Monday, January 30, 2006

Can you Read the Handwriting on the Wall?

Regardless of what productivity improvement method you subscribe, the area of communication always shows up on the list as a much needed area of improvement. As humans, we have struggled with this problem since the beginning of time without significant results (with the exception of speed and distance). From the earliest cave drawings to hieroglyphics to the written word, people have expressed their ideas, thoughts and instructions to others yet many times there is a breakdown in conveying the message. Knowing this, why not take every opportunity to prevent the muda of poor communication or miscommunication?

From a lean manufacturing point of view, the muda associated with poor communication causes, at minimum, a stumbling block in the value stream all the way up to a major disaster that could jeopardize the survival of the company. Sometimes the mistakes in communication create a humorous event with little harm to the organization (the best kind of communication error if there is one).

One of the earliest and most common methods of communication is writing. Of course, the earliest form was the handwriting on the wall (of the cave). Even today, the skill in reading the handwriting on the wall helps in the business world. But that depends a lot on the quality of penmanship. Unfortunately, many of us have poor penmanship. Our 7 could look like a 1 or 9. Our 6 could be mistaken for a zero. Words like kick, lick, nice and kiss get confused and cause problems...Just ask Guy Kawasaki.

Quite a few years ago, before the PC could be found on every desktop, our computer system at Hill-Rom (one of my previous employers) was housed in the large, central computer room. In order to add, delete or modify any computer records, engineers had to submit a transmittal. A transmittal was a simple formatted sheet of paper with designated spaces to hand write the information of the record that was given to computer programmers for entry. I was adding some work centers to our MRP system for the fabrication department and one of these work centers was for a 105 ton punch press. Keeping with our naming convention, I wrote 105T Press on the transmittal sheet. After waiting on the batch process (3 days back then) to clear, I received confirmation of my new work center. The only problem, my 105T Press was added as the Lost Press. That error did not cause a lot of harm but certainly was the source of many wisecracks. Every time I walked through the fab department, somebody would shout out, "Hey, Mike. Did you ever find that press we were missing?"

By avoiding handwritten communication and using computers, label makers or printed out forms of communication wherever possible, you can improve you chances of getting your message across. Look around your office and factories at all the handwritten information posted. Can you read the handwriting on the wall?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Good Luck To Ford

With great interest, I have followed the latest drama of the Big Three ( now known as the Shrinking Three) . The turnaround plans recently announced with great fanfare by Mr. Bill Ford were not surprising-cut jobs, close plants and squeeze suppliers. Sure there were faint glimpses of hopeful vision thrown in the plan about doing business with a focus on innovation and changing the business as usual culture.

My initial reaction to the plan was neutral. That's the problem, no excitement and no rally cry to gather around. Based on their plan, my belief is that Ford will not regain the market share its lost over the years of molasses management however Ford will survive. (Smaller but still kicking). Basically, I have little faith that Ford's culture can really change. As a Pro-American Manufacturing professional(and Ford owner), I hope that I am wrong and I wish Ford the best of luck!

If Ford is seriously wanting to challenge "Business as Usual" and reverse their downward spiral, here are a few suggestions. (Same goes for GM, since I'm also a Buick owner).

1. Upper Management is to accept responsibility for the current condition of their company. Look inward at their decisions and policies instead of blaming everybody and everything else. The first reorganization should be in the top tiers, not at the hourly level.

2. Forget about the practice of hiring management with "automotive experience only" requirements. Ford needs to hire based on talent. Get the best talent available from anywhere you can find it.

3. Forget about cutting costs. Instead focus on eliminating waste and adding value from the customers point of view. Profits will follow. If Ford management does not understand the difference or what this means, there is no hope for a true culture change.

4. Put manufacturing people in charge. Its all about the cars and trucks. Listening to finance and accounting may help in number crunching but the passion is in the product.

5. Be humble and seek knowledge from examples of Toyota and Honda. Learn the ways to improve and make it fit within the "new" culture of Ford.

