Blog Archives

One Man’s Lean Journey: My First Kanban System

Working for the automotive supplier, I had moved from industrial engineer to program manager and now into the lean group. The lean group comprised of just myself and one other, Joe Wilson who has contributed here at Beyond Lean.

One of our first assignments was to implement a plant-wide kanban system in 4 weeks. It was a mandate that came down from our Vice President to all the plants. In that short time, Joe and I had to learn about kanban, devise a system, create a simulation to teach 500 employees and implement the system.

Good thing we were young and full of energy back then, because I don’t know how we did it but we did. We developed kanban cards by color signifying which department the card need to return to in order to place the order for more parts. We then created a very simple Lego simulation. The simulation was good for 5-6 people at a time and allowed each person to be hands in order to create better learning. We also used the exact kanban card that we were going to put on the shop floor for the simulation so the employees got used to seeing them and could give feedback on them. We then trained 500 people on the simulation, five at a time across three shifts.

One rule we stressed the employees was, “Do NOT violate the kanban!” If you don’t have a card, you don’t build. Even if you know cards are in the internal customer’s hand and haven’t been brought to you. That holds the customer accountable for “ordering” the parts from the supplying department.

Everyone was ready to go live on our due date and we nailed it. Not saying there weren’t problems, but we hit the date and people were trying their best to follow the new procedures.

Then it happened. Our go-live date was mid-June. If you are familiar with the auto industry, everyone shuts down for retooling for a week or two around July 4th. So one week into the kanban system, our management was telling everyone to violate the kanban in order to build the bank of parts for the few shipments we have during the two week shutdown.

Yep. Violate the Number 1 Rule right out of the gate. It caused Joe and I a lot of rework after shutdown to get the kanban system back up and running. In the end, it worked well thanks to the great employees and the management support, but the false start didn’t help.


  • Building the bank of parts for shutdown was the correct thing to do at July 4th. What we need to be more conscious of is when we start something. It would have been better to start the kanban training after shutdown so we didn’t have the false start and have management telling everyone to violate the number 1 rule right off the bat.
  • We made kanban cards that were small. 4 inches x 3 inches or so. Cards were get dropped and lost quite a bit. It is better to make larger kanban cards (8 inches x 6 inches). It is harder to lose these because they are easier to see and don’t fit in pockets without folding a laminated card.
  • Creating a simulation that allowed everyone to be hands-on and using the actual kanban card from the floor really helped to create learning, understanding and good dialogue with the employees.

The SMED-ing of Football

I was looking for a change of pace for the whole Pit Crew/Racing example used to illustrate the SMED process.   Maybe I just got frustrated with it because, although it does show an example of a fast changeover, I’m not sure how “Lean” the whole process is.   Luckily, with football season around, I have found a new example to talk about.  (For those who may want to stop now, I’m talking about “American Football”, not what most everybody else in the world calls football.)

Judging by ratings, more people watch the NFL and College Football than motorsports.  That’s kind of important if I want to come up with something other than the tried and true pit crew metaphor.  Chances are if you’ve watched a game over the past few years, the talking heads in the booth have spent some of their time talking about “hurry up” or “blur” or some other variance of a no-huddle offense that is the greatest thing since the forward pass.  This is likely to be a huge topic of conversation early in the NFL season as one of the most well known practitioners, Chip Kelly, has left the University of Oregon and is now performing some degree of his voodoo for the Eagles.  What does that have to do with Lean and changeovers?  Hopefully I can show you.

One of the perceived benefits of the no huddle offense is that you can run more plays in the same amount of time because you can run them faster.  How does that happen?  Well, it starts with looking at a huddle as a changeover.  If you can exchange in your head the whistle stopping the previous play for “last good piece” and being in place for the snap of the ball for “first good piece”, the process is actually quite logical.  Here is a typical huddle:


In a no huddle system, you identify the steps in the changeover that don’t add value.  In this example, the steps that don’t add value are the “running back to the huddle” and the “communication in the huddle” steps.  From there, the steps of going to line up in your position and coaches communicating the play have to occur in parallel, and add in speeding up the movement from the end of the last play to getting back to the line for the next play.  The diagram starts to look like this:


3Okay, it’s not a perfect metaphor, but it’s not a bad start.  Plus, it makes both watching football and talking about SMED a little more interesting.  (For the sake of clarity, yes, I realize that no-huddle offenses aren’t a new development in the past 2 years.  Also, from a football standpoint the speed of the plays is mostly important because it allows you to constantly tweak the pace of plays being executed so you can outflank the defense…but that’s a topic for another time and place.)

