Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Leadershp Lessons from Alex Cora

First I want to give you my credentials. I like the New England Patriots, a lot. I LOVE the Boston Red Sox. A lot. I pretty much listen to every game starting in April while I'm in my office, in my shed, in the garden, driving, wherever. There. Those are my credentials.

Obviously, this season has been one of the most fun I can ever remember. 108 regular season wins, a trip through the hated Yankees and Houston and on to the World Series.

Come play off time, I actually watch the Red Sox. Needless to say, there have been a few anxious, head scratching  moments so far. Let's start with our closer, Craig Kimbrell. During the ALDS and ALCS, Kimbrell decided he would take a few years off my life my turning a routine close situation into can't find the plate, runners on base, go-ahead runs in scoring position, etc. He was responsible for 20 or so minutes of hell. One game ended with Benintendi making a catch on his stomach to bail Kimbrell out. In Game 4 of the Houston series, a silent Minute Maid Park became deafeningly loud when the bases were suddenly full of Astro players. Houdini escaped again.

David Price pitched as well as we ever saw in Game 5 the following night, and the Red Sox went into the bottom of the 9th with a slim lead. Who does Alex Cora have coming out of the bullpen to face the meat of the Astro's order? Kimbrell again. I watched with horror as the bullpen door opened, thinking I was in for 20 minutes of hell again. Wrong. 5 minutes later, the game was over On to the World Series.

The word I have heard uttered from Alex Cora numerous times is...…..TRUST. As in, "Craig is our closer, we trust he will get the job done". Chris Sale (our ace) found himself in the hospital, unable to pitch game 5. The night before, David Price warmed up in the bullpen for what seemed like 2 hours. Guess who Cora gave the ball to, in HOUSTON, to start game 5? The same guy who had not won a playoff game ever! Why? "David is an excellent pitcher. I trust him."

Christian Vazquez, one of our catchers, has really struggled at the plate. Who played a significant role in the series, both behind and at the plate? Christian. Cora just flat out trusts him. Jackie Bradley Jr. batted .170 for 2 or 3 months. A major league outfielder with that low a batting average is usually benched for option B. Not Cora. The press, the fans, radio call-ins killed Cora for most of these decisions. The common denominator for these and other moves is Alex Cora's unshakable faith in his team. 

It is absolutely amazing how people will perform and how much they will give of themselves if you don't give up on them, continue to improve with them and just trust them. As leaders, don't we have a responsibility to trust and develop them? After all, who hired them?

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Doing Lean When You're Fat Dumb & Happy

Many years ago, when I first started my lean journey (trip to hell), my sensei told me that in order to "do" lean well, you need to find and communicate a "lever" to everyone in my company. A lever can be defined as a compelling reason to change in order to get everybody to "buy in". Without a good lever, it is too hard to convince everyone to change well established, comfortable behaviors. 

Well that didn't take much imagination, considering for the first time in my life, I was faced with poor cash flow and the prospect of laying people off. Three hurricanes wiped out our 3rd quarter business in 2003 (we were construction-based) The "lever" was if we don't change the way we run our business, we are screwed. Just like my sensei said, almost everyone jumped on board and pitched in. It was still hard, but we were able to develop a culture of kaizen.

Then we started winning. Customers got their orders very fast, inventory was cut by 3/4, we had cash, people were rewarded with nice bonuses. We were able to grow from 18M to 32M in sales with the same 70 people. Our company was named one of the best companies to work in Connecticut 3 or 4 times in a row. 

Then lean got harder. People start to think that we were done. We were lean!!! What's all the commotion about? Relax! Life is good. We might have started to get fat, dumb and happy. 

Then Wall Street 2008 happened. New lever! No more fat, dumb & happy. People worked hard to cut process times by eliminating the 8 wastes using A3 (over 800 of them). The result? No layoffs, bonuses paid.

So, how do we do lean without a good lever? Think of lean as an insurance policy for your business. The premiums are the time spent developing people's ability to make improvements and solve problems. Managers need to work relentlessly to cut through complacency and "busy"-ness to make continuous improvement a way of life. Make sure you communicate that our prosperity and good fortune is not guaranteed. 

Lean is easy when you have a lever, a lot more challenging when you're fat, dumb and happy!

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Just Go Lean Something Today

Here I sit on a Sunday morning, having officiated some college football this weekend. As always, there are a few plays that I wish I could have done differently. In 32 years, I have never NOT felt this way. Officiating is like golf and lean, I guess...the never-ending pursuit of perfection and a test of stick-to-itiveness. 

