What Is Your Takt Time?

If you are the “lean manufacturing expert” you probably know. But what answer do you get if you ask the question in the work area?

Here is a quick diagnostic for you: Go to the shop floor and ask a supervisor, “What is your takt time?”

A reply of “Huh?” is pretty self-explanatory. Either the entire concept hasn’t reached this area yet, or if it has, the day to day variation and disruption renders the concept moot. A couple of follow-up questions can quickly discriminate.

A common reply is the daily output number (e.g. “14 units a day”). Although this shows understanding of a daily production requirement, “14 units a day” does not necessarily translate to “7 units before lunch” much less “a unit every 30 minutes.” This Team Member is still thinking in terms of total output, even if every unit has to be reworked in the last hour of the day. Obviously this is better than reworking every unit in the last week of the month though.

I have also had Team Members do the calculation in their head. They know how to calculate takt time, but don’t use it. This is pretty common when takt time is something that is only a factor during formal kaizen “events” that are run by someone other than the supervisor. I would imagine that standard work is also something that is a “kaizen event thing” rather than daily management as well.

Ideally though, anyone on your shop floor has the takt time embedded in their thinking. If the immediate reply is “28 minutes” then the follow-up question is “how are you doing?” At this point, you can begin exploring how well they use the takt time to manage variation and problems.

What is your takt time?

Getting A Plant Tour

A couple of days ago I wrote about how to host a tour. Here are some thoughts on how to get one. As always, I’d love to hear your comments and experiences.

Don’t expect your hosts to change your “cement heads.” I have had requests from groups who wanted to send their “resistant managers” to our factory so we can show them things that will change their minds. Doesn’t work. Sorry, that is your job. My experience is that people who don’t want to see the benefits will always find all of the things that are “unique” about their circumstance, and special case reasons why the other place is doing so much better.

Go to learn, not to look. In my last post I made reference to “industrial tourists.” Those are groups that are more interested in the layout and clever gizmos than in the thinking behind them. They are, at best, looking for ideas and technical solutions to their problems. Copying others’ solutions is not thinking.

Going to learn is a different attitude. When you look at a layout, or other technical solution, ask yourself this: “What problem does that solve?” How does it save time? How does it remove variation from the process? What did the operation look like before they did that? Force yourself to think in four dimensions. Not just what you see now, but what it would have looked like in the past. WHY did they do this?

Although many people think lean manufacturing is counter-intuitive, I think that with this line of thinking you will find it actually is just common-sense solutions to the problems that everyone has, every day.

Nobody is perfect. Even a Toyota plant has obvious issues. If you end up fault-finding, you will miss the good stuff. I was touring a Toyota plant with a group a couple of years ago and it had obviously slipped. This is old news, and one of the reasons for their internal back-to-basics approach. But two things came to light: The rich visual controls made it easy for total strangers on the 1 hour tour to SEE the difference between “what should be” and “what is.” Wow. Try that in YOUR factory. And, reading the news stories, it was a problem they were taking very seriously and doing something about it vs. not noticing the deterioration and just letting things go.

Every plant has issues. Some have great material flow and pull systems, but only average problem solving. Others have a great technical base for home-grown tools, fixtures and machines. A few have great problem solving (They seem to be doing better than others.) Take in what is working, and what is holding them back. What would be the next problem they are working on?

Pay attention to the people. People are the system. How do they interact with the physical artifacts (layout, machines, etc.) An operation that has their stuff together will have people who are obviously comfortable with the pace of work. It will be obvious they get support when there are problems.

Don’t ask too many questions. What? Aren’t you there to learn? Yes. But try to learn with your eyes first. Even if you are moving, “stand in the chalk circle” and see the problems and the solutions. Sharpen your observation skills before you take the tour. Practice in your own plant. When I am hosting visitors and we have the time, my response to a question is to show them where to look for their answer, then ask them what they saw.

If allowed, make sketches. Most operations will have a prohibition against photographs. Even if they allow photos, however, you will capture much more if you stand and sketch what you see. You don’t have to produce a work of art. The purpose is to force your eye to pay attention to the small details. You will see much more through the eyes of the artist than you will through a camera.

Remember they are in the business of production, not consulting.
“Be a good guest” and remember that everybody there has a real job.

Edit 5 Sept: And Jon Miller correctly pointed out something I missed:

Give Back. You will bring “fresh eyes” to their environment and see things they do not. Everyone suffers from a degree of blindness to the familiar. If you are really going to see and learn, you will gain insights that can help your hosts in their own improvements. Ask them the questions that will help them see what you see.