Are there any other good parallels that are in use to talk about SMED or another Lean concept?  In the interest of space, I’ve condensed some of the “how” out of this post.  If you’re interested, post a comment or drop me a line (joewilsonlean at gmail dot com) and we can discuss this concept or your other examples further.

How to Use Group Learning Effectively

Group learning is becoming more popular today.  There are different forums for this such as consortiums, networking groups, non-profit organizations, conferences and symposiums to name a few.  At the beginning of the year, I highlight the Smith County Lean Consortium as an example of work being done and the range of organizations that can be involved.

In order to make this type of learning successful, a couple of elements and structure have to be there.  First and foremost, the companies have to be very open.  Open to letting other companies see the work they are doing.  Open to presenting the truth of what they are doing, not a dog and pony show.  Open to honest and candid feedback from outside eyes.  Open to accepting the candid feedback in order to help them improve.  And finally, open to giving honest and candid feedback when they visit another facility.

In short, a safe learning environment needs to be present.

Once a safe learning environment has been established, then the learning process needs to be followed.  Spend some time learning about a concept, a problem, or an organization.  After learning about it, go to where the work is done and understand how to apply the concept in that environment, come up with potential countermeasures for a problem, or give suggestions to move an organization forward.  Finally, discuss what was observed with the host organization.  Help them to improve.  Then discuss how what you learned and saw will help to improve your organization.

I know this sounds simple, but too many organizations create a dog and pony show where they just show off what they have been doing and don’t really address a problem when a learning group visits.  Or they will make it an unsafe learning environment.  Usually it is unintentional.  You will hear comments like, “But our business is different.” or “Great idea, but you haven’t seen the whole picture.”

Group learning can be very effective if done correctly.  It can be cost effective too.  So the next time you want have multiple organizations learning from one another make sure to provide a safe learning environment and follow the learning process.

Learning and Leaving

The other day I was listening to a speaker discuss manufacturing jobs in the the U.S.  The speaker hit on a reason why there are fewer and fewer people with the job skills needed for the manufacturing shop floor.  The reason was employer paid training is being cut.

Manufacturing has a lot of technical based jobs.  People need to run equipment and know about machinery in most industries today.   In order to get training and stay up-to-date on the latest technical training, the employers pay for people to go to training.

In the past, this wasn’t an issue.  Employers were happy to pay for the training.  They expected people to be with the company for a very long time, so it was an investment in the employee.  Today, the expectation that a person will stick with a company for a long time isn’t accurate.  I think of myself.  The automotive company I worked for paid for me to get a lot of training on problem solving skills and techniques and some in lean, but as soon as my growth potential topped out I left the company.  That was within a year of completing my training.  The plant manager was upset but he was the one that told me my growth opportunities were topped out.  What did he expect?  I was 29 at the time.

What makes manufacturing unique is the fact that employers do pay for the training.  In healthcare, legal, or IT the individual pays for their training on their own time.  So the individual has more responsibility to not waste that training by using it wherever it fits best.

I know technology is changing fast and keeping up with it can be hard.  This doesn’t mean it can’t be done.  And the ones that do keep up with be rewarded with better paying jobs and more opportunities.

Would manufacturing skills be more plentiful today if the individuals had to keep up with it on their one?  I don’t know.  I’m not saying that is the right answer, but it is something to think about.

What are you thoughts?  How can manufacturing skills of individuals keep up with changing technology and employer and employees feel good about the training that was done without the fear of an employee leaving once they have developed their skills?

PowerPoint Can Be Wasteful

Have I taken my lean thinking too far?  I don’t think so, but there are others that do.

PowerPoint is a useful tool for presentations, but is WAY overdone.  Everything needs to be done in PowerPoint in order to have any validity anymore.  People put things in PowerPoint that are seen once and never referred to again.  Most of the time the PowerPoint slides do not add any value to the conversation.

Anything that does not add value is waste.  So why do people spend so much time creating PowerPoint slides?

