Most Misleading Lean Headline of the Year Award Goes to...

"Why Continuous Improvement May Need to be Discontinued" at Forbes.com. The title link will take you to the Forbes article posted Wednesday afternoon...I opened this article thinking I'd read, "stop doing lean", while wondering how a person could possibly suggest such a thing.  It seemed perhaps a fresh perspective had found a voice?

Nope, not fresh at all. According to the article:

- Japanese companies have been losing money for decades for two basic reasons: a) cheap labor and b) quality parity. So, Japan copied TWI and subsequently kicked our automotive asses. Now, they are copying the excuses we used while getting our asses kicked. Maybe they will pull off another economic miracle? No, in fact, this phenomenon has spread to U.S. companies...continuous improvement is so rigid now that it is stifling innovation.

- The author almost makes you think he is going to justify the title suggestion to stop doing continuous improvement, but then does the exact opposite: no, despite the killing off of innovation, we shouldn't stop doing lean.

- No, rather than deliver on the promise his article title teased me with, I'm subjected to sage lean wisdom from somebody who quotes asset managers on continuous improvement on a macro scale while simultaneously blaming Southeast Asian labor and Detroit Quality and why 3M hasn't invented another Post-It. Here are his important reasons for you to keep doing lean, just as long as you do it this way, because continuous improvement just doesn't work in Japan, 3M, Motorola, GM or GE anymore...

1) don't discourage creativity by applying a one size fits all continuous improvement approach, remember - that kills innovation!

2) here is a new one for you in case you haven't got it: "question whether processes are improved, eliminated or disrupted." Yes, that is a direct quote. Unfortunately, the author doesn't know that the Japanese kicked our butts using that quote from TWI Job Methods. His advice is that people often get wrapped up in improving things when they could be eliminated. Perhaps if a leader was coaching them, rather than playing a shell game, people would get things done in a thoughtful way.

3) One more gem for you, "assess the impact on company culture." Another great piece of advice. Let me add one, put this slogan up on the cafeteria wall. That will really convince people you are thinking about them.

Golly, I wish I had known all of this years ago! How could all of us little people have been so blind! It's true, things like bailing out failing organizations, distorted anti-productivity financial incentives, crony statist capitalism, reckless spending and just generally immoral financial behavior that happens on an hourly basis in our country had nothing to do with the demise of our economy. Thanks for overlooking all of those things, it really is so stupid to think that those things unimportant things are designed to extract wealth from those that have it?! God, I'm so naive! No, those financial mechanisms are just externalities caught between the far more destructive onslaught of malignant-creativity-killing-kaizen-events,  our evil leaders practicing soul-crushing empowerment methods and misguided, ignorant and narrow minded improvement teams made up of brothers, sisters, cousins, accountants, technicians, engineers, machinists, laborers, clerks, supervisors, mothers, fathers and neighbors. They should all read this and check their damn inbred assumptions. I, for one, thank you for setting me straight.


Chicken or the Egg

A wise old Toyota dude once said something like, "Without standards, there is no kaizen!"

This one quote has been expounded upon in Lean Churches for over the past decade, at least in my personal experience. The meaning behind this is basically interpreted as this: if you do not stabilize a process, you cannot improve it. On the surface this makes sense, especially if you have the following MBO genome sequence solidly embedded within your DNA: "what gets measured gets done." In other words, it is difficult to understand if an improvement has been truly made, if we cannot measure it. And we cannot measure things if we do not have a base to measure from. Got it? Good.

My refrigerator is not what I would call standardized. Yes, it has two doors, it stands upright, runs on 120V electrical source, and it even has wheels! But the arrangement of food, which foods go in there, how much food goes in there, how long does it stay in there? NOT standardized. The result is what I would call a disaster if I were in a tool room and opened a tool chest and found multiple tools, damaged tools, missing tools, etc.

Let's test the assumption: "there is no improvement without a standard!" If I clean out the refrigerator and set it to the standards that satisfy me, have I improved the situation? My feeling is a resounding: YES!! Perhaps you disagree.

A week later, I see the nice neat organization going south again. Here is where the a debate emerges and seems to take on a different tenor:

"If you had standardized on the arrangement you wouldn't see this variation." Here is the pure technocrat coming out of the woodwork, chastising me for not establishing standard work, not training my wife in leader standard work and not decreeing to the children that they will follow the standard work in the household newsletter, Sharepoint site, monthly meetings, notices in your paycheck and for especially not including adherence to standard work in their familial member descriptions per the terms of their contractual membership in the family. Your adherence to standard work will be discussed in your annual performance appraisal as well. (Just imagine the benefits, your refrigerator will be visitor ready when guests arrive unexpected!) Only then, will we achieve the level of accountability of adherence we need to declare victory in the Lean Kitchen. I see book deals and speaking tours on the horizon...sorry, took a wrong, but typical turn there...

While it is true that my family backslid on the Lean Fridge initiative, did we not learn anything? Can we do something else to further along the effort? Did we not simultaneously improve and standardize the first time? What would we do differently on the second effort? Should we expect similar results? Why? What can we do to change the outcome the second time, the third, the fourth?

