Archive for February, 2013

Lean War Trophies

For millennia, warriors have taken war trophies to commemorate their victories. They range from the souvenir to war reparations to the just plain gory.

We’ve got flags and weapons and things like seagoing vessels, such as the US Coast Guard’s tall ship Eagle – courtesy of the defeated Nazi navy. (My son has a lot of great memories on the 295 foot Eagle.)

And then there are human trophies. You know scalps, heads, ears – that kind of stuff.

So, where am I going with this?

Lean implementation is a never-ending war. It’s a hard and noble effort.

Occasionally, we need to smell the roses and reflect. This includes basking (ever so) briefly in the team’s success.

A war trophy can help in the commemoration, serving as a poignant and necessary reminder of a substantial past victory…and the possibility of future ones.

Sometime the victory is the fruit of superhuman work. Like tearing down a two story, 220 square foot cinder block and wood building that impeded flow – and accomplishing that in one shift (True story. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a chunk of concrete!).

More often than not, there is physical work, but the real win has to do with the organization taking a giant lean leap of faith. In other words, doing something that definitely does not seem in the best interest of an otherwise healthy sacred cow.

Now that is deserving of a lean war trophy.

I remember my first trophy, circa 1995. It was an elaborately machined aluminum “stopper” – picture something on the order of a one foot wide and 10 inch high book-end.

Its purpose in life was to prevent the partially assembled product speeding downstream on a motorized conveyor from overwhelming the downstream assembly operators. These downstream operators could position the stopper so that it straddled the conveyor and basically dam it up…at least until one of the upstream pieces of equipment went down (a routine occurrence) and provided an opportunity to catch up.

Interestingly enough, this line (actually there were 6 identical lines) had been proudly called the “JIT Line” for years!?  You know just-in-time…as in takt, flow, and pull.

Clearly, none of that JIT stuff was going on, just a lot of overproduction and frustration.

Fortunately, these lines were ultimately reconstituted into single-piece flow cells, without any conveyors or isolated islands. I took one of the obsolete aluminum stoppers as a war trophy – less so for the physical conversion from push to pull. More so for the important revolution in thinking.

That was something I wanted to remember.

Pictured in this post is a nylon block – one of a couple hundred that were used to hold product as it wound its way through a curing cycle. It’s my most recent trophy. Admittedly, I encouraged others to take one as well.

The block was liberated from a machine – actually, there were two identical ones…twins! Both of the machines have been moved away to a warehouse. Hopefully, it’s a very temporary stop on the way to scrap yard.

Anyway, these machines were the proverbial universal automated behemoths, engineered and built by folks who didn’t have to live with them.

They took up a lot of space, were less than reliable, required two pairs of operators to feed and unload, didn’t necessarily match takt time, etc. In a John Henry match-up, the manual lines would win. They are more productive, more flexible, produce better quality, and so on.

But, when you spend a lot of money on a project, it’s tough to say goodbye. Unless of course, the organization starts to really get it. And they did, hence the trophy!

I’ll keep this one for a while.

So, do you have any Lean trophies?

Related posts: The Perils of “Lean Relativism”Want a Kaizen Culture? Take Your Vitamin C!

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New Blog Launch – Lean Math!

In the fall of 2009, I launched Gemba TalesTM in anticipation of the Kaizen Event Fieldbook. Truthfully, it was something that I was told authors do – “You need to have a blog to promote your book.”

Well, sort of.

Blogs, in my opinion, should emanate less from a marketing imperative and more from a sense of sharing and community. That’s a whole lot more fulfilling.

So, with like mind, I would like to announce a new entrant into the lean blogosphere, it’s called Lean MathTM (

I know what you’re thinking, “Lean Math?!” Now, that’s a subject that evokes passion in the heart of every lean practitioner…right?

But, the truth is effective lean transformations require some level of math, whether it’s the often deceptively simple takt time calculation, sizing kanbans, calculating process capability, or anything in between. It’s hard to get away from math.

There is no such thing as math-free lean and certainly not math-free six sigma!

Lean MathTM is not intended to be some purely academic study and it does not pretend to be part of the heart and soul of lean principles. (Can you say niche?) Rather, it’s a tool and a construct for thinking. Here we want to integrate lean math theories and examples with experimentation and application.

