Author: Patrick

Continuous Improvement At Le Tour

tourfrance_2013This upcoming Monday is a rest day for the riders in the Tour De France, and boy do I need it.  No, not because I’ve been logging the same number of miles on my bike in the flatlands of Wisconsin as the pros are on the mountain roads of the Pyrenees.  It’s because I’ve been watching hours and hours of coverage on breakaways, attacks, climbs and echelons – and there simply aren’t enough hours in the week to keep up with it all.

I’ll be the first to agree that the majority of people out there aren’t going to be riveted to their seats watching two hundred cyclists ride between four and six hours nearly every day for three weeks.  Even I tend to fast forward through the flat stages to get to the sprint finishes.  But I have a great admiration for the speed, stamina, distance, and effort at which they pound the pedals.  And just turning on the tv and watching the Tour probably wouldn’t have instilled a sense of awe in me either.  It really came after I read two of Lance Armstrong’s books, Every Second Counts and It’s Not About the Bike.  Within those books Lance gave detailed accounts of the inner workings of the training regimen, the strategic planning, and the teamwork necessary to compete at that level.  After understanding more about the intricacies of the sport, you begin to see more in the television coverage than simply a group of grown men out on a long and arduous ride.

This year’s tour is the 100th installment.  There are 21 stages over 23 days, and the route covers over 2100 miles.  Typically the Tour starts off with a flatter stage with no large mountain climbs, seeming to ease in to the three-week marathon.  The flatter stages tend to see a large peloton of riders approaching the finish line, resulting in a sprint to the finish where speeds reach over 40 mph.  Stage 1 in 2013 was a flat stage on the island of Corsica designed to end in a sprint.  It was a fairly uneventful ride, until the riders were around 15 minutes from the finish line, and chaos ensued as one of the team buses got stuck under the finishing line banner.


The bus was wedged in, with its air conditioning system punctured on top.  People seemed to be wandering around trying to figure out a quick fix, but no one had an answer for this unprecedented situation.  The only thing that was clear was that if the peloton reached the finish line and the bus was there… well, it just wasn’t going to work!  Tour officials were forced to make quick decisions on how to deal with the situation.  Their first choice was to change the finish line further up the road, 3 km short of the finish.  Probably a better solution than a big crash or canceling the stage, but the teams had spent months preparing for the right sequence of events leading up to the original finish line and didn’t have a plan for how to win at a different location.

TourBusStuck2You could tell the poor bus driver felt absolutely horrible and helpless in the situation.

TourBusStuck3DriverIn the end, they were able to deflate the tires on the bus, back it out, and open up an exit on the side of the race to get the bus out of the way.  Then the race officials re-adjusted the finish line back to the original location.  As this adjustment was communicated again through the team radios, a crash ensued in the race involving several of the top sprinters, adding more chaos to the finish.  It turned out to be a much more exciting stage than anyone had expected.

So let’s do a little examination of how the bus happened to get stuck under the banner – what were the causes, were standards present and/or followed, and what kind of things can we put in place to prevent a situation like this from ever occurring again.  First off you might ask, why was the bus even driving on the course?  Well, they tend to parade buses and floats and other vehicles through the finish line before the riders reach the end.  And then you might ask, well what about all the other team buses?  Was this bus special and tall?  Why didn’t they run into it?

From what I can make out of news reports, the banner itself can raise up and down, and it usually up for the parade and down for the finish.  The Orica Greenedge bus was behind schedule, and the banner had already been lowered.  Then reports say the driver received instructions to continue moving on.  A comment from a race official stated he needed to stop and request that it be raised.  Clearly, several failures along the way contributed to the unfortunate state of affairs.

So, lean thinkers – do you blame the process or the people in this situation?  The easy road would be to say the driver was inexperienced and should have known better and it was his fault.  But I’d ask, why was the banner lowered before all the vehicles were through?  Why is the banner set lower than the height of the vehicles going through in the first place?

If I were to jump to a solution before truly understanding the cause, several potential countermeasures come to mind.  All vehicles that will pass under the banner should be measured prior to the stage and any potential problem heights should be noted and tracked through the finish line.  Or, all vehicles over a certain height are not allowed to go through the finish line.  You could even come up with a warning measurement system a few hundred yards ahead of the finish line that alerted the drivers and officials to a potential problem based on the current height of the banner.  All of these solutions, if implemented and followed, might very well prevent a similar situation from ever occurring again.

But we can do better.  All of those countermeasures add some form of complexity to the system.  Added steps of measuring vehicles, added technology near the finish line, added people to do all the extra work – each extra simply increases the opportunities for error, especially if it relies on human interaction.  Ask the question, what purpose does the banner at the end of the race serve?  It is a visual cue for sprinters so they know how close they are getting and when to begin their final attack.  It displays the time, presumably for spectators near the finish.  It has advertising for major sponsors of the race.  And I believe it holds timing system equipment and photo finish cameras on the sides.  You could deliver these functions in other ways.  Visual cues could be done with a balloon or soft hanging banner.  Times for spectators could be displayed on a screen not hanging over the finish line.  Timing system equipment and photo finish cameras can still be erected on the side of the course.

