Just a Few Seconds

What is a few seconds of delay? Why is it such a big deal?

Consider this example.

While touring the Pilsner Urquell brewery in (surprise!) Pilsen, Czech Republic, we saw a lot of really good information boards, general organization, and a clear management commitment to continuous improvement.

Their packaging plant produces 60,000 bottles of beer an hour. Even though they produce “bottles of beer” this is more of a process industry than a discrete product industry. Most of the operations are highly automated with human supervision, rather than human operated. So do the principles of “lean” apply?

Partly, it depends on your definition of “lean.” If you subscribe to the most common partial definition, where “lean” is a set of tools, then most people would struggle finding relevance to the context. On the other hand, if you look at this as a structure for the work, the work place, and the organization to drive out and solve problems – then you are in comfortable territory here.

While those machines are largely automated, they do occasionally have problems.

Those problems can be seen as a disruption or slowing of production. But in a large complex operation, many times these things are subtle and hard to pick up.

If you are running a process industry, consider these questions.

What is your nominal, expected rate of throughput at each and every critical juncture in the plant?

How do you know you are achieving that rate?

What is the threshold of slowing or disruption that will get your attention?

Remember, we want to look at “chatter as signal” here. While failure is a common condition, it is not a condition we ignore.


This conveyer is coming out of the carton machine. Bottles go in. Flat cartons go in. Glue pellets go in. Cartons of beer come out, at a pretty good clip.

While we were there, though, a carton was mangled. As it got just downstream of this spot, the line was stopped. I don’t know if it was an automatic or a manual stop – I would hope it was automatic.

A couple of team members pulled the carton out, and re-started the line.

The line was stopped for 32 seconds.

Count how many cartons of beer go by in 32 seconds. Subtract that from the day’s production. It isn’t one mangled carton, it is almost 60 cartons of beer that will not be made today.

Sitting next to our mangled carton was another one, presumably from earlier in the shift.

120 cartons.

“Stop and respond to every deviation.”

Why did the line stop? Because the carton was mangled. Good call.

Why was the carton mangled?

Again – this is an operation bordering on world class, but I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. They could be doing everything I mention here. So please look at this as an opportunity for a hypothetical example.

This is the kind of problem that executives often decide is not worth solving. It is, in the grand scheme of profit and loss, floor sweepings.

Hopefully that is not the case at Pilsner Urquell. I honestly don’t know. But what I do know is I can estimate that a couple of pallets of beer never get made each day as long as this problem persists. If a thief stole two pallets of beer from the warehouse every day, security would be all over it.

In a “lean” operation, though, we pay attention to these things. Just a few seconds matter. Why? Because those few seconds are what stand between the current condition and a target of more production with no more capital equipment.

In a process industry, that equipment costs big, big bucks. So now we are talking, not about a case of beer, not even about a little problem, but rather the fact that if there is a systematic approach to dealing with these little problems we might be saving many millions in future investments.

How reliable and consistent is the equipment and machinery in your operation?

Do you carry out regular maintenance checks? How do you know? Is there a way to verify that those checks were actually made – or at a minimum, verify that someone had to go to the place where they should be done? How do you know? It is one thing to have the pretty pictures in notebooks or on a board. It is another to have a physical check of some kind.

If you can verify those checks are being made, great. That is standard work. You have created a working hypothesis:

“If we carry out these checks, and this routine maintenance, at these times, in this way, then we will never be surprised by a stoppage.”

Of course you will be wrong. Unexpected slowdowns and stoppages are going to happen. But in our lean world, chatter is signal. Being wrong tells us something we didn’t know when we created those checks. That unexpected failure or breakdown had some kind of precursor that we might have prevented, and certainly should have seen. So we set up the process to immediately detect a slowdown or stoppage and let us know. We verify that the checks have been made, and then look at what we must change about them to cover the new insight we have.

Maybe this time we are only saving a few seconds. But it is really impossible to measure the effects of problems that do not occur.

If you are overrun by these problems, deal with the ones you can, maybe just a few every day, but deal with them in the right way, using thorough problem solving to the root cause. Be able to answer the question “What did we learn about our process here?” with something that you didn’t know previously.

Just a few seconds, but just as you save sixty seconds to save a minute, those seconds add up. At the very least, know what is happening out there. Go and see.

One Reply to “Just a Few Seconds”

  1. Thank you for this insight. Gosh, there are so many lost minutes and hours here where I work I hardly know where to start my journey.


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