Mar 25, 2006

A scholar and a gentleman

Sometime in the mid-1970s, a young Robert “Doc” Hall was introduced to some new manufacturing ideas by Jinichiro Nakane. Now, roughly 30 years later, Dr. Hall is being honored with the SME Gold Medal for his journey into new philosophies and practices of manufacturing, and for introducing them to thousands of people since he began.

In 1983, Doc published an underappreciated book called “Zero Inventories,” in which he explored practices being used in Japan. The book opens,

“ ’Zero Inventories’ connotes a level of perfection not ever attainable in a production process. However, the concept of a high level of excellence is important because it stimulates a quest for constant improvement through imaginative attention to both the overall task and to the minute details. That leads to practical actions which break out of previously accepted tracks of thought about production.

“One such concept of an ideal total production system is most commonly called just-in-time production, a name which emphasizes producing exactly what is needed and conveying it to where it is needed precisely when required…Stockless production is a name sometimes used to mean the same thing, usually implying application in a broader context…Whatever it is called, the ideas need to be considered and understood in their entirety because they encompass every aspect of manufacturing management.”

With this opening, and through the rest of the book, Doc laid out almost all the elements of what we now call “lean manufacturing,” based on his many visits to Japan. He dug into the thinking of Mr. Nakane, Fujio Cho, W. Edwards Deming, Ryuji Fukuda, Henry Ford, Yoichi Kato and Taiichi Ohno, and many others.

I wish I knew more of the story of the writing of this landmark book and how Doc learned all he described in it. What were some of those ideas? How about flexible automation…small lot sizes…accomplished by people…pull systems…visibility systems…level assembly schedule…match final assembly to market demand…setup time reduction…flow and flexibility…improving process capability…the plant as a laboratory…supplier networks…delivery signals to suppliers…target cost vs. standard cost…organization, layout and housekeeping…U-shaped lines…stockless production for the job shop…stockless production in the overall corporate strategy.

I suspect Doc would now change a few things in the book, and I know he’s disappointed in the limited adoption of the system. Doc’s research since then, his leadership in founding the AME, publishing the ground-breaking journal “Target,” and his generosity in sharing knowledge with anyone interested, make him deeply influential, if not widely so.

I found Doc’s book in the mid-1980s, when I first began to hear about JIT. I’ll confess that I did no more than skim it, but I kept it on my bookshelf, recognizing it even then as a seminal work. When Doc visited SME a few years ago, Terry Begnoche – an influential person in his own right – invited me to a meeting with him. I brought my copy of “Zero Inventories” for Doc to autograph, and he inscribed it, “Thank you Karen -- best wishes on your journey.” To thank me -- how could I ever have done anything to earn his thanks? To even think I was on a journey was remarkable, considering the adventurous exploration that has made up his career.

Thank you, Doc, and may your journey continue to inspire students, readers and colleagues for many years to come.

Mar 23, 2006


How can you think out of the box when you're sitting in a box?

Mar 12, 2006

I look fabulous

[Stay with me through the story - I will get to a reflection about lean before too long...]
I’m often told my hair looks nice, but I’m quick to say it’s my hair salon that deserves the compliment. I had always planned to follow my mother’s example and gray gracefully, but a photo of me with my son when he graduated from Michigan Tech suggested I needed a better plan. Not only did my hair color look drab, my hairstyle was not at all stylish.

I realized I needed to seek a new salon, probably in an upscale part of the Detroit area, and I’d have to expect to pay more to look nicer. I decided to try Gina Agosta in Novi. When I arrived, on a Saturday, I checked in at the counter, which was swarming with customers and staff. Normally, that would mean I’d sit down in a waiting area and bide my time. Not here.

A girl (I guess we’re allowed to say “girl” again in a post-feminist age) appeared by my side and gave me a little orientation. She showed me neatly rolled dark green smocks in a wicker armoire next to an alcove with a coat closet and a couple of dressing rooms. When I had my clothes covered, the young lady escorted me to the color department and introduced me to Kristy, asked if I’d like anything to drink, then went to get me coffee.

The d├ęcor was elegant, with fresh flowers and framed pictures of models with gorgeous, if impractical, hairstyles. Kristy acted as though she didn’t notice the state of my haircolor and asked what I’d like her to do. She radiated sweetness and competence. After an hour, my hair was a shiny reddish brown, and Kristy took me to meet the stylist who would cut it. After another hour, I looked fabulous – my hair did, anyway. I cheerfully paid about four times what I’d be charged in an ordinary salon. Years later, I’m still happy to part with a relative fortune to be pampered at Gina’s.

What does this have to do with lean? As in the airports Dan Jones and Jim Womack are fond of writing about, I am both the customer and the product. I have to be moved around a space with a certain amount of efficiency and I have to feel satisfied with the service. Non-value-added time has to be minimized for me and the provider of the service. Perceived value must be commensurate with cost. And as exemplified by Toyota, respect for people must be maintained throughout.

Does the salon look at optimizing employee utilization, queuing customers in inventory? No. There are a lot more people working at Gina’s than absolutely necessary to deliver the service. It turns out that many are apprentices, learning at Gina’s instead of at beauty school. They do the escorting, coffee-fetching and shampooing.

You will rarely see a newly-smocked client standing around waiting to be taken to the colorists, even if an apprentice hasn’t jumped to her aid, I have had the first-chair stylist interrupt his work briefly to take me to the color department and ask if I’d like something to drink – the phrase must be part of the standard work – then signal an apprentice to take over. In any other salon, his counterpart would be haughtily oblivious to anything but his own talent.

