Dec 31, 2009

2009 Management Carnival from Lean Reflections

John Hunter, the Curious Cat, proposed that we share our favorite posts from 2009, so I'm pitching in...

Lean bloggers have been influential forces in my lean journey. When I first discovered some of the following blogs, I hesitatingly started adding my comments. When they were received with respect, I found more blogs and entered more conversations, learning from bloggers as well as other commenters. Then I thought, "If I'm going to be involved in web publishing, I'd better learn how to use this blog thing." My Lean Reflections blog was met with encouragement from my new blogpals.

Since then, I've turned to these same blogs and bloggers, plus many who have joined us, for background, ideas, details, and case studies for articles. A community made up of learners and teachers has evolved around our lean blogs, weaving them together. John Hunter's Curious Cat Management Improvement Carnival exemplifies how we recognize the best contributions of our fellow bloggers.

So here are nods to just a few of my favorites:

Jon Miller's Gemba Panta Rei
Because Jon was raised in Japan and he reads and speaks Japanese, he brings us news and insights that we would otherwise miss. His bicultural perspectives, and his own lean experience and knowledge comes through in all his posts.

How to use lean to achieve bottom line results
Heather asked Jon about the bottom line, so he provides several ways to communicate with the CFO by quantifying the dollar value of potential lean scenarios, including one for declining sales. Then he refers to another blogger, Lee Fried, who says he refuses to discuss ROI at all. Nicely balanced article for lean leaders who don't realize they are failing to use the right language with financially-oriented managers.

The advantages of A1 over A3 thinking
Jon says it's better to find a whiteboard the size of A1 paper (594 x 841 mm) than to hunt around for a piece of 11" x 17" paper for A3 problem solving. (Why do we let such obscure terminology persist?) The whiteboard allows more people to work together to explore a PDCA approach. Standing rather than sitting gets the juices flowing. While there's the temptation to cram more information in the larger space, Jon says to write big and make the board visible from across the room. Seven more people commented with their experiences using the larger format, with some dissension about what Jon asserts. When a post prompts comments, that's the sign of success.

The positive tension between SMART and stretch goals
In a hoshin planning session with a client, Jon was asked about the seeming conflict between stretch and SMART goals. He says, "Stretch goals are meant to be ambitious, challenging and out of reach according to the current ways of working. SMART goals are by definition narrowly scoped and individually and discretely attainable." This leads into a new definition for "STRETCH" that integrates its positive tension with SMART, highlighting the capacity building that raises performance to new levels.

Joe Ely's Learning about Lean
Joe's blog may be the first I ever followed. He always sounds humble, and you'd never know about his long and deep experience in lean thinking and practice. Joe's posts are neither frequent or lengthy, but always engaging.

You go to the "gemba"--then what?
Joe says, "Had a useful walk through our production areas today. And it hit me, just what was I looking for? Where were my eyes going? What was attracting my attention?" There were the usual physical attributes, but Joe outlines three ways to tap into the human factors.

How do we learn?
Our mental model of learning is a point-to-point series of steps, but Joe explains how he's started to see it as a circular model, continuously learning more about what he already knows. Joe says, "Depth comes from repetition. Don't be afraid of it."

Hal Macomber's Reforming Project Management
Much of Hal's work is in the construction industry, where the revolution in applying lean is the collaboration of project partners, usually including contractors and subcontractors, to achieve a realistic project plan in a synchronized just-in-time manner, making each phase job-ready for the next contractor to start at the right time. Everyone has projects, however, and Hal's insights into making them successful can help project teams of all types continuously improve their performance.

Lean project implementation is not adoption
Hal talks about how daily experience should influence behaviors to create new attitudes and approaches to work, and how that's worth much more than lean programs and initiatives. He says that each little difference from expectations is exactly that opportunity to learn what we need to learn. Because lean means individuals adopting new behaviors, there's really nothing to "implement."

Last Planner(R) System for Project Delivery
This "lens" references several that examine the Last Planner lean project management system. It has now been validated in hundreds of major projects, especially as construction companies are setting themselves apart from their competitors by using LPS. I strongly recommend exploring these ideas to see how they could be applied to your work.

Don't forget that commenting on blog posts does more than give feedback to the author. It prompts dialogue from people around the world with similar interests but diverse viewpoints. Join the conversations!

Dec 28, 2009

Joy, hope, and lean

This time of the year, we look back and reflect, then look forward and plan. Goals, achievements, cost savings, and all that stuff. We want our timetables, training schedules, and reports to move our lean agendas forward.

But I think it's joy and hope that propel continuous improvement. We're just humans, with primitive brains that run on emotions more often than on facts and figures. Is Toyota's "respect for humanity" more than mere politeness and listening? Doesn't it tap those deeper feelings?

I'm reminded of a story that Joe Sensenbrenner, quality expert and mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, some twenty years ago, told me about bringing continuous improvement to city government. He required that all managers, including chief of police Dave Couper, attend Dr. Deming's series of lectures. Joe described the chief striding into the hall, in uniform, gun on his hip, not happy about listening to something that he felt had little to do with police work. Dr. Deming stood at the front of the room at an overhead projector, marker in his hand, as the chief sat down.

Then Dr. Deming wrote down one word and the chief's face changed completely. The word was "joy."

As Dr. Deming continued to explain a new view of quality of product and service, Dave Couper's view of police work was overturned. From command, control, and threat of force, be began to see the police force as part of the community, creating relationships, and helping people in crisis. Sure, there were still criminals who had to be arrested, and community policing did not cure all ills.

Dave Couper went on to take the practice of community policing to many other cities, improving communities one police officer at a time. It all began with that one word, joy.

Maybe we should take time to remember a moment when we felt that joy in our practice of lean. It could have been when employees came to a pilot cell and ask for help to implement 5S or visual control in their areas of the plant. It could have been when you were in the midst of a project and saw the light turn on in someone's mind. It could have been that moment of celebration when your team solved a difficult problem.

What's been your moment of joy?

Dec 17, 2009

Want to find energy savings? Look up...

Buildings use something like 30% of the energy consumed in this country. We already know that continuous improvement means a lot of small things adding up to something bigger.

So try this end-of-year activity -- while you walk through your office, cafeteria, rest rooms, and production floor, look up at the HVAC exhaust vents. I'll bet you'll find the grids clogged with dust, blocking full flow of air through your system. It's an easy fix, just brush or vacuum out the dirt. Even if you discover you need complete duct cleaning, vacuuming the ducts is a small improvement you can make now.

Don't have the maintenance staff to tackle the big job? Here are a few things to ponder: Is exhaust vent cleaning on a regular maintenance or cleaning service checklist? Does this point out a need to review resource deployment? Do you have proper equipment for doing the job? Do you do a good job in the plant but not in the offices and common areas? What's the effect on morale when people notice crud in their workplace? What's the effect on employee health when air isn't circulating the way your calculations say it is? What's the effect on production equipment to have air and heat circulation impeded? What's the effect on efficiency and energy consumption of your HVAC systems that have to work harder to pull the amount of air they're designed for?

Let's all breathe a little easier in 2010, and save money while we're doing it.

Dec 14, 2009

AME Social Media Council update

Lately, a lot of my time has been spent roaming the web. But it is in pursuit of a goal. Scott Schiave, AME’s director of marketing, asked me to chair a group of volunteer members—the Social Media Council of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence—to raise awareness of the association, provide more value to members, and in doing so, grow membership.

Responding to member feedback about a need for more online interaction, AME has been building its own social media space—AMEConnect. At the same time, platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube have been hailed as the secrets to success in Web 2.0, whatever that is.

Here’s a quick report on what the Council is doing:

It all happened through networking
We have a talented group of manufacturing professionals on the Council: Richard Lebovitz, Laura Cibulsky, Jason Semovoski, and I are the current core members.

Both LinkedIn and Twitter helped us recruit our council. Laura joined the Council after I posted on the AME LinkedIn group’s job page aone requiring a lot of work , no pay, but offering visibility among active manufacturing leaders. She applied and has become the voice behind AMEConnect on Twitter. Most of her posts link to current news articles and blog posts of value to our Twitter followers.

Current state in September
In assessing AME’s current state on social media sites, we discovered two spontaneously founded LinkedIn groups that we had to combine, using LinkedIn’s disappointing process.

There was also an AME team testing the beta version of AMEConnect. It included Becky Morgan and Ken Rolfes, who are now ex-officio members of the Council. Lea Tonkin of Target magazine is a member, tying us to both content and making Target a print medium for spreading the word about our online networks. Scott, plus Rene Ryan and Ashley DeVecht from the consulting group are also Council members.

Becky Morgan let us know that she had created a Twitter keyword (“hashtag”) for the October conference. I began to see Jason Semovoski using the hashtag to help promote the conference. Jason and I became mutual followers and started direct messaging about the conference and AME’s social media plans. Jason was already much savvier at using the various social media tools and agreed to join the Council.

Current state in December
As of now, I’m managing LinkedIn, Laura has Twitter, Jason has YouTube, and Richard has SlideShare. Facebook is on the back burner. I think we need a strategy for interacting with blogs too.  All these channels have to refer to each other and integrate AME’s message and value. They are meant to prepare the way for the proprietary AMEConnect platform

Future state
The idea is for each Council member to adopt a “channel” and build an AME presence there, integrating and coordinating the networks. We’ve made the most progress on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Will the experiments yield the desired results? We don’t know until we try, learn from mistakes, and try again. One thing we know—if the customer pull isn’t there, we’re barking up the wrong tree. But the way things are now, there’s always a new tree to bark at.

Join AME (Association for Manufacturing Excellence) on LinkedIn. Follow @AMEConnect on Twitter.

Nov 23, 2009

Lean team competes with Asia--and wins

Mity-Lite makes chairs and tables for auditoriums, conference venues, and other gathering places. Its newest product, the Mesh One chair, is expected to be a game-changer. 20% lighter than most other chairs, it can support a 1,000-lb. load. It’s thinner and takes less storage space. Its durable, breathable rip-stop nylon mesh seat and back conform to the shape of the sitter. For even more comfort, it’s 1.5 inches wider than most other chairs in its market.

As manufacturing planning for the Mesh One chair progressed, however, it looked like it would have to be built offshore to meet cost targets. That’s when a continuous improvement team came forward and asked to bid on the job. Or that’s what the Salt Lake City Tribune said.

To find out if that was true, I spoke with CEO Randy Hales a few days ago about what really happened. He said, “I had faith that the team could get there eventually, but our continuous improvement plan was new and the teams only had about four months of experience with it. I just thought that it was early for them. But they came and said, ‘We want to bid on this project competitively, just like the factories in Asia.’ They submitted their bid and won the business.”

Hales said, “They had done their homework well--facts and figures. They knew what we would have to spend in order to upgrade facilities. They had a plan as to how they would get there. They felt confident but there was no guarantee, where our Asian teams were saying, ‘No problem, we’re there, turn it on tomorrow.’”

Hales said, “We’ve asked this group to go through a continuous improvement process. We’ve challenged them to make significant differences, and now they’re coming to us saying, ‘We can do this.’ It wouldn’t support what we’d asked them to do if we didn’t give them a shot. They had convinced us that they could, on paper. But there was a fair amount of risk. There’s a big gap between making it look good on paper, and practically applying those principles and being able to do it.”

Hales continued, “They’ve done a fantastic job. They were so motivated to make sure they did everything that they set out to accomplish to prove that it could be done. I knew that there was some risk, but it was minimized by their level of interest.”

Not only did the team have the passion and the desire, they were also able to speak the language of finance. The decision makers would consider the complete cost of manufacturing and procuring the product, its total landed cost. Hales said “A big component of the decision was lead time, cycle time, carrying cost of inventory, communication hassles. While you can’t put a dollar figure on the communication challenges, it certainly plays into the whole perspective when you are evaluating things like that.”

The lean team considered all those criteria. Hales said they were very well prepared to make their case. Coupled with his desire to support them in what they had been asked to do, the team’s thorough homework won them the job.

Production of the chair is still in the early stages. Hales said, “Outside suppliers have some capacity constraints on some of the components, but our team is right on target with everything they said they would do. We’re still a couple dollars high on our labor content, but that’s a function of volume, and we believe that we’ll get all of our targets in November.”

So how did Mity-Lite’s leadership and front-line employees get on the same page so effectively?

Before taking the helm at Mity-Lite, Hales had seen the results of lean initiatives in manufacturing facilities around the world. Nevertheless, his view was from an arm’s length perspective, leaving the improvement process to others. He describes one reason for that distance as “Not feeling like I could contribute, I was standing back and watching and saying ‘Hey, you guys go do it.’”

Hales began to think differently as he talked to others who had undertaken similar transformations. Then what he heard when he arrived at Mity-Lite gave him his “aha” moment. Employees had already gone through two failed attempts at lean. They described senior management saying, “Go do that and let us know how it goes.” Employees told Hales they didn’t feel like they had the commitment of senior management. Management didn’t understand why changes had take place in the facility, sometimes with some capital required.

This brought home to Hales that it’s very difficult to go through a transformation if senior management isn’t committed and doesn’t understand what’s going on. He saw that management needs to help set the metrics, work on the plan, and watch what happens. He says, “I wanted to be very involved, hands-on, with the sleeves rolled up, and to be part of the planning process and execution.”

Even with his involvement, Hales saw the need for day-to-day operational leadership. He believed that the problem with earlier attempts at lean was that it was more a textbook understanding of lean, not a practical application. He visited facilities that Don Blohm had taken through a lean transformation. As he understood what Blohm could do, he said, he knew he was the right man for the job. Blohm came on board and, with Hales, began to guide the company’s continuous improvement journey.

Lean practices are quickly spreading throughout the company. Hales said, “It started out as an isolated group on a small project or two. But it spread so quickly through our facilities that we found people saying, ‘Hey, we want to do this. We want to be a part of it.’ We’re hearing great things, we’re seeing big changes. It has moved through our entire facility. And were hitting on all fronts. There isn’t an aspect of our domestic manufacturing any longer that isn’t in the middle of a continuous improvement.”

Hales said the people in the office and administrative areas are starting to hear the rumblings. “That’s going to be a focus of ours in 2010,” he said. “We started with our G&A team, and it’s been fun to watch. They are now completely paperless. So we’ve started to take some steps, but a true continuous improvement emphasis in the front office will take place early next year. “

Create your own economic recovery

Hales sees continuous improvement as a way out of the current business doldrums. He said, “Any under-optimized company--and in my mind that is any company that that hasn’t gone through a continuous improvement program--has the responsibility to create their own recovery. Rather than waiting on a macroeconomic recovery, we should be creating our own recovery, regardless of what’s going on in the economy right now.

“We have doubled our EBITDA in the last twelve months. Every bit of that is due to the continuous improvement and lean transformation and becoming more efficient. You can do that if you really embrace what continuous improvement means, and you get it implemented accurately. All companies are disadvantaged if they are not focused on this kind of transformational change right now.”

Nov 15, 2009

An unabashed trial balloon from Ontario's HPM Consortium

Every week, my friend Dave Hogg sends me the HPM (High Performance Management) Consortium newsletter, which recently included a thought-provoking topic pondered by the organization’s board. Their conclusions are well worth thinking about because the HPM consortium includes some of Ontario’s companies that are the most experienced in continuous improvement. Dave also asks for feedback, so be sure to comment here or send him your own two cents.

This is a summary of the board’s discussion:

How can we provide our workforce with the skills needed to achieve enhanced accountability and performance that results in assured execution?’ In short – training to provide conversation and crucial confrontation skills to achieve results reduce stress, training that would enable our people to confront opposition or attitudes in ways that generate successful and supported conclusions. We do know that agreements that are not win-win are not sustainable so what kind of training might we consider?

Some initial considerations/thoughts:

1. The training’s duration will be as long as it needs to be to get skills delivered... there is no room any more for feel-good courses.

2. We have learned that hands-on learning sticks - and generates results.

3. One idea to consider is a two-day format with a month or more in between to try out the lessons learned in the workplace.

4. In addition, the training would be linked to the managers and leaders in the areas to ensure the support needed to drive what has been learned.

5. You add the rest... or dispute the above… ;o}

6. What would the training content look like?

Promises broken, deadlines missed, expectations not met, inappropriate behavior – all lead to tension and conflict in the workplace. The impact is wide ranging – high turnover, decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, poor team morale, lower work quality, toxic work environment.

Today’s fast-paced work environment requires full employee engagement and a culture of accountability. Tension cannot be allowed to fester. How a leader or manager addresses the underlying conflict is a determinant of his success as a leader. However, addressing these conflicts can be uncomfortable or can even make the situation worse if not handled well.

The course would need to explore the issues of interpersonal conflict in the workplace and provide participants with the skills to confront conflict in a way that addresses the issue in a direct but safe manner, strengthens work relationships, builds accountability, and boosts corporate culture.

Outcomes: Upon completion, participants will:

· Recognize conflicts ingredients and characteristics
· Understand the four types of conflict behaviors
· Know the importance and benefits of developing conflict competency
· Address the three dimensions of resolution
· Defuse hostility and prevent escalation
· Adapt your personal conflict management style to different situations
· Assess assumptions, perceptions and expectations in conflict situations
· Use a proven technique to hold difficult conversations that get results
· Recover effectively from a conflict situation.

If the balloon is to fly?

1) Email your thoughts and comments now to:
2) Rate its importance from 1(None) to 10.

Nov 3, 2009

Eight ideas for improving healthcare in Michigan

Business leaders, doctors, healthcare executives, and government leaders filled 50 roundtables and brainstormed how to improve healthcare and cut costs in the region at Crain’s Detroit Health Care Leadership Summit October 15. They produced what Crain’s called Eight Big Ideas.

These include the usual: The technology solution--online health information exchange. The up-supply solution—more primary care providers. The reduce demand solution--make people live more “healthily”--financial incentives for employees to lose weight and quit smoking. The rule of law solution--Michigan should mandate health care price transparency. The down-supply solution--Reduce overcapacity of some facilities.

But Idea 6 shows that lean (but don’t call it that) has gained some traction: “Use skills developed by auto industry engineers to improve efficiencies and streamline processes of hospitals and physician offices to improve quality and reduce costs.”

To me, that’s the root-cause solution.

More: Want greater depth? Click here for the complete unedited speech. NOTE: the unedited speech is 34 minutes long. Other session videos are included on the page.

Oct 29, 2009

Reinvent now

I have a real reason for you to come to Detroit next week. There’s a supply chain workshop for the wind turbine industry going on (American Wind Energy Association and NextEnergy) and it presents opportunities you may not have thought of.

Leaving aside the question of whether wind is better than coal or solar better than gas, wind turbines are going up fast. Well, sort of fast. The wait for a turbine, I hear, is measured in years. A case where demand is greater than supply.

There are at least three hard-hit industries I can think of that should be jumping at the chance to go to this conference—automotive suppliers, machine tool builders, and companies like Caterpillar that build mining and construction equipment.

Just one turbine contains 8,000 components: metal parts, sensors, hubs, rotors, blades, shafts, and tower sections. That’s a lot of value added, and the turbine manufacturers aren’t going to do it all themselves.

So what capabilities do you have that you can leverage to enter the industry?

First, you need a record of building highly reliable products from design to serviceability. It’s no simple matter to repair a wind turbine, and catastrophic failures are not unknown. And achieving reliability requires lubrication systems, electronics, remote maintenance information systems, and other stuff I know nothing about.

Related to reliability is quality. Do you have six sigma expertise embedded throughout your company? GE is one of the big time OEMs, and they speak six sigma there. Auto suppliers have tremendous talent in this area, and if you need it, the industry has released a flood of talent. Find those folks now, before the improving economy absorbs them.

Wind turbines have some REALLY BIG THINGS in them. That’s where some machine tool builders and makers of big equipment should be looking, not waiting for their old markets to return. Really big parts require expertise in metallurgy, casting, forging, heat treating, welding, testing, and traceability. How about rolling 17-ton seamless rings more than 7 meters across. What about forging 18-ton shafts?

Know how to make castings? A wind turbine can use 10- to 25 tons of ductile iron castings, from less than 100 to more than 50,000 lbs each. A rotor hub can weigh 36,000 lbs and measure 15 ft in diameter. I don’t have to give you details of the extreme attention to metallurgy and casting quality required here. Forming parts from specialized alloys is not easy.

Castings large and not-so-large will need machining. What turbine parts are about the size of a vehicle engine block? Just asking.

Fasteners. 500 bolts per turbine, then pins, washers, studs—you name it. Need I say more?

The publicized call for suppliers doesn’t say they should understand lean, TPS, kaizen, continuous improvement, or six sigma. However, you can bet the companies with the strongest grasp of lean will be able to gain the edge. They should be able to make parts with lower cost and higher quality. They should be a source of manufacturability knowledge. They should be able to innovate in the area of materials and methods, transferring them from other industries. They should be able to deliver on time. They should be able to galvanize a workforce to achieve great things.

Money. OK. You need to invest in new capital equipment, make sure your software aligns with that of customers and vendors in the industry, redouble your training efforts, enter an industry that you don’t already feel comfortable in. And you’re tapped out. That’s where the AWEA conference and workshop comes in. It involves bringing the latest news from Washington, state economic development agencies, sources of information about tax credits. You can get a big gulp of information about the industry. You can meet potential customers and learn how they see their needs evolving.

In more news from Detroit, it looks like Zug Island (if you ever lived here, you’ll chuckle now) will clean itself up and become the home of a research center that could change the game. The vision is to develop a 15-20 mw turbine (current turbines are more like 1.5 mw). NextEnergy and a flock of companies, agencies, governments, universities and other organizations are looking for mega-money, and might just get it.

Crain’s Detroit Business says NextEnergy has talked with more than 1,000 auto suppliers about getting into the wind industry. I wish I knew what the outcomes have been.

States like Michigan are not going to be able to turn a switch and “retool” the economy. You’re going to do that. Innovative and adaptive manufacturing leaders are going to move up and build an industry. Question is, will you be with them?

Oct 18, 2009

It's broke and there's nobody to fix it.

There should be a special place in Hades for software engineers who believe users think just like they do. (Did you ever think "user" has a disdainful ring to it -- like somebody who uses drugs or uses people?)

If you found the culprit, I can imagine the conversation, "Oh, it doesn't work? Just do this thing with that. Did you..." Like you're supposed to know. Online help writers are no better.

If you're not making things simple enough for your mom or grandmother to understand, you don't know how to communicate. There's an app for that. Bring in a usability expert to review your work and teach you about how non-engineers think.

If you're not testing things to the bulletproof stage, you're not testing enough. There's an app for that. Bring in a reliability engineer to test your work and teach you about the principles of reliability.

Right now I'm in a sync Twilight Zone, trying to get my calendars to agree using PocketMac for BlackBerry. I uninstalled it and reinstalled it and it still churns on and on. Google Sync won't work either. It thinks my radio connection is turned off.

Software developers take note! I'll be Tweeting error messages that I either like or find incomprehensible. Try to learn something about ordinary people.

Oct 15, 2009

Capacity planning and community health

Are you thinking about getting a flu shot to protect against the ordinary seasonal flu, or are you distracted by all the talk about H1N1? People with flu symptoms in the coming months are going to test the capacity of the healthcare system. And why, if it's so easy to prevent? Not only do you protect yourself from being sick, but you eliminate yourself as an infection vector with the potential to geometrically increase the number of flu victims.

Last year was the first time I got a flu shot. It's inconvenient. You have to find out where to get one. You have to let someone hurt you. It's easy to procrastinate.

You don't know if you have to make an appointment with your doctor to get your shot. Do you go to the county health department immunization clinic? Can you get one at the drugstore or the grocery store.

What day is flu shot day? What time? What will it cost?

This year, Target created capacity and customer service by offering flu and pneumonia shots at their pharmacies. I called to ask when they'd be giving them, and the pharmacist said, "Whenever you want."

So today I went there, not wanting to trade viruses with hundreds of people at the AME conference next week. It was mid-morning and no other customers were waiting at the pharmacy counter. An associate responded to my request right away. It did take time -- I don't know how value-added it was -- to fill in a customer health questionnaire and for the associate to put the data into the computer. (You get to pick your own color container for any prescription medications so they don't get mixed up with those of other family members at home -- poka yoke.)

Once that was done, a fellow came around the counter to a little alcove partitioned off and we sat down on the two chairs that were there. He asked what arm I wanted to get the shot in, or if I wanted one in each arm. He talked very approvingly of me for getting the immunizations. It cost about $30 for each shot.

Yes, Target is accepting that they are paying a qualified person (nurse?) to stand around when there are no other customers for the shots. (Excess capacity) But by making them available at any time Target is better matching demand and leveling work than a site that is open once or twice a month. Target is providing a public health service that will keep more poeple well throughout the winter.

Do you think of capacity as something to minimize in every instance? Maybe some excess capacity would be an advantage in ensuring flow in your office or factory. Especially when it comes to people. Wrong-headed layoffs may be hurting companies more than they know.

Oct 13, 2009

HBS study of corporate silos

We know that organizations have silos that hamper the development of a leaner enterprise, but is there a way to quantify and understand what's happening within and across divisions and subgroups?

Harvard Business School postdoctoral fellow Adam M. Kleinbaum, and professors Toby E. Stuart and Michael L. Tushman took on the challenge by analyzing server logs of e-mails and calendars, publishing their findings in a working paper, "Communication (and Coordination?) in a Modern, Complex Organization."

They analyzed more than 100 million e-mails and 60 million electronic calendar entries over a three-month period in a 100,000-employee company--studying what Stuart calls the "soft wiring" of invisible social networks--and found that people tended to communicate within their own groups. "We were surprised by how little interaction occurs across three major boundaries: the strategic business unit, the organizational function, and the geographic office location," Stuart told Sara Jane Gilbert of the HBS Working Knowledge e-newsletter.

"Two people who are in the same SBU, function, and office interact about 1,000 times more frequently than two people at the company who are in different business units, functions, and offices, but are otherwise similar. Practically speaking, this means that there is very little interaction across these boundaries," said Stuart.

He also said that people tended to interact with others at the same level in the organization, making me think that higher management didn't communicate with operational managers much, which would happen in a leaner company. They also found that people mostly e-mail people they already talk to, supplementing personal relationships that already exist.

The exceptions: junior executives, women, and members of the salesforce were active in bridging silos. Stuart and his colleagues will be doing more work to try to learn why those people—and not others—play such important bridging roles.

Although the research doesn't try to answer why corporate silos are so difficult to tear down, Stuart hopes the data will help managers understand, pinpoint, and remove bottlenecks within their own organizations.

Oct 11, 2009

Root cause -- for real

I pruned shrubs today--they'd gotten so scary looking I probably should have left it until after Halloween. It got me thinking about root cause analysis. My shrubs are junipers, and I like them to look feathery and natural, so you can't just swipe them with electric shears. The goal is thinning. Ideally you analyze the growth of a branch, find where a leader and a smaller younger shoot is coming from and cut the long one. My goal was to make the shrubs smaller but preserve their natural look.

To do that, you have to be able to see the overgrown problem areas, then find what to cut. In this case, the juniper needles were so dense that I couldn't follow the overgrown tip of a branch back to where I should cut it, like I would if I were pruning lilacs.

What I had to do is cut the bits I knew I wanted to subtract and gradually expose the branch they were coming from. When I cut that, I got rid of a lot excess greenery and shorter, younger branches hid the cut.

I realized what I was doing was like continuous improvement. Sometimes in the workplace you can see where there is a problem, but you can't see its cause. How often is it a case where you also find clutter, dirt, and debris there? So the first action is to remove everything that is not needed and is just obscuring the problem. Maybe you realize you need more 5S workplace organization work.

With the continuous improvement attitude, you keep coming back and taking more and more stuff away, or eliminating obvious problems, knowing you're looking for the root cause. Each action gets you closer. Then you find it, correct it, and you're done.

But are you really done? Like yard work, you discover more problems at the worksite as you solve each one. You see the weeds. You see the tree seedlings that have taken root over the summer. You know that if you don't get them now, you'll have real problems next year. You see the small bare spots in the lawn that ought to have some grass seed. Gee, what was that endlessly repeated commercial about feeding your lawn in the fall? Would that produce an improvement you'd value?

So if you see a problem, but the reason for it -- its root cause -- is eluding you, you might try to clip away at the effects until you find it. That's not the only, or even the best way to find root causes, but it might fit a situation you're struggling with right now.

Sep 23, 2009

Companies freezing training budgets are going backwards

This year, workshops and seminars all over are being cancelled because not enough people are signing up for them. At the same time, companies are trying to economize by issuing “no travel, no training” orders to employees. Think there’s a connection?

Case in point—Last week the Association for Manufacturing Excellence Northeast Region offered a 2 day workshop at the Toyota Parts Distribution Center, a program that’s had a good turnout in years past. Only four people registered, so it was cancelled.

I was lucky enough to get a couple of hours with AME Northeast Region leaders Bob Gallagher of Toyota and Scott Gauvin of Macrescoedge that included a tour of the parts distribution facility.

You could have spent a couple of days there. What did you miss?

Kaizen the Toyota way was the topic. The first day you would have heard an overview of kaizen at Toyota. Perhaps you’re new to kaizen thinking. Perhaps you think you know about kaizen but haven’t experienced the Toyota way. Toyota does things their own way, and you would have found out how.

That evening you missed a networking session with Toyota representatives and a chance to meet a group of peers interested in kaizen and Toyota.

The second day, you missed a comprehensive and idea-packed presentation about how Toyota does things. You missed the tour I took. Bob Gallagher showed me how the warehouse was organized for optimal flow. He showed me how packaging changes were saving space and reducing damage of parts. I saw the results of years of employee improvements—low cost changes that made work more effective. I learned how Toyota associates had conducted kaizens with drivers from the facility’s contract trucking company, integrating and strengthening relationships through the supply chain. I learned how parts suppliers continuously improved at their end of the chain.

Most importantly, I learned how the distribution center worked with the Toyota dealers--the facility’s customers. They get parts next day. Trucks go out every afternoon to the farthest dealers and through the evening to the nearer ones. Drivers have keys to the dealers’ receiving areas and leave the parts there.

Damage claims are infinitesimal. Bob Gallagher answered all my questions. Your group would have asked much better questions and opened up many more learning opportunities than I did.

In addition to the tour, you would have practiced a kaizen activity with your colleagues.

You would have used THE SAME WORKBOOKS AS TOYOTA USES! You would have been able to take them home with you. You would have learned from the report-outs from the breakout teams in your group.

I missed something too. If the event had gone on as planned, I would have been there for the whole thing, learning right next to you. I would have learned what you are doing and what you’d like to learn from AME’s publications and other sources.

You’re probably as disappointed as I am, and just as frustrated with your company’s decision, as desperate as it may be to cut costs.

Just to give you a contrast, DTE Energy (which I wrote about in the most recent issue of AME’s Target magazine) needed to cut $150 million in cost this year. But they told employees to think about travel and make only those trips that were really worthwhile. They are sinking a lot of dough into training. They trust that employees will work together to make those investments pay off in sustainable continuous improvements. They demonstrate respect for people.

Making a workshop worthwhile to your company takes some structure. We’ve all gone to an inspiring event and come back with workshop euphoria that evaporates within a week. That’s not going to pay off.

Your company could bite the bullet and send a big enough team to create a critical mass when you return. Your team could go with detailed expectations, and outcomes. Your team could start work before the trip, and determine how you will share what you learned and where you want to apply it. When you come back, your team could revisit those expectations and outcomes, see how your experiences fit, and discuss any unexpected epiphanies. You’ll be ready to bring others up to speed, and get started making change for the better.

Looking at budgets for next year? Make a case for training, on site or at a distance. If you can’t do that, make a case for benchmarking tours. Use organizations like AME to network with people who can open doors to opportunities for you to learn. Slack time is perfect for learning.

Make the most of it.

Sep 21, 2009

City clears streets of abandoned cars--makes a profit

Six years ago, it was likely that if you lived in Worcester, MA, you had an abandoned car on your street. Your taxes paid the snowplow operators for the waste of time maneuvering around them. You had a safety hazard. It just plain made your neighborhood look run down.

Then neighborhood leaders and the city council convinced the city to tackle the problem. Now the city’s making a profit on the Abandoned Vehicle Removal Program, relieving some of the bite on taxpayers. That’s without counting the ancillary safety and other costs.

That first year, reports the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, 2,428 abandoned vehicles were tagged for removal. Owners then removed 55% of them, facing the prospect of the car being towed in 72 hours and a $400 fine. If they didn’t pay the fine, the state Registry of Motor Vehicles would flag the owner’s record, so they couldn’t renew their driver’s license or a motor vehicle registration until they paid up.

The city learned a few things along the way. At the start, they paid $40 to tow each vehicle away. In 2006, the contract was changed. Now the city receives $100 for each vehicle from the towing contractor. If a vehicle sits on the lot for more than 30 days, the contractor owns it. It can sell it, crush it, or harvest parts.

In six years, that has yielded nearly $425,000 in fines and fees. Payments from the towing contractor have added another $30,000 to the city’s coffers. The cost to operate the program has been only about $130,000, netting $325,000.

Continued attention from parking control officers also identifies stolen vehicles that are returned to their owners—or their insurance companies.

The city’s income from the program has diminished over the years as owners have learned not to park unwanted cars on the streets. Only 400 were tagged last year, and owners moved 80% of those.

The snowplow drivers are a lot happier.

Aug 30, 2009

What people are saying about... Lean in distribution

I posed a question about lean in distribution operations to the LinkedIn Lean Six Sigma group, and here is a quick look at some of the answers that came in from:

Mike Gentile (MG)

Self-Employed Professional, New York, NY

Jeffrey Jackson (JJ)

Experienced change agent specializing in supply chain and operations management, Tampa-St. Petersburg, FL

Mike Darrish (MD)

Industry Specialist at OpenConnect Systems, Inc., Atlanta, GA

Peter Nathan (PN)

Project and Program Manager and Author, Atlanta, GA

Gregg Miner (GM)

President & COO at SCORE Business Systems, Raleigh-Durham, NC

Ulises Penarredonda (UP)

Divisional CPI Coordinator at US Navy, Norfolk, VA

Alex Conway (AC)

Global Supply Chain & Sourcing Manager-Sealants at Momentive Performance Materials, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

UP: A distribution center is for distributing, not for inventory. From a true lean perspective, a distribution center is non-value added (NVA) in the eyes of the end customer. However, inventory may have business value. It may benefit internal customers, for example.

JJ: Inventory in distribution may provide a competitive advantage in customer service or cover a customer service problem. The former may be important to the business plan while the latter might be waste.

UP: Ultimately, we are shooting for real JIT: A reliable replenishment of goods from the supplier, and a suitable inventory buffer to protect us from demand variability. Our goal is perfection, pure synchronicity.

Key factors

MG: Key factors for Distribution Operations include capacity utilization and time utilization -- getting as much on the truck (or railcar, boat, or plane) as possible and keeping the equipment moving productively while minimizing down time.

MG: this requires excellent forecasting, scheduling, and inventory management -- anticipating demand, scheduling tightly to it, and ensuring there is just enough inventory to meet it. In turn, this requires having people, equipment, and your vendor network ready to go when needed.

Examine the entire supply chain

JJ: The total inventory level within the total supply chain needs to be looked at. This includes the inventory levels coming off of the supplier inputs (whether from internal make operations or from suppliers) as well as the inventory levels within the distribution operation and downstream at the customer locations as well.

MD: There are typically many suppliers with different policies. The distributor may be stocking items manufactured in other countries with more of a batch mentality. One may be forced away from single piece flow because of lead times, minimum order sizes and so on. The manufacturers don't want to transport air in partially empty cargo ships or trucks.

MD: Solving the quantity shipping issue might mean something radical like building a new factory closer to the distribution warehouse, which would enable a pull system, milk runs, move distribution closer to single piece flow. That may be prohibitively expensive, however, so there may not be an easy solution.

Companies have different ideas about how to manage the distribution channel. PN: Wal-Mart has suppliers helping manage the inventory and order replenishment re-counts in a push. While as a supplier, Coke pushes order replenishment with retailers.

How do you start?

