Tag: Lean Six Sigma

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.

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 Slate.com, 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.