Continuous Improvement

Continuous Improvement

“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.

A Different Take on Self Development

A Different Take on Self Development

Maybe we start out complete but our eyes are blinded at birth. Our path through life is finding our way and uncovering who we really are. We don’t add new skills and become something we actually just uncover who we were to begin with. 

The spiritual journey does not consist in arriving at a new destination where a person gains what he did not have or becomes what he is not it consists in the dissipation of one’s own ignorance concerning one’s self and life and the gradual growth of that understanding which begins the spiritual awakening the finding of God is a coming to one’s self.  - Aldus Huxly

I read this quote in one of Dr. Wayne Dyer’s books “The power of intention”.  It really struck me.  It reminded me of a quote I read once from Michelangelo:

In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.—Michelangelo

We often see our careers and life as additive.  That we begin as an empty vessel and learn new skills, acquire new talents, and become more.  But this view is very different.  What if our lives are really a struggle to become what we already are?  What if we were born a complete being but that truth is hidden from us.  Each choice we make and interest we find is just another layer being peeled off to show the person hidden within?
Not unlike the block of marble, we are hidden within the rock and just need to learn and grow to “hew away the  rough walls that imprison” us.
Definitely a different view on life that I hadn’t heard before…


Standard Work

Standard Work

A popular concept in Lean is standard work.  Taiichi Ohno once said “Where there is no standard, there can be no Kaizen”.  We tend to think of this as looking for the best way to do something, documenting that standard, creating some type of visual control (posting the process maybe) and then enforcing that standard.

I’ve been re-reading the Toyota Kata book this week and found an interesting quote on the subject:

A popular concept is that we can utilize standards to maintain a process condition (Figure 1-3). However, it is generally not possible simply to maintain a level of process performance. A process will tend to erode no matter what, even if a standard is defined, explained to everyone, and posted. This is not because of poor discipline by workers (as many of us may believe), but due to interaction effects and entropy, which says than any organized process naturally tends to decline to a chaotic state if we leave it alone.   The point is that a process is either slipping back or being improved, and the best and perhaps only way to prevent slipping back is to keep trying to move forward, even if only in small steps. 

This is a fresh look at the idea of “standard work”.  In order to create a standard, we need to be working toward improving the process.  This way our process is constantly evolving and therefore people will more likely follow the standard.  If we try to nail down a standard then just tell people to follow it, it will eventually erode and when you revisit that process later, you will find the standard has faded and people are not following the standard any longer.

A couple of quotes for your week

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could do better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat. – President Theodore Roosevelt

It is the striving forward that is the key.  It is setting goals and working toward them that gets us to where we want to go.  It is a fact of life that whenever you strive to move forward in life, there are people who will have lots of reasons why whatever you are attempting won’t work.  The funny part is, it is rarely the people who are working with you to move forward that have these comments, it is always the people who are sitting on the sidelines who have comments.  When I tell people about how we are applying lean in our company, I get lots of comments from people who say “that won’t work in a company like ours”.  Really?  They haven’t even tried and yet they already think it won’t work.

If you think you can or you think you can’t, you are probably right.  - Henry Ford

This quote says it all.  Our attitudes control our actions.  See things as being easy, and they will seem easy.  See things as being difficult, and they will seem difficult.  If you tend to see things as being difficult, then you won’t believe this is possible.  Again, just another example of the quote.  If you tend to see things as being easy, then you will agree with this philosophy.  Again, just another example of this quote.

So what great goal will you set?  What thing that seems impossible will you dream to achieve.  Don’t listen to the people who want to criticize.  Don’t pay attention to the people who want to tell you all the reasons you will fail.  Just set the goal, find the small incremental things you need to do each day to move toward it, think you can, and get moving.

The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the Boat

Our management team just finished reading the new book by Daniel James Brown called “The Boys in the Boat”.  This is the saga of the University of Washington’s rowing team and their bid to win the 1936 Olympics.

We had been reading a lot of business and lean books and Nick thought it might be a good time to dive into something different.  We did our usual process of reading a couple of chapters each week then typing up our distinctions and sharing them together each Monday.