GM: The best thing to do is go back to the roots of lean. Keep it simple!

AC: One of the greatest challenges is always what to do first and how to limit the field of ideas for Lean implementation. Lean is a continuous improvement mechanism and the goal is perfection—it’s not exactly an overnight process. It requires patience and commitment.

MG: Applying Lean principles means mapping out distribution processes, eliminating unnecessary steps and other forms of waste, and executing crisply every time to the standard. Sounds simple, tough to execute, but fun when it works well.

JJ: The logical first step in any lean application is to value-stream map the major processes in order to determine the full scope from supplier inputs to customer outputs (SIPOC, in 6 sigma speak).

MD: Identify the seven or eight (depending if one is a purist or a modernist) forms of waste, then reduce them. Make sure that the voice of the customer is used, whether through Kano Modeling or some other tool, use a pull system--only purchase at the rate that the customers buy--hard to forecast, sure, have to build some inventory, sure, but work with manufacturers to lean out their processes as well.

GM: The simple formula is:

Define Value

Determine steps in delivering value

Put Value in Flow

Perform at the rate the customer wants

Do it right every time.

Old concept but works every time.

UP: All these concepts, lean, six sigma, JIT, buffer management, cross-docking, will help get us there (to pure synchronicity) and, in some places, with use of technology i.e. RFID, telematics. It's happening, as lean as it can be, as it flows in and flows out right before our eyes.

Recommended reading

AC: I’m sure you have read "Lean Thinking" by James Womack. It’s a kind of bible and I re-read it about once a year.

PN: You might try reading these two references for some ideas:

1. Improving the Extended Value Stream: Lean for the Entire Supply Chain by Darren Dolcemascolo

2. Lean Six Sigma for Supply Chain Management: The 10-Step Solution Process by James W. Martin

A final thought:

PN: Another area that would be interesting to note would be a large cargo shipping carrier. I'd like to get some insights into how trans-oceanic cargo gets distributed with the trade offs between the “must have it by X date” and rates variables. You can do the same with train cargo, but the sea carriers would exaggerate the issue.

Aug 12, 2009

Hospital gets vendor visits under control

Dr. Kathleen Yaremchuk, head of clinical practice at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, saved enough time for doctors to avoid hiring eight more of them, practically with the stroke of a pen, reported Jay Greene in Monday’s issue of Crain’s Detroit Business. The magazine honored her as one of its annual Health Care Heroes.

She stopped sales reps from pharmaceutical and medical device companies from bringing pizza, pens, and samples to butter up the doctors in the system’s seven hospitals and 27 medical centers. She called it an influence-free policy, and it was instituted in January 2007.

My friends who have been helping hospitals like the Henry Ford System’s to bring lean to healthcare already know that sales reps clutter up the place, even dressing in surgical scrubs to hang out in the operating room touting the latest in jazzy gadgets. They know that hospital staff may gravitate to the pizza to the detriment of patient care. They’re aware that the more influential doctors get lunches and dinners in nice restaurants.

Dr. Yaremchuk couldn’t have made this change by herself. It took more people to do some root cause analysis for the issues that made reps so welcome. It had to involve others to create processes for pharmaceutical and device reps to make doctors aware of new products in a more orderly way.

As an example of root cause discovery (asking why), one reason for the popularity of reps bringing in food was that residents had too little time between lectures and hospital duties to get lunch. So the cafeteria added an express lane for doctors to speed them through the lunch line.

To standardize the sales visit process, sales reps must now meet a number of requirements before they can enter the hospital and talk to doctors. They go through a vendor certification course to make certain that they understood health safety procedures and privacy and confidentiality policies. The Crain’s article said 2,000 vendors have since been certified. (2,000! The hospitals might as well have been conference exhibition centers!) Sales reps permitted to enter the operating rooms have to wear black scrubs, not the green ones worn by the doctors.

Sales reps must request appointments with doctors, at least five days ahead of time, via a web-based system. And doctors turn out not to be overly fond of these visits. Only 29% have been accepting the requests, and some have added themselves to a “do not call” list. If the sales reps get in, they have just 15 minutes to make their pitches.

The policy was not a fiat from a top-floor management meeting. Dr. Yaremchuk has plenty of knowledge of what goes on at the gemba, the place where services are delivered. In addition to her management responsibilities, she’s chair of the hospital’s clinical otolaryngology department.

Results? The article said the appointment process has freed up time equal to employing eight more doctors. Before the changes, that work of the eight doctors was probably coming from long hours for the doctors who were on staff. “We gave them time,” Yaremchuk told Greene. She said doctors can go home on time, provide more patient care, or do paperwork (which could probably be cut down significantly with some continuous improvement events).

An estimated $10 million has been saved as doctors now prescribe generic drugs 74% of the time, up from 60% in the past. Without sales reps prodding them, they use more tried-and-true medications unless the new ones have been shown to be really more effective.

Not all drug companies were disappointed with the new policy. Those from smaller companies that couldn’t cater lunches or come bearing gifts felt the playing field had been leveled.

It’s a change that took a high-level leader to make. Those in the system were used to the process and didn’t have the interest or power to do it. However, a cadre of lean-thinking hospital staff could make a proposal to a leader who had some commitment to improvement. Dr. Yaremchuk regularly shares her story with hospital CEOs who are interested. Even if your CEO won’t go to one of her lectures or visit Detroit to meet her, would he or she be willing to video-conference her into a management meeting? It might be an hour that sparks a big change.

Image credit: Crain's Detroit Business

Jul 28, 2009

Helping your customers get lean

We’re starting to hear more about supplier development, but how often do we look at customer development? Not just adding to our customer base, but helping customers change for the better. One company that’s been doing that for decades is Consumers Interstate Corp., distributor of maintenance and office supplies in Norwich, Connecticut.

In June, CIC invited neighboring companies to its corporate headquarters to spend a full day learning about lean at no charge. (It cost CIC about $5,000.) Every other month, it hosts half-day seminars. Both feature speakers with experience in implementing lean and discussions about how participants can apply lean in their own companies.

This is part of CIC’s lean procurement model that helps companies streamline their practices and offload the buying of routine supplies, letting buyers at customer companies concentrate on procuring high-dollar items like raw materials and equipment.

There are a lot of companies that will give customers buyer’s cards and offer online consolidated ordering of paper clips and pencils, but do they offer lockout-tagout systems and testing and monitoring equipment too? Do they invoice monthly instead of order by order? Do they track everything for you?

Moreover, CIC’s sales reps have developed into lean consultants who will come into a customer’s office and help the staff find ways to make their work faster and more accurate. They’ll help staff construct a value stream map of its procurement process. Fully trained in lean office improvement, they’ll help them take the typical 25 steps and reduce them to nine or so. They look at delays and redundant and unnecessary approval steps that hold up purchases and clutter the inboxes of managers. They show customers how 5S and kaizen can make work easier.

CIC also has an automated process that analyzes customer orders and suggests alternative products that will save money. CIC’s fleet of trucks and drivers make customized and just-in-time deliveries according to the customer’s needs.

Their goal is to help customers think lean and cut the time it takes to order maintenance and operations supplies in half, but their lean training reaches further into customer organizations than that. Seminars and consultation are not just about lean procurement from CIC’s customer-service perspective. They help people get the message that lean can take out cost and time from all parts of their organizations.

