“Enhance our reputation through continuous improvement”
This is one of Walters & Wolf’s core values. I’m assuming that many companies have something similar. Before we began our lean journey, this value wasn’t always in evidence. As a company, we were always making changes. When new technology became available or someone found a better way to do something, we would change. I think it is human nature to want to make things easier and better. So, like most companies, we were moving forward and generally “improving”.
The big change with lean is that there is a context for things. We have a “North Star” if you will. One piece flow. To get to a point where things flow simply and easily through the system. Where the process is visible and you can see where you are at all times. But we are a long way from this goal.
So, each day, we ask ourselves: How should this process operate? How is it operating now? What needs to change to get there?
Invariably, when you start asking these questions, you get this answer: “We can’t do that because….” or “We’ve tried that before but it doesn’t work because…” Most people think that these are good reasons not to try things. But it is quite the opposite. Let me explain.
Lean isn’t about making things easier. Lean is a system that helps expose problems. Every time you want to change a process and move toward flow, you will have problems. There will be things that won’t work. There will be other parts of the process that thwart that effort. But what is really happening is that by stressing the system and making changes, you are exposing the problems you need to work on.
Most lean books use the analogy of the water and the rocks. Imagine that you are looking at a river. In this river you can see the tops of a few large boulders in the water. If you begin to lower the water level, more and more rocks will become exposed. It is the same in lean. At first, there are just a few rocks to navigate through. But the closer you come to flow, the more rocks will be exposed and the more work it will take to solve these problems to move forward.
This week in our company, we are working on reducing the amount of work in process between our fabrication and our assembly glaze operations. We’ve made a lot of changes here over the last couple of years. Back in the day, we used to fabricate all of the metal before we started assembly glaze. We then started working by floors, then by weeks, then by days. Each time the amount of inventory was reduced, the amount of “looking for stuff” was reduced, and our throughput increased. If we were at flow, the time between cutting a piece of metal and setting that unit on the building would be measured in hours. But right now, it is measured in weeks. But every time we try to change this process and move toward flow, we find new problems. “We can’t do that because we would need to pull metal every day for the fabrication team”. “We can’t do that because the yields on the stock length metal will be awful”. “We can’t do that because we’d have to change the clamps on the saw 15 times a day to do those small batches”. “We can’t do that because we’d have to print the same fabrication drawing over and over for every part”. And so on.
And all those things are true. But they are not reasons not to do it, they are the problems we need to solve to make the change. We are identifying what we need to improve. By continually moving to smaller and smaller batch sizes, we are continually having to solve more and more problems that impede our ability to make that next step. And each problem we solve makes us a little better at what we do.
So continuous improvement in lean is about establishing a goal or “North Star”, making small steps each day to strive towards it, to find the “we can’t do that because” statements, then find a way to solve those problems and improve each day.