Friday, May 26, 2006

It's Back to the Real World

Remember back to any of your training sessions or seminars, at least the good ones that sparked your imagination or helped you see the light with a mental clarity never before experienced. You know that feeling of absolute, crystal clear, laser beam focus, sense of higher purpose type motivation that you felt. Do you recall those feelings as you left the session armed with your new insights and skills ready to put them in action? Then what happened? In many cases, that wonderful, burning passion is doused with the icy, cold water of reality. The reality back at your plant, your office, your company. It's back to the real world!

What is waiting for you is simple chaos. Your email inbox is filled with tons of new messages, most of which are not all that important and many requiring some sort of response upon your immediate return. Depending on the email culture within your company, it may take you the better part of the morning, if not all day to clean up the email aftermath of a prolonged absence. Not to mention, notes posted on your door to add to your "To Do List Upon Return". Then you have the line of people waiting days to talk with you about some problem, decision or assignment.

Speaking of assignments, a few of your project tasks got moved up and these tasks needed to be completed yesterday. Didn't you get the email? In addition, the priorities have changed on a couple of projects, all moving up naturally. Oh, we also have a new vision from corporate that needs to be incorporated into our overall strategic planning because we didn't hit our quarterly numbers. It's top, top priority.

On top of emails, you have a string of voice mails needing your attention. Some are extremely urgent among the marketing messages for renewing your free magazine subscription to Global Manufacturing World. Hurry, it's due to expire if you do not respond immediately. Buried in all the messages, several customer need you to contact them ASAP. Your new top priority.

Did I mention the snail mail piled on your desk or mail slot? But most of that can wait because the majority of it consists of junk mail anyway. For the most part, it's more free technical publications or some other form of direct attack marketing messages.

Of course your boss will need to speak with you immediately because something hot just hit the fan...and it's been smelling up the place for the past few days. You rush around trying to cover all the bases and before you know it, it's time to wrap up for the end of the day. You scramble to organize your revised "To Do List" for first thing in the morning. Just a few more quick messages to send out before you can shut down your computer.

As you slowly drag yourself to your car to head home for the day, you vaguely remember something. It seemed important. You can't quite put your finger on it. Oh well, tomorrow's going to be another busy day.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Lessons Learned

After a long blogging break this past month, I am back to the blogging world. Thank you for all the emails asking if I am still here and I apologize for my lack of posts. Over the past few weeks, I have plunged into the lean consulting world full time after 24 years of corporate life. My initial reaction, to quote Neo in The Matrix, "Whoa!"

This week, I am wrapping up a six sigma green belt course attended by individuals from four companies in Indianapolis. The students are excellent and highly motivated, ready to apply their newly acquired skills to reduce variation in their processes. This brings me to my topic of lessons learned.

Many times I have seen the eyes of motivation following a training session like this one, regardless if the training is six sigma, lean, from a kaizen event or any other management training session. But soon, this motivation wears out, lessons forgotten and the problems remain unsolved. Why?

I do not profess to hold the key to all the answers to this long standing problem. If I did, I guess I would not have a shortage of future consulting work would I. But I do have some initial thoughts on this barrier to success in training.

My first thought is that maybe we have not taught the lessons well enough in the first place. Just by attending a high energy, content rich course like a six sigma green belt course does not mean that this knowledge has been passed on. Sure, the students nod their heads in a display of understanding or they ask pointed questions as if they are fine tuning their brains on this information. It's not enough!

My course was heavily laced with "learning by doing". I did not accept the nod of the head as my signal of acquired knowledge. I made my students try it out, give it a test drive and figure out how it really works by doing. Although the practice of learning by doing has been a part of my training style for years, I am always amazed by how little I see this approach used in corporate training. What seemed so easy to grasp in lecture proves not so easy in practice. More questions were generated through each learning by doing activity than the previous "lecture" portion and my students connected the dots.

