May 22, 2008

Lean, Reliable and Lubed

Hello from Nashville! Today was the last day of Noria's Lean, Reliable and Lubed conference here in Tennessee. Nearly all of the 1,500 people who were here are on their way home now, but Mike and I are at the start of a road trip. So here's a quick report.

Brett O'Kelley of Noria was kind enough to arrange for me to attend as a member of the press (representing AME's Target magazine), and I met Paul Arnold, editor of Noria's impressive magazine, Reliable Plant, as well as several other knowledgeable (and young) people.

Noria is an interesting group. Starting out as consultants in the machinery lubrication business, they branched out into education, and extended their range of subject matter to maintenance - or ensuring equipment reliability - in general. In the last few years, they have taken the interesting step into lean manufacturing. Thus the conference brought together three different but related groups of folks. The exhibition reflected Noria's roots - suppliers of various and sundry oils and fluids, devices for filtering and treating them, and services for making it all work right. Execution of all aspects of the event was flawless, right down to Brett's presenting some of the conference center's door monitor ladies with the flower arrangements that had decorated the registration desk when all was being disassembled. Nice touch - respect for people.

I was happy to see some familiar names on the lean speakers roster: Ross Robson, Richard Schonberger, Michel Baudin being some of the better known. It was a special treat to see some newer names added to the agenda - Mike "Got Boondoggle" Wroblewski from Batesville Casket Company, and Mike Thelen from Hub City (you might have noticed Mike Thelin's posts on the NWLEAN forum). I've been impressed by the two Mikes for a long time, and it was cool to actually meet them in person. They both gave engaging presentations. Be sure to ask Mike Wroblewski to explain "Think Milk." Ross Robson was very generous with his time and thoughts in several conversation with the two Mikes and me.

On the reliability management track was an acquaintance from a number of years ago -- Terry Wireman, who has written numerous books on TPM, reliability and other facets of making equipment available when you want it, and working the way you want it to. Back in my SME days Terry worked with our video producers on some educational products and we distributed a couple of his books, so it was great to renew the acquaintance. And in the fluids management world, it was nice to be able to hang out with Paul Hampton and his associate, Jim (forgive me for forgetting your last name), from Industrial Fluid Systems in Warren, Michigan. Paul and I are both officers of SME Chapter One in Detroit.

My main reason for wanting to go to this event is that I don't hear a whole heck of a lot from people in the mainstream lean space about maintenance and reliability. It's one of the fundamentals that must be in place if flow and flexibility are to be achieved, but in most companies, maintenance people are taken for granted. Somebody wants to save some money and it looks like you could cut a few guys from the maintenance crew, stop training them, limit the tools and technologies they have access to. Or worse, get the technologies and get rid of the people. It was the kind of gathering where you could hear about a lot of stupid things some well-known companies are in the habit of doing. And some of the smart things the smart companies are doing.

On the other end of the spectrum, the straight-ahead lube and maintenance guys and gals haven't had the opportunities to learn what lean is and can do. At least here, they could walk three rooms down the aisle and sit down with the lean crowd and start separating fact from fiction. We need more ways to break down the functional silos on our manufacturing floor by sharing some education and ideas. Kudos to Noria for making it happen. Not without risk.

A couple of keynotes were very revealing. We've heard about how Bridgestone/Firestone and Boeing, among others, are doing with lean manufacturing. But the stories of how they are integrating all that with maintenance and reliability have been under the radar. I've got a nice collection of business cars and face-to-face encounters so I can try to bring those stories to the surface for the general lean community. When I brought up the idea to Target editors, Doc Hall responded that we hadn't done much on reliability lately, so I'm encouraged that AME is ready to make it visible again. Now all I've got to do is the research, interviews and writing. Eventually it all comes down to the work.

May 17, 2008

The gemba of poverty

I’m reading a book, “Out of Poverty” by Paul Polak, that I have to write about before I even finish. If you only read the first chapter, your understanding of how to help people in extreme poverty will change forever. The book is “Out of Poverty” by Paul Polak, and he talks about people who live on less than $1 a day.