Side benefits might include one less large apparatus to erect and take down each day, one less place where mechanical or electrical maintenance is needed, or where other difficulties could occur.  Perhaps the resources used on these steps could do other value-added work instead.

Many times we consider how to counteract a problem we encountered by adding steps to stop it from occurring.  We should step back once in a while from the solution and ask the question – do we even need this in our process?  Is it still relevant, does the customer still need it?  Or can we remove the possibility of defects occurring by eliminating a step.  Can we make the whole process easier and less prone to defects by subtracting rather than adding?

2013 Summer Reading List

I had a very nice father’s day weekend.  Mudpuppy PorterI got to spend some time with a very good friend of mine biking for a good cause.  And on Sunday, my family handed me several great gifts, including two assorted six packs of beer.  Does it get much better than that?  I’m anxious to try the Central Waters Mudpuppy Porter.  I’m also an avid reader, and was excited when I opened wrapping paper (well, after my three-year old opened the wrapping paper) holding two books by my favorite authors – Calico Joe by Grisham, and the new Inferno, by Dan Brown.  I’ll probably stay up much too late for several nights in a row burning through the pages.

I’m also an avid reader of Lean related books, although I try not to read those when I’m on my way to see the sandman.  Throughout the quarter I’ll try and keep track of several titles I might be interested in reading, or that might apply to something we’re trying to accomplish at work, and order them in a bundle.  And when that bundle arrives… well, sometimes it just feels like Christmas in July.  As was the case this week!

2013 Summer Reading

Why did I choose these titles you ask?  I chose Lean Thinking because I think it is important to read about the history that helped shape the way we think about lean today.  I chose the Toyota Way for the same reasons, and although I have the Fieldbook, I’ve never read the original.  I chose the Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement because I’m a very big fan of the Toyota Way to Lean Leadership, and this book appeared to have a focus on linking strategy to performance.  I’m hoping to find nuggets to use as we continue to learn about what hoshin kanri looks like in our organization.

I chose Real Numbers because we seem to spend egregious amounts of time discussing how to manage our budgets, and I’m really hoping for a few insights to help me figure out how to help others see the waste I do.  Everything I Need to Know About Lean I Learned In First Grade is a great lean overview book that I’ve read before, but thought I’d add to our group’s lean library.  People, also with Martichenko as an author, seems to be well connected to my teaching themes this year around how to be lean leaders.  As does The Lean Turnaround, by Art Byrne, who touts having implemented lean successfully in over 30 companies.  I’m hoping he’ll have some messages that can help me convey the importance and value of a well-developed and aligned strategy deployment system across our business.

Does that seem like too much to read?  Probably, especially considering I already have several others in the queue!  But, I’m excited to get to some of them.  I opened up the table of contents for Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement and saw chapter titles such as “Lean Processes Start with a Purpose”, “Sustaining, Spreading, Deepening: Continuing Turns of the PDCA Wheel”, and “Continuous Improvement as a Way of Life”.  They might end up a little higher on my priority list.  And The Lean Turnaround boasts titles such as “Don’t Just Do Lean, Be Lean” and “Lean Everywhere”.

I once asked a lean author (whose work I respect very much) what blogs or books he reads to keep up with new information.  His answer surprised me a little, when he said in general he avoids reading books and blogs because most of what he reads is just a slightly different take on concepts that have already been explored.  He believed the best way to learn was simply to do – to apply the concepts, to kaizen, and to improve.  It is true – you can’t truly learn what it means to think lean from a book, you have to experience it for yourself.  I think for now though, at this point in my journey, I still have many concepts that I can absorb by reading the teachings and anecdotes of others.

Maybe after another 20 years of doing this, I’ll feel the same way he does about new books and blogs, or whatever medium we’re using then.  But I hope not.  I hope I still have a fire burning in me (and a humble spirit) to learn something new everyday by listening to what others are experiencing.

Affinity Health Brings 5S Home

I’m always on the lookout for lean thinking and tools being discussed in places you might not expect.  To me it means that the roots of lean are spreading further and finding their way to new areas.  So, I was pleasantly surprised when I flipped through a publication from an organization connected with my healthcare provider and found an Affinity logoarticle describing a local consultant (Lisa Van Remortel, owner of LeanKlean) who teaches the methods of 5S to families to help reduce stress in their lives through organization.  The Affinity Health magazine tries to help enrich people’s lives with healthy recipes, lifestyle tips and inspiring stories, as well as communicate what activities and programs they offer or are initiating.

Two things stood out in this article that made me think that Affinity is not just talking the talk when it comes to lean.  First, there is an element of teaching where they define what 5S stands for, at least from the home organization point of view.

Affinity 5S

The one item I think is missing is the “why” behind Shine, beyond simply having a nice clean house.  Why is it important to deeply clean the area?  So that problems become quickly obvious while they are small, and it is easy to spot the cause.  I’ve always thought of gearboxes with a very clean floor below them, or a very clean surface, so you can see the exact location where a leak is occurring. leakgearbox

Second is how they are celebrating and sharing the 5S wins they have had within their healthcare organization.  I really like the connection to the patient experience in bullets 2 and 3, “decreases patient anxiety” and “no longer have to wait as long”.  It seems like they have focused their improvement activities on important areas for patient care.