Giving A Plant Tour

When one of my operations at “a previous company” started to really show some results, they began to get a lot of requests for tours from other groups. Obviously they are not in the business of giving tours, and these requests were beginning to impact on their time. Here are some guidelines I gave them based on my experience at the previous, previous company. 😉

Separate the groups who are really interested in learning from the “industrial tourists.” This is easy to do. At the first email or phone contact simply ask them “What do you want to learn about?” People who are serious about learning will have something specific. If they say “Everything” you probably have industrial tourists – a group that wants to see, but not study.

Develop a standard 1 hour tour with a script and teach all of your supervisors to give it. When industrial tourists show up, give them the 1 hour tour send them on their way, and they will leave happy and excited.

What about the others? The ones who aren’t industrial tourists?

Turn them over to your very best kaizen leader. Spend as much time with them as you possibly can. Customize the time to meet their learning objectives. Confirm what you plan to do with them, and verify that is likely to work for them. While they are there, check continuously. Make sure all of their questions are answered, even the ones you had wished they didn’t ask. Better yet, show them what chalk circle to stand in so they can see the answers for themselves.

Why do all of this? Because these are people who are trying to learn, just like you. Your leaders have everything to gain through interacting with a truly curious group. They will ask questions you haven’t thought of. They will see things that, due to your daily familiarity, you have overlooked. And most importantly, you will work to build the community and extend the spirit of learning to one more organization.

Hopefully they will remember the experience and do the same thing when someone asks to come and study them.

Do Your People Solve the Problem or Work The System?

This article by Anita Tucker and Amy Edmondson at Harvard highlights a problem that is as common on the manufacturing floor as it is in the hospitals they studied:

When people encounter a problem that stops their work, they work the system, get what they need, and continue their work.

A lot of people call this initiative, and most organizations reward this behavior. Many of those organizations have actual or implied negative consequences for bringing up an issue that “you could have solved yourself.” Unfortunately this behavior only accomplishes one thing: It guarantees that the problem will occur again.

What is the big deal? Simple. Small problems accumulate. They do not go away, and more come into play every day. Eventually the Team Members are overwhelmed by “too much to do.” Supervisors press for “more people,” the organization grows in size, and the cycle continues. In health care all you have to do is spend an hour talking to harried nurse to know all of the things that keep them from providing patient care.

Go stand in the chalk circle on your own shop floor. What things keep your Team Members from doing their jobs?

Standards Protect the Team Members

One of my kaizen-specialists-in-training just came to me asking for help. The Team Members he is working with are not seeing the need to understand sources of work variation.

I hear that a lot, both in companies I have worked in and in the online forums. Everyone seems to think it is a problem in their company, their culture – that they are unique with this problem.

The idea of a unique problem is variation on the “our process / environment / product is different so ____ won’t work here.” Someday I will make a list of the standard management “reasons why not” but that isn’t the topic of this post.

I told him:

  1. This is not unique to China, or to this facility. The same resistance a always comes up, and nearly always comes up the same way once the Team Members begin to realize we are serious.
  2. There is no way to just change people’s minds all at once.

Here is something to explain to the concerned Team Members: The standard process is there to protect the team member. If there is a problem, and the standard process was followed, then the only focus for investigation can be where the process itself broke down. Countermeasures are focused on improving the strength of the process.

If, on the other hand, the process was not followed (or if there is no process), then the team member is vulnerable. Instead of the “Five Why’s” the investigation usually starts with the “Five Who’s” – who did it? Countermeasures focus on the individual who happened to be doing the work when the process failure occurred.

As you introduce the concept of standard work into an area that is not used to it, it is probably futile to try to tighten down everything at once. The good news is that you really don’t have to.

Start with the key things that must be done a certain way to preserve safety and quality. If they are explained well and mistake-proofed well, there is usually little disagreement that these things are important.

The next step is to make it clear that the above are totally mandatory. If anything gets in the way of doing those operations exactly as specified, then STOP. Do not just work around the problem, because doing so makes you (the Team Member) vulnerable to the Five Who’s inquisition.

If you focus here for a while, you will start to get more consistent execution leading to more consistent output, which is what you want anyway.

Then start looking at consistent delivery and all of a sudden the concept of variation in time comes into play. Why was this late? The welder ran out of wire, I had to go get some more, I couldn’t find the guy with the key to the locker…… Go work on that. At each step you must establish that the point of all of this is to build a system that responds to the needs of the people doing the work.

Don’t Lose Sight of “Why”

I just finished responding to a post on lean.org where the poster was struggling a bit to justify moving two sequential operations together vs. the proposed simple solution of adding conveyance from one to the other. I thought it would be worth a bit to think that through.

