Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Meeting Play Clock

As a college football Back Judge, I spend an extraordinary amount of time thinking about the play clock in the Fall. (The game clock keeps track of how much time is left in the game, the PLAY CLOCK keeps track of the amount of time between plays). Did it start when we want it to start? Should it be set at 40 seconds or 25? Did the offense snap the football before the play clock wound down to zero? 

The play clock (and it's operator of course) play a vital function in the game. It provides a drum beat like tempo. College football teams spend lots of time in practice getting off the ground, re-grouping in a meeting called a huddle, deciding on the next course of action, moving to the line of scrimmage (where the ball is located), getting everyone (11 "employees") positioned where they are supposed to be, and then executing the agreed to play. In a typical game, the offensive team will repeat this routine (kata) between 75 and 95 times. Time n the huddle (the time spent on the next course of action) is typically 15 seconds.

Without the play clock, managers (the coaches) would have all the time in the world to debate, argue or contemplate what they want to do next. 2, 3, 5 minutes if they want.

Let's turn this thinking to our company meetings. Often there is no play clock at all. Back in the day (before LEAN) I can remember meetings in my own company that lasted hours. I remember meetings that would start and some invitees would show up late and we'd have to get the late arrival up to speed. One topic would morph into another, the chairs in the conference room were very comfortable, as was the temperature and humidity.

Then the LEAN started. Daily huddles, Dozens of A3 meetings and closings each week, and GEMBA walks (aka walking meetings). Suddenly we had to install some kind of play clock for all of these little get togethers. All meetings should be done standing up at the GEMBA (where the work is), and NO meeting would last more than 25 minutes.

LEAN is really time management. We are determined that we will spend our time doing value added work (the customer will gladly pay for it) vs. non-value added (chock full of the 8 wastes). No customer on the planet would consider people sitting in meetings something they would pay for. We need to bring a new discipline to our business. Our meetings need to be more like huddles. Standing up. Come prepared. Get what we need to know communicated and then go execute. With a game clock. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

People Will Be Slow to Buy-In!

I guess many of us like to think of ourselves as the great communicator. The great convincer.

Looking back at my own first lean journey (Green Mile) at my own company, I often think to myself, "self, what is the one big thing I know now that I wish I knew then?" Now keep in mind, ultimately, the journey was definitely worth the trip, based on productivity alone (a 60% increase in sales without adding another person over 3 years or so. That means people could be paid more money).

The one thing I wish I knew was the fact that you can't inspire your way to a culture of continuous improvement! You kind of have to perspire you're way. Now in my business, we ran things pretty much the same way for decades. It wasn't until we lost money one year did I realize we needed to shift gears and employ a different game plan. After some research, I thought this LEAN thing might be the answer. I went and got myself certified, and it all seemed to make sense (to me) and seemed simple enough (to me). I had a vision of a pep rally at work when I introduce this thing, music blaring, people getting so excited they carry me off the field on their shoulders.

I do think I got everyone excited for the first 20 minutes. Then I guess they started to digest what I was selling. I watched grins turn into far away gazes.

"We're about to embark on our LEAN JOURNEY!!) (I heard lean embarked Zippy Manufacturing right out of business)
"We will be able to produce more work with the same number of people!!!" (sounds like Bill wants us to work faster)
"We will stop throwing labor at spikes in demand and at problems!!!!" (sounds like layoffs are coming?)
"We will lower our inventory levels so our customers can get their orders faster!!" (somebody better check to see what's in Bill's coffee cup).
"The people who actually DO the work are most qualified to FIX the work!!!! (Oh great, Bill thinks my job is broke)

And on and on it goes. Most of the concepts defy common sense. I learned the hard way to stop using Japanese words and Power Points and get to the business of learn by doing by implementing employee suggestions. By doing this, it was less about the improvements and more about winning people over. Nothing will convince people faster that lean is worth the time and effort than seeing it WORK in their own job. By using the A3 process, these improvements become more and more visible, and maybe another person will get on board. Keep doing this until you get to what I call the point of no return, where continuous improvement is what we do every shift, every day. It goes much faster if you have 2 things going in your favor: a sense of urgency (like losing money) and the hands on involvement of every manager. Nothing will retard progress more than a management team that is not all in. Once you get to the point of no return, now you can point this strategic weapon at policy deployment.