Affinity 5S Results

The more crossovers I see between work and home for Lean thinking, the more hope I have that continuous improvement philosophy will someday be embedded in all that we do!


Gandhi And The Art Of Continuous Improvement

When I was a co-op in Fort Wayne Indiana, my place of work was on the west side of the city and the large apartment complex where we lived was on the northeast side.  There were several different paths to get from Point A to Point B.  You could pop up north and take the highway around and come in from the west, you could take one of the larger roads south and then cut straight across and come in from the east, or you could do some zig-zags to go in a more direct path.  Of course, as young co-ops who had just learned about six sigma techniques and were anxious to practice them, we designed a DOE to determine which was the fastest method of getting to work depending on what time you left.

The answer was typically the zig-zag method, although getting caught at any number of stoplights with a long wait could throw you off several minutes.  It got to the point where at one particular location we knew that if we saw a red light and a line of cars, we would break off from the main route through two side streets and would get there just in time to jump ahead of the very same line of cars we would have been following.  Were we safe drivers while following our standards?  Did we follow the speed limits and traffic laws?  Sure, to the extent that most 21-year olds do.  But, I’d say we were driving with added intensity, focused on reacting to the situation in front of us so we could shave seconds and minutes off our commute everyday.

taco bellThat added intensity geared towards doing things in the most expedient manner spills over into other areas of your life.  Later that year I was waiting in the drive-through line at Taco Bell for lunch, and it was taking longer than usual.  I remember feeling extremely stressed, extremely upset, because of my perception that they were wasting an inordinate amount of my day, and my smoldering gaze was zeroed in on the motionless cars in front of mine.  At one point I glanced to my left at the dining area of Taco Bell.

There in the window was a kid, acting like a kid.  He was probably seven years old, and he had placed multiple straws in his nose, ears and mouth, and had the biggest, happiest grin on his face you can imagine.  He smiled at me, gave a quick tilt of his head, and then he turned around and went back to his food.  It was like he knew at that very moment I needed a shock of silliness to my system to remind me to relax, that life was not always about how many seconds of variability there were in your drive to work every day, that being angry at the cars in the drive through line at Taco Bell was not worth my energy and didn’t make sense.  I turned back to the line of cars, sat back in my seat a little, and smiled.  From that point on I took a much more relaxed drive to work.

This connects to a key point I try to get across when I teach people about standard work.  After I teach that standards are the basis for improvement, and that they should be the least waste way we know today, and that it is ok and important that standards change, I ask if we should have standards for everything.  The point I try to get across is that you need to have standards for important things.  What are those things that truly connect with enabling you to create value in your workplace or your life?

gandhiThe theme for this post came about because I recently attended a “time-budgeting” class offered at work.  It was very high-level, no new concepts that I hadn’t heard, but it was a great opportunity to reflect on whether I was truly applying those concepts, particularly when it came to choosing the important and urgent work over others.  The facilitator had a quote from Gandhi (although it appears slightly modified) in his presentation that made me stop and think.  The quote was:

“There is more to life than increasing the speed at which we live it.”

Every once in a while I feel myself slipping back into that person who cares a little too much about shaving minutes and seconds off.  And every once in a while the image of a big smile, straws, and silliness reminds me to take a step back and ask if it’s really that important.

Turn Our Waiting Room Into Just… A Room. How’s That For A Hoshin?

Ikitt‘ve enjoyed many of the commercials GE has put out over the last few years.  They seem to have struck a nice balance between informing about technology and entertaining the audience.  I mean, how many times do you find a new way to use KITT in today’s advertising world?  One of the first I remember was “Healthcare Re-Imagined – Love Story” which showed how improved technology can help patient care.  And who can forget the little kid capturing the power of wind?


The most recent agent smithbrings in Agent Smith from the Matrix to explain to us how GE technology in hospitals is improving patient care and reducing waiting time.  And at the end, I think I heard a pretty good hoshin!  Here’s some of the dialogue from the video, Agent of Good:

GE has wired their medical hardware with innovative software to be in many places at the same time…  Using data to connect patients, to software, to nurses, to the right people, and machines.  Helping hospitals treat people even better while dramatically reducing waiting time.  Now a waiting room… is just a room.

There are some additional videos from the GE website connected with this video, including aventura-hospitala visit to Aventura hospital in Florida where we hear snippets from the hospital staff on how they believe the technology is helping them improve the quality of care.  In an earlier video one statistic they throw out is that the system has helped reduce the waiting time for patients by 68%.  Not bad!

If you spend a little extra time, you can find little coded spots (I’m not sure why they made it so hard and repetitive) using the time bar in the first extra video that give additional facts, such as:

  • A typical hospital can expect nurses to get an hour per shift back to spend on patient care, up to 250 hours annually
  • Can help increase equipment disinfection compliance up to 90% at a typical hospital so equipment is there and ready to go faster.

