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.

Pronouns of Ownership

As we push line leaders to the forefront of being the “continuous improvers” I am learning to listen to their language about problems.


He / She
Him / Her
His / Hers

Who owns the problem or removing the obstacle?

The “first person” group tend to be far more proactive, and successful, at dealing with issues; where the “second and third person” leaders are satisfied once they can assign an obstacle to something outside of their immediate, personal control. They are even disconnecting themselves from their own team (if you can call it a team in the first place).

The “first person” group are quicker to get into a mode of curiosity and learning.

The “second and third person” group are generally satisfied with a superficial understanding. I find this group most frequently in cultures where leaders are primarily concerned with being able to explain the reasons for problems.

The Simplest “Lean Audit”

I’m sorting through some old files, and just tossed a 20 or so page “lean audit” from some consultancy into the recycle bin. Like most of them, it tries to gauge the maturity of the organization by the depth and breadth of their implementation of a packet of “lean best practices” – the tools.

What I am interested in, though, is gauging maturity of the thinking and interactions, the culture.

If I ask a typical supervisor what he or she is working on right now for process improvement, what kind of answer will I get?

Does that supervisor’s boss give me the same answer? Are they coordinating and talking?

Ultimately, it comes down to the shop floor’s perception and answers to questions like:

“What are you trying to achieve?”

“Where are you right now?”

(If these look like the generic coaching questions that Mike Rother talks about in the video clip a couple of posts down, you’re right.)

The context of the answers to those questions tells me a great deal. Is it daily survival / firefighting? Or is there something they are striving for to make things better?

Even if the supervisor is engaged in daily firefighting, there is still some kind of target (usually making the production numbers); some kind of current condition (which may be clear, or may be just a judgment).

So I am curious now about what he sees as the problems and obstacles in his way of success.

“What kind of issues are keeping you from hitting your target?”

Then just listen. Whatever he says is the right answer, because I am interested in his overall perception.

Is the response from someone who is positive and feels supported, or besieged and left on his own?

Then, based on those responses, I might or might not get curious about his improvement activities. If he isn’t engaged in any, I’m not going to try to make anyone wrong, I am just trying to understand what is.

On the other hand, if there are improvement activities, then I am curious to know what he last tried, and learned, and what he plans to do next.

What kind of collaboration do I hear about?

What is the sophistication of the targets, the challenges, the experiments?

THOSE are the things that tell me how “lean” a company is… not whether or not they have uniform label colors on everything.



Motivation, Bonuses and Key Performance Indicators

I have posted a few times about the “management by measurement” culture and how destructive it can be. This TED video by Daniel Pink adds some color to the conversation.

Simply put, while traditional “incentives” tend to work well when the task is rote and the solution is well understood, applying those same incentives to situations where creativity is required will reduce people’s performance.

We saw this in Ted Wujec’s Marshmallow Challenge video as well, where an incentive reduced the success rate of the teams to zero.

This time of year companies are typically reviewing their performance and setting goals and targets for next year.

It is important to keep in mind that there is overwhelming evidence that tying bonuses to key performance indicators is the a reliable way to reduce the performance of the company.

Notes From a Kaizen Event

I was cleaning out some old stuff and came across a folded piece of paper with notes on it. They were from my parting comments to a kaizen event team that had put in a great week with spectacular results. They had started out wanting to improve the delivery of WIP to and from the warehouse.

When we went to the shop floor to see the current situation, what I saw was much more opportunity. It took a little work, especially with the area manager, but by the end of the week they had gone from needing 5 work cells with 6 people each – plus more to meet the holiday seasonal production – to 4 production cells with 5 people each, that could comfortably meet the rush. Not bad for a week’s work.

That’s the background.

When I look at old notes like this, I am always comparing what I knew then with what I know now. Now and than I turn up something that gives a hint that I knew what I was doing.

These comments were as much for the rest of the audience as they were for the team members themselves. After all, they knew what they did, and were fully aware of what they had to do next. But the other teams, and their collective bosses, needed to hear it as well.