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe people aren't slow to buy in. Maybe they will buy in when they are good and ready and are convinced of the value of what you and the management team are doing.....not saying!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Weedin' with a Hoe & Leader Standard Work

Bill's Garden
For those of you who have read (put up with) my drivel for the past 5 years, you know I like to compare a lean journey to a community garden. 

Interestingly enough, gardening this time of  year in New England is probably the most labor intensive.....IF you don't apply the concept of heijunka (load levelling). This is the one time of the year where the garden needs to be fertilized, watered, weeded & harvested. Some plants need to be nurtured and coddled, while others need to be relieved of their offerings. Once picked, it seems vegetables don't like to sit in buckets all that long, which means you know who needs to also be canning, making pickles, tomato juice, pesto, stuffed peppers, etc. And all the while, weeds of every variety, shape and size are just waiting for me to fall asleep at the wheel so they can take over the entire plot. 

Gardening heijunka, to me, means doing the same amount of work every day. Not neglecting the garden for a bunch of days and then spending hours catching up. This means I will maintain 1 row per day. Today was string bean day. My string beans are young plants, so all they need is to be kept weed free, well fertilized and a comfy bed of loose soil. Once the string beans look happy, then I will go through the entire garden looking for things that want to be picked. Tomorrow is eggplant day, the next day is peppers, the next tomatoes, etc. If this load levelling is kept up, weeding is very, very easy. In fact, as long as I am religious with this "leader standard work", I can weed an entire row, standing up, with the blade of my hoe, in about 20 minutes. If I shirk my leader standard work, or if it rains for a few days, the same weeding job is a couple of hours, playing catchup, hands and knees, pulling by hand into a bucket. 

Which brings me to your lean journey (trip from hell/Green Mile). If every manager, foreman, supervisor, CEO, COO, Vice President, Director can commit to spending 20 minutes daily (if you can't do 20, do 10!) in the lean "garden", your harvest will come quickly. Remember that people want to KNOW what is important to their boss, and they want to get caught doing it! If managers can't be bothered to spend time in the garden, be prepared for a very slow trip with lots of stops and starts (weeding on your hands and knees).  One of my Senseis told me 20 years ago that if my workday doesn't change completely (get "un-busy"), don't expect much for all the lean effort.

If most managers are willing and engaged, it's like weedin' with a hoe standing up.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Leader Standard Work vs. Herding Cats

Do you run your business or does your business run you?

Chances are, if your job description includes the terms manager, supervisor, executive officer or coordinator, then you just might sometimes feel like your business is running you. At least I did. Not only did I feel like my business was running me, but Monday morning seemed to turn into Friday afternoon at the blink of an eye!

Unplanned 2 or 3 hour meetings I would get dragged into, hundreds of e-mails that I was either cc'd or bcc'd on, firefighting, hours spent on the phone with customers, salespeople or vendors and unexpected travel are just a few examples of just how out of control life can be. Sometimes I felt like I was herding cats.  Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Contrast this with what I consider the "value-added work" of leaders.....develop people and develop more leaders. We all agree that the gas pedal (and the brake) of a lean journey is the involvement and engagement of the management team. Tough to do when you're busy herding cats.  

The concept of leader standard work shouldn't be overthought. It doesn't need to be complicated. It's really about deliberately and intentionally building some routines into your work week where there may be none. I'm not saying you need to script every minute of your week, but can we start with 25% of routine time and 75% ad hoc, and improve from there?

My leader standard work was a laminated sheet of paper with a list of daily and weekly tasks I wanted to accomplish. Daily tasks would be a GEMBA walk at 8:30 am daily. I would "go and see" 3 A3 leaders every day to find out how they were doing and if they needed my help (that meant I saw 720 A3 leaders over the course of the year). Weekly tasks would be huddles I would attend, a senior leadership meeting, A3 closings, I'd sit in on Group Leader and Team Leader meetings once a week.  Speaking of meetings, in order to do more value-added work, I needed to limit any meeting to 30 minutes or less, and most needed to be standing up.

The best part of my leader standard work, once built, was that I could hand it off to others when I was travelling or on vacation.

People need to see calm, cool and collected from their leaders. They need to see our routines. If we demonstrate chaos, there will be chaos. If we demonstrate firefighting, there will be firefighting. If we demonstrate mastery of our domain, so will they!

