System Thinking

System Thinking

Dr. Edwards Deming used to do a demonstration called “The Red Bead Experiment”.  He would call up 6 willing workers and have them try to sort through a bin filled with white beads using a paddle.  In the bin were a mixture of red beads or “defects”.  The point was to show that no matter how hard the workers tried and no matter what things management put in place  (quality control people, training from HR, etc…) the statistical probability of having some red beads on your paddle never changed.

Deming was trying to make the point that no matter how good your employees are, if you have a broken system, you will never get the results you desire.

This reminds me of the story of NUMMI.  You can find the full story here.  In 1982, GM closed its Fremont plant.  This plant was plagued with labor issues and workforce problems.  Drugs, sex, gambling and alcohol were all present inside the plant.  Quality issues were rampant.  GM decided it had enough.  The following year, Toyota and GM started up a new joint venture.  GM wanted to learn how to build smaller gas efficient cars and the smaller Japanese company called Toyota was looking to see how their “Toyota Production System” would work in America.  At the time, GM was 7 times the size of Toyota.

The interesting part of the story is that Toyota agreed to hire back the exact same workers.  They believed that the system is the key, not the people.  Even great employees in a bad system will fail.  So, when NUMMI opened, 85% of the workforce was the same as when GM closed the plant.  Toyota began flying workers back in groups of 30 to learn the Toyota Production System.  They trained along side their Japanese counterparts on the lines in Japan.  They saw a completely different way of building cars where people were respected and empowered.

So, what was the outcome?  Initial quality numbers off the line at NUMMI were the best in America.  They were equal to those in Japan right from the start.

So, same plant, same workers and a completely different outcome.

You can see this play out in all sorts of arenas.  When Singeltary coached the 49ers, he was quoted as saying he couldn’t win with those players.  Vernon Davis, Alex Smith and the rest of the team.  When he was fired, they hired coach Harbaugh.  Harbaugh came to the team during the players strike and didn’t have the luxury of making too many personnel changes or even very many practices before the season started.  Yet, in the new “system” that he brought to the team, they were one game away from the Super Bowl that same season.

In another example, imagine your company had to hire kids right out of high school with no college degree.  It had no way to pay great wages and every 4 years or so all the people you hired and trained would leave and new people had to be brought in.  How well would your company operate?  Yet the US Military is one of the finest organizations in the world despite this “handicap”.

Not big on military examples?  What if you had a football team that could only draft rookies.  Also, every 4 years, you have to trade all of your best and most experienced players.  How well do you think you could do?  Well, between 1992 and 2004, the De La Salle High School football team won 151 straight games.  12 years of excellence with different players joining and leaving the team every single year.

The point is, a great system with average people will beat the best people in an average system every time.  Our companies are the same way.  How many managers wonder why their people aren’t getting the required results and yet the system the company and the managers have established is severely flawed?  Broken processes, silos between departments, lack of clarity and leadership, etc…

If you want to get amazing results, build a system that can deliver them.

A Brief History of Lean

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the different influences of lean.  I thought I’d share my findings.

Late 1800′s:  Fredrick Winslow Taylor was the father of Scientific Management and largely responsible for the Science of Industrial Engineering.  Taylor sought to improve efficiency through time studies and scientific analysis of labor processes.  His book “The Principles of Scientific Management” is available for free on kindle.  The book outlines three basic points.

  1. There is a huge loss of efficiency in industry.
  2. The remedy lies in the systematic approach to management and not in finding the perfect employee.
  3. That management is a true science that relies upon laws and principles and can be applied to any activity.

Taylor’s vision was a very “top down” approach to improving productivity.  He felt that careful study and oversight by management could greatly improve productivity.   Taylor, however, didn’t really take into account the ideas of the worker.

Early 1900′s

When Henry Ford started the Ford Motor Company in 1903, automobiles were expensive and could only be purchased by the rich.  Ford had a vision of a vehicle for the masses.  Something that the everyday man could go out into the country side and enjoy his leisure time.

In order to achieve this vision, Ford sought to lower the cost of a vehicle through improving the process of manufacturing a car.  He started with interchangeable parts.  This was an invention that Eli Whitney had pioneered many years before.  He needed to ensure that any part would fit into any vehicle.  By starting to produce these parts, he began the specialization of labor in his plant by having individual people working on small components of the car rather than having a few people build the whole car.

His second innovation was adopting the assembly line process into his plant.  Rather than trying to move all the materials for a car to an individual cell where it could be assembled, Ford envisioned a line where the care moved past the parts and people installed pieces of the car until it was finished.  Where certain parts had more work than others, he established subassemblies.  His highland park factory was a model of flow where parts were produced and assembled on multiple floors and passed down through the building until a fully assembled car would drive down the ramp at the end.

Ford’s system sought to reduce variation.  He tried to limit variation in the parts and even in the color of the cars.  He sought a system that made one thing very efficiently.