6. Kill the current overpriced ad campaigns-they do not work. Slash the ad budget by 90% and cut all the different ads for all the different models. Replace the ads with ONE powerful, central theme of a simple message. The spot would feature Mr. Bill Ford talking to America by simply saying Ford is changing for you (the American Car buyers) featuring improved style, performance and safety. Let us prove it to you and you be the judge. Short, simple and run only a fraction of the times. The print ads should be the exact same message. One message, one ad concept to sell Ford not each model.

7. The main problem is not over capacity, it is overhead. Keep the factories and adjust the overhead cost to match volume.

Finally, to improve you must go to gemba! I wonder if Mr. Ford has personally visited any of the 14 proposed plants set for closure/idle or the decisions were based on reports/presentation data? Shame on any senior management that fails to regularly visit their own manufacturing plants especially if they are contemplating closing one down.You can not improve or make solid decisions from afar, roll up your sleeve and go to gemba to gain awareness and true understanding.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Spend More Time at Gemba

When I was visiting a customer site recently, a passing comment by my customer hit a nerve. He told me that this was the first time anyone from my company spent more that one or two hours at his distribution center. My visit (my first to this customer) was for two straight days trying the learn all I could on how our products were received and the quality level of our products. In addition, I listened to everything my customer had to say about our products and service to improve.

His comment hit a nerve in that we sometimes take our customers for granted and sometimes not take the time to "see" the issues from our customer point of view. It also got me thinking about "Going to Gemba" principle of lean manufacturing.

I bet that all the previous visitors thought just a quick visit to see "how things were going" was enough time to spend at gemba. So how much time should one spend at gemba? Is one or two hours enough?

According to the stories I was told about gemba training, Taiichi Ohno was famous for taking engineers or supervisors to the plant floor and making them stand in a circle on the floor to observe the process. After a while (usually several hours), Taiichi Ohno would ask them questions about the process. If the answers proved unsatisfactory, it was back to the circle. Sometimes this observation period would last a full 8 hours shift.

The point is to stay at gemba until you understand the process clearly or gain awareness. In my case, two days were enough time to understand my customers process. It will take more time in gemba to truly gain awareness.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Quest for the Dawn

For the past couple of months I have been on the road more than usual. Although it keeps me away from my family, it does have a side benefit of allowing for some quality reading time at night. There are a stack of books held in reserve for just this purpose.

A book that I recently finished is "Quest for the Dawn" by Shoji Kimoto. "Quest for the Dawn" is a fascinating true story set from about 1930 to the mid 1950s of a bold business quest to build an automobile from the ground up. The relentless inventors were Sakichi and Kiichiro Toyoda and, of course, the car manufacturer was the Toyota Motor Company.

Based on translations from their personal diaries, this story provides a powerful insight on the determination, vision and passion of the founders that built Toyota. It also gives a glimpse of the Just-in-Time philosophy that started from day one at Toyota and formed the groundwork of the modern Toyota Production System.

If you have the opportunity, pick up a copy of Quest for the Dawn. It is definitely worth the time to read. It is truly amazing that Toyota made it through their constant struggle to survive during those early years. In contrast to a large number of American companies with greed, short-term driven results and weak strategic direction, Toyota's culture is most honorable. The overwhelming factor in Toyota's success was passion, the key ingredient that is missing in many companies today.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Reducing Process Variation, Just Be Consistent

The Six Sigma Approach to process improvement is holding steady across manufacturing and spreading into other areas like health care and the governmental sectors with some limited success. Unfortunately, many leaders are still in the dark about Six Sigma. (I can not tell you how many people still think my Black Belt is martial arts related).

The best way I found to get others to start to understand the Six Sigma Approach is to lay out the simple goal of reducing process variation or just be consistent.

Since not all processes are perfect, variation occurs. By tracking results or outcomes of a process, we can measure the limits of this variation. This will show us the behavior of the process. Based on the process behavior, we establish expectations from our process and we can predict future results. Then we can match the process results with customer expectations (process specifications). If they do not match or stay consistent, we have a big problem.