My biggest regret when I started "doing" lean in my own company in 2002 is that I wasted way too much time getting myself and everyone else up to speed on lean concepts. You see, we had a mandatory 1-hour weekly company meeting (on Wednesday mornings at 9 am) for over 1 year. I bought and handed out 70 copies of "Lean Thinking", "The Toyota Way", "It's Your Ship", "Toyota Kata", "Learning to See", and asked everyone to read 1 chapter per week. On Wednesday morning, I would administer a quiz. I also spent 3 months of my own life, at the same time, getting myself "certified".

Eventually, it becomes time to actually DO. As my lean friends out there know, actually DOING is 1000x harder than studying and learning about it. The word KAIZEN rolls off the tongue in less than 2 seconds, and it all sounds beautiful in theory. Creating a culture of kaizen, however, feels like about 20 minutes...….UNDER WATER! 

Sort of like officiating football or hitting a golf ball. I can study, watch Power Points, whatever, but sooner or later, you need to hit the field with people yelling at you, or you find yourself on the 1st tee with everyone watching you.

LEAN is the ultimate learn by doing business strategy. Why not just go ahead and lean something today?

Friday, September 7, 2018

The LEAN Coordinator Position at Ulbrich Steel: Why It is an Extraordinary Opportunity

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

Respected author and consultant Ken Cook penned what I consider a very well written & insightful article in 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 completes over 600 events annually. 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, a company 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. 

Imagine yourself as a Lean Leader in that environment?!?!

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Do NOT Impose Wishful Thinking on Your Most Important Customer

The 2 main pillars of the TPS (Toyota Production System) "house" are "respect for people" and "continuous improvement". These 2 pillars hold the house up! Sometimes you will see the pillars labeled "jidoka" and "just-in-time", which is the exact same thing, but I will cover that in a future blog.

"Respect for people" seems like such a simple idea. It almost goes without saying, right?  I don't think many of us humans wake up, have our coffee and sit around thinking of ways we can disrespect other humans (unless they cut us off in traffic). However, it is so easy to sabotage this inadvertently and without even thinking about it.

One aspect of RFP I see inadvertently violated in my travels (and I did it in my own company) is "DO NOT IMPOSE WISHFUL THINKING ON YOUR CUSTOMER". 

At first glance we immediately think of our customer as the people who pay the invoices. As mangers, however, we really have ONE primary customer. The people who we have brought into our organization that we have a responsibility to develop (remember the TPS adage, "build people, then cars").

We violate DO NOT IMPOSE WISHFUL THINKING..." when we allow people to do processes that are not 100% capable and predictable and chock full of the 8 wastes. The people who do these unstable processes for 2000+ hours each year often had little or nothing to do with the creation of these processes, yet these same people are often the scapegoat when the process doesn't deliver. Imposing wishful thinking might take the form of "if he would just follow the work standard, it would work fine" or "writing someone up" because the process is not mistake-proof enough. 

My hero, Taiichi Ohno, had a reputation for being very demanding (rude) when he observed people working bad processes. Interestingly enough, he would blow a gasket not at the person performing the work, but at the managers responsible for allowing people to work bad processes. "Your eyes are open but you do not see!!!" Wishful thinking is walking by bad processes day in and day out (or worse, staying in your office) and not doing your ONLY job, which is continuously develop your people by relentlessly helping them improve their processes. 

Everything is hunky dory is imposing wishful thinking on my customer. It may be hunky dory from your office, but not when you invest a few hours going to see it for yourself. When you go see it for yourself, go with the intention of learning from the true process expert, the person who does the work. Go with humility and ask only a couple of open ended questions (not yes/no). Make sure people have time to work ON as well as IN their process, and teach them how to do plan-do-check-act. Make sure they have access to the resources they need to make improvements (engineering/quality/maintenance/IT).  Remember it is disrespectful for ME to fix YOUR job.

If you are not doing these things, then it is highly likely you are imposing wishful thinking on your most important customer!

Sunday, August 12, 2018

My Nana's LEAN Advice

When I was a kid, the highlights of my kid-year involved taking turns with my 4 brothers to sleep over my Grandparent's house on weekends. My Nana & Papa spoiled us like 6 week old milk. 