  • Wow – great team. You caught flow fever early in the week and ran with it. You make me look like I knew what I was doing – thank you.
  • You connected the operations into a smooth flow.
  • Now you can begin the process of kaizen. Stick with it, stay on the shop floor, and work to stabilize the work. Many problems will come up. Help the work teams learn how to see them and solve them.
  • If you can save, and stabilize, a quarter of a second every day, in three months you can get another 20% of productivity. Think about that – and do the math for yourself.

What made this work?

First and foremost, we had the operational manager there, fully participating. He was skeptical at first, but once I sat down with him and went through his production requirements, step by step, he began to see things in terms of takt times and production leveling rather than just quantities to push out the door. That was a big shift.

The other big thing was having  the team work off line for a few hours to construct a mock-up of a “typical” work cell. Then, without worrying a bit about the takt time, work to minimize the cycle time of one person going through the complete cycle. They learned for themselves that to save time you must study motion. We went through three or four cycles of granularity – every time they thought they had “the” solution, we introduced another tool to see the next level of extra motion. Through this exercise, they gained confidence that it was entirely possible to make a dramatic improvement in the “optimal layout” that they already had.

After that, it was a matter of getting to work. They watched the actual operators, and now could see the excess motions that were being driven by the way the work was arranged. They started making little adjustments – always being respectful of the workers. “We’d like to try something different here, just to see if it works better for you. May we just try something?”

That “May we try this?” attitude introduced something into the dynamic that doesn’t show up often enough – humility. Rather than these managers saying “We’ve got a better way, do it like this.” they were saying “We really don’t know if this will work or not,” and asking not only permission to try, but for input on whether it worked, or how it could work if it wasn’t quite there.

A lot of changes got implemented, but there was no arguing or friction because everything was just an experiment to see if it would work or not.

In the end, I saw something I had never seen before – the manager put in a budget request for a reduction, because he knew he could  get it done with less, or at least figuring out how was within his reach.

That scrap of paper reminded me of a pretty good week.

Remembering NUMMI: Gipsie Ranney

Gipsie Ranney is a consultant with The Deming Cooperative.

A white paper she recently wrote, contrasting NUMMI with The Big Three, has been circulating by email. I requested, and received, her permission to publish it here.

Remembering NUMMI

Gipsie B. Ranney
January, 2009

The discussions of a bailout for the U.S. owned auto industry – The Big Three – and the recommendation that a czar be named to oversee them so that they don’t waste U.S. taxpayers’ money has led me to think about an experience I had in the early 1990s. I had the opportunity to tour the New United Motor Manufacturing (NUMMI) factory in Fremont, California. Thinking back on that experience has led me to wonder how much good an injection of cash would do.

Much has been written about Toyota’s production system, but my observations on that visit may help to shed additional light on the differences between Toyota and The Big Three and what the likely outcome of attempts to cure what ails The Big Three may be. As you probably know, NUMMI was established as a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota. Middle management personnel from GM were sent to NUMMI to spend time learning about how Toyota did things. The tour I made was conducted by some of those GM employees. As I understood it, the GM employees who were sent to NUMMI were required to write at least one white paper about what they had learned. Rumor had it that only a few people back in GM ever read those papers and employees who came back to GM from NUMMI found themselves unable to get back into the career progression at GM, so there were few who volunteered to go after the initial volunteers. This led me to believe, after my visit, that perhaps the best opportunity GM would ever have to learn something useful was being thrown away.

Before the tour, I didn’t think I was going to see anything remarkable. I thought I would confirm my belief at the time that all The Big Three had to do was get busy on improvement and all would be well. I came away shaken by what I learned. The most important things I learned were about thinking. Toyota clearly thought differently about producing vehicles. Whether they have maintained these ways of thinking in spite of opportunities to be diminished by adopting the practices of The Big Three will have to be answered by someone else.

Before the Fremont factory had been turned over to NUMMI, I was told it had the worst record of management/labor conflict of any U.S. automotive plant. Now, management/labor conflict was nearly non-existent. Further, I was told that among the assembly plants connected to GM, the NUMMI factory (since Toyota entered the picture) had the best quality record, although it had the worst quality record of any Toyota assembly plant. It was my understanding that the top management of the NUMMI factory were Japanese, as were the engineering staff.