The fascinating thing about this book is the focus on “team”.  Rowing as a team requires that each person in the boat row at the same pace and power as everyone else in the boat.  If one person tries to row faster, it throws everything off.  It requires trust.  Trust that everyone else in the boat is doing exactly what you are doing and that you are all working toward the common goal.

There were so many similarities between the book and our Senior Management Team.  First, there are 9 men in the boat and there are 9 men on our team.  It won’t help if we have a team of individuals all trying to accomplish their own goals.  We need 9 people who have a single vision, who trust each other, who will have each other’s back if things get tough, who will find a way to work together to achieve our common goals.

The book was a great read and our whole team was really into it.  The distinctions were deep and thought provoking.  I think we all really have a much better understanding of how hard it is to find that perfect team and that it takes a ton of work to get there.

We are traveling up to Seattle next week to visit the boat house where the team practiced and where the boat they used is on display.  We will use this as our mid-year off-site to really dig deeper into how we can better work as a team and how we can help support the company and its goals.

We are blessed to find ourselves with so much opportunity.  We have an amazing owner, a great leader, and a great leadership team.  We have a strong market with lots of great projects.  We know we have the ability to really leave a legacy in this company and our industry, but we can’t do it on our own.  It will take all the boys in the boat to really achieve the goals we have set for ourselves.

Should be a great week!

My 14 Year Anniversary

My 14 Year Anniversary

This month marks my 14 year anniversary at Walters & Wolf.  This is the forth company I’ve worked for in this industry and I have great respect and admiration for the company that Randy Wolf has built.  I thought I’d take a minute and post about the different companies I’ve worked for and contrast that with what I have found here.

My first experience was working for a replacement branch for Cobbledick and Kibbe.  This was in the early 80′s.  The branch I worked at in San Jose sold paints and stains and wall mirrors out of a retail shop in the front of the store.  We had a small shop with a cutting table and we stocked some basic glass that we could cut if someone came in to buy a piece of glass.  We also sold wood and aluminum windows for new homes or remodels and we sold insulated units to retrofit residential windows which were mostly single glazed at the time.  This was a fun company and I worked for one of my favorite people and my early mentor Frank Barbaccia.  I learned how to build relationships, how to service customers and how to run a small company.  The branch was pretty much Frank’s to run how he saw fit and he had lots of local connections he utilized to generate business.

As many companies in the early 80′s, Cobbledick and Kibbe went through a leveraged buy-out.  This was a 100 year old company with wholesale, contract and retail branches.  The new owners decided that it wasn’t in their interest to have retail branches and they only wanted to do contract work and the bigger the better.  We consolidated three replacement branches and formed a contract branch in San Jose.  This was my first exposure to larger projects.  I ran several projects for the San Jose branch and made a ton of mistakes.  No training, no supervision, just “sink or swim”.  I learned a lot but it cost the company a lot of money for those lessons.

I then heard about an opportunity to work at our LA branch.  This was a good opportunity for me to move up and I jumped at the chance.  I was given the opportunity to run a 22 story unitized curtain wall project in Woodland Hills.  Again, no training or oversight.  My manager, Jim Koch also became a mentor to me.  I learned that sometimes you just need to wade in and get things done.  He had been an estimator and several of the jobs he bid were in LA.  They were not going very well so he decided to move to LA and run the branch to make sure his projects were on budget.

It took a few years, but the new owners ran Cobbledick and Kibbe Glass Company out of business.  I then began looking for a job in the Bay Area since my wife and I wanted to move back.  I landed a job at Midwest Plate Glass.

One thing I wanted to do was get experience with a lot of projects.  Large projects are great, but it takes a long time to complete them.  Midwest did contract work in the Bay Area and they didn’t do anything over a million dollars.  I was the only PM so I was running about 20 – 25 jobs at a time.  We did mostly buy-out Kawneer systems.  This was a great experience of running lots of work and touching lots of materials.  I taught myself Autocad and began doing my own shop drawings to make my process smoother and faster.  Bill Finnegan, one of the owners, was another great mentor for me.  He was unique, as anyone in the industry will tell you, but he treated me like a son and I learned a lot from him.  I had a couple of jobs using panel systems and I contracted these out to a company called C/S Erectors.  Mike Carvin was the owner and we would go out to lunch when he was down and talk about his company and what they were doing.  In the end, as the Midwest owners decided to retire, I called Mike up and got a job there.

