Tag: Lean Transformations

To Strive For Perfection Or Not To Strive For Perfection… That Is The Question…

Mornings at my house aren’t chaotic, per se, but they are quite busy.  Our two little school age kids still need a lot of help getting dressed, fed, and ready.  Waffles are their preferred choice of breakfast food.  Everyday.  With butter, syrup, and whipped cream of course.  And we all like our sleep, so we get up with only the minimum amount of time necessary to get everything done before we head out the door to school and work.

So it is not unheard of for a mistake to be made, between preparing breakfasts, packing lunches, making sure outfits match, getting on the snow pants, making sure the right earrings are in, making sure the library books are packed (oh, and we didn’t read it in the past week?  By all means, let’s read it right now)…. you get the idea.

One of my duties is to make sure both kids have water bottles filled and packed.  Not a difficult task.  But for some reason, sometimes it is hard to remember to get it done, catching it at the last minute before we get in the car.  99 times out of 100, they have their water bottle. But I missed one morning, completely forgot.  Before you scold me too much, of course they have drinking fountains and cups available at school… they survived.  But I still felt bad.

So I began wondering… how can I prevent this from ever happening again?  What system can I create, what checks can I put in place?  A dry erase task list on the door to the garage?  A reminder that pops up on my phone?  Ask my wife to do a double-check?   Five sets of water bottles, with a circle labeled M-T-W-R-F under them so it is clear if today’s bottles have been utilized?  Ask the kids to learn to take responsibility themselves? (You’re right… silly thought…)

Nothing I was brainstorming appeared to be simple and also immune to human fallacy.  With all my ideas, there was still a chance I would forget, walk by the reminder without noticing because my brain was focused on the big meeting I had that day, still a chance a defect would get through.  And I don’t think my budget request would be approved for RFID chips in backpacks and water level sensors in water bottles and a connection to the car that wouldn’t let it start unless full water bottles were detected to be in the vehicle…  (I tested that hypothesis… it was correct… budget request denied)

Then I began thinking about an important question…. did it matter?  If a mistake was made and I missed the water bottles every once in a great while, should I care?  The kids weren’t unhappy… the teachers didn’t send any nasty grams home… I didn’t get yelled at… much… it might only happen two or three time a school year.  Really, the only thing driving me to attempt to improve here was my standard desire to eliminate defects and strive for perfection in anything and everything.  So I chose to let it go.  This time.

Why do lean transformations fail?  Why are they abandoned, sometimes after several years, even with wins and excitement early on?  Of course there are many, many factors, endlessly debated in books and blogs and conferences and online forums, and every situation is different.  But I think a key one is in the title of this post.  Are you as a company, as an organization, committed to striving for perfection?  Whatever your version of perfection is?

As your organization becomes more competent in identifying waste, identifying problems in your processes, the amount of opportunities you could work on begins to outweigh your capacity for actually working on them.  And as the water is lowered, and more systemic, complex, and multi-functional problems and opportunities are surfaced, developing simple solutions that are easily implemented gets harder.  People begin to ask – do we really need to spend time on that?  I’m busy – can it wait?  That seems hard… I’m not sure we will see the immediate benefits of this effort for a while – I’d rather focus on bringing in the quarterly numbers.

Selecting the right things to work on and improve is not always easy for large organizations, and lies somewhere between having an onerous improvement idea/initiative prioritization process that stifles the very spirit of making problems visible in the first place, and simply choosing to work on whatever problem we see today and never solving things through to root cause.  What are the one or two most important things you must accomplish to achieve your business plans?  Improve those processes that will help you deliver them.  Kaizen those obstacles that sit in your path.

If you have developed a clear understanding of what perfection is for your organization, and if you are committed to achieving it, then those questions should become easy to answer.  Does improving this process help you along the path towards your goal?  Or said another way, are the problems you see preventing you from achieving those goals?  If so – the answer is yes, you should spend the time and energy to improve.  If you don’t have that vision of perfection, or if you aren’t committed to it, then the questions and debate will continue to swirl.  Less-committed team members will see lack of clarity and commitment and begin to drift back to their old methods and ways of doing work.  Highly-committed team members will continue to want to improve what they believe makes sense, but will become frustrated when other team members, leaders, and functions are not coming along with them.

Vision – Commitment – Alignment – Discipline.  These are keys to continued progress towards your goals of perfection.

If you’re wondering, yes, it did happen again, several months later.  And the kids survived, and nothing bad happened, and heck, the boy seems to prefer having no water bottle… but for a moment I still wondered what I could have put in place three months ago to have prevented the miss.  The moment passed, and then I made another waffle.

Just Teach Already!

