5S and Workflow

This company launched their focus on continuous improvement with a 5S campaign. Teams were set up, had the basic 5S training, and met with their management sponsors weekly.

One team was having problems getting past the initial “sort” phase of clearing out unused stuff. They struggled with setting up any kind of visual controls, for example.

A couple of months ago, we focused on their workflow for introducing the PDCA improvement cycle (“kata”) to the area supervisor.

We were using a combination of observation of the actual work, running tabletop simulations to develop things to try out, and live experiments in the work area as we ran rapid PDCA cycles throughout the days. We were after concentrated reps so they could practice.

They still struggled until we finally got the tabletop simulation to flow. The supervisor “got it.” She said “Oh…. I can see the big picture now.” She had been bogged down in the details, and hadn’t been seeing that they could improve their productivity dramatically by slowing down to the planned cycle time.

Once they had a target work cycle, they then tackled obstacles that were in the way of making real life work like what they had simulated, working them one by one.

Along the way, they saw a need to make “what to do” visual, and build it into the work area itself vs. just “telling then” or (probably worse) writing some kind of procedure.

Suddenly 5S had purpose. It was to help communicate what to do next, and to help see if “what is happening” is different from “what should be happening.”

The key learning is that this is really difficult if you haven’t thought through “what should be happening” first.

This team is now has the highest 5S score in the company… because 5S has a purpose.

I came across this old fable again recently.

So much of it applies to the improvement culture – especially if you run your equipment all the time to “maximize your output”

Once upon a time, a very strong woodcutter asked for a job in a timber merchant and he got it. The pay was really good and so was the work condition. For those reasons, the woodcutter was determined to do his best.

His boss gave him an axe and showed him the area where he supposed to work.

The first day, the woodcutter brought 18 trees.

“Congratulations,” the boss said. “Go on that way!”

Very motivated by the boss words, the woodcutter tried harder the next day, but he could only bring 15 trees. The third day he tried even harder, but he could only bring 10 trees. Day after day he was bringing less and less trees.

“I must be losing my strength”, the woodcutter thought. He went to the boss and apologized, saying that he could not understand what was going on.

“When was the last time you sharpened your axe?” the boss asked.

“Sharpen? I had no time to sharpen my axe. I have been very busy trying to cut trees…”

In the real world, this kind of decline happens much more slowly.

And it happens well beyond the context of equipment and maintenance.

If you don’t work to continuously improve your processes, they are degrading. You can’t just “standardize” your way to stability.


Good Leads Are Critical

When we did the first “Toyota Kata” based kaizen event here a second shift lead came up and told me “I’ve been working here 34 years and this week I learned what my job is.”

In most companies leads are expediters charged with forcing product out of the process when the system breaks down.

As we have introduced better flow into this process, things generally work better for overall output, but obstacles still occur.

The leads now assume a critical role for daily kaizen. They are the nerve endings for the entire production process. They are the ones who see the issues when they are small.

We are working with them this week to develop their skills to see, and capture those issues – the rough spots where the production team members struggle a bit to get things working; or where the team needs to bypass the intended process flow to make things work.

By helping them see the difference between smooth flow and rough flow, we are increasing the sensitivity of those nerve endings, and starting to flush out more sources of unplanned variation in a process with a fair amount of part and cycle variation.

At the same time, we are working with the core shop floor leadership team running then through PDCA cycles to develop their skills for improving flow.

What is kinda cool is that it is working, and the linguistic patterns (which reflect thought patterns) are shifting.

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. Macys.com 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?

Production Planners in a Lean World

Many organizations have a centralized production planning function that would undergo a radical change in a transition to pull.

I know many of you have experienced this type of organization, some have transitioned it.

We have a fledgling exchange on the topic started in the discussion forum.

I would like to invite more participation there on the topic. If you have comments or insights, how about putting them there.


Multi-Tasking vs Waiting

What would you say if someone came to you with a proposed work plan for the day that looked something like this:

  1. Work on task A for two hours. Then stop and set it aside (incomplete).
  2. Pick up task B. Work on that for three hours. Then stop and set it aside (incomplete).
  3. Pick up the work on task A for one hour. Then stop and set it aside (incomplete).
  4. Now start task C. Work on that for one hour. Then stop and set it aside (incomplete).
  5. Finish work on task A.

