Who Took My Grease Pencil?

I was in a popular “Gold Rush” themed restaurant the other night, and they were struggling with a new table assignment system.

In the past the system was very simple. When you arrived, you told them your name, the number in your party. They wrote your name on a list, and gave you a pager. They had a laminated chart of the table layout, and marked tables as occupied, uncleared and available with a grease pencil. As tables became available, they moved down the list, triggered the pager, and took guests to the table. As tables were cleared and bussed, they were reported as available.

No more. Now there is a computer screen with the layout on it. They hand you the pager, and I suppose it gets logged in to “the system” as a party of 2, or whatever. And the computer pages you when an appropriate table is available. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Of course the system is new, and the team was struggling a bit. That is expected, it is unfamiliar. But as we handed in our pager, I commented “I thought the grease pencil worked just fine.” The response was “Tell me about it.”

Now I suppose the technology enables them to track all kinds of great metrics like table turnover, etc. But if it is like most similar software implementations, those benefits are solutions in search of a problem. They are justifications for the expenditure.

I am always very wary when someone proposes to replace a functioning manual process with a computerized one. The main reason is this: The people who do the process no longer can improve it.

With a chart and a grease pencil, the team owns the process and readily understands the (non-) technology behind it. If they find a better way, it is easy for them to make an improvement.

Bury the process in a computer and you take that away. All the team can do is blindly execute whatever the programmer thinks should be happening. Programmers are smart people, but they generally do not have to execute their process hundreds of times a day. Maybe a few times – or even a few days – for testing, but not day after day. They do not, and can not, see the small issues that accumulate to become aggravation.

Before you introduce a “high tech” solution into your work area, think long and hard.

EXACTLY what is the current situation? EXACTLY what standard of performance is not being met by the current process? EXACTLY what are you trying to achieve? Remember that “automating the process” is a countermeasure, and that a “manual process” is not a problem. Let me say that again: If your problem statement says “Process is manual” then you do not yet understand the problem, and there may not BE a problem. What, exactly, about this manual process does not meet your expectations?

If the problem is that the process is labor-intensive or cumbersome, then you are getting closer. But jumping to automation still is not appropriate here. Have you carefully studied the process to see why it is labor-intensive or cumbersome? Have you looked at every step, every motion, and evaluated:

  • Why is it necessary?
  • What is the purpose?

Don’t know? Then that step is a candidate for elimination as pure waste.

  • Where should it be done?
  • When should it be done?
  • Who should perform this step?

These questions give you insights that let you combine operations. Administrative processes, especially, are full of redundant work – people looking up or entering the same information at different times in different places, or copying information from one place to another. Your goal is to take the remaining operations, the ones which passed the “Who / What” test and rearrange the steps into the best logical sequence, with the right people doing them.

  • How should this task be done?

Take the remaining steps and simplify. Make the job easier and quicker. Jigs, fixtures. In administrative processes – forms, templates. Find sources of error and mistake-proof them. Work out the method.

When you are done with all of this, then take a look at what is left. NOW, if there is a problem that has not, or cannot, be solved within the existing context you might consider an automated solution as one possible countermeasure… but don’t reflex there, unless you want to turn your kaizen over to programmers.

Last Thought – what about those great metrics the automated system can collect? Question: Do they pass the “Who Cares?” test? What is your plan to use those measurements to know where you are, and are not, performing to your standard? What is your plan to use that information to target improvement activity? Keep in mind that you cannot get performance simply by measuring it, any more than calculating your fuel mileage makes your car drive further. The purpose of measurement is to compare What Should Be Happening vs. What Is Actually Happening so you can compare your results against your predictions to see if the process is working the way you expect it to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *