Category Archives: Lean thinking

Lean Manufacturing and the Toyota Production System

In this post I explore my thoughts about what lean (lean manufacturing, lean thinking…) means. The way I think about it is that lean manufacturing sprung from Toyota. It seems to me the lean manufacturing name was meant to capture the entire Toyota Way. Capturing the whole of what that encompasses isn’t possible in 1 or 2 or even 10 books so it wasn’t done completely.

To me the difference between lean manufacturing described early on by Womack and Jones and the Toyota Way was more about what can be captured and conveyed than about an intentional creation of “lean” ways that are different than Toyota ways.

The question is further complicated by what happens with any management idea of any popularity: the using of the name with all sorts of watered down and even just plain not-lean implementations. So much of what is called “lean” is not the Toyota Production System (TPS), it isn’t even lean.

It seems to me today there is no real accepted authority for what is lean. LEI is good. Some people might say they should be the arbiter but they are not in any way I know of.

Then too, over time any organization of people changes. So what Toyota does today isn’t exactly what Taiichi Ohno would say they should be doing. Even the Toyota Way can be ignored by Toyota. And Ohno certainly wouldn’t think standing still was the answer. Just like Deming; Kiichiro, Sakichi and Shoichiro Toyoda; Ohno expected the management system itself to continually improve. And just like Deming, they would expect the implementation in a different organization (different system) to be different.

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Management Improvement Blog Carnival #160

monkey at the Singapore Zoo

Monkey at the Singapore Zoo by John Hunter

The Curious Cat Management blog carnival highlights recent management blog posts 3 times each month. The posts generally focus on the areas I have focused on in the Curious Cat Management Guide since 1996 (Deming, innovation, lean manufacturing, customer focus, process improvement…).

  • Reflections on the 100th Birthday of Taiichi Ohno by Masaaki Imai – “Taiichi Ohno always placed respect for the worker first in his approach to kaizen. His focus was always on the customer, both external and internal”
  • A Lean Leader strengthens the business by developing people through coaching process improvement at the gemba by Jeff Liker – “Thinking of a leader as a teacher and coach, as managing from the gemba, believing deeply that people are the only appreciating assets of the company, believing in the value of intentionally creating a common culture and being a role model of that culture, and that the adaptiveness of the business to meet the challenges of the environment comes from how people are developed all the way down to the worker is quite different than the leader as the captain of the ship steering it cleverly through brilliant personal insights.”
  • Inspiration Stimulates Productivity and Engagement by Nicole Radziwill – “I’d also like to propose that engagement is a symptom – a consequence of feeling good and having a high quality consciousness! Let’s work on the root causes, and focus less on the symptoms.”
  • Kanban Networks Exerciseby Yuval Yeret – “The exercise brought to life the complexity of the organization’s network but highlighted how a Kanban system can simplify its operation as well as drive towards improvement. There were several A-Ha moments of understanding how Limited WIP would solve systemic problems currently haunting the organization.”
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Why Use Lean if So Many Fail To Do So Effectively

If less than 1% of companies are successful with Lean, why are we doing it?

Lots of us are not. I would say the efforts I see “fail” are because they don’t do it. They have something they call TQM, six sigma, lean management or whatever and try out 10-30% of it in some half-measures, with big doses of Dilbert’s pointy haired boss methods and then don’t get great results. Wow.

The biggest complaint (with some merit) I see is why is lean/Deming/six sigma… so hard to actually do. If companies constantly fail to do it at all (even when they use the name) isn’t that an issue. Isn’t that a weakness of the “solution.” My answer is: yes. The caveat is, until someone comes up with the management system that both gets the results using Deming’s management ideas can, and is super easy for organizations to actually fully adopt (and have the great success that doing so provides) I know of nothing better than trying to do these things.

Certainly I believe you are much better off attempting to use Deming, lean or six sigma than listen to someone that tells you they have management instant pudding that will give you great results with no effort.

My belief is that a partial success rate is much higher than 1%. While many organization never go beyond slapping a few good tools on a outdated management system those few tools actually have good results. Maybe 50% of the implementations are so lame they have almost no positive results (not even getting improvement worth the time and effort). They could be seen as “failures,” to me. Those that actually have a right to say they are practicing “lean” I would say is a pretty small number but still above 1%?

There is also an advantage to this stuff being hard to do. You really don’t have to invent anything new. If you just have persistence and keep continually improving along the path applying ideas proven over decades from Deming, Ohno, McGregor, Christensen, Drucker, Scholtes, Womack, Roger Hoerl (six sigma)… you have a great advantage over all those organizations that ignored the ideas or made a bit of effort and then gave up.

Related: Engage in Improving the Management SystemRethinking or Moving Beyond Deming Often Just Means Applying More of What Dr. Deming Actually SaidManagement Advice FailuresManagement Improvement FlavorsHas Six Sigma Been a Success?

Management Improvement Blog Carnival #150

Mark Graban is hosting Management Improvement Blog Carnival #150 on the Lean Blog, highlights include:

  • Watching Waste in the ER! – As part of his relatively new blog, Anthony Scott (Frontline Lean) writes about his experiences with waste in an emergency department. The waste isn’t surprising to those who have been a patient or those who have worked in the E.D. Scott is a supervisor in a lean manufacturing setting and he applies lean thinking to this unfamiliar environment.
  • Case Study: The Nordstrom Innovation Lab – Eric Ries (Startup Lessons Learned), author of the excellent book The Lean Startup, has a post with video featuring the use of “Lean Startup” methods and mindsets within a Fortune 500 company. Eric writes, “It’s one thing to talk about “rapid experimentation” and “validated learning” as abstract concepts. It’s quite another to see them in action, in a real-world setting.”
  • Top 3 Things I’ve Learned After 18 Months in Healthcare – My friend and DFW-area neighbor Mike Lombard (Hospital Kaizen) reflects on his first 18 months after transitioning from manufacturing into healthcare. In addition to his main points, Mike ends the post with an invitation for others to Move to Healthcare, writing, “Like I said earlier, I’ve learned a lot (a lot more than is shown here) and I continue to learn everyday. If you’re an engineer, project manager, quality professional, operations manager, or any other type of business professional, you can make the move to healthcare. Just be ready to focus on people, deal with complexity, and be proud of your work. Most of all, be ready to continuously learn and improve.”

I know we are all busy but, Mark, has done a great job highlighting some excellent posts. Take a look at the full carnival post and each of the posts. It is very nice to see how many great posts we are able to find for every carnival. A decade ago finding this kind of content was nearly impossible.

Related: Management Improvement Carnival #50Management Improvement Carnival #100

Manufacturing Skills Gap or Management Skills Gap?

I stumble across articles discussing the problem of manufacturers having difficulty finding workers with the skills they need (in the USA largely, but elsewhere too) somewhat regularly. While it is true that companies have this problem, I think looking at the problem in that way might not be the most insightful view. Is the problem just that potential workers don’t having the right skills or the result of a long term management skills gap?

To me, the current manufacturing skills gap results directly from short term thinking and disrespect for workers practiced by those with management skills shortages over the last few decades. Those leading the manufacturing firms have shown they will flee the USA with the latest change in the wind, chasing short term bonuses and faulty spreadsheet thinking. Expecting people to spend lots of time and money to develop skills that would be valuable for the long term at manufacturing firms given this management skills shortage feels like putting the blame in the wrong place to me.

Why should workers tie their futures to short term thinking managers practicing disrespect for people? Especially when those managers seem to just find ways to blame everyone else for their problems. As once again they do in blaming potential workers for their hiring problem. The actions taken based on the collective management skill shortage in the manufacturing industry over the last few decades has contributed greatly to the current state.

