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One Man’s Lean Journey: Creating a Pull Factory…EPIC FAIL!

Let’s have fun with this post. See how many things we did wrong in starting this new manufacturing facility and circle them. Hint: circle the entire post.

To this day, I feel very fortunate to have been a part of this work because of all the learning that I didn’t come to realize until years later.

I was a 21-year-old intern and had been selected by my manager to help design a brand new manufacturing facility in Mexico. There are only three people involved in this “top secret” plan. My manager, a consultant with an extensive computer simulation background and myself.

The goal was to design the first pull manufacturing facility in the company based on Demand Flow Technology (or DFT). DFT is one person’s interpretation of lean and how production lines need to be flexible enough to run every product at any time. Studying DFT would serve me well later in my career. I also gained a lot of experience in computer simulation of facilities.

I designed a spreadsheet that calculated the storage space required for every component and finished good across the facility based on production rates and size of components and product. This was an input into the simulation to help determine the size of the building.

We finished the design, ground was broken and I went back to school for a semester.

The new facility was opened a couple of weeks before I returned for another session of my internship.

(Pay attention here because this is my favorite part)

The Mexico facility was replacing a local U.S. facility. The company shut the U.S. facility down on a Friday and started up the new facility in Mexico on the following Monday. No ramp up for the new facility. It started it’s first production after the other facility was shutdown. There was no training of management or employees on what a “pull” facility meant and how it would be different. It was a “here is a new pull facility go run it like you ran other facilities.”

Within a month, there were over 115 tractor trailers on the parking lot storing components and finished goods. Inside the facility, finished goods were piled in any opening they could find. Television sets that were supposed to be stacked three high were six high and leaning over about ready fall. It was a complete disaster.

My manager and I were called to the floor. We were told our design and space requirements were wrong and we needed to go to Mexico and fix the problem.

I spent two days pouring over my calculations and could not find a single thing that was wrong. We got to the facility and spent a few days watching production, examining the inbound and outbound process and locating parts in the facility and in the parking lot. It became very clear that no management practices had been changed and the facility was operating in traditional batch push system.

We spent a month helping to change a few processes and get the inventory under a manageable control, but the overall solution from the high powered executives was to expand the building and keep operating as is. Not change the management practices and improve the processes.

I can’t understate what a disaster this was. Truly an enormous cluster. It was a few years later when I was leading a lean transformation in automotive that I realized how valuable that experience was.


  • Having only three people involved in the design of a new facility, especially going from push to pull, is a very bad idea. It should be a larger collaborative effort. This will even help with buy-in a when the changes are made.
  • Simulations are an incredible tool, but are useless when you simulate one set of assumptions and another is put into practice
  • Absolutely no ramp up time for the new facility…Really!?! I am still speechless on this one.
  • If you are switching from a push to a pull system, you have to train everyone from the plant manager down on how this is different and how to manage in the new system. This is crucial.
  • There must be knowledgeable support for the entire facility when going from push to pull. Help everyone work through the kinks of the new processes and not allow them to fall back on old ways.
  • Most important, when something goes wrong, learn and change to improve don’t fall back to old ways just because it is comfortable. In this case, it cost millions to expand the facility instead of learning new processes.

Managers Are Crucial to Problem Solving Success

One of the fundamental differences in a lean company versus a traditional company is how they go about problem solving.  In a traditional management company, problems are hidden and managers want the problem “solved” and move on.  This usually leads to problems having band-aides being put into place.  Later the same problem surfaces again and another band-aide is put on again.

In a lean management company, problems are looked as a way to get better and are not hidden.  Managers want the root cause of the problem found so the issue doesn’t arise again.

In both traditional and lean mindsets, I do believe that managers want the issue resolved so that is never arises again.  It is there behaviors that truly dictate whether a band-aide is put on the problem or if the root cause is found.

A traditional mindset manager continually asks, “Is it solved yet?” or “When will it be solved?” or something very similar.  They are pushing for action to be taken without understanding anything about the problem.  It is a ‘just solve it and lets move on’ mentality.  Hurry up!

A lean mindset manager asks questions also, but more to get an understanding of how your process is coming along and driving to complete the next step of the process.  Questions might be something like, “What have you discovered about the problem?” or “What have you learned?”.  The manager understands there will be a lot of time spent in the discovery mode investigating the problem.  The manager supports the process and helps the person through the process.

An example from my personal experience.  I was working on an issue that had been around for 40 years.  Everyday my manager asked, “When are you going to have that solved?”  Finally, I said “The problem has been around for 40 years and no one has solved it.  I think I get 3 months not a week.”  Not the smartest thing to say to your manager but in this case it gave me some room to find the root cause, which the team did.