In a previous post “Sticky or Slick”, I admitted struggling a bit myself trying to capture the “lead story” of the Toyota Production System, the one sentence core principle that could guide decisions. I still think it is close to “Structuring the organization and the work environment to harness people’s creativity to save time.

Let’s apply that logic to this situation. Now obviously I have not seen this operation myself, so I have no idea about the work breakdown, the cycle times, the nature of the work elements, so I am going to make up opportunities that illustrate the point.

I believe the key point that gets lost here is that, in 99% of the cases, you are not moving operations closer together. You are moving operators together. You are improving material flow with the purpose of creating better people flow. The TPS is about people. Specifically, it is about organizing the work and the work place so the people can make improvements that save time and make a difference.

If two operations operators team members who are performing sequential operations are separated in space or time, then although each can work to improve her own individual work, the results don’t pass the “so what?” test. “I reduced my work cycle from 10 minutes to 7 minutes.” So what? Now you are idle for 3 minutes. You still need to be there. And it is usually beyond the technical wherewithal of a shop floor team member to automate himself completely out of a job. Since they cannot reduce cycle time to zero, there is no net difference.

But now you have a problem to solve:
This person is idle (the waste of waiting). What must I do so he has meaningfully work?

Changing the layout is now the obvious countermeasure.

To turn this “problem” into true kaizen, create or improve flow by placing those two operations very close together. Now the magic happens. As each team member works to save time (or as they work as a team), they can also continually re-balance their work so at least one of the two is still loaded close to the takt time. Eventually they reach the point where one of them can perform both operations, freeing up the other. Even if this does not quite happen, by always consolidating the wait time onto one person, that person can take on more tasks assuming they are within reach. If they are not within reach, then move them closer together and facilitate more kaizen. Changing the layout is a countermeasure, not the objective. It is a countermeasure to the problem – the waste of waiting.

The “why” of putting things close together is to give the workers the power to improve their own work and the total flow of the system. The side-benefit of doing this is that you reduce inventory and save time. People’s time, throughput time.

Structure the work and the work place so the people who do the work have the opportunity to improve the system in a meaningful way.

The cycle of kaizen:

  • Attack overproduction so other wastes are revealed.
  • Convert other forms of waste to the “waste of waiting.”
  • Adjust the work balance, and then the physical flow to eliminate the waste of waiting.

If you do it in the other order – attack the waste of waiting first, the only way a team member can remain busy is through overproduction… and overproduction is bad. Very bad.

and.. after a couple of months and several dozen posts I finally added the category “kaizen” for this one. I am not sure why it took so long.

The 3 Elements of “Safety First”

When we talk about safety, most people consider the context of accidents and injuries. But if we are to achieve a true continuous improvement environment, where everyone fully participates, we have to consider more.

A good way to sum it up is with three elements that all start with ‘P.’

1) Physical Safety

This is what most people think of when we say “safety is the most important thing.” But, aside from the moral, legal and financial imperatives, what are some other reasons why physical safety is important?

Simple. We want our Team Members 100% engaged in performing their work and improving it. We do not want any of their precious mental bandwidth consumed by worrying about whether or not they will get hurt.

This is a far cry from the “blame the victim” approach I have seen. Root Cause of Accident: Team Member failed to pay attention. Countermeasure: Team Member given written warning.”

A few years ago I was painting my house. I will tell you right now that I am not fond of ladders. (Go figure, I spent three years in the 82nd Airborne, you’d think I would be over it.) There I was up near the top of an extension ladder painting the eaves of the roof. I can tell you that I was paying a lot more attention to staying on the ladder than to where the paint was going. The quality of the job suffered, for sure.

The truth is that a physically safe environment is more, not less, productive. Ergonomically bad motions take more time than good ones. Well designed fail-safe’s and guards prevent quality issues and rework. An even, sustainable pace of work reduces disruptions upstream and downstream. Good lighting lets people catch quality issues and mistakes sooner. Reduced noise levels foster communication. High noise isolates people in invisible bubbles.

2) Psychological Safety

Can your Team Members freely share problems and ideas free of concern for ridicule or rejection by their co-workers? Or is it safer for them to keep to themselves? Do you know who the natural leaders are? Do you know who the influencers are? Do you know who the bullies are? Do you know which line leaders people are afraid of? Which co-workers? Don’t kid yourself, it is only the truly exceptional team that does not have these issues. And most teams that move past these issues become truly exceptional. It is something called “trust” but that is just another way of saying “feeling safe being vulnerable.”

3) Professional Safety

This is a deceptively simple concept. The Team Member is not put in fear (real or implied) of losing his job for doing what is expected of him. That sounds so simple. The really obvious example is the Team Member being asked to contribute to saving cycle time (and therefore, labor) when he knows unnecessary people lose their jobs. But it goes further.

