A Culture of Kaizen

This week, we had another 2 Kaizen events in our company.  As many of you know, we have been working on adopting lean into our company for the last couple of years.  As this process has evolved, I thought it might be interesting to document my thinking so far.  This has been the most interesting part of lean for me.  Unlike most of the other subjects I have studied (music, programming, project management, etc…) this is not a linear progression.  It is also not a simple subject.  It is a combination of intellectual learning and hands-on experiments that continually evolves for me.  If you asked me what my definition of lean was 6 months ago, it would be very different than what I would tell you today.  No doubt, if I blog about this in the future, my thoughts will have morphed again.  Here are some of my thoughts to date:

  1. Lean is top down.  We started our lean journey in the management group.  COO, CFO, Vice Presidents, Controller, Owner, Directors.  We all began this journey together before we announced anything to the company.  What would this look like?  What does it mean to continually improve together?  What do we need to know in order to teach this to our teams?  We read books on the subject together, sharing our key points each week in our management meeting.  We made improvement videos every week to learn the discipline of Kaizen.  We took tours and met other lean leaders to get their input. We toured companies that we admired and that we wanted to emulate.  We toured companies where the way they saw lean was very different from what we wanted to do.  We toured companies that had started then failed.  We learned from all of them.  We sent two of our best employees off to get certified in lean.  Was that a good path for us?  Lots of exploration and study to really understand if this was something we could commit to 1000 percent.
  2. Lean is bottom up.  We put everyone in a lean class.  As we began our roll-out, we wanted to be sure our staff understood what we were trying to do.  We taught the classes.  We were the teachers and coaches for the whole company.   We still are.  I have 3 one hour classes that I teach every week.  These classes were cross-functional.  We were exposed to people from other departments (front desk, accounting, auto shop, project management, purchasing, engineering, shop, field).  We were teaching people we don’t manage and meeting a ton of people we hardly ever work with.
  3. Lean is a team sport.  Working together to fix things.  Working together to solve problems and make things better.  We have been doing two Kaizen events each month.  Pick a problem, select a team, sequester them for one week, bring in a coach and work on that problem and see if you can create a better way.  Again, very cross functional so you are working with a bunch of people you might only have a passing exposure to.
  4. Lean is visual.  Get out of your computer.  Put up a white board.  Write down the plan for the day, write down how you are doing, write down your problems.  Get the team around the board and talk it out.  Make things better each day.  Work as a team.  Have the managers walk the floor and see the problems.  Have the managers help solve them.

The bottom line, lean is about people.  This road we are going down has started to really open up the communication between all parts of the company.  It is starting to break down department walls and boundaries.  I’m working along side people from all over the company, not just the people that work for me.  We are creating solutions that will really impact and help our customers.  It is exposing so many problems it is hard to get your head around it all.  I feel like we are a great company but man, do we have a ton of things to work on.  But we are acknowledging these and putting things in place to get closer to the company we want to be.  All of our problems are coming down to the system we have put in place.  It is never a “people” problem, it is always coming down to the crazy system we gave them to follow.

It was a great week this week.  The report-outs yesterday confirm that people really appreciate having a voice and having their ideas heard and implemented.  We reduced change-over on one machine this week from one hour to about 10 minutes based on an employee suggestion.  We are creating strategies to solve other problems that have existed for years.  Lean is hard, but when your whole team gets committed, it can be amazing.


The Rope Exercise

The Rope Exercise

When we went to the FMI leadership academy, on the very first day they split you into small groups of about 6 people. Each group sets out to go through a set of exercises designed to teach you different lessons about leadership. You are assigned one of the FMI staff for your group and they lead you to an area, select one of your group to be the leader, give that person some instructions and then have them lead you through an exercise.

It’s been 10 years since I attended these classes but there is one exercise in particular that I keep coming back to. This was the rope exercise.

It was an early morning, cold and fresh at 8,000 feet in the rocky mountains where FMI holds their classes. Our group arrived at a sand pit with a rope across the center. We were given a long length of rope and told: Try to pass the ends of this rope over the rope in the sand as many times as you can in 10 seconds. So, one of our team grabbed the ends of the rope and as the FMI coach hit the timer, he waved them back and forth across the rope in the sand as many times as he could. 35. Then each of us tried it. 36, 40, 42! We were getting better.