Later that year there was another issue that we had to work 16 hour days to solve but we followed the process and we nailed it.

After that extremely hot issue, my manager saw the benefit of following the process.  He then would ask, “Where are you on that problem?  Are there roadblocks I can help with?”

It really changed the environment to problem solve.  In fact, the problem solving process started moving faster and he ended up getting the results he wanted faster.

The lesson was the manager’s mindset, attitude and support around problem solving creates the type of results gotten.

What is your mindset towards problem solving and supporting your employees?

Managing Through Fear and Intimidation

It seems I couldn’t get on any news wire without seeing something on Marissa Mayer last week.  I read a few different articles on Marissa, but The Truth About Marissa Mayer caught my attention the most.

This article from Business Insider talks about a view some at Google had of Marissa.

The other view, more common amongst long-time Googlers, is that Mayer is a publicity-craving, lucky early Googler, whose public persona outstripped her actual authority and power at the company, where she was once a rising star—thanks to a bullying managerial style—but had become marginalized over the past couple of years.

That is quite a view.  What could make people view her in that way?  The way she manage.

This source described an executive who “will work harder than anyone” and “is smarter than 99 percent of the people,” but “can’t scale herself” and “doesn’t understand managing any other way than intimidation or humiliation.”

This source says that when she worked with Mayer at Google, Mayer “was just a nightmare”—someone who had her own publicist, forced underlings to sign customized NDAs, and maintained “a shadow HR staff and a shadow recruiting staff just for her team.”

“No one understood why she had the power that she had, except that she will literally work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

“She used to make people line up outside of her office, sit on couches and sign up with office hours with her. Then everybody had to publicly sit outside her office and she would see people in five minute increments. She would make VPs at Google wait for her. It’s like you’ve got to be kidding.”

This source says that for a time, Mayer attended executive coaching lessons with Bill Campbell, but that the gossip is he refused to keep teaching her because she was unreceptive to feedback. Another source confirms a falling out between Campbell and Mayer, but doesn’t know why it happened.

This sounds like a text book example of traditional management style through fear and intimidation to the extreme.  Really.  She made people (including executives) wait outside her office for 5 minute meetings!  Some of this is Google’s other leaders’ fault because they allowed it to happen.

It was mentioned that most of this happened earlier in her career and some believe she has changed.

This source is now a “huge fan” of Mayer’s, but says “I used to not be.”

“I honestly thought she was crazy [during her early years at Google].”

This person says that Mayer used to be a polarizing executive at Google because of quirks—like how she managed her underlings and fought political battles with other top executives—but that “she is really not so much any more.”

“She is 37 now, and she was in her late 20s less than a decade ago. Like all people, she matured and learned. It’s not fair to cast her in the mold of when she was 28 or 29. She is a different person and leader now.”


But, says this source, there are lots of people at Google who want to work for her. For example, there’s the story of Jen Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick went on maternity leave while working for Mayer. When she came back, she had a new boss. Google had gone through a massive re-org, and Mayer had been moved to a different organization. Mayer then asked Fitzpatrick to join her new team. If Mayer was a tyrant, this would have been a great opportunity for Fitzpatrick to say no, and escape. But she didn’t; she joined Mayer’s staff.

It sounds like Marissa Mayer is changing.  This is good.  I imagine she is still has a traditional fear and control style of management but it is softer.  If she hasn’t changed enough, will she lose the backing of Yahoo!’s employees?  The article points to the fact that it worked for Steve Jobs.  So we should copy that?  No way.  I see Steve Jobs as an exception.  Is Yahoo such a name brand company to work for that people will stay no matter what?

I wouldn’t expect Yahoo! to adopt lean anytime soon.  What do you think?

Pre-emptive Strike on Micromanaging

Recently, there were a couple of great blog posts about micromanaging over at the Harvard Business Review blog.  You’re Probably a Micromanager and Why People Micromanage.

One of the reason Ron Ashkenas sites for micromanaging is the manager worries about being disconnected from what is going on.  I have seen this be true in a lot of cases.  The manager has a hard time trusting what is going on with the work and needs the comfort of being involved in order to be relaxed about the situtation.

One thing I have found to help with micro-managers is the pre-emptive strike.  Try getting out in front of the work and give regular updates without being asked to do so.  Once a week or after a meeting, send the manager an email with what work has been completed to date and what work is next to be completed as well as how you feel the work is going.

In most cases, this can start to build trust with the manager.  The manager can start to do less micromanaging.  The key is to take on doing the updates without being asked to do so.  If the manager asks, then it will seems as task the manager wants to keep an eye on you.  If you take the initiative to update the manager, the manager respects it can starts to build some trust which can allow the micromanaging to start to subside.  When that does yo feel better about the work and working for the manager.

