Lean Stories: Lean, frustrations and wins – Part 1

Lean journey can take you to great heights. You, your organization, entire world will be a much better place, if lean is worked out correctly. Lean may be the difference between winning Vs. losing, leading Vs. following, coping Vs. cruising. Unfortunately though, lean journey is not a “walk in a park” as they say it. You will be very lucky, if you find a guide who will know exactly what to do in every juncture of the journey. A guide who will know exactly what direction to take. You will be very lucky, if you can vaguely see a trace of a path, a foot path, which will guide you at least few steps in the correct direction. You may be never disappointed to know one fact. You will never find the highway to lean success. Simply because it is nonexistent nor being built for you.

As any journey, lean starts with a thought of where one wants to be and single step in the correct direction. Step by step one will get closer to their goals. Soon one will see a greater gap between lean followers and traditional thinkers who are going nowhere with their thinking, who are circling the same place, as if taking the same path is going to take them somewhere. Lean thinkers will widen the gap and become the leaders of their trade. Traditional thinkers will be the followers, if they managed to exist for long enough in this very competitive business world.

I have seen many falling behind, many losing and closing their shows before they even got half way through. I have seen great lean startups, only to lose their direction in the middle of the way and eventually fall behind. I have seen some use the entire Japanese vocabulary to call their various programs, yet not to go anywhere with their business, as they never understood the main concepts behind lean manufacturing. I have seen thriving businesses with no formal knowledge of lean. I have seen some with lean knowledge and correct execution, some patience and persistence, change their fortunes. I am really honored to be a part of some of those lean journeys.  Sometimes I was the captain of the lean ship, sometimes I was a laborer, sometimes I was a demanding customer and most of the times a curious observer. I am glad to share my experiences, which I have gathered over few decades, in my various roles. I am sure they might be helpful to you, if you know where you want to go.

Hi, I am Miyagi. A mere fictional person in the head of Aza, who is bringing me to life. Like me, these scenarios are fictional too. I am sixty. My hair is mostly white, where ever they are present. I have small eyes compared to most of you. My skin color is not white. I am not taller than most of you. I come from Japan. Where I spent most of my childhood. Where I love to go when I get a chance. My wife Mike tells me, we are getting older. I myself get the thought sometimes when I see my children and grandchildren. But I am energetic as usual. I know I will live longer than most of the others. I am simply happy for all the stuff I have done in my life time. I am sure I will find happiness in whatever I will do in future. Importantly I know I have to do what I do right now to the fullest, to have a happy past and a happier future.

I am living a near retired life, but without the privilege of completely retiring, mentally. My love for lean is jumping out of me some times. I cannot help it. It is my life style. Just like that. Lean is my life style. I see opportunities for improvement everywhere. Simply everywhere. Sometimes I think to myself, I should put my lean glasses away for a moment. Then I am reminded by another side of me, I am not wearing any glasses, but I have a lean mind.

Yesterday, one of my friends visited me. He was much younger to me. We have an age gap of few decades. A man towering about six foot three or something with nice hair and white skin. We met in a nearby public park where me and Miki went for a walk. He was with his kids. Two of them.  Both of them were sweet. We couldn’t help ourselves. We loved them instantly. We started talking about his kids and the relationship grew fast. We became friends. I learned that he owns a business. He makes sports gear, specially related to tennis, which I am not a big fan of. He has good sales and his brand, “TJ Gear” can be found in all the leading sport gear shops.

Alex, my friend came to see me for advice. This is why most of my friends come to see me, for advice, I told him laughing. What else this old person can do for a man who is much younger to me and has plenty of energy and time ahead. I told him that I am glad they think of me at least when they are in trouble. You know, I was just joking. Alex has visited me countless times with no other reason than just to see me and see how I am doing. Besides his kids love to visiting us. Alex couldn’t help himself, started laughing. We spoke about his kids and his family. We spoke about the current economic troubles and how they are affecting the business.

I invited Alex to have a cup of tea. While my wife, who knows Alex well, pours him a cup of tea, we started talking. So Mr. Alex tell me what is your issue (I used call everyone Mr. Mrs. Or Miss even when they are my very close friends. They have told me countless times not to. But I couldn’t help it. It naturally comes to me. So I use it. In return almost every one of my friends started calling me as Mr. Miyagi. This is how I became Mr. Miyagi). Alex leaned back, and told me, he is trying to implement lean manufacturing in his manufacturing facility. But he is running into some problems. I remember about a year ago, I gave him some insights on lean. Alex was delighted to experiment with lean. He spoke about lean passionately whenever we met. But I felt bad when I thought I never paid him a visit, at least to play the observers role. If I have done it, Alex may not be here today with a problem. Anyway, past is past. Nothing can be done now. I have to help him. So Mr. Alex what is the problem you are facing. How far have you gone in lean? What are you trying to achieve with your lean implementation?