Our coach asked: “So, is that about your maximum?” And we told him, yes, to some degree. We tried a few more things but in the end our best number was 45.

So then our coach asked us: “So, your best is 45. What if I told you that the record for this exercise is 2,500?” We just looked at him. There was no way we were getting to 2,500 the way we were doing the exercise. So we started thinking and one person asked: “What do you mean by the ‘ends of the rope’?” “What do you think I mean” came the reply. So, we coiled the rope back and forth to create a bunch of ends. Now, when we passed it over the rope in the sand we were making excellent progress. I think we ended up at about 2,000 when we finished.

Einstein once said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. In a lot of cases in life, we use incremental thinking. So for instance, we might want to improve how long it takes to enter the timecards in our office (this is a real life example from my office). The first thing we think of is trying to make the timecards more legible, making the data entry program have less clicks, etc… So this is incremental thinking. Not changing our thinking but just looking at what we are doing and doing it better. In our rope exercise, this might get you from 40 to 45. But what if I told you that some companies (like ours) don’t have to enter timecards at all? Now you have to use different thinking. You aren’t trying to go from 40 to 45, but from 40 to 2,500. Now what? You start looking at the problem differently.

This, to me, is a revolutionary thought. I come back to this idea time and time again. It has helped us to change our thinking many times and since our entire leadership team went through the same training, it is something that everyone identifies with. We will be looking at a problem and someone will say: “Hey, this is like the rope exercise” and suddenly we all start looking at the problem from a different perspective.

Hope this gives you some food for thought. Have a great week!

The Problem with Email

The Problem with Email

In today’s world, email has become ubiquitous.  When I walk by most people’s offices, invariably they are at their desk looking at their Microsoft Outlook Inbox. I have a few thoughts on email and thought I would share them.

If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that I went paperless over a year ago.  So, I am not a luddite.  I definitely embrace technology and all the possibilities it provides.  But personally, email is one of my least favorite forms of communication.  In fact, in order to increase my effectiveness, I have worked hard at eliminating email from my day.

The main reason is that I find that email can be very efficient, but rarely effective.  I’ll give you an example.  Let’s say you come in early one day to tackle a bunch of items from your “to do” list.  You roll through each item and send out an email for each item to get that item completed.  Some items might be directing someone to do something, some items might be asking for additional clarification, some items might be answering a question.  An hour later, you feel great.  You nocked off 25 items!  But did you really?  What do you think will happen by that afternoon.  Invariably, you will receive emails back on about 20 of the items asking for additional information, more clarification or something else.  All you really did was start an email string, not complete the process.

I find that a short conversation trumps email every time.  It allows the other person to hear your tone, it allows the other person to ask clarifying questions and it allows you to make sure they understood and also get commitments on when the item will be completed.  I like using my drive time to make phone calls as it makes me more productive.  If I can’t stop by their office then a phone call would be my second choice.  If you are working with a team, setting up a short 1/2 hour each week to talk can almost eliminate the email strings that will develop otherwise.

If you find you get a lot of emails every day, take a moment and look at how many you are sending.  There is a cause and effect relationship here.  If you stop sending emails, you will at least eliminate all the follow-up emails that the original email begins.

I also let my team know my communication preferences.  For a quick note, send a text.  ”I’ll be late for the meeting” or “Can you stop by my office” are quick notes that work well.  For anything of importance, stop by my office or call. If you email me, I’m going to assume there is no urgency to the content.  I only check email a couple of times a day and I rarely will answer an email anyway.  If it requires a response I will typically call or stop by their office.  This has made email a less effective tool for my team so they now limit their emails and call or come see me instead.

If you find yourself drowning in email, maybe try a couple of these suggestions.  Limiting your outgoing email will be the fastest way to limit your incoming email.  Meeting consistently with your customers, vendors or team will also reduce the number of emails that need a response.  Hopefully these ideas help.

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.