The ONLY requirement was we had to attend Mass on Sunday. Finding myself bored stiff, I would often engage in conversation with another kid, an elderly person or with myself. To cut through the monotony, I might do jumping jacks on the pew or aim spitballs to the back of parishioner's heads. My Grandmother would look at me with a death stare (all bark no bite) and whisper yell, in Italian, "mantenere ancora, statti zitto!"

When I would ask my Papa what that means, he would say "keep still".  One day I learned  it means "keep still and shut up."

Which brings me to this concept of "go to Gemba, show respect".  I find it helpful to be very mindful of my Nana's advice. Mantenere ancora, statti zitto. Let's take a look at both components of this wisdom.

First, keep still. It AMAZES me how many times we can look DIRECTLY at crummy processes and not see crummy. It is not easy to actually SEE problems, unless you keep still. Taiichi Ohno's famous "circle" was designed to help young engineers quiet their mind and learn to see. The "circle" was drawn on the floor and Ohno would instruct a young manager to stand in the circle and just watch. For hours and days. When we quiet the mind and understand how the process SHOULD work and compare it to what we see with our eyes, we begin to see problems. When you go to GEMBA, keep still. You don't go to GEMBA to be a hero and fix things, we go to learn to gain a much deeper understanding of what is happening. 

Then there's "statti zitto". One of the most important ways to demonstrate respect for people is to learn how to listen. Many managers just love to hear themselves talk. Humble inquiry is a way to get people to open up, give you their ideas and thoughts. Sounds simple, all you need to do is ask open-ended questions (not questions that can be answered with yes or no (those are questions you ask to confirm what you think). Respect for people is the belief that the people who actually DO the job every day are the true experts. It is tough to learn anything new if we already have all the answers when we show up.

The picture above: the bottom ring on my right hand is my wedding band. The top ring is my Nana's wedding band! I've been wearing it since she passed away in 2004. It is a great constant reminder for me to "mantenere ancora, statti zitto!" when I show up at someone else's GEMBA! 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

5S Lesson from the Japanese World Cup Team

In theory, the concept of 5S is simple:
  1. Sort-remove un-needed items from the area.
  2. Set-for those items that remain, make sure they have their own designated space.
  3. Shine-everyone is a janitor, keep the area looking pleasing to the eye...fresh paint, swept, etc.
  4. Standardize-work to make this "the way it always is" using a checklist.
  5. Sustain-engage management to take notice by auditing the area against the checklist.
Another simple way to think about Standardize is to think about the next person. Paul Akers of Fastcap explains this well when he talks about the company cafeteria, and how it is important to leave the table you just ate lunch on is "like new" for the "next guy". 

I suppose in a perfect world, this type of consideration doesn't need to be a "program" or a set of "S's", but standard operating procedure, how we are wired.

OK, so suppose you have a 2-0 lead over Belgium on the biggest stage in the world....World Cup soccer. Leading 2-0 with 25 minutes left in the game is like being up 25 points late in the 3rd quarter of the 2017 Super Bowl (sorry Falcon fans), or up 3 games to none in the American League Championship series in 2004 (sorry Yankee fans). Like the Falcons and Yankees, the Japanese World Cup soccer team collapsed on the field, and found themselves eliminated from the tournament. 

Of course, the devastated team, with their heads down, retreated to their team locker room and absolutely trashed the place. They punched holes in walls, left towels everywhere, got snotty to reporters who tied to interview them and got out of Russia as fast as possible. Wait, that's not what happened? Are you serious? You mean to tell me that the Japanese soccer team meticulously picked up the locker room, vacuumed it, left no trace they were even there besides leaving a thank you note (in Russian) for their Russian hosts? 

Japanese fans, after this heartbreaking loss,  spilled out onto the streets, looking to fight anyone who dared mock them, and turned over police cars and set dumpsters on fire. NO?!?! You mean to tell me the Japanese soccer fans stayed in the stadium after the debacle and picked up all of their trash and cups, leaving no trace they were even there?

5S is not about S's or checklists, it is about demonstrating respect! Respect for our company, respect for our equipment, respect for materials, and most important, respect for the "next guy". I am sure there was a group of human beings being paid to go into the locker room and into the stands to pick up towels, cups, trash, etc. Respect for humanity is putting aside ourselves long enough to consider these people. Imagine their faces when they walked in that locker room to clean up?

Thank you so much Japanese soccer and fans for such a demonstration of respect, humility, consideration and decency.