Ford was an innovator and looked at all things around him as needing to be improved.  He would have the boxes that materials were delivered in created in such a way that the wood could be used for the floor boards of the car.  He even went further and looked at how he could utilize the sawdust when they had to cut the wood.  He found that by compressing the wood scape he could make charcoal out of it.  His partner Kingsford later changed the Ford Charcoal company they founded to the Kingsford company and they still sell charcoal briquettes under that name.

He also established the Ford Hospital in Detroit.  He built the hospital using concepts from his plant including limiting the amount of walking a nurse would have to do (a non value-adding activity) and also established private rooms and standard fee structures.  Large wards were common at the time and you might walk in with a broken arm and walk out with tuberculosis.  Rates were $4.50 per day which was a price his employees could afford.

1920′s and 1930′s

In 1924 Sakichi Toyoda invented the Automated Loom.   He was an inventor and was interested in helping his Mother with the hard work she had to do day in and day out.  The loom he invented was a fully automated machine delivering vastly improved quality and a 20 fold increase in productivity.  It was designed to stop if a problem occurred.  The idea of stopping automatically and calling attention to the issue is central to the Toyota Production System.

In 1933, Kiichiro Toyoda (Sakichi’s son) established an Automobile Department at Toyoda Loom Works.  In 1937 it was spun off as the Toyoda Motor Company.  Kiichiro traveled to the United States and studied Ford’s production system and was determined to adopt it into his smaller volume operation.

Kiichiro’s solution was to design a system where parts were only created as they were needed.  He was credited with coining the term “just in time”.

World War 2

When the war came, all the able bodied men in the American factories were sent over seas to fight.  This left the American manufacturing system decimated.  They recruited people too young or too old to fight along with women to man the production lines.  The American government established a training system called TWI that could be used to help factories teach and train the new employees and help gear up our manufacturing.  TWI had three main sections:

JI:  Job Instruction.  This was put in place to help train the new recruits faster.  Jobs were broken down into their steps and each step was listed with it’s key points and reasons for the key points.  It emphasized the saying “if the worker hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught”.  This was a starting point for standard work.

JM:  Job Modification.  In order to increase productivity, the workers were asked to review their job and look at each of the steps and see if they could find ways to improve the process.  This was a starting point for continuous improvement.

JR:  Job Relations.  Leaders were taught to “treat each employee as an individual”.    This was a starting point for respect for people.

As the war ended, industry all across the globe was decimated.  Some Americans saw how well the TWI system worked and decided to form consulting companies to go out and teach these methods to the rest of the world.  This included Japan where the TWI system was well received.

40′s and 50′s.

Doctor Edwards Deming was a statistician who was enlisted to help with the Census in Japan after the war.  Deming promoted the Shewhart Cycle (Plan Do Study Adjust) which was later changed to PDCA and sometimes called the Deming cycle.  Deming taught statistical analysis and quality concepts to the Japanese and is regarded as having more impact on Japanese manufacturing than any other person not of Japanese heritage.

At Toyota, in the late 40′s, Taiichi Ohno was rising through the ranks.  He had studied the production system that Ford had built and in the 50′s he visited America and was fascinated by the American grocery store.  It was a good example of a “pull” system.  You don’t put something back on the shelf until the customer removes one.  Ohno developed the 7 forms of waste or Muda (Overproduction, Transportation, Inventory, Defects, Excess movement, and Over processing) and is largely credited as putting all the pieces together into the Toyota Production System.

Creating Habits

Creating Habits

We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle

I heard this quote again today and it really got me thinking.  I think one of the key things in life is to get into some routines.  I’ve written before about my morning routine and that process has really helped me with a number of my goals.  By the time I leave for work, I’ve done over 1000 crunches, done my pull-ups, push-ups and dips, walked a few thousand steps and listened to over an hour of interesting and stimulating audio content.

I’ve also established some “standard work” on my Friday mornings at the office.  Fridays are a planning day at Walters & Wolf.  All the PM’s spend the morning reviewing and updating their schedules and checking status on their orders.  So, while it is quiet, I decided to set up a routine for myself also.  We have a management meeting each monday and I have several deliverables.  On Friday morning I create my report on any over budget items we had that week, I read my chapter for the book we are working on and write my 2 or 3 key points to share in the meeting, I make sure I’ve sent out my written compliments for the week and I create my improvement video for the week and publish it to YouTube.

The practice of just doing a small thing each day is gratifying.  Our minds are designed for the small wins.  The little accomplishments that happen consistently over time.  It reinforces success each day and making and keeping small commitments helps you feel empowered.

I think this is a lot of what happened at Fastcap for Paul Akers.  He started the morning improvement walk and the morning meeting at his company.  He did these consistently every single day and never gave up.  Those disciplines, done consistently over time, resulted in excellence for his company.

So, try establishing some small habits that you can commit to each day.  Even if it is something as small as flossing your teeth or doing a few push-ups.  Begin working toward excellence by creating a habit.


Walters & Wolf Passes 2000 Videos!

Walters & Wolf has been making improvement videos for over a year now.  We are using these “before and after” videos to help everyone learn to see waste.  Every week we look for a small improvement we can make at work or at home to make life a little better.   This process has been a great way to both learn the process of continuous improvement and to help everyone see and learn from the improvements being made.