I'd be happy to send you the template I use, just drop me an e-mail at

Monday, July 24, 2017

Nemawashi: Measure Twice Cut Once?

Ever since the day I heard the term "nemawashi" for the first time, and started to put my simple mind around the concept, I have been skeptical about how it was being interpreted by many people.

The interpretation is that before you have a big meeting, "going around the roots" means "laying the groundwork" for some proposed change or project by gaining agreement, support and feedback before "springing the idea" on people in a formal meeting. If you consult the foremost authority on all subjects, Wikipedia, nemawashi is explained as follows:  "In Japan, high-ranking people expect to be let in on new proposals prior to an official meeting. If they find out about something for the first time during the meeting, they will feel that they have been ignored, and they may reject it for that reason alone. Thus, it’s important to approach these people individually before the meeting. This provides an opportunity to introduce the proposal to them and gauge their reaction. This is also a good chance to hear their input. This process is referred to as nemawashi."

This sounds a bit like lobbying to me!

Another interpretation, and one that thousands of people have heard me say, is "proceed slowly, consider many options, gain agreement, implement rapidly". Or put another way, "measure twice (or maybe even 5 times), cut once"!!

For you LEAN people (especially those who use A3 to make continuous continuous improvements, most of the hard work is in the background, current condition and root cause boxes (the left side of the A3 form). If we really focus on those first 3 steps, often the implementation plan becomes very clear, and it's all downhill to the target condition.

For those of you Six Sigma people, the more thorough and careful we are at defining, measuring and analyzing, the easier it will be improving and controlling.

In other words, the polar opposite of nemawashi is jumping to solutions.

More from the world's foremost authority:
"Nemawashi (根回し) translates as "going around the roots", from (ne, root) and 回す (mawasu, to go around [something]). Its original meaning was literal: digging around the roots of a tree, to prepare it for a transplant. This process involves bringing the dirt from the new location, and introducing it to the tree, before the transplant, so the tree can grow accustomed to the new environment before it gets there."

One of my favorite nemawashi stories is the one cited in Liker's book, The Toyota Way. Before even thinking about building a minivan, Toyota sent engineers to the U.S. to live with American families for many months. The engineers learned about groups of kids being transported to soccer games, picking up food at Dunkin Donuts (nobody ate in their cars in Japan), trips to pick up 4x8 sheets of plywood at Home Depot, and the hills, valleys, mountains, weather, etc. Proceed slowly, consider many options, gain agreement, implement rapidly. Development of the minivan was all downhill from there.

Sounds like measure a thousand times, cut once, doesn't it?

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Fifth Discipline:Beware of Your Mental Models

This is a "lean" blog. I also understand that Peter Senge's revolutionary book "The Fifth Discipline" isn't a "lean" book. First published in 1990, the book talks about how to use "systems thinking" to transform your company into a "learning organization".  

Interestingly enough, it was this book that helped me understand that my lean journey just might be a lifetime trip unless I figured out how to not only learn from our mistakes and problems, but how to incorporate these new insights immediately into our behaviors and daily routines. Kaizen goes from being an event to how we did business!

Graduation season is upon us. As parents, how happy are we when we have to pay tuition twice for the same course? Yet, for some reason, in our businesses, we seem to be OK with paying tuition over and over. Ever find yourself waist deep in deja vu while answering a customer complaint or approving a customer credit. I tell people that one of the best parts of my lean strategy was I the fact that once we understood this learning organization thing, we weren't solving the same problems over and over.....we were working with new ones!

It is said that the only sustainable competitive advantage is our ability to learn as an organization and apply that learning quickly to our advantage. How steep is out company learning curve? 