Now, I’m not always an advocate of a complex, capital-intensive electronic system being a countermeasure.  In the first year, or even months, you usually find so many things you wish you had known about when you designed the system, but to change now would mean costly rewrites to software or changes to hardware that you’ve already sunk a lot of money into.  Before developing such a system, first I’d ask, is there a simpler, more manual way to get the same job done?  In fact, many times someone develops a new shiny system just hoping to find a problem to attach it to.  But, if you develop a system to solve a problem, if you take time to define the problem and study your potential countermeasures,  and then design an electronic system to implement the solution and sustain it… well, then there’s not much to argue about!

From the additional videos, I heard several comments from the hospital workers that were really focused on how they use the system to improve patient care:

  • Everything is tagged and is specific to that equipment, and I can go into the system and see exactly where it is in the hospital and see that.  And since my area is critical, it’s a matter of life or death.
  • The GE software helps me provide better care because I’m able to get to the equipment sooner that is often vital to that patient
  • When a patient comes in to a hospital, they expect to be treated efficiently, effectively, and returned to their home.  The GE software is the catalyst that has helped us improve the bed management system.
  • It wasn’t until the GE software was implemented, that we were able to significantly reduce the amount of time a patient waits.
  • For that nurse to have that extra 5 or 10 minutes to spend with a patient, it makes a world of difference.
  • What if, we were able to see that a nurse only got to spend 2.7 minutes with a patient?

Hoshin kanri is usually associated with setting strategy.  I’ve always associated it with the image of a compass pointing you in the direction you want to go, towards your ideal state, or what I’ve heard called an organizacompassnorthtion’s “True North”.  Many times a slogan, or a short set of phrases, are associated to help bring imagery and meaning to the purpose of your organization.  A simple (and Toyota) example would be Lexus with “The relentless pursuit of perfection”.

A hoshin helps focus your organization’s improvement efforts by outlining a vision of where you want to be someday, even if you may never get there.  As you implement lean, you may create a great kaizen process, hold many improvement events, reduce changeover times, 5S the heck out of your maintenance area, create wonderful management systems with visual controls…  but at some point you may sit back and reflect from a distant vantage point and ask yourself, do we know why we did all of this improvement work?  If you are operating with a hoshin in mind, you should be able to connect most of your work towards the achievement of that ideal.

“Turning waiting rooms into rooms” may be a smaller hoshin, for one area of patient care, so it isn’t likely a rallying cry for the entire healthcare industry.  But it is connected to improving the patient experience, and is something just about anyone can relate to.

Does your company’s lean transformation have focus and purpose?  What’s your hoshin?

Hard-Wired for Lean?

Ever take part in a team-building event where you and your co-workers take a personality test to find out more about what makes each other tick?  I know that I’ve taken several over the years, and have seen a few used in our company that I haven’t taken.  Usually you get some kind of a “scorecard” that you can post on your door or your desk to show others what type, score, or color you were rated at.

myersbriggstypeI’m actually a big fan of personality tests from a personal reflection standpoint, ever since I took my first Myers-Briggs in college.  I’ve usually been amazed at how accurately they seem to describe me after only answering multiple choice questions, without any face to face discussion or direct observation of my behaviors.  Some test result descriptions speak in generalities, while others seem to have been sitting in the room with you over the past month!

Many of the tests you take at work as part of a business team event are meant to identify strengths and weaknesses, better methods of how to communicate with each other, and when used properly are supposed to turn you into a more effective team.  My experience has been that managers and team members rarely know how to “use” the results to actually improve and realize the full potential of the information you just learned.  But you nearly always learn new things about your co-workers, which can lead to increased communication, therefore meeting success criteria for a teambuilding event.

dilbert relocation

This past week I switched offices at work.  I won’t go into all the waste I observed while only moving to another location 30 yards away.  But moving tendsinsights-discovery-wheel to be a great time for cleaning out all those old files, papers, and accumulated “stuff” that you forgot you still had.  (Yes, I know, I should have a better 5S system!)  While leafing through some of these documents, I found a personality test my group took in 2010, and decided to take a few minutes to read through it.  It reminded me that when I originally read through the report, I thought it to be an accurate assessment that described me to a T.  (“Color/Insights Wheel” from Gatehouse Alliance)

Several statements in the personality assessment really stood out to me that I can connect to Lean thinking:

  • Usually weighs up all relevant factors before reaching decisions – I like to evaluate multiple alternatives, I want to know how a decision in one area affects work in another area, negatively or positively (how it affects the overall value stream), and want to make sure root cause has been identified and verified before implementing solutions.
  • Can look for flaws and errors in almost everything – This can go both ways, because if you focus on nothing but problems and don’t celebrate any progress or accomplishments, it can be very demotivating.  On the positConCive side though, if you are of the mindset that everything can be improved in pursuit of the ideal, then this is a great skill to have vs. just saying everything is fine, let’s keep things how they are today.
  • Sees the world…as in which he can develop a series of procedures and regulations that will take care of the situation in hand – Process-oriented thinking, I see that there is a lot of opportunity to eliminate waste and defects by operating with the current least waste practice (and improving it!), and that I focus on the process and not the people.
  • May tend to believe that the success of the team and its individuals are a measure of his own success – I think the correct concept here is “servant leadership”.  Typically leaders are not the ones who create value in an organization, the team members are.  I believe the purpose of a leader in a lean environment is to develop the next generation of leaders by ensuring they have the opportunity to build capability, to remove obstacles from their work and their mindsets, and to ensure the team is working on projects aligned with the organization’s needs.
  • Ideal environment is one in which unity and cohesion prevail, theories and ideas have been tried and tested, clear rules and procedures exist – Here I see respect for people through respect for standard work and testing hypotheses, the organization is set up and connected in order to be highly efficient at creating value, and pathways for products and services are simple and direct.