If managers had all been managing like Toyota managers for the last 30 years I don’t think the manufacturing skill gap would be significant. The management skill gap is more important than the manufacturing skill gap in my opinion. To some extent the manufacturing skill gap could still exist, market are in a constant state of flux, so gaps appear. But if their wasn’t such a large management skill gap it would be a minor issue, I believe.

That still leaves companies today having to deal with the current marketplace to try and find skilled workers. But I think instead of seeing the problem as solely a supplier issue (our suppliers can’t provide us what we need) manufacturing firms would be better served to look at their past, and current, management skills gap and fix that problem. They have control over that problem. And fixing that will provide a much more solid long term management base to cope and prosper in the marketplace.

Another management issue may well be the hiring process itself. As I have written about many times, the recruitment process is highly inefficient and ineffective. When you see workers as long term partners the exact skills they have today are much less significant than their ability to meet the organizations needs over the long term. In general, information technology recruiting has the worst case of focusing on silly skills that are really not important to hiring the right people, but this also can affect manufacturing hiring.

Related: IT Talent Shortage, or Management Failure?Dee Hock on HiringManufacturing Jobs Increasing for First Time Since 1998 in the USA (Sept 2010)Building a Great Workforcemanufacturing jobs have been declining globally (including China) for 2 decadesImproving the Recruitment Process

Practical Ways to Respect People

What matters is not your stated respect for people but your revealed respect for people. Here are some ideas that I collected on how to practice respect for people.

  • Don’t waste people’s time: have meetings only when necessary and provide agendas in advance. Use email effectively instead of presenting material in meetings that can better be presented in email. Don’t have complex benefit manuals, aimed at making lawyers happy, that employees are expected to use.
  • Do what you say you will.
  • Provide bad news early (don’t hope it will get fixed somehow so you don’t have to address it, let people know what is going on and let them help).
  • Pay people fairly – I would venture to say most senior executive pay today is inherently disrespectful, If I am wrong about the “most” part, certainly a huge amount executive pay is inherently disrespectful.
  • Put the long term success of all stakeholders as the focus (don’t risk people’s jobs for short term bonuses, don’t use large amounts of leverage risking the future of the company…). Respect all stakeholders and provide them confidence their long term success is important. Companies that find themselves laying off workers due to management’s failure to succeed over the long term are not being respectful to those workers. That failure is most obvious today, but the important improvement is not in handling the layoff today, it is in the behavior for years before that did not build a system that was successful in the long term.
  • Tell people what they can do to improve. It is respectful to help people improve. Not mentioning weaknesses that should be worked on is treating a person like a child that needs to be shielded from any hint of criticism.
  • Don’t expect a few people to do far more than their fair share of work because management allows poor performance to continue un-addressed.
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When Companies Can Treat You Like an ATM, Many Will Do So

The End of Refrigeration

One small custom chip, some relays, a transformer, a couple of heat sinks, and a bunch of passive parts. Maybe a build cost of $20-30 or so? But GE’s price to me was $250, plus $150 for the 20 minutes it took to pull out the old one and swap in the new one.

Paying $400 for a big piece of physical gear plus a couple hours of labor didn’t bother me. Paying $400 for a primitive circuit board and a few minutes to plug it in does.

Bottom line: $400 because a $2.02 Song Chuan 832 Series 30 A SPDT 12 VDC Through Hole General Purpose Heavy Duty Power Relay burned out.

This is a combination of companies 1) not being customer focused, 2) short term thinking, 3) very ologopolistic markets (very little competition). So when you are looking at this from the view of providing the best system, for in this case refrigeration, it is not a very difficult solution. You would want to minimize loss (have parts last) and in case they don’t minimize replacement cost. You would design the entire system so the parts that do burn out are easily replaceable and cheap and ideally notify you which part is broken (without the need for expensive contractor visits).

