Thoughts on Lean

Lean is an interesting subject.  As you move along the journey, your thinking continues to evolve.  I wrote about this back in 2014.  I was re-reading that post the other day and thought it would be interesting to post again on what my current thinking is.  I’m sure it will change again, but for today in the middle of 2017, here are my current thoughts…

  1. Lean is a system.  At the beginning of the journey, you are learning to solve problems.  First within a group then across departments.  But as you move along the journey, it becomes necessary to create a production system in order to get flow from the beginning of the process to the end.  If you don’t get to this stage, then improvements in one area are bound to create problems in other departments.
  2. Lean is about quality.  You have to focus on removing defects from the process.  A fanatical focus on quality in all things.  This is what the Japanese did.  They created a better quality car by driving out the defects in the process.  Then the entire automobile industry changed.  When touring companies in Japan, we saw boards where people had worked for 18 months without one defect!  We toured companies that had furnished millions of parts to Toyota with 15 defects, and these were small scratches that would never be seen.  That same company had a goal to reduce their defect rates!
  3. Lean is source control.  This is something we learned from Ritsuo Shingo when he visited our office.  If you solve problems at the source, they are much simpler.  At the source of the stream, you could literally carve a little groove in the mud and redirect the entire stream.  But go a mile down the mountain and try to re-direct the stream and you find yourself staring at a fairly large river and a difficult project.  Fix things at the source where they are small.  As the problem moves through the value stream, it is 10X for each department it flows through.  A problem in the order becomes a larger problem in the shop and a giant problem in the field.  Concentrate on the source first.
  4. Lean is a management system.  It changes the entire perspective of how we manage a company.  We get better by having the managers and leaders working at the gemba (where the work is happening) with the people doing the work and helping them solve their frustrations.  As people learn the process and see the progress they start taking ownership of the work and solving their own problems.  We facilitate, coach and encourage.  People do the work, make the improvements, try new ways, fail, try other ways, succeed, etc…  Leave your ego behind.  Admit you don’t know how things really work and get into the process and observe.  It is amazing what you learn.
  5. Lean is simple.  But not easy.  Lean is the accumulation of small ideas from everybody.  Lean is a deep attention to each detail.  Lean is small incremental improvements over time.  Lean is a lot of base hits, not home runs.  The accumulation of small experiments, both failures and successes, that teach us the lessons on how to move forward.

Many companies call it the “lean journey”.  At Walters & Wolf, we call it the “lean crawl”.  You feel like your progress is so slow!  You want to see immediate results.  You want to transform your company.  You want to do that in a couple of years, not decades.  But like most things that have value, you need to learn to enjoy the journey.  It takes time for the leaders to grow enough to grow the company.

The Difference Between Simple and Easy

A while ago, my boss made an interesting distinction.  Someone made the comment that lean was “easy”.  He said, “No, lean is simple, but it isn’t easy”.  I thought it would be fun to dig into this a little.  Sometimes the most profound things are “simple”.  I think that this statement that Nick made is one of those things.

Several years ago, we were holding a post job review on a project in Santa Cruz.  This project had several different elements.  Some punched windows, some curtain wall, some vent windows, louvers and some corrugated siding.  We track our labor by each system so part of the review is to talk about what went well and where we can improve and look at that by system.  Our field lead man made the point that the most difficult part of the project was the siding.  He felt we should avoid that material and scope of work in the future because of the amount of work it required.  The PM looked at the numbers and said “that was the most profitable part of the project!”.  So, the fact that it was “hard” was not the issue since they actually performed the work in less hours than we estimated.  The other “easier” systems had run over on hours.  Of all the systems on this job, the corrugated siding was the “simplest”.  You got the material in sheet form.  There was only one width and one length available.  You just cut it in on the site to fit.  It did require more manual labor on the site, but it was simple.  Now, think of the curtain wall system.  It wasn’t hard.  Unitized wall is fairly easy to set in the field.  You hook it up with a crane and set it in place.  But it isn’t simple.  Tons of engineering, shop drawings, fabrication tickets, automatic machinery, different vendors, glass sizes, and other elements go into creating this system that ends up being easy to set.  But no one would call it “simple”.

In lean, we are really searching for simplicity.  We don’t want complicated systems that take tons of “non value added” steps to create.  We are looking to eliminate the “waste” and only have value flow to our customer.  So we look to simplify the system.  We look to simplify the shop drawings and the tickets.  We look to simplify the fabrication required.  And with each simpler step, we remove waste.  Does that make it easy?  No.  Easy would be to just do what you did yesterday.  Easy would be to not challenge yourself each day to find a better way.  Easy is the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy.  Making things simpler is the hard work.  There is nothing easy about it.

As another example, look at De La Salle football.  They built a simple system that created a 151 game winning streak that ran from 1992 – 2004.  Was it easy?  No.  They had to work hard every day, every game, every year to beat their rivals.  But even though the players they started with were just average and the players change every year, they managed to win every game for 12 years in a row.  Simplicity.  Speed off the ball was a key simple strategy and they made it work.  Tons of hard work went into getting that simple idea to flow.