The first area we visited in the factory was the incoming materials warehouse. This warehouse was devoted to parts and materials supplied within the United States. Of course, the warehouse had visual controls. There were areas painted on the floor with signs over them that said how much of what items should be there. As I recall, supplies came into the warehouse on a four-hour cycle; that is, suppliers shipped enough of an item to last for four hours. These supplies would be on their way somewhere in a new vehicle in four hours. This was part of the JIT (Just in Time) materials supply system that has been copied throughout the U.S. (I was amused at the time by ads I saw in airline magazines offering to warehouse a supplier’s parts and send them JIT to their destination. This was a new, more expensive version of the push system for production and management of inventory that I suspect still exists.)

The answer to a question asked by someone else on the tour was stunning to me. The person asked what kind of computerized inventory system they had at NUMMI. The leader of the tour at the time – a materials management person – responded, “we don’t have one; the Japanese say that computerized inventory systems lie.” I was somewhat familiar with inventory at Big Three factories. Huge inventories of component parts were maintained. It sometimes took days of shut down to do a complete physical count of inventory. We were told that NUMMI could do a complete physical count in four hours – that made sense, since that was generally all the inventory that was there except for parts shipped in from Japan. Why the huge inventories in Big Three factories? Partly because the production system was a push system – vehicles were built to satisfy sales forecasts that were often overly enthusiastic, and partly because the parts were there Just in Case. If there was a failure on the production line, there needed to be lots of spare parts to keep production going. I had heard horror stories about production lines that were halted for lack of parts that were the right size, even though there were hundreds of thousands of parts – of the wrong size – in inventory. I had consulted with several companies that had a very difficult time matching up the records of inventory in their information system with the actual physical inventory. That is, the computerized inventory system contained “lies.” They spent a lot of time and effort trying to decide what the correct numbers were. As a result of the design and operation of their production and supply systems, NUMMI was able to avoid the expense of the computerized record system and the expense associated with management of huge inventories. Whatever was spent trying to keep the records straight and keep track of where the parts were in Big Three factories was not being spent at NUMMI.

A friend commented that he believes the material flow system used by Toyota may provide their biggest competitive advantage. In American manufacturing systems, one of the first steps in providing for material needed to produce a product is to create a Bill of Material (BOM) based on the design of the product. The BOM lists all of the parts needed; for example, a car needs one engine, four wheels, one catalytic converter, one steering wheel, two headlights, and so on. When the production of one car is planned, the BOM is used to order all the parts needed to produce the car. When the parts arrive, the appropriate electronic records of inventories are altered accordingly. Then when the car is produced, the BOM is used to delete the parts used from the inventory records. This is known as “backflushing.” Engineering changes involving changes to part content of a product should lead to corresponding changes to the BOM. When this doesn’t happen accurately or soon enough, use of the BOM and backflushing leads to accumulating errors in inventory records and incorrect orders. The result is computerized inventory systems full of “lies.” One company expects to save approximately ninety percent of the cost associated with inventory by switching to Toyota’s Kanban system. My friend pointed out that the Kanban system is self-correcting and does not require the labor hours, elaborate information systems, and inventory expense associated with traditional systems of material management. Another friend pointed out that many of the practices Toyota uses to manage material may have been adopted by The Big Three. That may be the case, but this example illustrates differences in purposes, concepts, and questions, and therefore methods, that can exist in organizations’ approaches to their work.

Use of the traditional approach to materials management and the consequent cost of inventory leads to distraction of the management that prevents them from addressing issues of greater importance to the future of the enterprise. The statement, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” has become a mantra for American business. But, as a friend has observed, when one decides to measure something and attaches a meaning to the measurements, one has framed the questions to be addressed and defined suitable answers. NUMMI had no interest or need to keep detailed records of inventory. They had changed the question from “how do we manage inventory and reduce inventory cost?” to “how should material flow through the system?” The Big Three could gain great benefit from asking themselves what the important questions might be. I have often wondered how often managers of American businesses fall into the trap of using existing measures for no other reason than because they are there – required by regulation or for tax reporting purposes, rather than deliberately choosing indicators that will help them manage. Questions should precede answers.