Self-described “lean junkie,” company president Kenn Fischburg has been working on improving CIC’s processes as well as helping customers since the 1980s. Happy customers include Iseli (a Danaher company—they know lean when they see it), Greene Plastics, Naugatuck Glass, and Darlington Fabrics Corporation. It’s all about adding value, in Fischburg’s view. He had the vision and drive to package lean thinking into service to customers, improving their competitiveness and supporting a region’s ability to preserve vitality and employment.

Check out CIC’s website at

This is not an ad for CIC. It's a nudge to get you thinking about how you could help your customers survive and thrive. How about it?

Jul 14, 2009

Finding the signal within the noise

Lean Reflections gets a fair amount of traffic from Google searches, and I have to share this one that brought a searcher to my site: I NEED SUMMARY OF THREE CUPS OF TEA YOU STUPID COMPUTER. Boy, what's a lean reflection on this? I suppose it's similar to the TV commercials for Microsoft's Bing--too many irrelevant results on Google. I haven't tried Bing because of an irrational revulsion at all things Microsoft, but they certainly home in on a need.

There's always noise surrounding a signal and that interferes with lean thinking, especially at the start. Everyone has an opinion and so many things are going wrong, all competing for attention. Like Homeland Security looking for a terrorist by gathering data from all our computer and phone transactions, you're looking for an underlying problem in an avalanche of information.

So, lean guys and gals out there, how to you decide what to go after?

Jun 26, 2009

Standard work and Michael Jackson

Among all that's being said about Michael Jackson, he's perhaps most mourned as a performer who entertained and connected with huge audiences worldwide. Beneath the talent, however, you'd find close attention to standard work. Every second of every performance was timed and practiced to perfection by every member of the show, on and offstage. That would be true of Madonna or the Beatles, maybe even Taylor Swift or the Jonas Brothers.

Of course, standard work in music is nothing new--notation has standardized music for centuries. And how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

Standard work will fail if there is not enough practice. Time has to be set aside for people to get the timing right, synchronizing to takt time. If possible, experimental space and mockups allow for offline practice. Practice before performance allows a person to fail without negative consequences, and to try again and again until it's right. Observation and coaching helps to get motion efficient and safe from fatigue, strain, or other injury. When muscle memory can take over in performance of their role in the show, workers are free to think about the process and how to improve it with another round of offline experimentation and practice.

So add some imaginary song and dance to your day--maybe it's another way to look at the work your team is performing on your stage.

Jun 25, 2009

New book: Follow the Learner

Follow the Learner: The role of a leader in creating a lean culture
Dr. Sami Bahri, DDS

For years I’ve heard about the “lean dentist” in Jacksonville, FL, and it’s great to see that he’s written a book. “Learner” is a keyword, without a doubt. Dr. Bahri tells the story of his thinking about management and leadership and how it evolved under the influence of some landmark books. He openly and charmingly talks about his mistakes and realizations.

Because we’ve all spent time at the dentist’s office, usually waiting, it’s refreshing to see a focus on the patient. Our dental experiences make Dr. Bahri’s explanation of lean ideas and their implementation very easy to understand and think about. There are no complicated diagrams or overly detailed explanations, just simple explanations of gaining trust and engagement, reorganizing processes, and continuous improvement.

Thanks go to the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) for giving us this book. It’s short, easy to read, and I highly recommend it.

Jun 24, 2009

Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea: One man’s mission to promote peace … one school at a time
Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

On a hot day, a book about the icy Himalayas is perfect. Mortenson starts out lost on K2, about to freeze to death, when he is rescued by Mouzafer Ali, his porter, who had searched for him for days. Mouzafer led Mortenson to Korphe, where the village head man, Haji Ali, made room for him in his own home. Haji Ali and his wife nursed him back to health, which took quite some time. Korphe is in Baltistan, in Northern Pakistan, almost impossible to reach and almost completely neglected by the government.

The experience was humbling, and the immersion in village life affected him deeply. Most of all, he allowed himself to learn from Haji Ali how to be a leader, how to earn trust.

In gratitude, when he was ready to leave, Mortenson asked Haji Ali what his greatest wish for his village was. He said he wished for a school, so the children could learn—even the girls. Mortenson made a promise to build one.

The book goes on to describe how Mortenson worked to raise the money needed, how difficult it was to change from being a mountaineer and ER nurse to a professional fundraiser. Eventually he succeeds in raising the $12,000 he needs to build the school, and returns to Pakistan.

Mortenson describes the revelation that made him understand trust. Haji Ali told him:

“If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways. The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die…. You must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time.”

Mortenson reflected upon Haji Ali’s words:

“We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly… Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.”

You can read “Three Cups of Tea” as an adventure story. It moves quickly and is vividly descriptive. Mortenson moves back and forth from California and Utah to Baltistan and other remote places, building schools—55 of them between 1993 and 2003, not as a great benefactor, but as a part of a community dedicated to providing education for their children. Because Mortenson respected the villagers he helped, worked alongside them in constructing the schools, always gained the permission and support of village elders before starting a project, the schools were theirs, for all their children.

You can also read “Three Cups of Tea” as a lesson in trust. Going into any organization to make change, no matter how beneficial, only works if people make it theirs. A leader can learn what the equivalent of three cups of tea is in the formal and informal organization of the place he or she hopes to change.

Jun 15, 2009

More web-based career development tools--discussion sites

“My career has been helped tremendously by the Lean experts that frequent the NWLEAN forum. When questions come up, there are usually answers from the best in the business. How cool is that?” That’s what Dean Bliss of the Iowa Health System had to say about one of the leading lean knowledge exchanges on the web.

While there are many good discussion sites, NWLEAN is the one I use most. To find out more about the network, I spoke to director of operations, Bill Kluck. He said, “Back in 1997 the Internet was quite a different place. There was a group at the University of Kentucky that had an email list called the KLMN, the Kentucky Lean Manufacturing Network. It was essentially one way—they would just blast out announcements about courses and upcoming events to the list.

“I thought the idea of being able to share information was interesting, because there are so many questions out there about what lean is and how to get started, and once you’re started, which direction you should go. And if you’re going to grow any effort, you have to have more than one point of information. I thought, why not have a group where there was an infinite series of information points? Even though nobody has the full answer to my question, lots of people would have a piece of it, and if I could ask a question in my industry and have somebody from other industries answer with their piece, and then another piece and another piece, I would be able to better form an answer myself.”

NWLEAN has grown to a community of 11,000 members, with more than 6,000 registered as members of the NWLEAN Yahoo discussion group. At it has developed over the years, it has changed with the lean community itself.

Kluck said, “I think that the quality of the questions as well as the quality of the answers has been improving over the last several years. The first two or three years people would say, ‘I was just promoted to the lean manager of the organization. I have two questions: what is lean and what do I do first?’ The wonderful thing is that people were comfortable enough with the group to even ask those questions.

“For the last several years we’ve gotten into more discussions about the depth of a lean transformation and the requirements for participation at all levels in the organization. We also have discussions about how to implement a particular tool and how it works in a particular situation.

“The questions that really get a lot of people going lately are those related to the long-term aspect of lean rather than the short-term gains. I’m excited about that because it means that we’ve broken through a barrier that it takes companies years to get to.”