Reading through these statements, I got to thinking about lean transformation.  There is no question; adopting and building a lean culture is difficult for most companies, and it takes time.  There are about as many recommendations out there for how to begin to transform as there are lean practitioners.  One common option is to choose a test area, try to apply the thinking and tools, generate, celebrate, share the good results and use the story to generate traction in other areas.  But how do you choose the right area?  Who are the right people to choose to lead the transformation?  Who are the right people to choose to do the work and learn the thinking first?  What kind of skills should you look for?

By most measures, I’d be considered an “early-adopter” in our culture change.  Lean thinking simply connected with the way I thought, or wanted to think.  Was there a chance I heatmapwas “hard-wired” for lean even before I learned what it was all about?

The bigger question is, can a tool like a personality test be used to identify key traits of potential early adopters and get them involved at the outset?  Or perhaps, could a widely distributed test give you an output that could be used like an organizational “heatmap” showing where higher densities of “hard-wired lean thinkers” exist, to help you choose your starting point?  Would there be value in knowing where you might find the path of least resistance and where you might encounter tougher than expected obstacles?

Just like any subjective test, data like this should be used as one of many decision criteria, not the only criteria.  The test is only as effective and accurate as the effort and information that people feed into it.  And I think for an effective lean transformation there need to be people who learn and apply the thinking and tools well, but there must also be individuals who are skilled in promoting and selling the change story to your organization, and these two skillsets may not always overlap.

Do You Need Advanced Math Skills To Be A Scientist?

Today I was doing some quick surfing to catch up on some of the latest headlines.  I don’t quite remember how I got to the story, but I found myself reading a Harvardvery long and detailed article on a member of the Harvard Quiz Bowl team accused of cheating, subtitled “the biggest scandal in quiz bowl history.”  Reading through the article, I was surprised at how the story spilled on to three pages, and impressed by the level of research and detail put into an area that many across the country may dismiss as trivial and uninteresting.  Then, I reminded myself that I spend several hours a month writing about lean thinking…

The article was on, and I found it to be written with much higher quality and deeper insight than say, the “Top 10 Grocery Store Traps” on the regular MSN homepage.  So I tried another one, entitled “E.O. Wilson is wrong about math and science“.  EO WilsonThis Slate article examines a recent WSJ article written by E.O. Wilson, an “eminent Harvard biologist and best-selling author”, and concludes that Wilson is telling aspiring scientists that they don’t necessarily need mathematics to survive – and takes issue with that message.  (It was a much shorter read than the aforementioned “scandal that brought down a powerhouse”)  The article itself didn’t strike a specific chord with me, but then I began to read over the comments by readers.  Most of the respondents appeared to be physicists, professors, scientists.  In general they argued against the Slate article’s conclusions about Wilson’s message, with several stating that although understanding of basic math is necessary, most advanced math concepts are not necessarily applied in many scientific fields, and that Wilson was saying that “discoveries can come from ideas, not always just number crunching”.

Now I’m certainly not here to argue one viewpoint or the other.  Reading through the comments and arguments, I felt woefully inadequate on the intellectual front.  However, the articles and comments made me think about principles of Lean, a little on how Six Sigma fits in, and what it means to have GEeveryone be problem solvers vs. a handful of experts.  I was trained in Six Sigma at G.E. back in 2000 (thanks Cindy!), and loved the tools, the logical thought process, and the focus on reducing defects.  It gave you a roadmap of how to analyze and solve problems, especially when dealing with multiple interactive variables.  Then in 2008 at my current company, I learned about lean, and saw how much more power it held for the entire workforce, the entire end-to-end system, the entire organization, than Six Sigma alone did.

Lean is about creating a community of scientists, from floor operators on up through senior leadership.  It teaches that you do not need experts to come in and solve all the problems, scientistbut that to truly be a continuously improving organization everyone needs to be able to solve problems everyday.  To enable this ideal world where everyone solves problems, we were not told to go teach everyone triple integrals, how to design a fold-over DOE, or how to complete a one-way ANOVA test.  We were told to teach everyone the scientific method, typically summed up in Lean teaching as Plan-Do-Study-Act/Adjust – hypothesis thinking.

“I understand my problem to be this.  I think the problem is caused by this.  Let’s check and see if that’s really the cause.  If we do this, then we expect this… Yes it is, ok let’s figure out how to block/eliminate that cause and make sure we never have that problem again.  If we do this, then we expect this… And let’s figure out how to make sure that our solution stays in place.”