Examine your training practices for the amount of hands on time your students receive then double it. Find creative ways to allow your students to explore and discover this new knowledge along with practice time. This learning by doing eliminates the initial frustration of trying it out back at their own companies. Maybe this is one way to keep the motivation fires burning. More on this topic will follow.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Lean Failures

We all experience failures on our lean journeys. Most of the time, all you hear about are the success stories with dramatic results in leadtime, inventory and floor space. Very little is spoken of the failures and actions taken to overcome them. During my lean journey, I have learned more about lean and myself when faced with these failures. Every company on a lean journey has faced failures. If you are struggling on your lean journey, you are not alone and there are many ways to overcome failure.

1) Keep Trying. The first lesson is to understand and accept failures as you move forward with applying lean principles. Use these failures as powerful learning experiences. If you keep trying, you will overcome the problems. Countless times, leaders of companies have told me that they are on their third or fourth attempt at lean due to past failures. It would easy for any one of these companies to give up but they are persistent in their quest of lean. Real failure does not occur until you give up.

2) Fully Engage. Some companies start their lean journey as a part-time project. They may make a formal announcement and assign the lean project to one of the executives to oversee. Initial improvements are made but within a few months the lean initiative falls by the wayside. To succeed, they company should not dip their toes in the water but jump in the shallow end and start learning to swim. Become fully engaged in the pursuit of lean from the CEO/Owner to the temp workers. Lean is not delegated to just the manufacturing shop floor, its a philosophy of continuous improvement for the entire organization. Don't battle waste in your company, declare war on waste.

3) Seek Help. In American culture today, we are driven by the self-help mentality. We have self service at the gas pumps, self serve drinks in many restaurants, self-help books, do-it-yourself home repair/remodeling, self-serve airline ticket kiosks and self serve banking with ATM machines. For the most part, we like the freedom and independence to do it ourselves for personal satisfaction or to save money. This go-it-alone approach may work in some cases but not succeed in all. Look at any championship team, did they win by individuals working alone without seeking help? No. Even professional athletes who are top in their game have coaches and trainers plus countless other support personnel to continuously improve their game. These coaches and trainers provide value in helping improve the performance of any athlete. The same goes for your golf game. Golf is a simple game to understand but difficult to achieve a great performance without seeking help. A coach or teacher can help you improve your golf game beyond what you are capable by yourself. Lean is the just the same and seeking help is the best way to succeed.

4) Share the Wealth. A few companies that attempt to use the lean approach are motivated purely by self interests. I am not referring to companies that are trying to compete in the global market or trying to turn things around. The self-interest I am talking about is greed to feed their seemingly never ending appetite for earnings usually at the expense of customers, employees and suppliers all in the name of just doing business. From my point of view, this short sighted business approach will mark the decline and ultimate demise of these companies. Just like dinosaurs that once roamed this planet, their days will end. To succeed on your lean journey, take the opposite approach and share the wealth. Pass on a portion of the savings to your customers, improve pay or perks to employees and partner with your suppliers. If you focus on solely internal savings, there will only be small gains. Take the viewpoint to improve things directly for your customer. Make tasks easier and better for employees. Help your suppliers improve their operation and share the savings. By sharing the wealth, everyone benefits and additional gains are created. There is strength in numbers so don't create a culture of us (the corporate inner circle of trust) against them (your management, employees, customers and suppliers). Expand your circle of trust and share the wealth.

5) Listen to Others. Some management believe that they know better than others, especially employees, on what to do or how to run the business. The best source of expert knowledge is found with your employees. Instead of telling them what to do all the time, ask them how we can make your job easier or better. Listen carefully to them and then take action to improve their jobs! Ask them to help solve other problems like declining sales or capacity issues. You will be surprized at the improvement ideas that they can come up with that you would not have discovered. Don't just listen to your employees, take the time to really listen to your customers and suppliers. Engage them to find out how you can improve, then fix it.