The Problem with “Best Practices”

This post was inspired by today’s Dilbert cartoon:

“Best practices” usually means copying the mechanics of what successful companies do, and trying to shoehorn them into your processes and culture.

For example, lots of companies “benchmarked” Toyota for decades, and never really gained understanding of the underlying culture and thinking.

Other companies, even today, struggle to try to find working examples of improvements applied to their exact industry and circumstances.

This is an especially deadly combination when they have a culture where experts (or their bosses) provide the solutions, and they simply have to carry them out. Where creative thinking has been effectively stamped out (at least around how the business is run), it is hard to get people to quickly embrace what “empowerment” really means.

Dogbert is selling a quick fix that doesn’t require the client to engage in struggle, hard work, or learning to think for himself. (In the case of THIS client, that is probably appropriate. Winking smile )

I’m going to resist the temptation to add a lot more to this one right now.

Happy New Year.

The Weird Stuff We Notice

Monday and Tuesday I had lunch in the client’s facility.

I had the same sandwich, prepared by the same worker each day.

Monday he put the mayo directly on the chicken salad, on his left.

Tuesday he put the mayo in the other piece of bread on his right.

Then I smiled at myself wondering why on Earth I even noticed that, all the while conversing about something unrelated.

Note to self: get brain checked and turn down the gain a bit.  🙂

TSA Kata

Robert Heinlein observed (through the HOLMES IV computer character in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) that “humor” often centers around the misfortune of others. I’ll make this little story topical by hypothetically applying the “coaching kata”…

This wasn’t me, just something I witnessed. If only people would apply PDCA to real life… If I were coaching this guy, it might go something like this:

“What is your target condition?”

“To get to the gate for my flight.”

“What is your current condition now?

“In the TSA security checkpoint.”

“What obstacle are you addressing?

“The TSA wants to do a secondary screen on me, delaying my passage through the checkpoint.”

“What was your last experiment?”

“I raised my voice and became indignant, accusing them of not knowing what they were doing.”

“What result did you expect?”

“That they would understand they were wrong, and let me pass.”

“What actually happened?”

“A lot more TSA agents showed up, along with a police officer.”

“What did you learn?”

I think the trajectory is pretty clear from this point…

Travel Tales

One of the advantages of having a business performance blog is I have a ready place to rant complain share my customer experiences with the air travel industry.

It all started Monday. I had a flight from Seattle to Raleigh-Durham NC, connecting in Newark. It was only a two day trip, so I was traveling pretty light.

As we were boarding the 737 the bins filled up fast and everyone forward of about Row 15 was required to check their bags all the way to the destination. “We apologize for the inconvenience” (after pointing out how it was the customers’ fault because they had offered a chance for people to volunteer to check their bags, and not enough people did.)

OK, I checked my bag through to RDU. (Forshadowing)

Once on board, the pilot let us know that there were air traffic control delays enroute, but we were going to pull away from the gate anyway, and park on the tarmac until cleared. (This, by the way, lets them get credit for an on-time departure.)

That wasn’t too bad, only about 10 minutes. “We apologize for the delay.”

As we got to about the Great Lakes, the plane banks left. And banks. And banks. The shadow is gliding over the engine cowling, and returns to its previous position, the plane levels off. Yup, we just did what they call a “racetrack.”

Then we do another.

And another.

And some more.

We land at precisely the time my connecting flight is scheduled to depart. Not gonna make it. “There will be an agent waiting at the gate. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Well – maybe everything is delayed, and I can still make the connecting flight. It wouldn’t be the first time I have lucked out that way.

Nope. Well, not quite. It hasn’t left because the plane never left RDU. Flight cancelled. “Head down to Customer Service at Gate 105.”

Wait in line, pretty surprised actually. Rebooked on a 7:32 flight, delayed to 9:51. Ugh. Got a few hours in the airport. “What about my luggage?” “It will be on the plane with you,” I was assured. More foreshadowing.

