Mar 29, 2007

Feeling dumb

The other night I went to a presentation on value engineering/value analysis held by the Engineering Society of Detroit. First I felt dumb because, even though I had a Google map of the location, when I got there I couldn't figure out exactly where to go to find 2000 Town Center. You'd think it would be easy, but it wasn't. That's why I was late - but that's not the dumb feeling I'm talking about.

I had a general idea of what VA/VE is and does, though the tools and examples shown were new to me. I know there's sometimes a skepticism among lean folks about value engineering, but the point was made that VA/VE can be the right tool for the right situation, and Toyota uses it when they need to. The presenter - a guy from TRW, not a consultant - had to cram three days' worth of slides into about 45 minutes, so I was left feeling like I missed a lot, but that's not the dumb feeling I mean either.

There was a fellow in the audience, an aquaintance of the presenter, who made several enlightening remarks during the question period. I went up to him after the meeting to see what I could learn. He's a manager of strategic analysis at GM, obviously a tough job, but went back a long way. He'd been to Toyota, and a number of other Japanese auto manufacturers, and had delved into a lot of other engineering methodologies, including lean.

He talked about all he'd learned about how different companies work, and the tools they use like agility and flexibility. He talked abou how a truly agile company could kill a product line if it didn't work out, even if it had millions of dollars of tooling it hadn't yet amortized. He seemed to be saying that agility was a real concept, not just a brand of lean we heard about many years ago, and that's when I started feeling really dumb.

When you hear that kind of talk, you can react in one of two ways. One is to think that I've heard that agility stuff before, and put it out of my mind and maybe he doesn't know as much about manufacturing as he says, and so on. The other way is to think that when I try to teach, I probably sound exactly like that to someone who doesn't know what lean is.

I was feeling dumb in a good way. I said, "Gee, thanks. Now I have ONE MORE thing I have to learn about!" And I'm so lucky that that's true. I hope I'll get a chance to talk to him more and sort out what I know from what I need to know, and keep working at that gigantic mass of everything I haven't learned yet. Let's hope the old brain can creak on a bit longer so I can keep trying.

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