I think just about everyone can understand that basic line of thinking.  If you assume 1-5% of all the work you do in your organization is waste in the eyes of the customer, and you want to strive to eliminate it all… well, that’s a lot of Six Sigma projects, if that’s your only improvement tool.  And you’re going to want an army of blackbelts.  But you don’t need to build that army!  I can’t remember exactly where I read it, but I liked someone’s recent description of using Six Sigma to solve all your problems – it was something along the lines of using six sigma for everything is like using a flamethrower to remove small stacks of hay in your yard.  So much of that waste could be removed with much simpler methods by so many more people if you train them in the fundamentals.

Is there a place for Six Sigma?  Sure!  It is a great tool.  Like I said, I loved using it.  There are complex problems with multivariable interactions that need to be analyzed with statistics to help make the right problems visible and weed out the noise.  But it will still take hypothesis thinking to figure out what you’re going to do to solve those problems!

Think of your organization and all the work you execute as a Louisville Sluggerlarge, round, 4-foot diameter chunk of lumber.  Think of what your customer values within that chunk of lumber as only the shape of a baseball bat.  Lean thinking, tools, and principles, are what can help whittle away large chunks of wood and get it to the shape of that baseball bat.  Six Sigma might be a tool you can use to fine tune where the sweet spot is when you get to that point.

One question I don’t have any answer to yet is, when do you decide what you do everyday isn’t enough and call in the experts?  When is the proper time to pull that particular andon cord?  What defines a problem as “complex”?  I’m sure there are some simple decision rules, such as “We’ve tried four times and the problem keeps coming back” or ” we’ve tried 10 experiments and don’t have any more direct causes we can think of to check”.  But my hypothesis is that most organizations have a long way to go and a lot of benefits to realize after they begin their lean transformation before they even need to begin worrying about that final 5% of waste to eliminate.

So do you need advanced math skills to be a scientist in your organization?  I think you need the ability and discipline to form and study a hypothesis.  And I think anyone can be taught those skills, regardless of whether they took AP calc or not.

I Came, I Saw, I Problem Solved… I Only Got To A Temporary Countermeasure. Do I Still Feel Worthy Of Lean?

Problem solving to root cause is an important skill to build capability in.  The “why” behind problem solving to root cause is so that you prevent problems from ever recurring again, thus eliminating potential waste from your future PDCAactivities.  Along the way you grasp the situation, take steps to contain the problem so you are still able to provide the product or service to your customers, understand potential direct causes, test the connection from cause to the problem, develop and test a countermeasure (your hypothesis towards preventing the problem from ever coming back), and put measures in place to sustain and check that the countermeasure works and is still in place.  (Yes, this is simply a description of P-D-C(S)-A with a containment step thrown in!)  It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about 4-Step, 8-Step, x-Step or DMAIC problem solving, the fundamental principles are all the same.

Most organizations that begin a lean transformation are already very good at what they think of as problem solving.  A problem comes up, I work hard to understand what caused it, I fix what caused it, and we’re up and running again.  I add it to our troubleshooting guides and therefore if it happens again we will be able to get up and running even faster because we know how to fix it!  And the veteran problem solvers will be able to tell you war stories of all-nighters where hours of investigation finally yielded something they never thought of: a motor wired backwards and turning in the wrong direction, a bit set wrong in the control logic, or an incorrect part sent and installed that looked just like another part but had different guts.  They might call it “stuff that never should have happened if someone else had done their job right in the first place”, because they are still learning what it means to focus on the process and not the people.  And how if only they’d called the expert in the first place they could have avoided all those hours of downtime because he’d recognize the symptoms and connect it to a problem he solved 5 years ago and could have told them exactly what to check and fix.

“Haven’t we worked on this problem before?” and “Didn’t we fix this last year?” are common phrases you might hear that should trigger you to wonder if you really understood the root cause of the problem the first time.  It feels like problem solving deja vu!  You honestly shouldn’t feel bad about it though, especially if you are still at the outset (read: first several years or perhaps decades depending on point or systemic problems!) of your lean journey.  Solving to root cause, so the problem never occurs again anywhere in your organization, is hard.  It can be hard to identify the root cause, hard to rollout countermeasures across groups in multiple global locations, hard to not get distracted by all the other fires you need to fight this week that seem like a much higher priority.

I recently switched cable, internet, and phone service providers from Time Warner to att uverseAT&T, for a whole host of reasons that could be turned into another post on “thinking customer”.  I’m actually very happy so far in a short period of time with what I now have from AT&T Uverse.  It’s not all ice cream and puppy dogs through the switch however, I have had a couple of internet setup issues that have been frustrating, but they’ve actually been more due to lack of knowledge and added system complexity on my end vs. something that was the service provider’s responsibility.

Yesterday I woke up to a new problem.  When I tried to open a web browser, I got an error message from my AT&T wireless router that popped up on the screen, saying “Excessive Sessions Detected.”  It explained that one of my computers had a whole lot of internet sessions going at once, and that it was likely the result of some form of a virus, or malware.  So, my head began doing problem solving.  Target = Able to access the web from all my devices.  Actual = Not able to from one PC.  Let’s continue to grasp the situation.  Check PC #2 – I get the same error.  Check IPhone – I get the same error.  Actual now equals “Not able to access web from any devices.”