9:51 comes and goes. No plane. We’re told the inbound plane is enroute. OK.

I am having a nice chat with the pilot for our eventual flight to RDU. He is actually quite interested in the TPS. “Can you do this with airlines?” he asks, half seriously. He asks for a card. I know enough about aviation to have a very articulate conversation with a pilot about planes, flying, and the business, so that was nice. “No, I am not a pilot,” I answer his question,  “but working at Boeing Flight Test for five years, you learn a thing or two about how airplanes work. I know what all the noises are.” He smiles.

Woo hoo. A plane shows up. Bombardier –8 Q400. We board.

And wait.

And wait.

11:15pm The (other) pilot gets on the P.A. and explains that they are overweight and working on how to handle it. He goes on to explain that due to the fog earlier in RDU, they have extra fuel on board. Further, the alternate airport is back at Newark. (Which means they need enough fuel for a round trip PLUS the reserve.) We wait. 11:45. A passenger (two, actually) volunteer on their own to be “bumped” to a flight tomorrow. Apparently that “solves the problem.” But the pilot had mentioned that part of the excessive load was “excess baggage from an earlier flight.”

“We apologize for the delay.”

“We are just as frustrated as you are.”

I should mention at this point one of the games that gets played here. By declaring the departure airport as the alternate airport, the airline can either land the plane at RDU with enough fuel for the return trip, or return it all the way to Newark and avoid a deadhead ferry flight from an alternate landing if they can’t make it into RDU.

At midnight the propeller begins to turn.

It is about a 90 minute flight.

I glance out the window and notice the propeller spinner is now white at the tip. Leading edge of the wing also turning white. In my brain fogged state I start thinking about this airline’s last accident.

We land at RDU at 1:40 or so. The airport is pretty much buttoned up except for us.

Head down to baggage claim. A few bags come out, then the sign flashes from “unloading” to “completed.” There are twenty people still waiting.

I was one of them. It seems that a lot of the passengers on the plane were the ones whose baggage was left behind because it was just bags from an earlier flight.

Our little cluster heads over to the airline’s baggage office. There are two people there, and it clear from their body language (and verbal language for that matter) that this was not in their plans for the evening. We customers with no baggage have, apparently, really inconvenienced them.

It turns out that, of the two, only one of them “can operate the computer.” so they are processing one person at a time, with a cycle time of roughly 10 minutes per person.

The non-computer one comes out. People ask her when they can expect their luggage to get here. She, in an annoyed “I already-told-you-I-can’t-do-anything” tone carefully explains that only her computer-literate co-worker can find out, and only when they scan the ticket and search for things on the computer.

She asks if we would like the 800 number. Sure. She goes into the office and comes out with the number written on a scrap of paper and reads it off while people try to type it into their phones. (Tape it up on the window? Nah.)

I manage to get through, “All of our representatives are currently serving other customers.” (Yes, I can actually SEE them right now.) “The wait time is approximately TWENTY minutes.” I am reminded multiple times that all I need to do is go to www.(Houston based airline name).com, click here, click there, enter this, enter that, and I can do all of this myself. Not exactly helpful in an airport terminal at 2:15am.

A human answers. She asks for my case number. Huh? I have the baggage claim number. It seems she is actually there to handle follow-up rather than initial calls. Nevertheless, she is very helpful, takes my information, and offers to authorize me to spend $75 if I need to buy something for my client meeting in the morning. “Thank you,” I say sincerely, and laugh with her that there isn’t a lot I can buy at 2:30 in the morning.

Head for the rental car counter. I still have a 90 minute drive ahead of me.

The only thing in the “Emerald Aisle” is a big pickup truck. I don’t feel like taking it, so I go into the office. A very nice gentleman at the National counter is surprised about the number of people showing up all of a sudden, I explain a late arrival. He asks if I want an SUV, I said sure, he tells me where it is.