How often do we expect, by implication, people to short-cut The Rules in order to get something done more quickly? Sidney Dekker has authored a number of books and publications focusing on human error as the cause of accidents. One of his key points is that within any organization there are The Rules, and a slightly (sometimes greatly) lower standard of the norms – the way people routinely do things. The norms are established by the day-to-day interactions and the real and implied expectations placed on people to get the job done.

Well meaning Team Members, just trying to meet the real or perceived pressures of everyday work take shortcuts. They do it because they feel they must in order to avoid some kind of negative consequence.

At this point you can hopefully see that these three elements blur together. The work environment and culture play as much a part in a safe work place as the machine guards and safety glasses.

All of these things, together, set the tone for the other things you say are “important” such as following the quality checks (when there is no time built in to the work cycle to do so), and calling out problems (when halting the line means everybody has to work overtime).

One more point – everything that applies to safety also applies to quality. The causes of problems in both are the same, as are the preventions and countermeasures. Do you use the same problem solving approach in both contexts? More about simplifying your standards sometime in the future.

Is Your Lean Implementation Sticky or Slick?

My posts about “Made to Stick” and visual controls created some interesting responses on Jon Miller’s Gemba Panta Rei blog, so I want to continue the great dialog. Jon asks the great question “Is your lean deployment made to stick?” and extends the context from just visual controls to the entire concept.

Of course this level of thinking is the author’s intent in the book. I’d like to ask you, the reader and change agent, some questions that might help you see if you are obscuring your own message.

What is core message of your implementation?

The words “vision” and “mission” are so worn out today that people are cynical. And with good reason. By the time the board rooms are done with wordsmithing, there is no content left.

When I was growing up, current events in the USA were dominated by two stories:

  • The war in Vietnam.
  • Sending people to the moon.

Both were major undertakings and consumed a lot of talent and resources. Consider the core message for each.

Vietnam: Bad things will happen if we leave.

The Moon: “…achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon, and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Which is those is “sticky?” Which one captures the essence of True North so that everyone just knows not only what we are trying to do, but how they can contribute?

Take JFK’s commitment and put it in the language of a typical corporate mission statement: “We will be a world leader in space exploration.” Yawn. How will we know when we get there? Exactly. It is a very safe goal since it allows redefining success at any point.

Kennedy’s commitment is simple, concrete, credible, emotionally appealing, and made a hell of a story. How does yours stand up?

But we so-called “lean professionals” are by no means off the hook.

What is the core message of the TPS?

That is a little tougher to get to. Why? My theory is that we “professionals” are all cursed with what Heath and Heath call “the curse of knowledge.” We understand the nuances and details of how all of the pieces fit together. The question is: How much of that wealth of knowledge passes the “So What?” test. What is the lead story?

When you start talking about takt time, work sequences, cycle times, kanban loops, andon signals, painting lines on the floor, all of the so-called “tools” of the TPS, do people’s eyes glaze over? What ties it all together? What is the central theme, the core message?

I’ve re-written this paragraph about a dozen times. How can we get it down to Herb Kelleher’s “Southwest is the low-fare airline” (p 29 in the book) and not lose anything?

I think, at its fundamental core, the Toyota Production System is “A structured work environment which captures people’s creativity and focuses it solving problems every day.”

The next line in the story: “All of the tools, techniques, principles that people associate with the Toyota Production System are simply the best currently known mechanisms to surface problems, or they are the best currently known countermeasures to common problems.”

Nope, that is still to complicated.

The Toyota Production System structures the organization and the work so that people can solve problems to save time.

That comes closer. I think a test question: “Does that save time?” (without compromising safety, quality or the customer in any way) would usually discriminate between a good idea and a bad one.

Readers – there is no way on Earth (or the moon) that I have got this right, or even close, sitting here in a Beijing apartment at 11pm on a muggy Saturday night. My challenge is: in one sentence, as direct as “The low-fare airline,” capture the core message of the TPS in a way that guides decisions toward True North.

Next – your training.

Most of us use some kind of training materials. Question: Does each topic have a lead? Does it build the story? Does it tie to the top story? As you go into more depth, are the interconnections more and more apparent? Do you tie everything back to the TPS Lead Story? Failure to do these things decomposes the system. It gives people the impression they can pick and choose the tools vs. understanding that they all are doing the same thing in different contexts. It implies there is some kind of set-piece sequence of implementation.

Are your examples concrete? Are they things people can go do?

