17 August 2010

Lean lessons

I've long been a critic of things like six-sigma, business process reengineering and lean. My critiques have ranged from how easy it is to misapply these approaches, flaws in the underlying assumptions & theories, and the well documented lack of results (or the lack of well-documented results). I always tried to be careful not to say these approaches are worthless or never work... just that they're largely oversold, overapplied and overstated.

As previously mentioned, I recently had a chance to attend an in depth 2-week class on Lean (and that other stuff too). I really enjoyed the class and have been pondering the lessons ever since. Here are a few observations:

Business efficiencies allow us to do what we were hired to do in the first place (i.e. be awesome) and not get distracted & dragged down by low-value activities. In a non-efficient place (i.e. just about everywhere) not much happens on any given day even though everyone's busy.

Doing things the right way should be easier than doing them the wrong way.

This stuff has to be strategic if it's going to work. If we get distracted by questions of how many printers to have and where to put them, we might overlook the fundamental question - whether we really need to print things in the first place.

Even when this stuff is taught well, it's still frighteningly easy for a group to wind up labeling all the staplers and cleaning out the supply closet, rather than making truly significant improvements.

More to follow, I'm sure...


Mark said...

Hey Dan, a couple of thoughts...

I really like your implicit definition of Value: "what we were hired to do in the first place (i.e. be awesome)"

Lean thinking starts and ends with an understanding of value - and not necessarily as we would choose to specify it, but rather as the customer sees it (and will pay for).

I share your critique that Lean is too easily misapplied:

Most customers won't pay us to have all our staplers labelled. But they just might pay more to get their invoices processed more quickly, and if digging around for a stapler is slowing you down, then some "5S" may indeed be well applied. But alas, too often 5S and other Lean tools get applied in a vacuum, with no concept of their purpose, as you mentioned.

But I have yet to find an underlying assumption and theory that is really flawed (perhaps you can elaborate?) and as far as results goes... there are plenty of well-documented examples around. Perhaps those come in week 3 of the class? :)

I think Lean is inherently difficult to teach, because it really is much more about a mindset and attitude rather than a set of concrete steps. But the concrete steps are sometimes the easiest to grasp and explain. So sometimes (I'd say probably pretty often), Lean transformations - even those properly aimed at changing the underlying culture - rely on a bit of brute force "here, do it this way, trust me, you'll see how much better it gets even if you don't understand it now". And then once people have experienced it themselves (not just heard about other people's experiences) the lightbulb comes on...

The Dan Ward said...

Hey Bro - I figured this post would get a comment or two from you. :)

I might have been painting a bit broadly when I wrote about flawed theories underlying some of this stuff... what I had in mind specifically was some of the principles of Hammer's Business Process Reengineering, rather than lean.

However, there is one fundamental concept both disciplines share which I think is partially flawed (at least in popular understanding): the concept that "everything is a process."

I think that's a useful metaphor, but I must object when people treat it as a literal description rather than a metaphorical one. Metaphors are a great way of understanding A in terms of B, but metaphors both reveal and conceal aspects of the thing in question. When we treat a metaphor as a literal description, we become quite blind to the things being concealed.

There's a longer discussion to be had on that topic - maybe in a main post sometime...

Mark said...

Ahh, see I think the "everything is a process" is intended to be literal, not a metaphor. The *process* part is literal, at least. The *everything* part may be a stretch, though... (my preferred contention is that everything is physics, but I digress)

By "process" I think the Lean community (I can't speak for Hammerheads, I mostly know about them through your blogs) simply means a sequence of actions. So is a chair a process? No, but sitting in a chair (starting from a few feet away) is a process: take a step, turn around, bend knees, lower body, etc. That doesn't mean there is only one process for sitting in a chair (one could jump and twirl mid-air, landing gracefully on their backside), but it does mean that every person that has ever been sat in a chair followed some process (some sequence of events).

And building a chair is a process. Selling or buying a chair is a process. Again, not necessarily One Process to Rule Them All, but some process "happened" in the making of every chair that was, is, and shall be.

So Lean simply looks at the current process, and asks the question: is this sequence of events valued by the customer?

In making a chair, perhaps one craftsman sings songs to each chair in his shop before bedtime. That takes valuable time from his working day, so he is forced to raise the prices to make ends meet. If the customer will pay the premium for "Sung-To" chairs, then fine. But if not, he has just added waste.

Now, if the craftsman's singing is overheard by his landlord's child, who has nightmares unless sung to, then perhaps the landlord makes the singing a condition of renting the workshop. In this case, the singing is still a waste, though arguably a "necessary" one, at least in the current circumstances.

In another case, perhaps the craftsman uses the singing time to mentally decompress so he can do a good job the next day. Still a waste, but again, perhaps "necessary". Happier worker = better product, right? Probably better would be to uncover the root cause of why he needs such decompression at the end of every day (perhaps his tools are all a mess or the A/C doesn't work?) so this waste is not longer necessary.


So yeah, I think they mean everything (not literally everything, though) literally is a process. And looking at processes with an eye to value and waste can help make processes better. But of course, it doesn't usually help much if you are only ever doing that particular process the one time, and it matters very much what your definition of "better" is.

Gabe said...

Personally, I still chafe at the thought of everything broken down into a process and thinking in terms of eliminating waste. Every action may indeed be a process, but thinking about it in this way strips the joy and the thrill of discovery out of creating. I can see this concept working for many actions, but when it comes to creating, I wouldn't be able to breath if I thought about all the processes and inefficiencies occurring as I was improvising the process. Indeed, it seems that artists and creators can be divided into two camps...those that like to analytical think through the plan to create and those that simply create. Whether each is any better than the other is subjective, but for those who like simply creating on the fly, it's anathema to try and de-construct the action with the hopes of finding insight into how to do it better. I think that's why many artists find it hard to describe how they came to the final piece they end up producing.

Since I seem to be wired for the latter, I resist what seems like top-down direction on how to do a project, even if they might be more efficient and useful. It all seems like Taylorism to me. I would rather be given the freedom to choose my own path to accomplishment, even if I have to re-learn what someone else might already know or if what I'm doing is redundant. It's the whole idea of doing for oneself so that the actions can be internalized. There are times that performing an action, even if not required, redundant or more complicated, is simply therapeutic and rewarding, for whatever the reason.

The Dan Ward said...

I'm with you, Gabe... and thus my comments about not misapplying this stuff.

However, when applied in the right places there are some pretty cool tools that make life better, even for us by-the-seat-of-the-pants craftsman personality types.

For example, we're looking at applying lean to the in-processing process ('cause that takes forever around here) and to the process of creating, assigning & tracking taskers. I wish the local hospital would apply it to their appointment process.

One could argue I've got a "writing process" for my articles, but if I do, I'm largely unaware of it... and I don't see much need or benefit to apply lean to it. However, applying the "6S" tool (aka "5S" to the rest of the world- the AF adds a 6th S: Safety) to my work area does help make me more productive.