Most are in remote places – Nepal, India, Zambia, for example -- with no access to markets or jobs. They scratch out a living on farms of less than an acre, and go hungry when monsoon or drought destroys their crops.

Most people's first reaction when we learn of disaster or poverty is to want to send money or food. That’s the opposite of what Polak proposes. I don’t know anything about Ron Paul except that he said that such help taxes poor people in America to give money to rich bureaucrats in poor countries. Think about it.

Jeffery Sachs has been preaching that we need to look at these remote areas of poverty and help farmers increase productivity of their farms, as does Polak. But the approach of such thinkers has always been to give those farmers improved hybrid seeds and fertilizer, or to fund the digging of wells, and such like.

Polak has spent decades at the gemba of world poverty and has talked to poor families and walked their plots of land with them, listening to their understanding of their own problems. Large wells, more expensive seeds and fertilizer end up helping larger farmers, not those most in need of help. “Water lords” who own the land where wells have been dug will sell water to desperate small farmers at exorbitant prices.

What Polak has learned is the simplicity of the lean approach, though he probably doesn’t know a word of the lean lingo. He’s listened to thousands of people explain what is keeping them poor. Yes, there are ways to bring new ideas, but they have to fit what the local family needs, and be something the local farmer can do himself or invest very small sums in.

Polak respects these people as the ingenious and thrifty entrepreneurs that they really are. He learned from a farmer that he could irrigate a profitable vegetable field if he could utilize a very small source of water he had access to. He and the farmer came up with the idea of drip irrigation. What you’d have if you took your garden hose, punched little holes in it along its length and laid it next to your row of tomato plants. No large pumps. No sprayers losing significant moisture to evaporation before any water gets to the ground. No large well. No big expense. An investment, yes, but a small one.

Later Polak learned to his chagrin that drip irrigation had been used in Israel for a long time. But their systems were too costly. So he started going to university engineering departments and small inventors and asking for creative ideas. And found them. The challenge was always to come up with a method of irrigation, moving crops to distant markets, pumping water from small wells, and so on. But the idea wasn’t to give these things to those in need. It was to keep designing and trying until you had something that could be manufactured at a profit to meet a price point poor people could afford. Does that sound like determining value to the customer and working out the means of manufacturing to achieve costs that allow profitability? Does it sound like right-sized equipment?

Sometimes the new invention fails the customer it is intended for. The inventor learns at the gemba of the farmer’s field what the problem is, then goes back and improves the product.

The other requirement is that systems be scalable. As the poor farmer accumulates a small fund of savings, he or she is more than willing to invest in his business. So if he can afford only to irrigate a quarter of an acre at first, he can afford to irrigate another quarter acre a couple of years after first achieving profitability. And scalable in the sense that the tools or equipment can be manufactured locally, and it’s something can be produced around the world in the millions.

Why does Polak expect the manufacturer of the new product to profit? Because that creates work and prosperity for local people too. These are products that initially take minimal skill and minimum materials. Building little donkey carts, for example, if food can be produced but not transported to markets, by giving local people simple designs, attainable manufacturing skills and easy-to-find materials.

Polak has a “don’t bother” rule, if his local customers and distant inventors and engineers can’t come up with a product that can help thousands. It it’s not viable in a large market, local entrepreneurs will have no reason to go into production and he can’t justify the time of expensive design teams with the know-how to do invent new products. Then local entrepreneurs won’t have the wherewithal to produce their own new products either.

It still boils down to money, but very small sums of money. How do the formerly dollar-a-day people use their greater income? For new investment, but also for clothes and school fees so their children can be educate, or medicine when someone is sick, or a cellphone that can connect a isolated people with the rest of the world. It’s not too different from the method Mohammed Yunus developed for microlending. The two approaches can be used together. And guess what - there's an organization, not related to Polak's International Development Enterprises, called Engineers Without Borders.

That should be enough for you to get the basic picture. It’s a book everybody should read. You should read it. Soon.

Out of Poverty by Paul Polak

Copyright @ 2005-2014 by Karen Wilhelm