So, don’t spend too much time in your lean journey looking for easy.  Spend your time trying to simplify your processes, simplify your systems, and remove steps.  Paul Akers had 4 things to identify to see if you should proceed with any improvement idea.  1.  Is it safer?  If it has the potential to make it less safe, do not proceed.  2.  Will this change improve quality?  If it has the potential to make quality worse, do not proceed.  Is it simpler?  If it has the potential to make things more complicated, do not proceed.  Finally, will it make it faster?  If not, it is not an improvement.  These checks are in order of importance, so if you can’t pass the safety test, don’t move on.  If you get past safety and can’t pass the quality step, don’t move on.  But his third step is simpler.  Even if it will make it easier (save time) you should forego any improvement that makes things less complicated even if it will save you time.

So think a little on this idea and let me know how you will apply it in your work.

Heading to Japan

Heading to Japan

During the first week in March, I will be visiting Japan.  I was invited on a tour being conducted by Norman Bodek.  Norman has been to Japan over 80 times and is responsible for bringing many of the books on lean published in Japan back to the United States.  Nick (my boss) had been invited on the trip by Paul Akers.  This is a fairly large group so I will get to meet a bunch of new people!

We are starting off in Tokyo.  We will be there for a couple of days and then move on to Nagoya.  In Nagoya we will visit Toyota and Mitsubishi.  We then move down to Kobe where we will visit the Mazda plant.  Our final stop is in Kyoto.

During this tour, we will be learning the Harada method from Norman.  Mr. Takashi Harada created a method of self development that speaks to the human side of lean.  It is a way to instill self reliance in each person by helping them achieve their goals.  I am in the middle of reading The Harada Method book and establishing my goal for the trip.

I will go into detail on my blog about my experience in Japan.  Since many people will not have this opportunity to go to Japan or spend a week with this amazing group of people, I hope to document my trip here on my blog and share the things I learn and see.

Learning to Read

Learning to Read

I have always loved to read.  In the last few years, I’ve devoured a lot of business books.  Mostly books on leadership and books on Lean Manufacturing.  These have the most impact on my career and our business so I really find the ideas and concepts give me new ways to approach the problems we run into at the office.

I always looked as books a lot like movies.  They are great the first time but you don’t really re-watch an old movie if there is a new one available.  My view on this had changed lately.

In our management group, we read books together.  We pick a book and read a chapter each week and we have to write 2 distinctions from each chapter and explain how it would apply to our company and what value it would provide.  This has been a valuable process for all of us.  It helps us learn together and have a shared language together.   A lot of these books have been on Lean and because I have read so many books on the subject, a lot of the books are ones I had read previously.

The interesting thing I am finding is that these books that I had already read are now providing completely different insights than they did the first time I read them.  This is not because the book is different or I didn’t read it thoroughly, but because I am different.  The things that I am struggling with, the problems that I am trying to solve and where I am along my journey are all different so the things I am reading and the insights they provide are all different.  Some of the best books I have read in 2014 are books that I had read one maybe two times before.

So if you are looking for a new book to read in the new year, try going back to a book you have read previously.  You might find some profound insights hidden among the pages of something you have already read.

3d Models for Web Viewing

Attending Autodesk University this week. Here is a sample of a 3d model produced for web viewing.  Needs to be viewed in Chrome for best results although they said IE and Safari should work too.

The Power of Not Knowing

I listened to an interesting podcast the other day (you can find it here).  The base idea is that sometimes the best person for the job, especially when the job requires creativity and innovation, is the person with no experience.  This is not what you typically see in the workplace.  Our approach is usually to find the person with the most experience and put them in charge of the project.

But think about a time where you were thrown in over your head and had to do something you had little or no experience doing.  How did you work?  You had to ask a lot of questions.  You had to do a lot of reading or research on YouTube to get ideas.  You had to weigh all of the options and make good decisions then test them to be sure they were right.  Wasn’t it a great feeling?  Didn’t you feel engaged and excited?

Henry Ford in his book “Today and Tomorrow” mentioned that he never wanted to hire an “expert”.  An expert is someone who already knows why things “won’t” work.  He liked to put people in positions where the person didn’t know what they were trying to do couldn’t be done.  He had more breakthroughs where the inexperienced person found a way where the “experts” couldn’t.

I see this each summer with our interns.  We bring in young bright college students (or sometimes high school) and put them on tasks that we haven’t had time to get to but could move us forward.  We point them in the right direction and give them access to resources to learn from but largely, they are on their own to figure it out.  The tasks usually involve things they have never had experience with.  It is always amazing at the end of the summer how much they have accomplished and the things that they have discovered for us.

The issue isn’t weather people are experienced or not, it really has to do with the way we learn.  It really has to do with keeping your mind open and not limiting the possibilities based on your past experiences.  Our minds tend to use heuristics or pattern matching to make the world easier to absorb.  If you start working on something and it is similar to something you’ve done before, your mind will leap to conclusions to make the task easier.  This makes the experienced person overlook things that the inexperienced person would need to explore and test.

So maybe, next time you need to tackle a project, try assigning it to someone without experience.  It will help them grow and you just might get newer and better ideas in the process.