How would you, as a manager, respond to someone who proposed that kind of work plan? Does it seem efficient to you?

Intuitively, at least to me, it would seem that constantly disrupting people’s work like that would be inefficient, would introduce chances for errors and omissions, and generally make it difficult to know what was going to be done, when.

Of course, nobody (I hope) deliberately plans the work day to look like this.

Yet it is commonly tolerated. By “tolerated” I mean “We know this happens, and we choose to do nothing about it.”

Here is what it sounds like in real life:

“Even if there are problems (shortages, etc), our people can just work on something else instead, so there isn’t any real productivity loss. What’s the big deal?”

Put another way, people are already multi-tasking, they have more than one thing to get done, so as long as they are working on something, production isn’t really stopped, is it?

But more important than all of the chaos that gets injected into the process when this happens, is the lost opportunity.

By tolerating work disruptions, simply because there is something else to do, you are also choosing to do nothing about the work disruptions. Perhaps you simply accept that it is part of people’s jobs to work around the failures in your systems and processes. However once that is anchored as the norm, you never even find out about these issues. Each one adds a little more drag on the system, and they accumulate.

Contrast that with the “chatter is signal” message that is at the heart of continuous improvement. With this thinking, each of these work disruptions provides a bit of valuable information that can be acted upon. Yes, you may very well decide to set the work aside and work on something else as a temporary countermeasure, but management takes on two responsibilities by doing that.

  1. You are responsible for resetting the normal pattern as soon as possible – and for monitoring the process closely until that happens. Put another way, you (management) are responsible for clearing the problem.
  2. You are responsible for managing the problem to solution – ensuring that the cause is found and eliminated. This does not mean that you solve the problem personally. Quite the opposite. Nobody learns when you do that, and though the system may improve, the people’s capabilities do not. No, you are responsible for coaching someone who might not be quite capable today through the process of finding the cause and countering it.

So you have a choice.

Tolerate the disruptions and expect people to work around them. Result: The friction in the system slowly by steadily increases until all of the little issues accumulate into a big one like “Late Orders.”

– or –

Treat the disruptions as valuable information telling you something you did not know when you set the system up. Some issue came up that was not countered. You found a weakness, now you can strengthen it the system and your team.

Either way, you decide.

Expedited Boarding

Airlines have procedures to board from rear to front. They do this, they say, because it allows faster boarding. This makes intuitive sense, though I have never personally tested it.

The alternative is the “all rows, all seats” call with everyone boarding in random order.

With that understanding, why do airline gate agents consistently call “all rows, all seats” when the plane is running late and they are trying to make up time?

Posted from seat 12F, Delta 1510, 15 minutes after scheduled departure.

Public Announcement – Copiers and Privacy

This has nothing to do with lean thinking. I am just using my public forum here to make people aware of an issue that needs more attention.

According to this story:


photocopiers maintain a copy of every copy, every fax, every scan, every image on a hard drive. The images are not encrypted – or at least not protected against anyone with an IQ above 65 and a computer.

Think about the copier at your doctor’s office, your HR department, even the office copier you used to copy your personal papers or your tax returns.

When you go to Kinkos and use their copier… where does the image go?

Remember that most copiers today are also on the internet.

Start asking, and being aware, of who copies what where.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Are You Working to Takt?

What do your team members do when they complete their work cycle?

– Stop and wait until the takt time expires and the next takt cycle begins? Are you sure? How do they know when the next takt cycle begins? How do they know if they have completed their work cycle early? How early is simply “problem free” vs “leaving something out?” Do they know?

– Go ahead and start on the next unit? If this is the case, do you really think your team members have a sense of the takt time unit-by-unit? Or is your “takt time” just another way to say “work as fast as you can until we get the daily schedule done?”

What are the consequences for each of these approaches for daily kaizen and continuous improvement?

10% Off Coupon from LEI

The Lean Enterprise Institute is offering 10% discounts in their book store, and is asking bloggers to pass that along. I am happy to do so.

To use it, people just go to the Lean Enterprise Institute’s online Store at  http://www.lean.org/Bookstore/ and enter THANKYOU09 in the discount code field at checkout. The offer is good through Jan 31, 2010.

As 2009 winds down, I look back at a year that presents me with many opportunities for reflection. I am working on a couple of posts as a result.

Thank you all for your gift of “listening.”