Do you build a shared experience base by telling stories? Or do you deliver abstract, cold, analytical bullet lists of “the three elements of standard work?” Who cares? Obviously they are important, but how well do you communicate exactly why balance to the takt time contributes to the effort of surfacing and solving problems?

OK – it is late, and I am rambling. I hope I have provoked a little thought.

I originally titled this piece “Is Your Lean Implementation Velcro or Teflon?” But Velcro Industries has enough challenges protecting their trademark without me making it worse.

“Sticky” Visual Controls

The textbook purpose of visual controls is “to make abnormal conditions obvious to anyone.” But do your visual controls pass the Sticky test, and compel action?

Simple: Does your control convey a single, simple message? Or does it “bury the lead story” in an overwhelming display of interesting, but irrelevant, information. According to Spear and Bowen (“Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System”) information connecting one process to another is “binary and direct.” The signal is either “On” – something is required of “Off” – nothing is required. There is no ambiguity.

Take a look at some of your visual controls. Do they pass the test? Do they clearly convey that something needs attention, or is that fact subject to interpretation?

Unexpected: Why would a visual control need to be “unexpected?” Consider the opposite. Who pays attention to car alarms these days? Yes, they are annoying, but because they so often mean nothing, nobody pays attention to them. We expect car alarms to be false alarms. If your visual control is to mean something, you must respond each time it tells you to. If it is a false alarm, you have detected a problem. Congratulations, your system is working. But it will only continue to work if you follow-through: STOP your routine; FIX or correct the condition; INVESTIGATE the root cause and apply a countermeasure. All of this jargon really means you must adjust your system to prevent the false alarm. Failure to do so will render the real alarm meaningless. It will “Cry Wolf” and no one will take it seriously.

Concreteness: Is it very clear? Do people relate to what your visual control is telling them? Does the Team Leader know that the worker in zone 4 needs help, and that the line will stop in a few minutes if he doesn’t get it?

Credibility: If the condition is worsening, does your visual control show it? Does it warn of increased risk? A typical example would be an inventory control rack with a yellow and red control point on it. Yellow means “Do something” Red means “You better start expediting or making alternate plans because you are going to run out.” Setting the red limit too far up, though, sends out false alarms (see unexpected), and eventually everyone “knows” the process can eat a little into the red with no problem. Why have yellow? What visual control can you put at the yellow line that tells you someone has seen it and is responding to the problem? (Left as an exercise for the reader.)

Emotions: How does your visual control compel action? Does it penetrate consciousness? A few words of warning on an obscure LCD panel aren’t going to mean very much unless someone reads them. How do you get the attention of the person who is supposed to respond? “He should have paid more attention” is the totally wrong way to approach missed information.

Stories: I really connected with this one. Stories are a great way to teach. Simulations are interactive stories. When teaching the andon / escalation process in a couple of different plants we divided the group into small teams, gave them a real-life defect or problem scenario and had them construct a stick-figure comic book that told the story of what would happen. That has proven a great way to reinforce and personalize the theoretical learning.

I will admit that these analogies can be a bit of a stretch, but the real issue is there. Visual controls are critical to your operation because they highlight things that must compel a response.

Your system is not static, or even really stable. It is either improving continuously through your continuous intervention, correction and improvement based on the problems you discover; or it is continuously deteriorating because those little problems are slowly eroding the process with more and more work-arounds and accommodations.

Go to your work area and watch. What happens when there is a problem or break in the standard? What do people do? Can they tell right away that something is out of the ordinary? How can they tell? For that matter, how can you tell by watching? If you are not sure, then first work to clarify the situation and put in more visuals. That will force you to consider what your standard expectations are, and think about responding when things are different than your standard.

Made To Stick

Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath have addressed head-on one of the biggest problems with implementing change in people’s thinking and behavior — crafting the concept in a way that makes it compelling.. “sticky” in their words.

The book is an extension of the concept described in Gladwell’s The Tipping Point which outlines “stickiness” as one of the things required for an idea to catch on and spread.

Read this book, then take a look at your presentations and training materials, and compare the messages with the examples in the book. Make an honest assessment:

Is your message:

Simple? Is the core concept immediately apparent?

Unexpected? Does it come across in a way that compels retention?

Concrete? Do analogies and examples make the concept something people can see, touch, feel in their minds (or even better, physically)?

Credible? Does it just make sense?

Emotional? Does it appeal to people’s feelings, or is it “just the facts” with cold analytical presentation.

Have stories? Does the presentation include experiences people can visualize?

Other books on organizational transformation, like John Kotter’s Leading Change talk about the critical importance of creating a sense of urgency, creating a vision, communicating that vision, but Made to Stick goes further and gives you tools to actually make sure your message gets across in a way that compels people to act differently.