A good example is McDonalds' french fries. McDonalds does a pretty good job of controlling their french fry process so no matter what McDonalds you go to, the customer knows what to expect when they order french fries. The same can be said for most of their other food offerings. McDonalds is not perfect but they definitely understand the importance of the consistent quality of their product.

On the other end, Holiday Inn could take some simple lessons from McDonalds. This past week, for example, I was in Kansas City at a customer site with accommodations at Holiday Inn. Besides the check in and check out processes, very little service contacts are present to make a good impression on your hotel stay. One very simple process is having a USA Today placed outside your door each morning. During my stay, the paper was placed at my door only 2 out of 3 days. If I wanted a copy of the paper on the off morning, I had to go to the front desk.

Why is the simple process of having the paper at my door not consistent every morning? This inconsistent newspaper process happens no matter which Holiday Inn I might stay at (To be fair to Holiday Inn, other hotels have similar inconsistency with the newspaper delivery). You would think this morning newspaper delivery process would be easy to control. As a customer, I do not expect to see the paper every morning, it is a hit or miss process.

Based on the two examples, which process is more consistent? How does this consistency translate to satisfying the customer expectations? Using a Six Sigma approach helps you just be consistent to improve customer satisfaction.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Take Before Pictures

In the excitement to quickly make improvements as soon as we hit the shop floor, slow down enough to take some "Before" pictures. Before pictures have a powerful impact to any lean improvement process yet many of us forget to take the time for some quick pictures before we start the improvement quest.

With the power of digital photography today, this step is easier than ever before. Just like in the home improvement magazines or even those popular make over shows ( personal appearance, rooms or total house redos), the power of seeing the before shot next to the after shot helps visually demonstrate the accomplishments. Sure, you can show numbers and graphs with plenty of data measuring the improvements of the lean efforts but pictures really tell the story.

Posting the before and after pictures on the shop floor promotes pride and a sense of accomplishment by the team. The same pictures are used to report to upper management the lean improvements made in the organization. Another great benefit is sharing these pictures with other departments or plants to spark their imaginations to make similar improvements. All it takes is a little time devoted to making "Before" pictures.

Lean Manufacturing ASAP Rules

As Soon As Possible

As Small As Possible

As Simple As Possible

As Safe As Possible

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Use the Right Workbench for the Job

The most common and most overlooked element found at almost every workstation in your plant is the workbench. As you kaizen your work areas, take a close look at the workbenches. Most are standard catalogue items ranging from 30 x 60 inches to 36 x 72 inches. It seems that most workbench manufacturers have the classic one size fits all offering. High end workbench manufacturers promote the latest designs from their ergonomic advantages to multi-functional capabilities. But they all fail to promote lean by providing the smallest footprint possible.

Now take a closer look at the tasks performed at the workstation. In examining the tasks, check if the task requirements match the workbench size. In almost all cases, the current workbench size is incorrect. The task requirements should always dictate the space required for a workbench, not the other way around.

In determining the correct workbench size following basic lean manufacturing principles, attempt to provide the minimum amount of bench surface with the minimum amount of stock. Use common sense and experimentation to determine the appropriate stock level that works in your specific task. Also experiment with different size workbenches by building prototypes out of two by fours and plywood first. The employees at each station can provide valuable input about improvements and specific requirements of the workbench for each task area. Remember they are the local experts!

Once the acceptable workbench size is determined, be prepared to custom build it to those specifications. Use a low cost custom workbench approach that can be built in-house. PVC tubes, garage racks, and home improvement items can be useful in the design. Other design considerations may include adding casters for mobility in rapid layout changes and eliminating drawer/excessive shelves to remove clutter.

After the custom sized workbench is successfully placed in production, I have found that at least a 50% floor space reduction can be obtained over conventional, standard workbenches.