One December 20th, probably the busiest day in the year in any beauty establishment, I arrived to learn I didn’t have an appointment until January 20th. The manager of the day was on the spot immediately to see what the problem was. He disappeared for a few minutes. When he returned, he had fit me in with a colorist’s and a stylist’s schedules. With any other salon, I would have been sitting in my car crying by now. Instead, I emerged two hours later, looking fabulous.

Sending you out of Gina Agosta’s looking fabulous was how Kristy summed up the salon’s vision and mission one day, without even realizing it. Culture defines its vision and mission implicitly. Sitting around wordsmithing some high-flown phrases has nothing to do with it.

I’ve talked to Kristy and Linda, my preferred stylist, about how Gina’s staff is uniformly happy, kind, and attentive. How does it happen? Gina is selective about who she accepts as an employee. And somehow, according to Kristy and Linda, anyone who doesn’t measure up just tends to go away. Although the experienced colorists and stylists are teaching the apprentices, the focus is always on the client. You will never find employees chatting with each other as they work.

Gina herself is not very visible. She works on clients like anyone else, focusing her attention on them. It takes a while to even realize who she is. Gina sees everything, however, and if she spots something amiss, an apprentice carries Gina’s message to get things back on track.

As Gina’s staff respects every client, she respects her staff. She sends them to hair shows and training. She pays well. When Linda reached her tenth anniversary of working at the salon, Gina offered her a trip to Florida and a stay at her vacation home there. Gina and her husband are frequently invited to and attend the girls’ weddings, even if they are many miles away. I’d guess she gives pretty nice wedding presents too. When staff members are on maternity leave, they are welcome to attend staff meetings. They remain connected and involved.

The staff members respect each other. If one has a special occasion, another will come in before normal working hours to fix her hair. One day Linda’s kids were sick, and so was her husband. John Paul told her he would take over her clients and he sent her home. Somehow he was ready for me exactly at my appointed time and never made me feel as though he was rushing to get done.

What can we learn from the Gina Agosta salon? Customer focus. A clear vision. Flow. Attention to detail. Adding value. A system capable of producing excellence, with immediate countermeasures if defects appear. And most of all – respect for people.

More comments from Gina's customers.

Mar 5, 2006

Bush would gut workforce training budget

I have been working almost two years to advance a program where SME chapters would link members – especially owners/managers of small manufacturing companies – to Federal and state funds they can use to train their employees in lean practices. (Sorry, Joe – Indiana is not among the states that help employers much.)

I didn’t watch our President’s State of the Union address this year. I avoided it because just the sight of the man infuriates me, and his speeches are even worse. He seems unable to even comprehend the statements his handlers have written, and they are ruthless power-drunk criminals. (Any confusion left about my personal politics?)

This week I discovered that the Bush administration’s 2007 Department of Labor’s budgets pulls the rug out from under us. In that State of the Union address January 31, President Bush talked about some wonderful Career Advancement Accounts that would provide funds for individuals to seek training to improve their skills. He said they would be self-managed and provide up to $3,000 to workers and job-seekers to pay for training and other employment services. That sounds attractive, especially if people face plant closings or other threats to employment.

What he didn’t say was that the money would come from the Department of Labor’s Workforce Investment Act program that currently funnels training funds to companies for workforce training. WIA funds are awarded at the community level, through local service points that understand business conditions and the needs of employers. Local community colleges frequently deliver the training. The philosophy is to make companies more competitive so they can keep or expand jobs in the community.

The implications of the redirection are the cause of hot discussion at state and local levels. In Albany, NY, reported Eric Anderson in the March 3 issue of the Times Union, local workforce investment boards are bracing for deep cuts. The Capital Region Workforce Investment Board serves Albany, Rensselaer and Schenectady counties. "We're sitting here shell-shocked," said Daniel A. Gentile, the local board's executive director. "We need to buckle down and say ... where can we economize?”

Gentile told Anderson he questioned how effective the Career Advancement Account proposal would be. "It doesn't address the work force needs in the Capital Region," he said. Gentile told Anderson he would meet colleagues at other workforce investment boards to discuss the planned cutbacks. Officials are also working with congressional representatives, according to Anderson.

"It's ironic. The President talks about global competitiveness, then they cut funding," John Twomey told Anderson. Twomey is executive director of the New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals, an Albany-based advocacy group representing local workforce investment boards and related groups statewide.

Far from Albany, an op-ed column in the March 1 Ocala Star-Banner (FL) was headlined, “Let's not cut jobs we can use.” The CLM Workforce Connection, serving four Florida counties, would have its budget cut by almost $700 million, according to the article. Of the state’s grants going to workforce services, 75% will be mandated to go into the Career Advancement Accounts, taking away a great deal of the flexibility needed to respond to local conditions.

The newspaper said CLM Workforce Connection's Executive Vice President Rusty Skinner sent an e-mail to supporters volunteering to testify before Congress to save the program. Skinner protested that the local voices in funding and other decisions would be silenced, as decision-making is shifted to the state Capitol.

In Florida, as in other states in the Southeast, it's the employers who need help, not so much the unemployed. Skilled workers are in short supply, and organizations like the CLM Workforce Connection, says the editorial, can search them out and help with training. The editorial called it “a shame and a disservice to our community and its local economy to lose such an effective and valuable resource.”

By its governance – bylaws and suchlike – SME cannot engage in lobbying. But I implore you to contact your senator and congressman/woman and oppose this move. Incumbent workers’ (that’s the phrase they use” programs are critically important.

Not that we shouldn’t help those who need new skills to find work, but that helping companies succeed provides the “pull” that creates jobs in the first place.

Let's not cut jobs we can use” Ocala Star-Banner
Big cuts loom for those who aid job seekers” by Eric Anderson the Albany Times Union
Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, 2007 Budget Request, including the new Career Advancement Accounts proposal
Copyright @ 2005-2014 by Karen Wilhelm