I have gotten away from the waste of creating needless PowerPoint slides.  During kaizen events, the team has the maps on the way and we take the management group out to the floor to see the changes.  You can’t get that from a slide.  If it is information to digest, I make the original file (Excel, Word, .jpg) as readable and easy to understand as possible and use that to illustrate my point.  I love to use pictures to show people.

Unfortunately, not everyone I work with agrees.  More importantly the upper management doesn’t agree.  I have received feedback from a few that I nail the project deliverables, bring great data analysis to the table, do great work, BUT it doesn’t feel quite finished.  When I ask what is missing I get the prettiness factor, the PowerPoint slides.

Really?!  I get dinged for that?!

When I ask what value it adds I get the run around.

There are times when PowerPoint is very useful.  Training is a great example.  I am not encouraging to but a novel on a slide.  In should be some bullet points to highlight your point.  Adding a visual to re-iterate your point is powerful too.  People learn in 3 ways: reading (bullet points), visual (picture), or auditory (hearing the explanation).  There is the learning by doing, but there usually is an explanation before the doing and that is what I am referring to.

PowerPoint can add value if you are having to give a presentation in a large room where not everyone can see a flip chart or when you have to give the same presentation multiple times.

Whether you use PowerPoint or not always prepare for the presentation.  When you have the chance challenge the value of using PowerPoint slides to convey the message.  And if you do need to use PowerPoint, ask yourself if the slide is adding value to the presentation or not.

Leadership…Training or Talent?

I believe there is a difference between managers and leaders.  Managers help drive the business to reach results in a status quo way.  Leaders help drive change in the business.  Leaders pull the business forward to new levels.  Both are needed in a company.  Leaders don’t necessarily have to be in management positions.

With that being said I do believe that there are certain positions in an organization that the manager must also be a leader.  Most of these positions are at higher levels of the organization.  Without leaders at higher levels driving change, the company will not grow or move forward the way that it might need to in order to survive.

So, is the ability to lead effectively a talent or is it something that can be taught?

I believe that leadership is a talent.  It is something that a person has the natural ability to do.  Can they person get some training and education on how to be a more effective leader?  Sure they can.

Can a person who doesn’t have a talent to lead learn some leadership skills?  Yes.  But, this is more of a stop gap because they are in a role that requires them to be more of a leader.  Leading still won’t come easy to them, therefore people will have  a hard time following.  I have seen people follow a manager trying to lead just because of the respect for the position and not the person leading them.  In every case, I have never seen this workout to a good result.

True leadership, getting people to change their minds and direction is a talent that can be enhanced and fine-tuned through training.  When leading people want to follow and go where the leader is taking them.

What do you think?  Is true leadership a talent or can it be trained?

Is Your Lean Training a Waste of Time?

Last week, my company had Jamie Flinchbaugh, from the Lean Learning Center,  in for some follow up on training his organization gave us back in November.  A point that Jamie makes during every session is about doing something with what we learned.  If we leave any training session and do nothing with it, then by definition it is waste, because we haven’t changed anything and we can do that without spending time in training.

This is something I have taken to heart for a few years now.  Anytime I go to training or learning session, I make it a point to learn something new that can help me in my work.  More importantly, I try to incorporate what I learned into my work or thinking where appropriate.

After applying this for so many years and listening to Jamie last week, I finally realized I had never expected the people I am teaching to do anything with what I have taught them.

There are two reasons why I haven’t done it. One is I have never told any class I have taught my expectations are they will take something from the class and apply it.  I need to be clear and explicit about expectations.

The second reason is I have never incorporated any time into the class for them to think about and develop an action plan on how to apply something that was taught.  If the expectations are to take something from the class and apply it, then I should make it easy for them to develop an action plan.  Giving them time in class allows them to think about it while it is fresh.  Plus, having a support group to talk to can help.  Also, I can be there to answer any questions they have.

I made changes last Friday with a training session I conducted.  I set the expectations and I allowed time to think about and develop action plans to apply what they learned.  My hypothesis is this will increase the number of  changed behaviors and actions after attending my training sessions.  Otherwise, it would have been a waste of their time.

Human Resource’s Role in Lean

I am a firmly believe the Human Resource department needs to be a leader  in the transformation of  the culture during a lean implementation.  HR can and should play a role in helping with training of lean tools and concepts as well as the cross training of employees so the staff is more flexible.  HR can help with people having trouble transforming from a traditional culture to a lean culture.