At NUMMI, some automobile components were imported from Japan. One of these was the engine. Another person on the tour told us that a materials director at the engine division of a Big Three company had just issued an edict that the purchase price of every part being supplied from other divisions and outside suppliers had to be reduced by exactly the same percentage in the next year: ten percent. While touring the area where engines were inserted into the vehicles at NUMMI, the tour guide related that the Japanese had evaluated the importance of every engine component to the proper functioning of the engine. He said that they would then attempt to reduce the purchase price of components that were not as important while they invested resources in improvement and perhaps paid a higher price for components that were critical to reliability. The contrast between the foolish edict to reduce the prices of everything by the same percentage and the intelligent consideration of functionality and reliability of the product was another example of a difference in thinking – Toyota’s approach being far more mature.

In the stamping area, we learned that the same approach was used to design and build the dies that were used to stamp parts of the vehicle body. The material used on the surface of the die was very expensive, but extremely hard, while the other parts of the die were far less expensive than what was used in US companies. NUMMI’s dies served longer and were, overall, less expensive to build. These two examples illustrate the notion of optimizing an entire product system in terms of cost and performance, rather than sub-optimizing by trying to minimize each individual component’s up front cost. These are different ways of thinking about purpose and method.

At the time I visited, the NUMMI factory was not highly automated in terms of the use of robots. We saw robots helping factory workers put the seats in vehicles. We were told that robots were not used in the factory to replace workers; they were used to assist workers when the work was physically very demanding or difficult. I was reminded of a Big Three assembly plant where robots were installed to replace the welders who welded the frames of vehicles together. After a short time, the robots were removed and replaced by humans. The reason was that there was so much variation in the components coming in to be welded that the robots got confused and were making pretzels instead of frames. The human welders had been adjusting to that variation for years.

The replacement of people by machines is a favorite method used in the U.S. to affect accounted costs. However, direct labor is often the least expensive per hour kind of labor in a company. Machines must be maintained (or should be) and the software associated with automation and other computer operated equipment must be revised to accommodate changes in production processes. The labor expense associated with these activities is often more expensive per unit time than direct labor. Some of these expenses even show up as engineering or information systems expense. Sometimes, humans are needed instead of automation run by software because they are more adaptable and more easily maintained. The more complexity in any production system, the more opportunities there are for failure. The point here is that choices made in the design of a production system must be considered from a total system viewpoint, rather than from a simplistic, accounted cost viewpoint. I understand that Toyota’s new U.S. factories are highly automated. I would expect them to have been sensible about the design of these systems and to consider the possible consequences of their choices.

Lots of attention is paid to the cost of labor, and labor cost has been a favorite excuse for lack of competitiveness. But the options for ways to be non-competitive are limitless. I was told that one of The Big Three required that measurements on approximately 1200 “key indicators” were required to be reported to the central administration monthly. There were probably thousands of people accounted for in overhead doing the work to make those reports. There were not enough executives in the central administration to review all those numbers and probably a rare few of them knew what to make of the numbers if they did review them.

There is no question that existing obligations are major factors in the financial problems The Big Three are having. It is interesting that the big focus is on organized labor and the obligations for benefits to salaried retirees are not discussed nearly as much. The UAW certainly isn’t lovable, and the concessions they have obtained in terms of pay and benefits have been enormous and seriously detrimental in the long run. But one question keeps coming to my mind with regard to those concessions. Did the UAW simply issue an edict that there would be concessions? Of course, the answer is no. It takes two to make a contract and the management of The Big Three agreed to those contracts with the UAW. Surely there was someone in the management of each company that did some computations to see what the concessions would cost the company in the short term and the long term. I suspect that there was an extreme desire each time a new contract was negotiated to avoid a strike. After all, a strike would happen right away and would affect that year’s bonuses, but the consequences of the concessions would come to roost in the future and it would be more difficult to find someone to blame.

The central administrations of The Big Three tend to issue edicts to their organizations about what performance is expected. An edict issued in one of the companies stated that warranty cost was to be reduced by fifty percent this year to next year. The design and testing of a vehicle and its components takes several years. Major redesigns are not done every year. Major components are often carried over from one year’s vehicle to the next. The designs of vehicles and production systems for next year were already completed. How could such a reduction be achieved? Obviously, the individuals responsible for the edict were not thinking clearly about the constraints the nature of their business placed on performance. Of course, one “reason” for high warranty costs that regularly surfaced was that the dealers were cheating. So the edict to cut warranty cost by half may have been aimed at making the dealers behave.

