Blog Archives

Pit Stops and Lean

As I continue my mini-series on NASCAR leading up to the Daytona 500, I am going to share some thoughts on  Pit Stops.   Just probably not in the same way you have heard it before.

Most people who have been involved with Lean for any length of time have been exposed to the Pit Stop and the Pit Crew as an example for a SMED/Changeover activity.  It’s a fantastic real world example of the value of planning, organizing and choreographing a changeover.  Honestly, I don’t know what I could write about that aspect of the pit stop that hasn’t already been written by somebody else better than I could.  I’m much more interested in a bit of strategic change that I’ve noticed in the races that has some applications as well.

The aspect of the pit stop that I have taken a big interest in lately is the strategy around multiple changes happening within the same stop.  There are really two main activities in a pit stop, changing tires and adding fuel.  All else being equal, newer tires will allow the cars to be faster and, at 4 miles per gallon or so there is a huge need for fuel.  It takes about 6 seconds to change tires on one side of the car and 13 seconds to change tires on both sides of the car.  It’s about 6 seconds to add half of the fuel capacity and 13 seconds to fill it completely.  It becomes visible pretty fast that the times match up closely to provide several combinations.  For example, If I know that I need a half tank more fuel to finish the race, then I can put 2 tires on and get two improvements in pretty much the same time.  Or if I know I have to replace the tires, I can make sure the gas tank is filled up at the same stop and maybe not come in to stop as many times.

As last season went on and I watched the different strategies play out, my mind began to wander back to the plant.  With changeovers being a necessary fact of life, it’s a given to try to minimize the amount of lost time for the change.  But, if the changeover window is getting about as small as your resources allow, maybe the question shifts from squeezing out time to doing more in the time that you are down.  Can you bring in additional resources to do smaller PM items?   Is there some opportunity to utilize that idle machine operator time for training, housekeeping, or administrative tasks?  I have been in plants before and asked what work the operators were doing or could be doing while machines cycled.  I haven’t spent nearly as much time asking what they could do when the machine isn’t running.  There is potentially a gold mine of options to design our processes as we take smaller steps towards the ideal of zero downtime for changeovers.

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NASCAR, Toyota, and Economies of Scale

In honor of the upcoming Daytona 500, I’m going to touch on a couple stock car topics this week.

In 2007, Toyota began racing its “Camry” in the top NASCAR series.  A year later, Joe Gibbs Racing switched brands and began racing Toyota branded vehicles.  For the first 4 years of the partnership, JGR built their own engines while TRD made the rest of the engines for the Toyota teams.  That arrangement is changed and TRD will now supply the engines for the Gibbs teams.

That, in itself, is not particularly interesting especially as it relates to Lean.  The part that I find most interesting is in a quote about the change from TRD’s president Lee White who says in this article, “Building for three teams or less is extremely expensive and inefficient. We’re hoping to recognize the tremendous economies of scale by spreading these costs across six or more teams in the future.”  As ‘Lean Thinkers’, one of the things we initially try to cut out of our vocabulary is the phrase “economies of scale”.   The phrase carries a stigma of filling warehouses with product to satisfy an outdated accounting metric.  What this highlights is that there is some real value to the thought as long as we aren’t using it to justify avoiding changeovers and over producing to keep machines busy.  The reality is that there is a significant investment to obtain a facility, outfit it, and hire and train the people that work in it.  A company can be the most Lean operation in the world in terms of their variable costs, but if the fixed costs are too high at the volume they run there isn’t much left to work with in looking at the ‘Profit = Price – Cost’ equation.  Instead of banishing the words “economies of scale”, maybe we should just move them out of the micro level (process and operation) and in to the macro level (overall customer demand).

There is another Lean theme that comes up in the article.  Both TRD and Joe Gibbs Racing representatives talked about the impact of this change on the people that work for them.  Both went out of the way to say that it would provide stability for the employees and that there wouldn’t be any layoffs as a direct result of the change.  I can only take those statements as face value, but it was refreshing to read about a move like this that wasn’t directly correlated to layoffs.