Excessive Sessions Warning

Potential direct causes… 1) the error message tells me it may be a virus 2) the error message tells me I may have gaming software causing it 3) could be a problem with the router 4) a power problem or connection problem somewhere in the system 5) something is broken on AT&T’s end 6) my internet cache is full 7) just something weird that requires a restart.

Ok, so let’s try and work through the most likely causes – 2) I can eliminate this cause, don’t have any gaming software going on (sad, I know, I’m a long way from my college and single days!).  4) check to see I have power everywhere – all ok, eliminated.  1) the system error is telling me “virus” is the first place I should look.  So I run a check, and sure enough, it finds two items and eliminates them.  So as I restart my computer my mind is already jumping down the why chain to root causes like, inadequate standard for setting up my antivirus software, or inadequate process for selecting antivirus software.

Computer is restarted, and… nope, error message still pops up.  How about 7) – let’s restart the router and everything else.  Nope, error still there, can cross that one off.  Now it is about time for work, so I eat some breakfast, watch some TV, and off I go.  Midway through the day my wife tells me the TVs no longer work.  So now, new information surfaced that tells me that something in the system is degrading – the problem is getting worse!  So in my head I mapped out how the system worked and where problems could occur (see setup picture below), and couldn’t figure out what was changing to cause the new problems, because most of the TVs don’t run off the router.  Why did they work in the morning and then suddenly not work in the middle of the day?  Now I start leaning towards something on AT&T’s end as the direct cause.

ATT Setup Map

When I got home I hopped on the phone with AT&T, explained the situation and what I’d done so far, and then we went through their troubleshooting guides.  We do a reset from their end, restart computers and routers and DVRs, and the error still comes up. We cleared the internet cache and tried again.  Still have the error.  We’ve now eliminated 5) and 6), and AT&T is out of ideas on their end too.  Their only solution left is to send out a technician tomorrow, and maybe they’ll swap out a router to try and check 4) – the only direct cause we have left on the list.  This disappoints us, because we wanted to watch the new Modern Family!

As AT&T is finalizing the order for the technician, I decide to check one more thing.  On the error message there are two buttons – one says “Do Not Show” and the other says “Continue”.  I had tried “Continue” early on and didn’t get anywhere.  “Do Not Show” was labeled as something you should only click if you think the cause was gaming software 2) which we had already eliminated, and I didn’t want to ignore the error if I really had a problem or a virus.  So at this point I said what the heck and clicked “Do Not Show”.  It asked me to log in to my gateway, I did, and then it gave me a message – “The problem has been resolved.”

docmcstuffinsEureka!  We were now connected to the outside world again!  My three year old would not be without her Doc McStuffins in the morning!  We could watch Modern Family!  I could stream YouTube videos through my TV again!  I was the hero, I had “resolved the problem”!

My lean thinking was gnawing at me though.  I didn’t know what caused the problem in the first place.  I can’t recreate it.  I can’t develop any countermeasures to prevent it from happening again.  And I’m not sure the AT&T person really captured my “solution” in their knowledge database so that they try it with other customers in the future before deciding to send out a technician.  Yes, the problem is contained, and we are up and running again.  Is that good enough for this situation?  Or should I have done more?

Good organizations are very quick to recognize and contain problems, and to get up and running again to avoid customer service issues.  Great organizations have the discipline to spend time working towards truly understanding the root cause of the problem, developing adequate countermeasures, and ensuring waste never recurs.

My Local McDonald’s Thinks Customer

Like any large, medium, or small, and residential, commercial or industrial area in this country, we have a McDonald’s near our house.  I won’t say we mcdonald'sgo often, but every once in a while we pick something up from the golden arches.  (self-confession:  I’m addicted to Sausage McGriddles, but I haven’t fallen off the wagon in over a year!)  As they continue to offer more and more healthy options, including things like yogurts, oatmeal, and apple slices in the Happy Meals, they move a little higher up on the frequency list.  Plus our dogs usually request a cheeseburger or two.

My daughter is getting to the age where she appreciates the toys she gets from Happy Meals, and will tell you if she likes them or not.  The past two times we have gone through the drive through and gotten her one, we got a toy that wasn’t advertised, and seemed like it was from a previous promotional toy run from months ago.  Our initial guess was that they had a lot of inventory of the older toys and wanted to get through them before handing out the new toys.  Although far from the most frustrating thing we’ve ever experienced in our lives, two times in a row made us want to let McDonald’s know how we felt about our experience.

We found their comment system online and emailed them, a very nice note letting them know of what happened, and that we also liked the new Fish McBites and were happy they were trying new menu items.  The very next morning, my wife got a call from the regional manager in charge of all the stores for our area.  He said he understood where we were coming from because he had a young child himself, apologized, and then said he wanted to drop by our house that morning to bring a toy to make up for it.

And so he did.  He brought the entire display board for the latest promotion, including all the ballerinas and all the hex bugs.  A completely unnecessary gesture, but we McDonald's toyswere very impressed with that level of response.  In addition, he chatted with my wife and said that the location in question was actually one of their better performing restaurants, and they typically ran through the latest promotional toys quickly, so they sometimes have to supply them with whatever inventory they could find so they have something to give out!

