to map.  That isn’t as important as getting everyone to have a common understanding of what is actually happening.

The deeper purpose of directly observing work is to gain a thorough understanding of what is actually happening.  Not just one person.  Every person that is necessary must have a common understanding.  Reports can’t do that.  Neither can  sitting behind a desk.

There may be other ways to directly observe the work.  What is it you need to know?  What don’t you know/understand about the problem or process?  Once you understand what you need to know then you can determine how the way to gain that common understanding is for your situation.

How have you gained a common understanding around a process or issue?

My Continuous Improvement – Manage Your Career

As I look for ways to improve, I am inspired by other lean thinkers and bloggers.  I see what they are trying and look to how that might work for me.  I try and experiment with things in order to make my job easier and to feel more in control and organized.

I decided to start a series that will be based on what I have tried in order to make my work better.  It may be small or large things and most likely it was an inspiration I got from someone else.  I hope that by passing along what I have learned that it may inspire others the way others have inspired me.

Awhile back I wrote about the career map I had developed to help me understand my career opportunities with my current company.  That has been a great exercise and it has gone through a few revisions since then. Here is a link to my latest revision of my career map.  Career Map – Revision 3

Over the last several months I have been meeting with some leaders at my company to show them my career map.  This is has not been easy for me.  I am not a person who seeks others to talk about myself.  In fact, I hate it. But if I am going to have a successful career I have to build good relationships with leaders.

This may be a big uncomfortable zone for me but I have found it to be very beneficial.   Every leader I have met with respects me for reaching out and talking with them.  They like that I am trying to manage my career and not let my career manage me.  Because of this positive feedback, I keep on setting meetings and get to know more about our leaders.

I have learned some things to help me with these meetings.  One of the biggest is a bio sheet.  This was recommended by a Vice President who is also introverted and it helped him break the ice with people he met for career discussions or when a new boss came in.  The bio sheet tells a little bit about your family, interests outside of work, interests at work, and a short description of something you are currently working on.  Send the sheet ahead of time to the person you are meeting with.  This helps break the ice and start a conversation much more casually.

Also, when you meet make it about the business.  This is my career and my interests and this is how I see it intersecting with the business and the direction it is going.  It shows you are thinking about the company and not just career climbing.  I always explain that while job titles are listed on the career map, it isn’t about the title.  The titles are ones that seem to line up with my interests and skills as a reference point.

While this is way outside my comfort zone, I have found it to be very beneficial to have these discussions.  I have learned a lot about myself and have grown as a leader because of it.

What has worked for you in managing your career?

Separate Mapping Can Bring People Together

Mapping is a common tool used with many people whether they are associated with lean, six sigma, or just doing business.  There are all kinds of maps.  Value Stream Maps, process maps, flow charts, etc.

The difference is how people use the maps.  People with a lean lens use maps as a way to directly observe the process because somethings the process only happens on a rare occasion.  The lean mindset also uses mapping as a way to get everyone to have a common understanding of the current process.  The mapping involves every role that touches the process including the suppliers and customers.  It helps to ground everyone in what actually is happening.  When doing a future state of the process, it helps everyone go forward with a consistent message.

But, what if you can’t get everyone to agree on a future state map?  Then what?

I had this happen a few weeks ago when I was facilitating an improvement event.  There clearly were two factions of people in the room.  One that wanted to really stretch the new process and one that wanted to make a few changes.  The group was split almost 50/50.  The team spent 3 hours that afternoon debating and arguing points.  Consensus was not happening.  As the facilitator, I saw the group was getting frustrated and worn out so I called it for the day.  That night I regrouped with the project leader and we decided to split the group into two teams.  One would map out the stretch future state and one would map out the small changes future state.  Then we would debrief each other.

I didn’t notice a big difference in the concepts, but the group thought there was a huge valley between them.

The next morning, I split the group into the teams and have them 1 hour to map their future state.  One team had the stretch and one team had the small changes.  After the hour was up, the teams debriefed each other on their future state maps.  To the groups amazement, the maps came out to be the same!  A quick 40 minute debrief on the maps and both groups were on the same page and gained not only consensus but unanimous agreement on the future state.

The maps allowed a clear and concise message to be understood by all involved.  The group accomplished in 1 hr 45 min what they couldn’t do the previous day in 3 hrs.  This created a strong united team that went to the sponsorship with the recommendation.

In this case, having teams build separate maps was the remedy needed to bring this group together.  This method may not work with all groups, but it is one that might be able to help at some time.