Some background. Within the next year, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers will be publishing a book, tentatively entitled, Lean Math. I started this thing a LONG time ago, just ask SME!  And, I’m not going it alone this time, Michael O’Connor, Ph.D. (a.k.a. Dr. Mike) is co-authoring this work. We’re also getting a ton (!) of help from Larry Loucka, friend, colleague, and fellow-blogger at Lean Sigma Supply Chain.

No surprise, we’re the three folks who are launching the Lean Math Blog. The formal launch date is February 14th – because we LOVE math! Ok, love may be a bit strong. We really LIKE math.

Here are some of our first blog posts:

  • Time
  • Cycle Time
  • Square Root Law
  • Available Time

I even made an introductory video for the new site. First video ever. And it’s about math…!?! Scary.

The categories or topics that we’ll ultimately address with future posts include the following. Go here if you want to see the detail.

  • Systems
  • Time
  • “Ilities”
  • Work
  • Inventory
  • Metrics
  • Basic Math
  • Measurement

Yes, there’s a lot of ground to cover. That’s why the book draft is so stinking big!

Please check out the site and subscribe to RSS or email to catch future posts. If you’re so inclined, make a comment and start a conversation and/or share the posts with other folks  through social media (we’ve got the buttons). Also, please like us on Facebook (Lean Math Blog) and follow us on Twitter (@LeanMath) and on our LinkedIn company page (Lean Math Blog).

Admittedly, we’re just getting started, we will continue to add new content in a variety of categories. Through our own application of PDCA, we’ll endeavor to improve the site and increase the value to our readers.

Ultimately, we hope that you will join our fledgling Lean MathTM community and that it lives up to our blog tag line, “Figuring to improve.”

Related posts: Does Your Cycle Time Have a Weight Problem?, Musings About FIFO Lane Sizing “Math”, Guest Post: “Magical Thinking”


Lean Should Be a Pain in the #*%!

We’re all familiar with the Toyota Production System “house.” You know, the structure schematic with, among other things, the just-in-time and jidoka pillars.

Well, sometimes I think it would be more appropriate to refer to the house, any lean house, as a house of pain.


Not great for lean marketing purposes, necessarily. But, there is more than a bit of truth to this notion of lean pain.

Here we’re not talking about pain in some sort of sadistic or masochistic way. This type of pain is value-added in that it spurs quick recognition and meaningful response to stop that particular pain forever…all for the purpose of making things easier, better, faster, and cheaper.

Sure, we could try to avoid pain. Most normal people don’t like pain. But, as the old cliché goes, “No pain, no gain.” And by gain, we mean continuous improvement and organizational learning.

So, what is a primary building block (pillar, foundation, etc.) of this house of pain?

I’m thinking continuous flow (it’s part of the just-in-time pillar, by the way) is a great candidate, among many. There’s nothing quite like operating with a lot size of one. Continuous flow provides no place to run OR hide.

It will never be mistaken as a morphine replacement.

Of course, lean’s pain is somewhat compassionate, in a big picture sort of way. It does not seek to kill or incapacitate. That would NOT be value-added.

How could you possibly satisfy the customer in such a condition?! How would that square with respect for the individual?

So instead, lean’s pain is more gradually and strategically applied. As an example, we strive for continuous flow, but often the more pragmatic (and temporary) approach includes a measure of supermarket pull and/or sequential pull (a.k.a. FIFO lanes). For a batch-and-queue operation, that’s pain enough…for now.

This isn’t quite Shewhart-esque or Deming-esque, but the lean pain cycle might go something like the following:

  1. Enable/facilitate pain – for example, implement continuous flow.
  2. Recognize the pain when it comes (and it will come, if you’re appropriately aggressive) – visual controls are critical for early recognition.
  3. Respond to the pain – think line stop jidoka, along with andon response.
  4. Make the specific pain go away – first aid may be more along the lines of containment, but permanent pain elimination requires real problem solving.
  5. Repeat.

[LSS Academy’s and Gemba Academy’s Ron Pereira shared an excellent video a while back that explained the true meaning of the Chinese characters constituting the word “kaizen.”  In all seriousness, it has something to do with self-flagellation, sheep, and altars! True story. The subject of pain is definitely front and center. Go here to see Brad Schmidt’s expert and very entertaining explanation.]

Here’s another cliché, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

Which raises an important point – the lean leader needs to understand pain thresholds (without facilitating lean wimpiness) and challenge and coach others appropriately.

Here’s to value-adding pain!

Related posts: 12 Narrow Lean Gates, Standard Work Is Like Food – Taste before Seasoning, Leader Standard Work Should Be…Work!