I get in, start it up, punch in my hotel address into my phone (I LOVE Android GPS), and start out. Once I clear the gate, there is a 20 mph speed limit, and one of those radar signs that says how fast you are going. I see the sign, and immediately slow down. My speedometer is dropping down under 40, as the radar sign is dropping down under 20. Huh? Take a good look through the foggy brain. Kilometers Per Hour. Yup. I have a Canadian vehicle. So driving through rural North Carolina having to run metric conversion in my head. No big deal, but the final irony.

I arrive at the hotel at 4:30. The night clerk is on the phone, “Just a minute sir, they are doing an night audit.” I mention that I have been on the road for 22 hours. She takes the hint and interrupts the auditor to check me in.

4:45, I get to the room, take a shower, and settle down for my 75 minute nap before meeting my client in the lobby at 7am for a great day on site.

Good news – the suitcase showed up the next day.

Of all of the places that I have “gotten ahead of my luggage” this was actually the least exotic. The last three were Berlin, Glasgow and Tunis. Danville, VA just doesn’t seem that exciting by comparison.

So this was 20 hours of hearing airline employees begin every other statement with “we apologize.” (Except the baggage claim people who were quite UNapologetic). I suppose this was catching up with the law of averages for a series of very smooth and uneventful travel adventures lately.

What if a key airline performance metric was how many times their employees use the words “we apologize” during a given day? If they actually meant it, the number should steadily decline.


Hopefully the flight home will be less of an adventure.

All humor aside, this experience revealed a couple of obvious breakdown points.

First, I normally try to avoid any connection in the NYC area. The airspace is just too crowded for things to work under less than ideal conditions. But faced with the client’s requirement to use their travel booking, and unable to gerrymander arrival / departure times to force a decent fare-competitive alternative out of the system, I kinda had to take this one.

Let’s talk about the baggage thing. At the departure airport, we have the aircraft service process that loads fuel, calculates weights, generally gets the plane ready for a safe flight within regulatory guidelines (and consistent with airline economic objectives).

We have a separate process that takes luggage with “RDU” tags and loads them onto a plane headed for RDU.

And yet another process for getting the passengers manifested and loaded.

I surmise that there are three separate processes here because there were ample opportunities for cross-process communication that obviously did not happen.

The pilot was apparently surprised by the overweight condition. Yet the airline knew, hours before the plane even arrived at the airport:

  • How much fuel they planned to load.
  • How many passengers they planned to load.
  • How much luggage (and, if they really wanted to, the weight of that luggage) they planned to load.

What if they started to work the problem of overweight condition before just tossing the problem into laps of the newly arrived flight crew?

Based on the way the pilot spoke of the “excess baggage” it was not clear to him, or the gate agent, that the “excess baggage” belonged to the “excess customers” that were on the plane. I am not sure if that knowledge would have made any difference if they knew they were flying people without their bags, but at the minimum it would have set up a far more appropriate process at RDU.

As you recall, the baggage office at RDU was surprised (and apparently annoyed) that all of these passengers showed up, and now they were understaffed to deal with them.

Imagine, if you would, an alternate scenario.

The airline KNOWS which passengers are on board the plane. They KNOW which bags are on board the plane. (This is a true statement.)

What if their system cross-correlated bags with passengers.

What if, upon flagging the condition where they had a passenger in a seat, but no luggage in the hold, they notified the baggage office at the destination airport.

What if, upon receiving this information, the airline’s employees, using information they already have in their system, traced the bags and made plans.

What if, upon arrival at the destination airport, those passengers were greeted by name. What if “Mr Rosenthal, we are sorry, but your luggage didn’t make the flight. It is still in Newark. If you let us know where you are staying, we will get it here on the first available flight in the morning and have it delivered. Is there anything else you need?”