This line of questioning begins to breakdown the standardization myth, that improvement can't be had without it and that one comes before the other. Now, before you throw the heresy flag, let me be clear: I'm not saying that we shouldn't create standards.

But a recent discussion on LinkedIn brought to light a phenomenon that has become increasingly prevalent in the world of Leanies: improvement camps. It goes generically something like this: Leansters are over in the standards camp. Six Sigmites are in the variability camp. Generally speaking, these two camps have created a pretty meaningless debate: which comes first, standardization or variation reduction?

Leansters are quick to throw out the Taiichi Ohno quote...we can't improve without standards. Six Sigmites say we can't standardize an unstable process. Really? I'm pretty sure I got my refrigerator from 0% to 100% and then it slid back to 80%. Not perfect, but an improvement nonetheless. Each camp, in my opinion is using an old cliche to fabricate an excuse, masked behind their professions, to not do anything more than the minimum and cast blame against the other. A Leanster would 5S the refrigerator and then audit the hell out of it: the beatings stop when compliance begins.Then we would value stream map it. The Six Sigmite would setup a DOE on ketchup shelf location until the perfect location was had; and then my four year old discovers ketchup - rendering the DOE obsolete. Then he would complain when the Cp goes to hell and blame it on the parents.

This whole debate smacks of the chicken or the egg, and a lot of people buy into it. I've been asked: what should we do first in our lean initiative, because Toyota has an extremely stable process - don't you know?! Well, yeah, sure, but at one point, they did NOT. And over time, it became more stable. But I'm pretty sure that if you look close enough, you will find variability and instability in ANY standardized process. That is just what unbridled change and entropy does to our world. But that isn't what we recognize, instead, we debate which road map we should purchase before we take the journey.

Speaking of roads, transportation systems are inherently an unstable process, don't you think? How many different grades of roads are there? In Vermont, there are officially four grades, and then there are the ones you can drive on with a jeep or ATV. What are the different maintenance practices for those five types of roads? Do the change of seasons have an impact on one practice over another? How do local politics and budgets affect those practices from locality to locality even in regions where seasons are similar? Are roads truly standardized, despite the fact that we assume the nomenclature of "transportation system" implies standardization?

What about the vehicles themselves? Are the engine types standardized? Even within one class of engine, do we see standardization? What about in the material grades used in those engines? Are the engineering management approaches used in designing, verifying and validating engines standardized? What about the motivational and team capabilities between one engineering team and another, even in the same company? Perhaps things are not as stable as we would like them to be. If we follow Ohno's advice, we would improve nothing in the engineering disciplines. Keypoint: do not confuse stability with standards.

More on the vehicles: tires. Are tires standardized? Perhaps in some areas, but not in size.  How do economics and regulations affect these designs: locally, regionally, nationally, globally?

Suspensions, are all suspension created equal? Body styles, safety features, cabin features, etc. Seats, etc. Are you telling me that different fabrics, threads, dyes, equipment, tools and inspection devices are not disruptive to a seat manufacturer that makes a "standardized" product for the automotive industry?

And how do these automobile variables interact with road maintenance? The more questions we ask, the more the chicken and the egg become one.

However, if we look close enough, there are many, many things that involve people and their behaviors, around the process and science of building a transportation system that are standardized. The internal combustion cycle is one thing. Crash physics is another. Around those standards, we see interactions that appear as variability to us and we seek to shape it so that it suits our wants and needs. Variability and standardization seem to be two sides of the same coin.

I can't see how the chicken or the egg is a trick question, and also cannot imagine why on earth we would say that an improvement methodology doesn't apply to ANY situation, since it grounded in basic science and math and human behavior principles.

Furniture shops: Joinery is a very standardized discipline with a robust history and body of knowledge available to us. The same could be said about knowledge of wood materials, grain structures, cutting tools, machinery, finishing, etc. in developing innovative methods around the design, manufacture and finishing of wood furniture. I have a question for furniture makers who say that Lean doesn't apply in custom wood job shops: can you point me to a factory where only ONE type of furniture is made in high volume? Probably not since they would not be in business with that type of business model. Conversely, I can't point you to a factory where only ONE type of car configuration is made in high volume. It is easily argued that a configured car is thousands of times more complex than custom furniture. Why do we split hairs? The phenomenon is most likely rooted in our ability to focus on products which trigger our senses: touch, feel, sound, sight, taste and not process, which engages our mind first.

Once people start thinking about variability and standardization as part of the same problem and solution (which means we start thinking about people and processes as part of the same problems) perhaps then we will stop thinking that lean is simply a trick.

At any point in time, in any part of any process - STOP to take a look and ask yourself some simple questions:

- Is this process stabilized? If not, how can it be standardized?
- Is this process standardized? If so, how can it be simplified?

Both answers are going to eventually take you to the same conclusion, "something must be done". Just remember, one doesn't necessarily precede the other.