Are we beginning to see a pattern here? Problems that are assigned to suppliers, direct labor, and dealers as sources of non-competitiveness appear to me to be manifestations of what Peter Senge called “The enemy is out there.” According to this view, some of the problems of non-competitiveness that are due to poor thinking and poor decision-making are ignored and the blame for all problems is assigned to some other group. If in no other way, we could all follow Michael Jackson in this regard and “start with the man in the mirror.” Reflection on one’s own role in one’s situation is difficult, but seems to be critically important to avoid repetition of the same mistakes.

I have not discussed what I saw in production at NUMMI in any detail because Toyota’s production system has been analyzed many times. One aspect of NUMMI that I thought was very important was management of the labor force. We learned that direct labor on the production line had secondary jobs that they were supposed to do if and when the production line stopped. They would do various equipment maintenance tasks and cleanup tasks. My understanding of Big Three direct labor is that production workers have no responsibility for maintenance; they have quotas for a shift’s production, and when they complete their quota they can go sit in the cafeteria or find a place to sleep. The management of NUMMI was able to negotiate an agreement with the UAW that enabled the assignment of auxiliary tasks to workers, but apparently the management of The Big Three were not.

As I understood it, there were work groups in production at NUMMI that rotated among different jobs in an area. There were levels of qualification that could be achieved by an individual worker for each job in the area. As a worker gained more training and experience, he or she was able to move up to the next level of qualification. The highest level of qualification was “teacher” or “instructor” or something similar. The work groups had improvement projects that they worked on. Their tasks involved improving the quality of the output of their area, or improving efficiency, or making the work easier to do, or all three. If they were able to demonstrate that their ideas for improvement were good, they would be implemented. As I saw it, these aspects of the organization of work helped to enable people to be engaged and to have a sense of contributing to their joint enterprise. At times, there may be too much focus on the technical aspects of the Toyota production system (lean, JIT, …) and not enough on the culture. The commitment that comes from personal pride in one’s work is a critical, but unmeasurable, aspect of any employee’s contribution to the enterprise.
The most remarkable insight I gained at NUMMI came as an answer to a question from a member of the touring group. The person asked what had been learned about the reasons that management/labor conflict had been reduced so much. The tour guide answered, “The answer we get from members of the labor force is that the Japanese do what they say they will do.” This was the same labor force that had held the record for most grievances filed per year in an assembly plant in the U.S. To me, this says a great deal about trust. There are circumstances in which you can trust a manager to be generous or kind or helpful; there are circumstances in which you can trust that manager to be harsh or intolerant of certain behaviors. In both cases, the manager who can be trusted to behave as you expect may be preferable to a manager who is unpredictable and cannot be relied on to provide the resources you need to do a good job. Some consultants imply that all managers need to do is to be nice to people and everything will be O.K. I doubt if that is sufficient.

Several months ago, I remarked to a person who deals with 401K investments in a very large financial management company that I didn’t think investments in American car companies would be a good idea. He remarked that I was wrong since they were coming out with some great new products that would be fuel efficient. I don’t think he knew very much about the nuts and bolts of building cars and trucks. The new products would at first only be a drop in a giant bucket. It takes years to develop and test new vehicles and to retool factories to produce them. The Big Three had equipped themselves to continue producing SUVs and other fuel guzzling products that were becoming more and more unattractive as gas prices shot up. As a friend remarked, redesigning a car is not the same thing as redesigning the label on a soup can. Equipping a production line to build a car is not the same thing as printing a different label. Of course, this may change in the future as more flexible factories are built. The point of my rambling here is that the press and Congress are talking about redesigning the automotive industry in the U.S. when I suspect very few of them are qualified to do that. I think it would be preferable to have members of the Toyoda family do it – wishful thinking, I’m sure.