The net effect would have been the same, the airline would have done what they ended up doing anyway, except the customers would have received a little empathy. No extra cost, just a little more service. The baggage claim people could have gone home two hours earlier, and although inconvenienced, the customers might be left with the impression that somebody actually cared.

But, for those of you who remember the old Saturday Night Live Steve Martin Theodoric of York skits – First the soliloquy about how wonderful a situation could be then the punchline:  “Naaaaaaah.” as he returned to his medieval ways.

Oh – and I finished reading the Liker book I have been discussing, so look for a couple of more write-ups and then an actual review as I get some keyboard time.

Year of the Dragon

forbidden-city-dragon-200-squareHappy New Year for the Year of the Dragon to all of my Chinese friends around the world.

January 23 is the New Year. This message is timed to appear at midnight, Beijing time, as the fireworks are reaching a crescendo.

I look at the time I spent in China as a period of great personal growth and learning.

As a bonus, I got to know the culture, aspirations, conflicts and the fabric of life there.

The relationships from that time still impact my life in very real ways every day.

Flow Assembly of a 30 Story Building

Though I have some reservations (see below), this video shows a lot of good examples of flow for final assembly – only the assembly line is vertical, and the product is a 30 story hotel.

The video actually repeats twice, once with a music sound track, then a second time with no sound.

The Good

All in all, this is pretty impressive. Let’s look at the good examples that you can incorporate into your own thinking.

First, the product is designed for quick and easy assembly from the get-go. The engineers thought through how it would go together as a core part of their design process. There was no “throw it over the wall and figure it out” here.

The design itself is very modular. Detail work is done off-line in the “feeders.” This is how you want to set up an assembly line – the backbone (main line) is installation of “big chunks” that are assembled and tested in the feeders. This helps stabilize the work on the main line.

The assembly itself was flowing. Each floor progressed subsequently through the assembly stages as more stories were being added at the top. Contrast this with the more common approach of finishing the frame, then batching the various trades through.

What We Don’t Know

It is clear that this was done as a stunt. They did a good job. There are, however, legitimate questions about how, or if, the work was organized to surface and deal with quality issues. What was the line-stop process?

There are also legitimate questions in the building trade about the long-term stability of foundations and structure that does not have time to settle as it is going up. Building that go up fast can come down fast.

We truthfully don’t have enough information to make a judgment here, but I want to acknowledge those concerns as realistic whenever we see something like this.

Apparently those issues are unfounded. I admit I was repeating what I had read elsewhere. I am certainly not an expert. (See comment below)

Still, it is really cool so I wanted to share it as a good application of flow thinking.

Will Kodak Be Here in 2013?

This is of no particular interest to anyone but those of us who spent time working “in the yellow box.”

Tonight the Megamillions jackpot is $206 million dollars.

Eastman Kodak’s (at $0.69 / share) market cap is $186 million.

Though Kodak is mostly known as a (former) consumer products brand, today most, if not all, of its strength is in commercial graphics and printing where it is a clear leader.

The question is whether or not they have (or can raise) enough cash to downsize the company to fit its market, and whether or not their management realizes that is what they (in my opinion at least) have to do.

Lest you think about winning the lottery and buying the company, consider these two tidbits:

  • There is a recently enacted “poison pill” clause in Kodak’s corporate charter that lets them issue stock faster than you can buy it.
  • The above is wholly unnecessary because anyone who buys the current company also inherits the Kodak Park site in Rochester which, for all intents and purposes, has been an industrial chemical facility for the last 120 years or so.

I learned a lot during my time at Kodak. I had pretty decent access to the highest levels in the company, and experienced the process of some really tough decisions that were being made. To be known by face and name to top level corporate executives and people working on the shop floor is a rather unique perspective. Going back, knowing what I know now, would I take the job again? Without a doubt.

When I first interviewed there in December 2002, I grasped the implications of Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma immediately when I asked a simple question: “How much are you feeling the impact of cell phone cameras on your business?” The people I asked didn’t grok the question, much less the answer. Two years later, cell phone cameras were listed as the #1 displacer of one-time-use cameras. Today they are displacing consumer grade digital cameras in general.