Other members have noted change over time. In answer to my forum question about the value of NWLEAN, member Mark Rosenthal wrote, “In 2000-2005, the traffic appeared to be generated by people asking the classic, oft-repeated ‘How do I...’ questions, and getting fairly standard answers. Lately, the topics are far less technical nuts-and-bolts, and almost bordering on philosophy. The conversations seem to be engaging half a dozen active players, and perhaps that many more, like me, who jump in now and then with a comment. It is like watching a panel discussion of some very interesting topics. “

Why get involved?
What do people get out of a group like NWLEAN? Benefits people mention most are knowledge, recognition, and relationships.

“The people who participate,” said Kluck, “are searching for outside information. They may have mentors in their company and their industry, but that’s a narrow perspective on the way to do things. The people that participate in efforts such as NWLEAN are looking to generalize their knowledge. When you generalize your knowledge, you have a much greater chance of not only advancing whatever cause you happen to be working toward in the organization but, in your own personal career, it makes you more valuable to the organization and more marketable in the industry.”

Anthony Reardon wrote on the forum, “What I find interesting are the hard issues being openly addressed and how sharp the responses are. I use the site for professional research and development. I think learning how to speak intelligently on the subject will benefit my career. I appreciate the varied views of professionals that are brought to the table.”

“Reading and answering questions,” wrote Mark Rosenthal, “has helped me sharpen my own skills to visualize problems and interact with people in a way that helps them see the issues and perhaps arrive at their own solution.”

Dean Bliss, commented, “I'm one of the infrequent visitors to the NWLEAN site (the 90%), but I devour the e-mail summaries that come every day. In fact, I pass along the wisdom I receive to others on a regular basis. The site provides me with tremendous value. As a Lean practitioner in health care, I am able to glean insight from all industries and attempt to translate them to our world. And, since culture and leadership are two of the secrets to making this work, guess what—that works everywhere.”

Mary Pat Cooper, a consultant with Moffitt Associates, responded, “Participation in NWLean has helped me tremendously, as a lively forum for my questions, as an inspiring opportunity to contribute towards some answers, and as a challenging and thought-provoking overview of the Lean Transformation movement at large. For me, NWLean is a window into what people may be thinking, yet perhaps not saying. Because it entices me to submit clear questions, to organize timely responses and to look in on what people are thinking, I think NWLean has significantly enhanced my career as a senior management consultant.”

Rosenthal wrote, “A few years ago, I'd say it helped in that it got my name out there to a wide readership. When I talked to other people or when we had people touring my company (Genie Industries in Seattle), I had some degree of name recognition. People would say ‘Oh! I finally get to meet you... ’ It helped to have that ‘name’ when I interviewed on the east coast in 2002, for example.”

I also spoke to Mike Thelen. He said, “People follow the forum and they get a feel for what kind of individual you are by the responses you make. Are you aggressive? Are you defensive? Are you trying to provide clear and helpful information? There a lot of times when you get contacts saying, ‘I read your post,’ and that opens up a whole other dialog indirectly, individually.”

Though Bill Kluck says he and the other moderators of the network try to keep the members free from contacts by consultants or others trying to sell them something, people do connect with each other by e-mail, phone, or meeting at events.

Thelen has taken his involvement in the forum to a new level. After he formed a network of people in local businesses in his home of Aberdeen, SD, he connected it with NWLEAN in some creative ways.

He says, “We often use NWLEAN as a springboard, taking what we are learning there into a more localized conversation. What are you doing with downtime? Are you laying off employees or finding other methods? Then coming out of our local meeting where someone says, ‘I really don’t want to lay anybody off but what can I have them do?’, I use the forum to see what other ideas are out there.”

Thelen has also developed national and international relationships with experts who post on the online forum, bringing them to his network in South Dakota, a part of the country that they probably wouldn’t get to otherwise, via videoconferencing. It’s.

Thelen shares more ideas for using the web to further your lean education on your own:

“I share NWLEAN with people, and other prominent sites or pieces of information that I find. Several people from the forum have gone to Mark Graban’s Lean Blog. I’ve got several people from the medical field in the local network and Mark does a lot with lean healthcare.

“There’s so much out there, how do you find the credible sources? The biggest way that people discover lean is through books, and many authors have a blogs or websites. So read a lean book and then look for the author online. These people are well-versed and they tend to know others who are of like mind and who have information and resources. From that author’s website, you’ll find other credible sources. Almost all of them share links back and forth. So once you find one, you’re going to find a bunch, but the key is finding the right ones to start with.

“Most of the authors and other people in the lean community, if they’re really, truly in the lean community, are more than happy to spend a little bit of time with you for nothing, just to discuss, to have a dialog. They are willing to share information at just about any level at any time.”

NWLEAN is just one example of a forum you could be engaged in. Others are industry-specific. For instance, my friend Sandy Marshall says, “In the yarn industry, we have a hyperactive online community called ‘Ravelry.’ I started a group for my Neighborhood Knits store there three weeks ago and have 72 members, with just under 60 postings.”

When you visit a forum
While some forums are full of rants, political discussions, or bickering, you probably are better off appearing to the online world as a reasonable and respectful person, especially if you are interested in job opportunities.

NWLEAN provides good models for effective participation, partly because its managers closely monitor it. They screen each message before posting it. This prevents sending spam, viruses, and 'out of office' messages. Messages that are posted include:

1. Questions—all questions are posted.
2. Responses that emphasize lean principles and actual experiences.
3. Responses which contain relevant practical information.

Responses may not get posted if they:

1. Have attached files.
2. Emphasize non-lean solutions.
3. Are redundant, or significantly similar to previous responses.
4. Advocate specific software solutions.
5. Are overly commercial in nature.
6. Are more appropriate for a private dialog (such as 'Hey John, have you tried this....?').
7. Are derogatory or inflammatory.

So if you are looking for answers, connections with people in your industry, and a way to gain visibility, find a network group that matches your interests. For a start, try “Groups” searches on Google, Yahoo, or LinkedIn. Observe the interaction for a while and join the discussion when you find the groups that suit you.

Jun 8, 2009

Rapid prototyping in NY's Times Square

Eleanor Randolph in the New York Times calls attention to an example of prototyping a change before investing in permanent large-scale changes. Mayor Bloomberg evidently thought about tourists' tired feet when he closed Times Square to traffic and made a pedestrian area out of it. Then, instead of hiring architects, contractors, and spending millions to lay out seating, trash receptacles, and so on, he had the city buy hundreds of gaudy $10 plastic lawn chairs and parked them on the site. The only things missing are pink flamingos, lawn sprinklers, and wading pools. The neon signs and "video" screens covering the walls of buildings seem to say we're more interested in sensory stimulation than peace and quiet.

Tourists and locals have demonstrated their agreement that the idea will improve New York City by filling the chairs constantly and expressing their appreciation for the amenity. People with laptops dot the scene, and at least one business meeting was held in the new park.

Now it's clear that there's customer pull for a park in the busiest part of the city. It's still an open question whether vehicle traffic will be worsened more than the benefit of the park is worth, but plans are already going ahead for resurfacing the area and bringing in permanent seating and concrete planters.

Not too different from mocking up a new cell with cardboard and surplus stuff before purchasing or moving machines and disrupting production. Experience and observation can determine optimum flow of people (and vehicles now diverted from their usual routes). Just like simulating flow in a full-size cell mockup can allow teams to adjust reality to assumptions. No long meetings, proposals, and computer models can substitute for a simple and quick prototype of a new system.

For more on the park, go to "The best seats in Times Square." and take a look at the scene, with more comments, on Flickr.
Copyright @ 2005-2014 by Karen Wilhelm