Dec 1, 2008

Barriers, real and symbolic

It's been almost a year since I started work on my article about DTE Energy's continuous improvement and lean journey, but it's been worth the wait. Jason Schulist, Director of Continuous Improvement, and Tia Umfress arranged interviews for me with three high-level leaders at the company. Their enthusiasm about the company's new initiatives was sincere and genuine. They shared stories about what they had been seeing and doing in the field where they had been leading classroom training and hands-on improvement events. Here's one about real and symbolic barriers that can be removed almost instantly--

Vince Dow, VP, Distribution Ops, in the electric side of the company, worked with a team of front-line people tackling a service center truck flow problem. He told me, “It was stop and go. Everybody waited at one point and it became congested. One of the people said, ‘The problem is this big metal stanchion.’ It was holding material, blocking part of the aisle. They said, ‘That’s our problem, but we can’t do anything about it because that’s not our area.’”

Dow asked them, “Why can’t you just take it down?” They started to say, “There’s this permit and that permit…” and Dow asked, “Well, who said?” They went through all of the reasons why until they got to the end. “By the end of the fourth day, the stanchion was gone,” he says. “They disassembled it themselves. Took all the material to other positions throughout the yard. Created a traffic flow pattern and the next day, all the congestion disappeared.

“Everyone said it was symbolic,” says Dow. “It not only freed the trucks up, it freed their minds and their hearts. Everybody became engaged after that thing was moved. They were saying, ‘You guys actually moved something that we all knew was in the way, but we never thought we could do anything about it, and now we know we can.’”

Dow talks about what he learns when he works with the teams, saying, “What’s always enlightening is finding what the roadblock is and trying to figure out how a decision, even one I made, filters down and comes out causing a problem. You made a decision but you never even thought about all the impacts. So you find these things and get them fixed.”

There's a humility about Vince Dow's recognition that good decisions can have bad side effects. We've seen a lot of examples lately of irresponsible executives remaining blissfully oblivious of the havoc wrought by their decisions. I can't help but feel encouraged about what I heard from DTE in the last few months -- sorely needed light in the gray landscape of Detroit in 2008.

And, yes, Dow and his fellow leaders are going back to the sites where they have led these improvement events, and going back repeatedly.

--The courses taught include C1-C4 principles elucidated in Chasing the Rabbit by Steve Spear, reviewed in a previous Lean Reflections post.

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