I’m not fully self-aware of all the factors that contributed to my nearly year-long delinquency between posts.  Therefore I’m not aware of what may have shifted within me to trigger a new one.  And I won’t bore you (or myself) to death with a deep reflection analysis.  The one thing out of many that I can put a high degree of certainty on is that I think I missed teaching people.
I had the opportunity the other week at work to teach an Introduction to Lean class to a group that was just beginning their lean journey.  (Yes, at least 7 years in from initial pilot areas and we still have groups just getting started!  It’s a big company and a long journey…)  We covered many of the basics – from waste to mindsets to standard work to visual management to 5S to problem solving.  We had a wide mix of lean experience in the class.  What I loved about that mix was that the newbies learned by hearing the stories from their colleagues, and the more experienced folks learned by teaching the newbies by answering their questions themselves, and throwing in a war story here and there.
c-s-lewis teaching quote
I also enjoyed preparing for the class.  Typically I review the teaching deck, highlight key points I want to drive home, write down probing questions to ask them about the material, note a few war stories of my own to share, and really think through the process of the exercises we will put them through.
That’s one of the most challenging tasks there is – how do you design an exercise that can be controlled to fit in a short amount of time yet still allow creative thinking, drive home key learning points through experience, and have a little fun so they remember it, it sticks, and they want to apply it in their daily work?  I’ve been a part of a few of those over the years, and I’m grateful to the teachers I had who either put the effort in to design such an exercise or were just plain talented enough to make it up as they went.
Einstein teaching quote
The intro class reminded me of how much work there is to be done, not just in my company but beyond, in order to continue to wage a relentless war on waste.  And it reminded me how much fun it was to begin to open up people’s eyes to both see those wastes for what they are, and to begin to teach them how they can attack them.
So I think what this means for me is a foray back into the world of blogging, creating content that hopefully creates a spark of interest in learning more about lean thinking in someone, and teaching again.
Have you taught someone recently?  If not, remember to take on the next opportunity that presents itself.  Every interaction with someone is an chance to teach!
krzyzewski teaching quote

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.

Inspirational Quotes and Reflection

Tom SelleckI watch the show Blue Bloods, with Tom Selleck as the police commissioner of New York City.  He is portrayed as a very deep and wise thinker who does a lot of hansei, or reflection.  During a recent episode, he and several members of his family all seemed to know a particular Teddy Roosevelt quote, and it was one I didn’t know but as I heard them say the words I decided it would be one that I would look up and keep for future reference.  The particular quote was:

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Teddy Roosevelt

I suppose many people could infer many different things from this quote.  One reflection I took away from it was to push for excellence, push for greatness, push for improvement.  Many times during a lean transformation people discuss things in terms of “sounds nice, but we’ve never done it that way” or “wow, that would really help a lot, but when would we find the time?” or, “ok, let’s move forward but in small steps so we aren’t too disruptive.”  The kicker is, many of the “visions” people shy away from implementing or transforming into are countermeasures to the very reasons they hesitate: It is a new way, but it would be better; this would help free up time for improvement activities, the time you say you don’t have;  the move would be disruptive but would prevent disruption in the future.

The gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat” To me that is just an analogy for maintaining the status quo, for continuing along the same path you are already on, too hesitant to get your shoes dirty, step off the sidewalk, and walk through the field to try out the welcoming trail you see.  The bottom line is, if you see an improved future state, you should be moving towards it with purpose and vigor rather than hoping to eventually get there.  Sometimes you need to cut a new path through the weeds in order to reach that other trail across the field.

As I searched for the Roosevelt quote, I ended up looking through several other quotes from various sources.  I came across one I liked as well, one that I thought connected well with themes from a great book I am reading from and teaching from this year, “The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership” by Jeff Liker.  The quote was:

“As kids, we’re not taught how to deal with success; we’re taught how to deal with failure.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  If at first you succeed… then what?”

The theme I thought it connected well with was around reflection and self-development.  Whether you have just reached the end of a very successful project that made a lot of money and improved the quality of your product or service, or whether you just had a major quality issue arise that threatens your market share and reputation, you would approach each of these situations in the same way: deep reflection to understand how you could improve.

In so many cases we do not study and learn from our successes, we only do an autopsy when there is a failure.  Studying and learning from successes can be just as, if not more, powerful and valuable.  When we succeed we must ask why we were successful.  What really worked well?  What, even though we succeeded, could still be improved the next time we do this?  We must take these learnings and lock them in for the future, be disciplined to them, adopt them as the new best-known way to do things, share them with others… and continue to improve upon them.  Do what makes you successful, do it often, and then do it better.
Charlie Sheen

So I loved that quote, and then I was surprised at first when I looked down at the author.  Who other than the venerable Charlie Sheen.  Wisdom coming from a place I might least expect it, as least in recent months.  Thanks Charlie!