My first response was, wow, what an impressive focus on your customers!  There was no discussion of, well, what would you like in compensation, no $1 coupon coming in the mail, no free happy meal.  There was simply a quick effort to make a positive impression on one of your billions of customers.

I think a key learning is how important a quick feedback loop on a comment system or a kaizen card system can be in the eyes of those giving the input.  I suppose we expected our comments to go into a database, perhaps be looked at, maybe categorized and if it was one of the highest frequency items, maybe they would look into it someday, but we probably wouldn’t hear back from them.  Our comments would essentially be heading into a black hole as far as we were concerned.

Instead we got response, correction beyond our expectations, and additional information about the situation within 24 hours.  Because of this, we’ll be more likely to use their comment system again.  Not because we expect a rack of toys every time we send an email, but because we now know our customer input is reviewed and valued.  In fact, if you removed the toys and personal touch from the equation, I think we would have been happy even with an explanation of the toy supply chain situation at that location.  We also recognized that we are much more likely to get a response if we include details of the situation, our opinions, and a conversational tone rather than the “you guys stink!” mentality.

Because of this we will now have a very positive experience to share with our friends and family vs. a negative one, something that will stick in our minds for years to come.  How many of your comment, kaizen, or complaint systems are set up with a primary goal of delivering positive experiences to your customers or the submitters to the system – whether internal or external?

The Neverending Story: Capability Building

I was sitting in a meeting and the leader decided to do a quick refresher for his team on quality tools.  Someone mentioned to me, “I guess this might be a little redundant for you.”  Have I heard the material before?  Sure, several times.  I’ve even taught it several times.  But I value going over the fundamentals time and time again, because every time I go through them there is always something new to take away due to new experiences, new applications, or new thinking learned in another area.

This particular time my mind honed in on the Fishbone examplefishbone diagram.  I reflected on my capability and decided I didn’t truly know the proper way to use and apply a fishbone diagram; I’d really only used it as a trigger when thinking about direct causes in problem solving.  And from all accounts, using it in the right way is a big help in determining cause.  So I made a note to myself to do some research and get better at it.

There are clearly many different paths to implement lean in a company.  It ranges from tlean six sigma levelshose that will have a very specific timeline, objectives, and return on investment they try to hit, to some (although few) that will just commit to the transformation and let it take them on a journey, having faith that this is the right thing to do and good things will come of it.  In either case, you typically need some form of a plan of how people will be taught the thinking and the tools so that they can begin to use them to improve.  Whether you have consultants come in and teach classes, send them to Lean Six Sigma Green Belt training, assign them books to read, or have everyone discuss what they read on lean blogs, there has to be some form of an actionable plan to move forward.

Many times that plan will involve “levels” of capability, fskydiverom novice to expert, green belts to black belts, bronze to platinum, student to sensei.  There are usually some criteria, classes, activities, or experiences you need to have to move from level to level.  Much like prerequisites in college curriculums.  Or, one analogy I always use is, “I want to teach you how to skydive before I push you out of the plane.  The outcome is usually better.”

I am in favor of having these types of capability plans.  I think setting expectations for progress is important.  I’m not always on board with setting expectations for specific results targets early on in the journey, other than seeing some level of improvement, either quantitative or qualitative.  The one caveat I have with this fairly standard approach is that some people will work hard to “check the box” on the list of requirements, and then proclaim, “I am now done with my lean training!”  The problem is when they ask, ok, what’s next?  Sometimes there is no next class to take, there is simply getting better and building on what you have learned.  One thing most companies do not outline is what life looks like after your initial training.  What does sustaining your capability look like?

I like to relate capability building to the game of Tetris.  When you first start the game, the pieces come down slowly.  You have time to analyze the best possible place for that piece, because you can see what piece is coming up next, and you have plenty of tetristime to twist it around.  Mistakes you make are easier to remedy.  Then you begin to realize that you get more points when you complete more lines at the same time.  So you begin building a structure that saves a space for that special piece that will allow you to eliminate 4 lines at once.

As you complete more and more lines, the game begins to speed up.  Pieces come down faster, and you have less time to rotate them and fit them perfectly.  However, since you learned the fundamentals at a slower speed, you are able to adapt to the new speed because you really don’t have any new concepts to learn about the game, you simply see the opportunities faster and move the pieces to the right places faster.

To finish connecting my analogy, I see building up the lines on the screen as reaching those initial capability targets your implementation program has set up.  You feel pretty good about putting the structure together.  Then, as those special straight 4-block pieces come along to blow away several lines, those are your “ah-ha moments” when you realize you only thought you knew what you were doing, or that you recognize you really weren’t solving to root cause at all, or when you say “oh that’s what they meant.”  And this process, much like the game of Tetris, simply continues – build up the structure, take it down with your ah-ha moments, and build again, even faster, on what you now call your ever-strengthening foundation.

As you progress and you reflect on your journey, you realize there was much you did not know at the outset.  There was much you did not know after 5 years.  And there is still much you do not know after 10 or more years.  But take solace in the fact that with every new experience you know more than you did the day before.