Regressing to the Mean

With the popularity of the movie and book Moneyball, among other things, the principles of ‘advanced statistics’ seems to be everywhere you look in sports.  As I read about these different methods of analysis, I keep reading of authors referring to people and teams “regressing to the mean”.  To my eyes, it is mostly used as a blanket way of explaining the unexplainable.  If a player goes on a hot streak, a drop in performance is regressing to the mean.  If a team outperformed the historical trends last year, they should regress to the mean this year and do worse.  It all seems like stopping 2 or 3 why’s short in a 5-Why, but this isn’t the forum to argue the specifics of advanced metrics in sports.  However, as I have started to see the phrase “regressing to the mean” show up outside of those arenas I think it provides an interesting topic.

In the interest of time and space, I’ll keep the strawman simple here.  The sports guys and gals have the concept mostly accurate from a big picture level.  Over time, a process will show what its performance will be.  The short term swings high and low are just normal variations that level out over time assuming no other significant factors intervene.  From a human performance standpoint, what does that mean and how can we impact it?

People tend to have their own expectations of their performance.  If they exceed their expectations at something, most are likely to perform worse at the same task in the future.  There are a lot of factors at play in this such as differences in focus, preparation, expectations, complacency, and so on.  The opposite is also true.  When expectations aren’t met, the performance tends to increase.  From a cultural standpoint, I tend to think this is one of the factors that help to propel companies like Toyota and other that are successful in Lean.  There is a constant reinforcement of thought patterns like “ ’no problem’ is a problem” and chasing a True North state.  This helps create an ongoing mindset of not performing at a high enough level.   For the people that can function and even thrive in this environment, it develops a constant carrot to chase and keeps the organization as a whole from regressing.

I fully recognize that not everybody can function in that type of culture.  That isn’t an indictment of them, just a recognition that all people are different and come to work with their own needs.  I also recognize and have witnessed the farther end of the spectrum where the carrot of raised expectations turns in to the stick of failure.  This doesn’t mean that we should stop identifying successes.  It just brings an acknowledgment that reaching a certain level doesn’t mean that the climb is over.  Individually, it can give us an opportunity to ask ourselves how comfortable we have gotten with our skills and performance.  In turn, it’s an opportunity to look at those around us and try to understand how they view their successes and raising the bar of expectations.  If we believe in the old adage that you are either getting better or you are getting worse, regressing to a mean isn’t really a viable option.

Lean Hoops

I am on record as saying that I’m not a fan of sports metaphors being used in business.  I really have no rational explanation for not liking them.  Even though I’d rather not see them, I still use them in conversation when I’m trying to teach or make a point.  The simplest reason is that sports are so popular that they can create a common starting point to connect from.  I see the same upside in using other popular culture aspects like music, TV and movies.  They create a framework that people can relate to.  As a way of sharing some of what I find, I’m going to add some pieces here that I’m calling Pop Culture Lean.  The danger here is that I’m going to stretch too far and point out to something that doesn’t really relate, but hopefully I can share some things that may be off the beaten Lean path and draw some insights in different areas.

The first example I’m going to use on this topic is a fantastic article by Chuck Klosterman on the Triangle offense in the NBA.  Anybody who has even marginally paid attention to the NBA over the last 20 years has heard of the offense.  As Mr. Klosterman points out, 11 of the last 20 NBA champion teams ran the offense. Outside of referring to man to man or zone defense, it’s probably the only ‘strategy’ that a casual fan would know by name.   If this happened in football, 8 other pro teams and a couple dozen college teams would already be running the offense.  But for this strategy, nobody in the NBA or major college basketball is on the bandwagon.

Why isn’t this proven strategy much more widely implemented?  I think part of the answer lies in Phil Jackson’s thoughts in the article.  Success depends on a dedication to teaching “very, very basic fundamentals”.  It requires individuals to function within the flow of the system as opposed to the standard of seeking individual glory.  It is also a system that outsiders ignore because they may not like the person giving the message.  It all sounds way too familiar to me.  I almost feel like I could strip the basketball statistics out and use the ‘Find and Replace’ function a few times in Word and make a story asking why so few companies truly practice Lean as well as Toyota and TPS have shown it to work.

I don’t really think that the answers are exactly the same for the lack of widespread adoption of the two different systems.  But I do think there is enough of a parallel there to give me more than a short pause.  I also think that there is enough common ground in that article that I have already printed off a couple copies to hand out.  Maybe it won’t help, but I have to be willing to try to look in different areas to find new ways to communicate.  I can’t keep the Triangle offense alive, but I can try to keep the Lean journey alive.