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If Half of this is True...Here is your Evidence to Push Inventories Higher!

Hat tip to Mark Warren...since I never read mainstream papers anymore; pleased to share with you this little investigative gem from the NY Times:


Essentially, here we have a story of regulatory pricing rules that are being exploited by a bank subsidiary. Rather than focus on the sickening nature of crony capitalism gone wild here...because it is predictable...I'd like to share my lean lesson learned from this.

It starts with a quote from Tyler Clay, "a forklift driver who worked at the Goldman warehouses until early this year. He calls the process 'a merry-go-round of metal.'"

What could he mean by this? That the banks new to warehousing metal don't have the experience to effectively and efficiently add value to the warehousing of metal commodities? No, what he means by merry-go-round is the deliberate movement of metal to effectively shift inventories from one warehouse to another, increasing the values of inventory through storage costs...intentionally, to raise prices. And they are about to get permission to do this with copper, which is already at high prices - to the point where local substations in Vermont have reported thefts of copper in there supply stations. So, expect copper to move higher in the coming months.

I'm pretty sure that if this were in an unregulated market, I wouldn't have the perverse incentive to hoard materials and move them around on asset sheets just to artificially raise my prices. It wouldn't be illegal, but it sure would be immoral and the market would pressure me to lower my prices somehow. But the regulatory permissions and rule sets here provide many lessons learned that make all of this, unfortunately, vilely, sickeningly LEGAL. First, increase your inventories - you can raise your prices this way! Second, become a bank. You can lobby the Fed and get weird accounting laws made that let you pretend you are adding value but treat durable materials and goods like fiat money and leverage the hell out of it in immoral and illogical ways. Third, the fight to behave and think lean is beginning to look like a broader economic and political fight where not only are Wall St. cronies are leveraging your dollar against you, but now the materials in which you require the lowest prices to compete in a global market. Good luck!


TWI Pocket Card App - Now Available on Android!

The TWI Pocket card app is now available for android devices! 

and for those of you on Apple devices here is your link:

I trialed the app for Android on my HTC Desire, running Android 2.3.3. Works beautifully! Mark and Stuart Warren have put together a nice app that serves as that handy reminder to "pull out the card" and use it. Even better, for those of you that are comparing notes: Mark has incorporated some of the best practices that were developed beyond the 1944 program that is commonly used today. And in a great example of lean behavioral thinking, this service will increase the probability of TWI being successfully used in your organization. Why? I've lost my cards before, and when things are out of sight, they quickly become out of mind. When presented with challenges, it is too easy to fall into the trap of clouded thinking. Having the cards available and ready to use will help me avoid that. I'm less likely to use my phone because of the value of the information and connectivity that my smartphone provides, thereby ensuring that I'm more apt to use my pocket cards.

Here is an excerpt from Mark on an online TWI Forum about why he and Stuart developed the app:

"The experiments for putting the pocket cards on smart phones began about three years ago, long before I had one. I also resisted adopting…even carrying the very nice laminated TWI pocket cards that Roger Bilas made me in the same case with my iPad. Yes, I like the physical cards. I could not ignore how easily people misplaced their physical cards in their early days of practicing any of the programs."

"While I am trying to preserve the original TWI materials, I’m also researching on the outcomes of all sorts of variations to the original programs. what worked, what didn’t, and why. Much of this is driven from a challenge by John Shook many years ago (he was Toyota’s first American employee and the one that first trained people in JI in the US in the 1980s). The challenge was: “What was different about how Taiichi Ohno used the TWI programs from the thousands of other companies? Why are they so successful?” The answer, as I now understand it, lies not in adhering exactly to the 1944 version of the TWI program. We miss the most valuable part of the program if we get blinded to using JI as just a training tool; or JR just as a tool for better relations; or JM as just an improvement program (kaizens)… I don’t even think Ohno’s leap was deliberate. They were in a firefighting mode for so long and using the programs, that the practice exercises became habits. Mike Rother has written about this in “Toyota Kata”. The pocket cards are checklists…to help us follow a thinking pattern."

"Delivery of the 10-hour Sessions were seen by the TWI Directors as ‘basic training’, the beginning point, not a completion of learning. Anything I can do to help people use checklists (life hacks) to master the programs I see as a positive improvement. For me it is all about helping people master the skills…it must be simple and useful."

Download and use it!

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TWI Training Pocket Cards for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad on the iTunes App Store

Forget something? Not to worry...Mark Warren delivers on his TWI Summit promise: TWI Pocket Cards for the iPhone, iPod and iPad! Since we can't live without our smartphones, you will very likely never forget your pocket card in your office, leave it on the kitchen counter or lose it in the Genba ever again!

Link takes you the iTunes store! Thanks Mark and Stuart!

TWI Training Pocket Cards for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad on the iTunes App Store:

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Case in Point: Working toward ‘continuous improvement’ in a services setting - The Washington Post

Nice article on applying demand analysis and continuous improvement of workflows in the service sector:

Case in Point: Working toward ‘continuous improvement’ in a services setting - The Washington Post:

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