Check them out here:  Walters & Wolf Youtube Channel

Learning from Failure

Learning from Failure

How often are you failing?  Most people would not want to admit to failure.  We all want to acknowledge the successes that people have.  We want to celebrate the “wins”.  But in reality, if you aren’t failing, you probably aren’t taking enough risks.

Failure spurs growth.  In the last month or so, I’ve experienced a couple of key failures.  First, we hired a consultant to help us with a project and it did not work out.  We spent a lot of time looking for the right firm, we then spent a day with the top two companies, we all agreed on who we should hire and we brought them on to help us.  We began the project with the best of intentions, but after a couple of weeks, it was apparent that we had made a bad decision.

Now, in most peoples worlds, this was an epic failure.  Look at all the money that was wasted.  Not to mention the time spent by all the people involved.  But in fact, there were some great things that came out of it.  First, it helped our team understand exactly what we want.  We were not clear on this before we hired the consultant so we did not get the expected result.  We also learned a number of things about ourselves.  We gained a lot more trust within the group and we were able to make the decision quickly and admit our mistake.  So, while we did have a failure, it actually helped us to know exactly what we really need to move forward.

We also had a major failure with our new curtain wall system.  We had designed the system, created all the dies and then began building our first units and putting them into the test booth.  The first problem we found was that the gaskets weren’t seating right.  We managed to work through that and start our testing.  Half way through the structural test, one of the floor line clips failed and we blew out the units.  So here we are having spent all that time and money to build the units and test them, and we can’t finish the test.

Again, pretty bad, right?  But actually, the failed test allowed us to research the gasket problem further.  It turns out that it was actually worse than we originally suspected.  We were able to get new gaskets designed and delivered before we built the second set of units.  The second test went exceptionally well.

As my boss is fond of quoting:  Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently (Henry Ford I think).  I really find this to be true.  First, if you aren’t pushing hard to stretch your limits, you probably won’t find yourself failing.  Each failure helps you see where the limits are and helps you find a way to get around them.  This in turn spurs your growth and your knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.

So what will you fail at this week?


Better Communication

Better Communication

Everyone has heard of the golden rule:  Treat others the way you would want them to treat you.  Not as many people have heard of the platinum rule:  Treat others the way they want to be treated.  The difference is subtle but profound.  In most of our communication and interactions, we approach things from our own paradigm.  We don’t often stop to think about the other person’s paradigm.  Our paradigms are the lens through which we see and interact with the world, and we are all different.

How does this apply to the construction world?  In construction, we are constantly being assigned to new projects.  Each project has a different set of external people (Architect, Contractor, Owner, etc…) and a different set of internal people (Engineers, Drafting, Vendors, etc…).  You can’t take a “one size fits all” approach to either your external team or your internal team.

What I typically see, is that people tend to interact in the way that works for them.  If you like email, you tend to send emails.  If you like face-to-face conversations, you tend to do that.  Some of the time, this may work out for you because the person you are interfacing with just happens to have a communication style that is similar to yours.  Many times though, I find that the problems we get into on our projects come down to poor communication between the team.

One way to look at this is through the DISC model.  If you aren’t familiar with DISC, there are tons of resources on-line that can give you a complete overview.  Basically it is a way of looking at peoples preferences when it comes to interacting with each other.  In brief, people fall into 4 categories.  High D is command and control.  Usually your CEO types.  Think of General Patton.  High I will be more like your consummate salesman.  Extroverted and loves to interact.  High S is your more feeling types.  They will be concerned with other people on the team and making sure there is harmony.  The high C’s on your team are more engineering types.  They love data and detail.  This is a complete oversimplification and most people have a mix of these but you get the general idea.

So how do you apply this?  First, you will find your communication will be more effective if you communicate in the other person’s style.  For instance, if the general contractor is a high D, it will probably not help you to hit the job site on Monday morning and start asking how his weekend was.  However, if your superintendent is a high “I” it will probably help if you spend a bit more time talking about the weekend rather than just launching into your list of questions.

I was in a PM’s office and they were complaining that one of their team members had not followed his instructions.  I suggested that maybe it would be good to confirm the verbal instructions in writing.  This did not go over well.  He didn’t understand why he should have to document what he had told someone verbally.  It seemed like a waste of everyone’s time.  So, I asked him:  What is your preferred communication style?  His answer:  Verbal, face to face communication was his preference (he is a very high D).  I then asked him:  What is your team members’ preference.  He said he wasn’t sure (he had never asked).  I then asked him:  What is this person’s first language?  It turns out, it isn’t English.  So, I said, if you were living in their country, don’t you think it would be good to be able to read the instructions also to be sure you fully understood what was needed?  He actually agreed with me.  Looking at what would be best for the other person would greatly increase the effectiveness of the conversation.

Communication is what the listener does.  You are not communicating effectively unless the person you are communicating with actually got the message.  By being agile and changing your communication style to match the other person, you may find that you get much better results overall.