There is no doubt with anyone that events in the next 4-6 months are going to answer the question in the headline of this post.

A Customer Experience Story

This has nothing to do with lean production except at the touch point of the customer experience.

Mrs. LeanThinker was looking for a replacement for her well-worn 5 quart stock pot. We were in Macy’s home department browsing.

She found one she really liked, a Circulon Symmetry model, full retail $140, sale priced at $69.95. Only this one was a brown color, and she wants black to match everything else she already has.

“Does this come in black?” A reasonable question.

“Yes” was the answer.

“Can you get it?”

“Let me check.”

The answer was that, yes, they can get it but because Macy’s didn’t stock it, they would “have to” sell it at full price. They do, it was offered, match online prices except Costco and Amazon.

We fired up the Droid, got online, and found this (click the image for full size):


See the second line there?

That’s right. has the same item at the “sale” price.

So Macy’s ended up price matching to their own web site. Oh – and they are shipping it to our door for no extra charge. Go figure.

Some things I just leave in the “perplexing” column. Yes, I know, they are two separate business streams and all, but really?

Then there is the Best Buy debacle that is brewing. Cancelling Black Friday orders on people three days before Christmas, but offering the item they ordered at full price in the store? I’m guessing there are lawyers involved faster than you can say “class action.” Where were the lawyers when the decision was made? What were they thinking?

Don’t Lose “How To Make Things”

One of the catch phrases in the Toyota culture is “the art of making things.” Everything I have read, and everyone I know who has worked there suggests that “making things” is a passion there that goes beyond a means to make money.

In today’s finance / MBA driven world, I think too many companies are losing sight of the difference between truly creating value vs. simply gathering wealth. They are not the same.

The “makers” of the world are the ones who are creating the incredible breakthroughs we are reading about every day. Making things is a skill that must be practiced, nurtured, focused. With the pace of technology today, the second you are complacent, you are obsolete.

But that isn’t what I am writing about. I want to discuss the consequences.

A company that works to truly create value has to grasp the process of doing so. They have to continuously seek to understand better ways to do it. They gain competitive advantage not merely from making things, but from improving how they make things. Their focus for improvement is a drive toward building the deep skill within the organization.

Finance driven organizations build different skills. They become skilled at developing accounting models, and analyzing them. And those skills may very well serve them for a long time.

But something is lost. When a company’s understanding of its own manufacturing technology becomes superficial, they may very well still make money. The question is whether or not they retain the ability to achieve a breakthrough when one is necessary.

A number of companies out there are well known for a key product breakthrough. Often, though, behind that key product’s success is another breakthrough that enabled that product to be produced economically.

On the other extreme, many a breakthrough invention has failed in the marketplace, not because it was a bad idea, but because the inventor couldn’t make them.

If you are a company that creates value through the conversion of material into products to sell – manufacturing – take a long hard look at the process of making. Are you experts? Do you, or could you design and build your own production equipment? Those skills, that knowledge, once gone is extraordinarily difficult to rebuild.

The alternative is to becoming beholden to the open market’s ability to meet your needs. This might well work if you have a superb relationship with those suppliers. Most companies don’t.

What is your competitive advantage? How do you create the value that is the foundation for all of your profits? How well do you understand that process? Can you fix it when it breaks? Are you making it better every day? Or are you counting on tomorrow being like yesterday?

SME Annual Meeting, Bellevue, WA

I got a call this morning asking if I could fill in for a speaker who couldn’t make it.

If you are going to be at the SME Annual Meeting in Bellevue, WA this coming week, I’ll be at the Sunday program, and speaking at 10:00 on Tuesday morning.

I’m still putting it together, but the basic topic will be “Making Improvement Continuous” – Driving the Cultural Shift.

Let me know if you are going to be there.