This may not work all the time, but it is a place to start.

The Importance of Respect for People

Sometimes lean thinking and behaviors are being used without being known.  Common examples are Subway or Zappos.  But it can happen in our own work too.

I have been implementing lean for 10+ years now and just this morning it hit me about a time when I was putting good lean thinking to work and had absolutely no idea.  Fifteen years ago, I was a 21-year-old college student doing an internship with RCA.  At the time, I had heard of Shingo and read his book The SMED System, but I had never heard the term lean.

I was put in charge of running a production area for a couple of months.  My team consisted of 10 union employees.  The management – union relationship in this facility was terrible.  On my first day, I gathered the team together and laid out our production goals and time frame.  I asked how they wanted to set up the area for the best production.  We spent the first day or two experimenting and getting our process down.  By the third day, the team was really doing well.  The team’s production numbers weren’t that good the first week because of the experimenting that we were doing at the start of the week.

In very traditional management fashion, I never saw my supervisor the entire week until Friday afternoon when he came out to let me know not hitting our goals was unacceptable.  I tried to explain the setup but he didn’t want to hear it.  I think the only reason I got some latitude was because I was an intern and he would only have to put up with me for a few weeks.

The next week the team was familiar with the process they had designed and executed very well.  We hit our goal on the nose, so I didn’t see my supervisor at all that week.

The following week they came to me and wanted to tweak the process.  I thought that was a great idea, so they did.  And boy did they.  For the next 4 weeks they exceeded the weekly target by close to 30% each week.  I could not stop praising them during that time.  Every morning and afternoon, I made sure to let them know how much I appreciated their work.  I brought in donuts for them a couple of times and one afternoon, I let them have an hour break.

Of course, my supervisor is now coming out wanting to know what I am doing to get this productivity.  It was the highest productivity the area has ever seen.  I said I was doing nothing.  The team designed and executed the work and they even started holding each other accountable which I have never seen in a union environment.  While the team was really working hard, I would take care of the odds and ends.  For example, they forgot to put a remote control in one of the TV set boxes, so I grabbed some tape, ran out to the finished goods area, opened the box, put the remote in, and taped it back up.  I would also help carry parts in so there wouldn’t have to be so many trips.

WHOOOPS!!!!  These things were a HUGE no-no in a union shop.  I had a union shop steward come out and just light into me right in front of the team over these things.  Being young and dumb at the time, I got right back in his face about yelling at me in front of the team and so on and so forth.  It got to the point my team (all union members)  jumped in and defended me to their shop steward avoiding a grievance being filed.

The team finished the work 2 weeks faster than any team had done it.  This was something they gave a lot of interns so they had quite a few years to compare it with.

I’m not bring this story up to say, “look at how good I did.”  I bring it up because I did what I just felt was right and treated everyone with respect.  OK maybe not the shop steward.  But as I think about it now, it highlighted the importance of the Respect for People pillar of lean.  By respecting the team’s talents and knowledge and letting them use it to define the process the results came.  The time I spent working with the that team is one that I reflect on quite a bit.  It was a huge learning experience about lean before I knew anything about lean.

There are a lot of companies that respect and engage their people.  They just may not call it lean.  It may be just the way they do business.  As lean implementers, shouldn’t our ideal state be the word ‘lean’ is never used again because it is just the way all companies do business?

Guest Post: Nature or Nuture

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 was thinking the other day about some of the people I know that work in and around Lean-type leadership positions and something struck me about them.  None of them were truly ‘transformed’ in to Lean thinkers.  All of them were people who had an inherent problem solving mentality or a passion to challenge the traditional way of doing things and found a tool box that furthered their natural tendencies.  The same held true, for my experience, of operations leaders.  Those that truly ‘got it’ and were the big drivers and implementers were people who were already looking for better ways and latched on to the different methodologies.

Taking that a step further, what does that mean for companies?  Are some companies, by their culture and DNA, more inclined to be successful converting to and maintaining a Lean environment?    Sure.  Some companies are more experimental or entrepreneurial and look for ways to become better.  Some are more likely to dig their heels 3 feet deep in the ground hanging on to their traditional methods for as long as they can.  The ones in the latter group that ‘try’ Lean are more likely to overlay the tools on their old ways and not get results they thought they might.  Lean becomes something that happens on an action sheet and not part of who they are.

Am I being a defeatist here, preaching “it is what it is” when it comes to company histories and Lean transformation?  Certainly not.  Companies are nothing without the people that do the work and lead the organizations.  Lean starts, builds and endures because of the people in the system.  It is the attitude and dedication of the leaders that determines that path of a company.  Whether any change is embraced or abandoned is determined by what people are doing right here and right now.  It is not determined by what happened 10, 50 or 100 years ago.  What this means is that when you look at your Current State when defining your Lean progress or setting up your road map you need to invest some solid time in understanding who and what your organization is made of.  Without the proper attention to those factors, you may find yourself backtracking a lot more than you ever thought possible trying to re-do what you thought was already done.

Walking a Fine Line – Traditional and Lean Management

Becoming a change agent for lean is very difficult.  People expect you to model the behaviors all the time.  We aren’t perfect ourselves.  We are constantly learning new ways to get better everyday.  Because of this, change agents are expected to be ahead on the learning curve.

When I was hired in to my last couple of jobs, it was because I was ahead of them on the learning curve.  The companies asked me to come in and help them up the learning curve.  These were great opportunities.

This weekend, I did some reflecting on transitioning to new companies.  So far, I think they went well.  The one point that I did see in both cases is how fine a line we walk between trying to get others up the learning curve and exhibiting a old school controlling behavior.

While trying to bring people along the learning curve, I have found myself in situations that are the same from my past.  I can see people heading down the same path I once did.  It was riddled with setbacks and errors.  I try to tell them not to take that path and show them what I have learned.  They still want to make the same mistakes I did, when I can help them avoid the costs and the time of doing that.  At times, I have crossed the line of helping and became demanding.  “Don’t do that.  Do this, so you don’t make the mistake.”

What I have started to learn (but I’m not perfect) is more patience.  Let them make the same mistake, but be there to help them after they do.  I have seen where the person learning gets more from making the mistake and then seeing a better way afterward.  It is a lesson that is now etched in their memory.  This is still faster than letting them learn it all on their own.  It is really hard to do when you have seen the results before hand so you want to get there quicker, but the engagement is about ownership and sustainability.

As lean change agents we walk a fine line between showing new lean management skills and demanding lean management skills via traditional management of demand and control.  We won’t be perfect about it, but we should be conscious of it.

Are You Bob Woods from The Gold Mine?

Earlier this year I read the novel “The Gold Mine” by Freddy Balle and Michael Balle.  When I was finished, I thought it was a good book and I liked the novel format.  I found the book OK.  It talked about a lot of lean concepts, but nothing new and it didn’t strike me in a new way.  I was really taken aback by the behavior of Bob Woods, the main character of the story, a retired lean guy who had transformed many facilities.  When asked to help out a friend of his son, he reluctantly agrees.

What shocked me the most was Bob’s behavior in the book.  It seemed very command and control.  Do it this way or don’t call me! type of attitude.  The book is based around this attitude and his lack of patience for someone not taking action and doing it the way he said to do it.  The attitude didn’t seem very lean leadership like.

Fast forward several months, I am now reflecting on the book again.  I had to look in the mirror and ask myself, “Am I Bob Woods?”  I have a better understanding of where he was coming from now.  Have you ever gone into a situation where you know you can help?  They have asked for your help, but in the end they don’t want to do it or argue with you.  It becomes very frustrating to the point where you finally take an attitude of do it this way or don’t ask me for help anymore!

I still don’t believe this a way a great leader would behavior, but I have some empathy for Bob Woods now.  How do you avoid becoming Bob Woods as you do more and more lean transformation work?  As leaders we are to bring people along with us.  That is the definition of leadership.  Telling someone what do to is dictatorship.  Is it appropriate to display the behavior of do it my way or don’t ask at any time? I feel there isn’t a time or a place for that, but it may not be that black and white.

What are you thoughts?


President Obama – Traditional Leader or Lean Leader?

I have absolutely no interest in getting into a political debate.  I am not interested in anyone’s political views.  That is not the point of this blog.  The question I have has to do with the leadership style exhibited by President Obama in an interview on NBC.  Here is the specific clip from the interview about the oil spill in the Gulf.

President Obama wants to know “who’s a@@ to kick”.  Right away, I jump to this being a trait of a traditional leader.  Someone looking for a scape goat and looking to place blame.  I agree that BP should be held responsible for the effects of the spill, but what good does it do to blame a person?  Shouldn’t we be concerned with the temporary containment of the oil leak?  What about the clean up?  More importantly, how do we error proof this so it never happens again?  I can remember getting my rear kicked when I worked in the auto industry.  In fact, it took all of 3 days before I had the assistant plant manager screaming at me, because I allowed 3 or 4 bad parts through in my 12 hrs of inspection of about a thousand parts.  He was also one of the first to go when we started implementing lean.

So, is this comment taken out of context?  Is this comment a trait of a lean leader or a traditional command and control leader?