After World War II ended, Toyota had, or created for themselves, the luxury of taking time to think, to experiment, and to learn with the conscious aim to improve their capabilities. If The Big Three were not in such a state of emergency, they could profit by asking questions aimed at sustainability and improvement, such as: What is important to our customers? (This requires actual research, not just speculation or the use of company mythology.) What kinds of changes do we expect in the future that might change what our customers need and value? What changes do we expect that will impact our ability to serve the needs of our customers? How can we improve our relationships with our suppliers and our customers? How can we make our work easier or simpler? How can we design the work so that it flows better? What products or processes need improvement? How can we improve the interactions that take place between departments? How can we more wisely use performance indicators and the information they provide? As it is, The Big Three seem not to have the luxury of careful thought.

The Big Three, and the entire international automotive industry, are in deep trouble at the moment. They are certainly not responsible for some of the trouble they are in. But The Big Three are responsible for managing their organizations wisely. I think that will take more than money. It will take a different culture and a different mind.

Span of Support vs Span of Control

One of the popular buzzwords floating around out there right now is "servant leadership." Like all buzzwords, it is easy to say, and easy to subjugate.

One of the best terms I have heard that helps set the thinking is "span of support." Normally leader-to-lead rations are discussed in terms of "span of control." By saying "span of support" instead, the entire concept is turned on its head.

That makes it much more clear that the job of the leader is to ensure his or her people have what they need to succeed, to help them clear problems, and develop them professionally.

“Certifications” – Buying Credibility?

There has been an uptick in chatter about “lean certifications” in various forums lately. For anyone considering getting some kind of certification, I’d like to pose some things to think about, especially before you pay a lot of money to someone to “certify you.”

There is no standard definition of what “lean” is. Anyone claiming to certify you in “lean” is simply certifying to their own standard.

Toyota does not “certify” people. They mentor, they train, but do not “certify.”

Anyone making a big deal over calling themselves a “sensei” probably isn’t. There are a few exceptions, mostly people who spent 15+ years working directly for Taiichi Ohno, or perhaps some next generation people. The term “sensei” in those cases is one of respect, not a title or defined level of understanding.

There is no test you pass to become a “sensei.”

It is, in my opinion, totally impossible to demonstrate the necessary knowledge and skills with any kind of written exam. It is much more about how well someone interacts with people to teach and guide them through solving problems than it is knowing how to calculate takt time of a feeder line.

How good a certification looks on a resume depends on who is reading it.
I suppose there are hiring managers out there who buy this. I have certainly seen more than a few “Help?” posts by people hired for expertise who don’t know how to break down a value stream and figure out where to put a pacemaker.

When I am reviewing resumes of someone claiming lean expertise, I look at the whole story. A “certification” means you have gotten some formal education, but doesn’t tell me you can actually put any of it to use. I will use that certification as a starting point for questions. My questions try to draw out:

How did you learn this stuff? Are you still learning? Or do you think you already know it all?
I will try to get you to tell me some stories about how you have taught people, and what you learned in the process.
I will ask questions trying to draw out your understanding of jidoka, andon and problem solving as critical components to the management system. What I am looking for here is where you are on a continuum of understanding from “implement the tools” to “creating a deep culture.”

A certification, by itself, does not add to or detract from your credibility – unless you come in believing that “being certified” automatically means “being qualified.” If that is the case, you probably didn’t make it in the door, and if you did, my bullshimeter is likely to peg about 90 seconds into the interview. I’ll keep at it, because sometimes people don’t know what they know and I give the benefit of the doubt for a long time, but if a “certification” is all there is, then there really isn’t much.

On the other hand, if you are looking for your own professional development, and look at a program for what it is: An academic education, and possibly an opportunity to establish professional network, then go for it. Just don’t go in believing that “being certified” means a whole lot else.

Refuting Lean

On the backside of this site, I get information about things like the search terms that brought people here. One caught my eye today.. “lean refutation.”

Since this site comes up as the 121st item in the Google search, I think I am safe to conclude that the person intended “lean manufacturing” to be the topic. The hit, by the way, was on the “Management Resistance or Poor Process” post, which I suppose has some relevance to the search as well.

I can speculate about a lot of reasons that would cause someone to search for that kind of information, but ultimately I suppose it is someone either caught in the midst of a company (or a consultant) with a distorted view of what it is all about; or someone whose comfort zone is being violated pretty badly (or a combination of both).