However, if your goal is to maximize company profit it is easy to see how you would develop a system that rips off the customer (very expensive part replacement, huge text messaging fees…) and attempts to capitalize on very little competition in the marketplace and customers that cannot reasonable analyze the system to see how they will be penalized by choosing your very expensive to maintain equipment. It is what they seem to teach in business school – take as much advantage of your customers as you can get away with. I prefer the Jeff Bezos school of thinking

There are two kinds of companies, those that work to try to charge more and those that work to charge less

It is a vastly different mentality to try to charge customers less as Amazon does (rather than say the practices of: Verizon, Bank of America, AT&T or Comcast). Your organization has to focused not on your quarterly profit (and if you are think kind of company, probably your personal bonus targets) but in serving your customers well, and in continually improve the value you provide to customers. And the company takes a share of the value just as all other stakeholders do (customer, employees [not just those in the c-suite)], suppliers, society…). Not only do I want to be a customer of this kind of company, I want to be a stockholder.

Related: Drug Prices in the USAWorse Hotel Service the More You PayCustomer Service is Important$8,000 per gallon printer inknew deadly diseases (often companies rely on bad “intellectual property” policies to restrict customer options)

Touring Factories on Vacation When I Was Young

Growing up, occasionally, a family vacation would include a factory tour related to my Dad’s work. He was providing some management or engineering consulting and took the opportunity to check in on progress and visit the gemba. Here is a photo from one of those tours (in Nigeria, I think). My brother and Mom are visible in the photo.

The tours (which were not a very common occurrence) were quite enjoyable and interesting. Though I really didn’t like how noisy the factories were. Seeing all the machines and vast scale of the systems was quite a change of pace and added some excitement to the vacations (that often were already pretty exciting). I remember we also visited some factories in Kenya (in between seeing the game parks).

photo of factory tour with my family when I was a kid

Factory in Nigeria (I think) that my family toured


On this tour we found a bit of visual management showing which side of a crate should be on the top.
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Management Improvement Carnival #132

The Curious Cat Management blog carnival highlights recent management blog posts 3 times each month. The posts generally focus on the areas I have focused on in the Curious Cat Management Guide since 1996 (Deming, agile software development, systems thinking, lean manufacturing, customer focus…).

  • If management stopped demotivating their employees… by Mark Graban – “Think of a person in your workplace who is considered to have a “bad attitude.” Do you think they started their career or their job at that point? If so, why were they ever hired? … What do you think happened to turn the “live trees” you hired into “dead wood” as Peter Scholtes said?
  • The Poison of Performance Appraisals by Nicole Radziwill – “Progressive organizations might use a 360-degree approach, a la Jones & Bearley, but the underlying dynamic is the same: I’m telling you what I think about you and that’s my evaluation. I’m not familiar with any managers or organizations who can pull this off with impartiality and avoid the many sources of bias that can creep into the process.”
  • One factor at a time (OFAT) Versus Factorial Designs by Bradley Jones – “The most common argument I read against OFAT these days has to do with inability to detect interactions and the possibility of finding suboptimal factor settings at the end of the investigation. I admit to using these arguments myself in print.
    I don’t think these arguments are as effective as Fisher’s original argument.”
  • [removed broken embedded video]

  • Lean Strategy: The Role of Ideal State Thinking by Jamie Flinchbaugh – “One of the opportunities in building a strategy is really understanding the roles that all the different product/services that you offer fit together”
  • Lean UX at work by Jeff Gothelf – “It seems that as a team matures and the trust bonds between the members grow, the rituals of formal process fall away in favor of less-prescribed, more “understood” cadences.”
  • TryStorming by Lee Fried – “stop brainstorming and start “trystorming (actual simulation or creation of the idea).” This meant putting away the flip charts and sticky notes and getting out on the floor and getting our hands dirty. Having the 3D, tangible “mock-ups” allowed the teams to quickly understand each others ideas and iteratively improve the solution in a way that would not be possible on paper.”
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