A common  way to understand lean in is through two pillars: Continuous Improvement and Respect for People.  In my opinion, the greatest impact the HR organization can have on a lean transformation is the education on what respect for people really means and looks like.

Lean is about people and gaining everyone’s engagement in continuous improvement.  One reason an organization would like everyone engaged is to show respect for them.  It shows they value their brains and hearts and don’t look at them as solely hands and feet.

So if lean is about people, who better to educate and train on skills and behaviors to show the respect for people principle than HR?

HR can help with personality assessments, like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  This allows people to get a better understanding of how the people they work with think.  When the group understands each other they can show respect for how one another operates and thinks.

HR can also train the group in skills on how to have open and honest communication based on your relationship with a person or group of people.

HR can also give training on the Woodstone Principles that are aligned with lean thinking.  The principles are:

  1. You are accountable for your performance
  2. You are accountable for the performance of your stake holders
  3. Subordinate your agenda for the betterment of the company

Finally, HR can help by educating on how to include people. When people feel included in the business they are more likely to understand and engage in the improvement of the business.

Lets respect Human Resources and ask them to use their knowledge in people to help the organization become better at showing respect for people.

Train and Do. Do Not Train Then Do.

I have read about three quarters of the Toyota Kata by Mike Rother.  It is a very good book.  One that provokes a lot of thought even from people that have been implementing lean for a long time.  This post isn’t a book review of the Toyota Kata.  It is a reflection on a point made my Mike Rother in the book about training and doing.

In the book Mr. Rother talks about moving from a system where we train in the classroom and then ask them to go out on the floor and do.  Instead, the mentor needs to be with the mentee on the floor training and doing at the same time.  Below is a graphic to try and illustrate that it isn’t two steps, but one combined step.

As I thought about this, I remembered some of the coaches that I got the most learning from.  In every case, the coach was out on the floor with me observing me learning and resolving the problem.  The coach invested a lot of time in me.  He made sure I was thinking about the problem in every way possible and would ask questions and guide me when he saw I was off course.

In contrast, I had coaches that would train me in the classroom and then give me an assignment.  The coach would come back a week or month later and see how my work had progressed.  The coach would try to get an understanding of my thinking but it would be hard.  I learned but not nearly as much or as fast as when I had my coach there with me as I worked.  This isn’t an indictment on the coach.  It was just the way the process was set up.

It may seem that having coaches for a lot of employees that can spend time with them on the floor is not feasible.  In our current system and thinking that may be true.  What is amazing is that Toyota has found a way to do it.  Leaders at all levels are coaches to their employees so they are training and doing at the same time.  This creates hundreds of coaches training and doing on the floor across the organization.

Our organizations may not be able to do this right away.  If it is truly important to the company to create learning an investment will need to be made.  Start small.  Get a few people coached and then have them coach.  Slowly let it spread.  Start with a small part of the organization.  It allows for experimenting with the training and doing process before spreading it.

I know this is easier said than done.  It was a method that worked for me in the past.  To show how slowly it can move, I was coached and then I coached 5 others and then they started to coach.  Just to get to that point took 3 years.  That started with a base of one, just me in our plant.  The whole purpose was I was there with them training on the floor as they were doing.  It is definitely a huge commitment.

I believe this huge commitment and slow process is why organizations are not successful at it.  It takes patience.

I hope your organization is willing to make the commitment.

Applying Lean to Training

I found this video a few days ago.  It is a video of Todd Hudson, from the Maverick Institute, giving a class about applying lean to training.  The video is about 13 minutes long and isn’t the whole presentation, but it is very intriguing.

Todd asks the question, “Can we learn twice as much in half the time?”  It is a great question.  His point is that people thing that is a crazy idea, but we won’t hesitate to ask, “Can we get twice the production in half the time of equipment X?”  Excellent point.

In the video, Todd starts to talk about the waste in training.  He provides a statistic that says only 15% of what is heard during training is retained.  WOW!  I never put a measurement on it but my experiences seem to be very similar, which is why applying and reflecting after learning is very important for the learning cycle.

I’m disappointed the video is not longer.  I would like to hear more of what Todd has to say about applying lean to training and learning.

Has anyone applied lean to their training?  I would be interested in hearing more.