Here is a question for my readers:
Inverting the problem, how would you “refute lean?”
Then, based on your answer(s), what countermeasures would you develop?

I think it is important for us to understand that there are both distorted views of what this is about (and those distorted views are being enthusiastically implemented in a lot of places); and there is a good chance that people’s comfort zones can be violated.. and many of those people are ones we want to bring along.

Ask “Why?” – but How?

Get to the root cause by “Asking Why?” five times.
We have all heard it, read it. Our sensei’s have pounded it into us. It is a cliché, obviously, since getting to the root cause of a problem is (most of the time) a touch more complicated than just repeatedly asking “Why?”

Isn’t it?

Maybe not. Maybe it is a matter of skill.

Some people are really good at it. They seem to instinctively get to the core issue, and they are usually right. Others take the “Problem Solving” class and still seem to struggle. So what is it that the “naturals” do unconsciously?

Let me introduce another piece of data here. “Problem Solving” is taught to be an application of the scientific method. The scientific method, in turn, is hypothesis testing. How does that relate to “ask why? five times” ?

Each iteration of asking “why?” is an iteration of hypothesis testing.

How do you “ask why?”

Observe and gather information.
Formulate possible hypotheses.
For each reasonable possibility, determine what information would confirm or refute it. (Devise experiments, which really means “Decide what questions to ask next and figure out a way to answer them.”)
Observe, gather information, experiment. Get answers to those questions.
Confirm or refute possible causes.

At each level, a confirmed cause is the result of “observe and gather information” so the process iterates back to the top.

Eventually, though, a point is reached where going further either obviously makes no sense, or is of no additional help. If you are now looking at something you can fix, you are at the “root cause” for the purpose of the exercise. Yes, you can probably keep going, but part of this is knowing how far is far enough.

Is this something I can fix easily?
Does it make sense to go further?

Otherwise, iterate again.

Now: Devise a countermeasure.

A countermeasure, itself, is a hypothesis. You are saying “If I take this action, I should get this result” i.e. the problem goes away.

Put the countermeasure into place. Does it work? That is yet another experiment only now you are (hopefully) confirming or refuting your fix on every production cycle. The andon will tell you if you are right.

We tell people “Ask why five times” but we really don’t teach them how to “ask why.”

The book examples usually show this neat chain of cause/effect/cause/effect, but the real world isn’t that tidy. When the problem is first being investigated, each level often has many possibilities. Once the chain is built then the chain can be used as a check.

But that isn’t how you GET there.

Why don’t the books do a good job teaching this?

“They” say that critical thinking is difficult to teach. I disagree. If the people who do it unconsciously can step back and become consciously competent, and know how they do it, then it breaks down into a skill, and a skill can be taught.

A Real World Example
My computer works, but it’s network connection to the outside world doesn’t.
OK. What could be wrong?
It could be software in the computer.
It could be a problem with the hardware.

Look at where the cable plugs into the back of the computer. Are the little lights flashing? No? Then there is no data going through that connection.

How could that be?

Well.. the it could be a problem in the computer or operating system.
It could be a problem with the hardware in the computer.
It could be a bad cable.
It could be a problem behind the network jack on the wall.

The QUICKEST thing to do is unplug the cable and plug my co-worker’s cable into the computer. (Please make sure he isn’t busy with email before you do this!). Do the lights come on? Yes? Does your network stuff work now? Yes? Then it isn’t anything in the computer. You have just done a hypothesis test – conducted an experiment.

Take his KNOWN GOOD cable out of the wall and plug it into your jack. Does your network work now? Yes? You have a bad cable. No? It is a problem behind the jack.. call I.T. and tell them. (unless you are at home, then head to the little blue box in the basement and start looking at flashing lights down there. But same process.. as you systematically eliminate internal causes, you are left with an external one.)

This is a natural flow, but most people wouldn’t describe it as “asking why?” or “hypothesis testing” – and the big words scare them off.

Still – when you (the lean guru) are teaching others, it is important for them to understand HOW TO ASK WHY is just a process of learning by systematic elimination of the impossible. (Whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the truth – Author Conan Doyle through Sherlock Holmes)