C/S Erectors was primarily a panel company.  My first day there, I was handed 4 projects to run.  I didn’t know much about panels but I knew a lot about developing relationships with customers, running projects and working with vendors.  I also knew how to draw shop drawings and I drew my own shop drawings here also.  There were a lot of tedious processes with panels.  I taught myself to program and began building some database programs to make this easier.  I wrote my first panel optimization program, my first program to draw fabrication drawings for the extrusions we used on the back of the panels and created databases that could make the releases and quantities easier to manage.  Mike Carvin became another one of my mentors.  He taught me a lot about running a business, how to work with architects to get specified, how to create products that other people would have a hard time copying, and even helped me out with some personal issues I had.

So, the pattern so far is this.  I worked at mostly smaller companies.  The owner or manager became a mentor to me and showed me the ropes.  There was no training, no instruction anywhere.  I kept learning new skills and growing to try to deliver as much value as possible.  I’d draw my own shop drawings, write  my own programs, whatever it took to be able to run more projects and be more valuable.

14 years ago, I accepted a job at Walters & Wolf.  My position was to write a program that would help with our material takeoffs and fabrication drawings.  This was the year 2000 and the dot com boom was in full swing.  The company had grown enormously but mostly by adding people.  This was my first experience of being in a large company.  There were few standards in place and people were just doing their best to get the work done.  I spent my first few years writing code, doing takeoffs and doing fabrication drawings with the program I was building.  As things began to click, I added a couple of people to my team and we started doing more and more of the process.  As the company started looking at automated equipment, I got to be part of that process and develop the interfaces to the machines.  By doing fabrication tickets, I learned all about the systems that Walters & Wolf was developing and with all the things I had learned in my other companies, I was able to help develop our new standard  systems.  When my boss was promoted to COO, he asked me to become VP of Operations.

Contrasting Walters & Wolf to my other company experiences, here is what I find.  Randy became successful by developing great relationships and being fully engaged with what was happening on the job sites.  But he trusted other people to run parts of the company.  Skip Weltz ran the field, Rod West ran the shop, Nick ran operations, etc..  This enabled the company to grow.  If you can’t trust people with more and more responsibility then you won’t be able to grow beyond the owner’s ability to oversee things.  My opportunities here were endless.  I got to help design systems, set up our Autocad system, build the SQL Server database, create all of our portal and wiki infrastructure, work with our shop on equipment purchases, work with the purchasing department on stream lining their process, all while I was just a programmer.  Anything I wanted to help with, people were willing to give me the chance.  There are unlimited opportunities for people to grow here.  You might have to invent the job you want, but if you prove you can do it, people will let you.  There is a lot of trust and camaraderie and very little politics.  We struggle with communication at times because of the size of the company but we acknowledge that weakness and are working on it.

The last 14 years have been excellent.  I’ve been challenged to learn and grow.  When I was in this business 5 years, I thought to myself “man, I didn’t know anything 5 years ago!”.  Then when I was in the business about 10 years I looked back and said “wow, I didn’t know anything at 5 years”.  And every 5 years I could see my growth.  When I started here, I felt I could say that every year “wow, I didn’t know anything a year ago”.  And today, I feel like I can say that every month “wow, I didn’t know any of these things a month ago”.

The other amazing thing here is the people.  We have hired very few people from our industry.  Most of our hiring has been entry level.  In our management group, I’m one of the least tenured people in the group at 14 years.  We have a great combination of young and upcoming talent along with long term (over 30 year) veterans.  I learn so much from the people around me.

So, after 14 years, I’m very grateful for the company that I work for. I look forward to the challenges I get to help solve and the people I get to work with each and every day.  Life is good!