One of Senge's 5 disciplines we must master is to be aware of how our knee jerk reactions to problems inhibits our ability to learn and change. Here are a few examples of mental models (knee jerks) that get in our way:
  1. If I'm a manager, I'm expected to have all the answers! After all, the ability to know everything is why I was promoted in the first place. In a lean world, we know that sometimes the very best answer is "I don't know, why don't we go and see?" One of the most difficult skills to master is "humble inquiry", which is about never answering questions with answers. Instead, the idea is to answer questions with open ended questions (not yes/no questions) so as a leader, I can learn what the person asking the question already knows about the problem. Life gets much more fun when I no longer need to be the smartest guy in the room!
  2. The 5 WHOs vs. 5 WHY. Maybe you have worked in organizations where the root cause ends up being finger pointing. In a lean world, one of the critical assumptions we always need to make is the fact that people are SMART and people CARE. Our knee jerk cannot be the opposite of that! Managers have one job.....develop people. As managers, if we think that our employees don't get it, or don't care, we're not doing a very good job of developing them, are we? If the student hasn't learned, the teacher hasn't taught! This 5 WHO mental model kills creativity and a willingness to experiment in people!
  3. Firefighting. This mental model goes hand-in-hand with #1. Organizations tend to reward people who always seem to save the day in the nick of time. As lean thinkers, we work to eliminate the 8 wastes in our processes to get to a condition called FLOW. Processes that are stable don't need to be firefaught! I believe our tendency to firefight and be the hero is a mental model that inhibits our march toward flow. As a one time firefighter, I realized this when I went on vacation, wasn't around to firefight for a week or more, and the building didn't cave in. The mark of a good leader is when things go smoothly when you're gone!
  4. Pronoun problems. Good leaders don't use pronouns as the root cause for failure or problems. "I tried to tell THEM that 3 years ago, but THEY wouldn't listen." Blaming the computer system, the people on 3rd shift, or our suppliers won't help us move toward flow. Lean requires a bit of a defiant attitude, not a feeling of helplessness. Lean requires "us" and "we" not "they" and "them".

Peter Senge defines "mental models" as the "conceptual frameworks consisting of generalizations and assumptions from which we understand the world and take actions in it."  Sounds like "knee jerk" to me!!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Ulbrich Steel: Putting Innovation Into Action

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists a very simple definition of innovation:
  1. the introduction of something new
  2. a new idea, method, or device

Respected author and consultant Ken Cook recently penned what I consider a very well written & insightful article in the May 15th edition of The Hartford Business Journal titled "How One CT Company Puts Innovation Into Action".  In the article, CEO Chris Ulbrich explains "action is about transforming ideas into committed action, and having an adherence to and a focus throughout the organization to those ideas and plans. To do it year after year is the art." 

Ken goes onto explain Ulbrich's commitment to a LEAN strategy and how Ulbrich Steel completed over 600 events in 2016. Over 3/4 of these events started with an idea from an employee looking to improve their own work. Their lean journey is a ride that is open to the most seasoned veteran as well as the recently hired. Everyone is invited and encouraged to innovate every day, and they are provided the resources to turn their ideas into action. 

Ken explains that innovative companies become adept in three intertwined areas: climate, thinking and action.  Of particular interest to me are the qualities listed for climate (how people and ideas are treated):

• High levels of trust and openness

• Collaborative approach with less focus on hierarchy.

• Leadership consistently and visibly models open-minded behaviors.

• New ideas are heard with an ear toward possibilities.

• Risk-taking is prudent, flexible and creative.
This culture of continuous improvement (kaizen) is indeed innovative and really an unfair competitive advantage. It is the end result of an incredibly uncommon level of TRUST. Quite simply, it is trusting that a furnace operator with 30 years experience is the best qualified human on the planet to make improvements to his work. My favorite definition of "respect for people"  is that it is disrespectful for ME to fix YOUR job.  Temporary self-directed work teams using A3 thinking are comprised of the person with the idea as the leader and anyone that person may need in the entire company to see that idea all the way to action using the scientific method of problem solving, define-measure-analyze-improve-control. No approval process, no silos. The more often people do this, the better they get at it. Ulbrich people have done this thousands of times, learning lean concepts as they go! Compare THAT to a suggestion box sitting on a wall empty for months or years on end. Imagine working in a company where process changes happen so fast that the ink on the "standard work document" isn't even dry before the next improvement happens?

I learned in my own company that innovation cannot be thought of as the realm of new product development or a few people alone. It is incredibly innovative to learn how to tap into the single biggest (and often unused) resource.....the brainpower of every single human. Ulbrich Steel, accompany that began over 90 years ago, continues to emerge as a global force in an industry with it's share of uncertainty.  They are thriving and growing and as innovative as any company I know.

Ken Cook is the co-author of "How to WHO: Selling Personified," a book about building business through relationships.