Mr. Miyagi, some of my employees are not getting the lean concepts into their heart. They think lean as a burden. They are simply happy to work the way they used to. It is affecting the business. It is losing momentum. I am worried. I have seen some improvements with the changes we have made. I am sure there are many more improvements I can make in our journey to become the best mass market tennis gear manufacturer. But everything seems to be slowing down.

How many employees do you have Mr. Alex. I have about 100. OK. Give me more information. What did you do, or what did you change with your lean movement. Well, I created a value stream map. In fact I created two of them. One for the current status and one for the future. Then we aligned our plans with our target of becoming the best mass market tennis gear manufacturer. We used a Hoshin map for this. Then we derived our plans and started executing them.  We identified wastes, and then we started removing them from the system. Back then everyone seems to be happy. We reduced our lead times by about 30%. Our inventory went down by nearly 20%. But somewhere it started stagnating. Now we are not moving forward.

I was listening to Alex, with no interruption. I was genuinely impressed with the knowledge he has gathered on lean in one year. I am sure he is into this big time. It is good. You should have fire inside you to make lean work. How do I know? By experience. I told Alex to give me two more days, just to think about it. I have a habit of delaying the process initially. I feel this will help me to make better observations. After few days of the meeting, emotions involved in the conversation will be long gone, and we will be in a neutral position to start with. This I believe is very important in any form of consulting. You should be very careful not to be taken away by emotions, yours or the others. When emotions come into analysis or decision making, realities are not visible, clear truth becomes blurring, ultimately making headways to wrong decisions. Alex agreed, and he understood the value of giving me some time before taking this any forward. Meanwhile we had some more tea. Alex just loves tea as much as I love it. We then switched to other topics from our personal lives to sports to international politics. We discussed many things for hours before finally Alex reminded himself that he has made a commitment to his wife to take her out for a dinner. He rushed to the door, said good bye to my wife Miki. I will see you soon Mr. Alex, I told him. He smiled, said sure and added Good Bye Mr. Miyagi, keeping a very long pause after Mr. in his customary way. I laughed.

After Alex left, I was thinking about what Alex told me. He seems to be very much aware of what he needs out of his business. He’s got good understanding of lean concepts. An organization with 100 people is not huge. Communication might not be a big problem. The results he told me were not ordinary either. I will take 30% reduction of lead time and 20% reduction in inventory any given day. I have seen people making 10% reductions in their inventory in the first year of lean implementations. I thought that is a very good result to have. Is Alex expecting too much? I doubted. After wondering for a while, I went for a nap. I know my brain will stack every piece of information in the correct order. I know it will work on this for the next two days. I am sure to have better understanding of the situation when I meet Alex next time.

Meanwhile I got some calls from my friends and old clients. My grandchildren were online via Skype. I am seeing them growing in front of my eyes. I am thinking to myself what technology has done for us today. In a way all this technology has made us that much closer. We are living in a tiny world, where it takes only few seconds to see or hear anyone. But with that the magic has disappeared. We see everyone when and where we want to see them. No more waiting, no more surprise. If this was twenty years back, I will have to be with my grandchildren to see them. That will be a big event. I will see the effect of the magic of time on my grandchildren. I will wonder how much they have grown after I saw them last. But not today. I am not against the technology. May be I am too old to understand it.

I am geared up to meet Alex at his manufacturing facility. I have never been there before. I am a punctual person. I want to be just on time, in where I am supposed to be, doing what I am supposed to be doing to help my client. Sounds familiar? Yes, this is JIT of my life.

I called Alex yesterday and arranged to meet him at 9 am. I got into the taxi and we navigated to the Alex’s manufacturing facility. When I entered the facility, where there was no one in the reception (but there was a reception). It looked to me receptionist has gone to get some coffee or something. I am sitting on the big red couch on the reception and waiting for someone. I am hearing the phone ringing continuously. Within a minute a young lady, may be the receptionist, raced to the desk and picked up the phone. And she received few calls and in the first instant she could notice me, she smiled at me and asked “May I help you sir?”. Yes, I am here to meet Alex. Ohh. OK. You must be Mr. Miyagi. Alex asked me to send you straight to his room. Please come with me. She takes the lead. I am following her. She stops and points me to a room. Mr. Miyagi, this is Alex’s room. He is in his room. I can see Alex in his chair. I thank the lady and heading towards the room. I am kind of surprised by the helpful nature of the young lady. I have seen how some of the help staff, including people on help desk can be not so helpful. And I was thinking how good a first impression she might be making on customers when they visit here or even over the phone. The first impression means a lot. She called me Mr. Miyagi. Did she used the Mr. part as a in the normal case, or did Alex told her specifically speak to me with a Mr. I am wondering as I stand in front of the office door and knocked it. Alex was on the door in a flash. He opened the door and invited me in. He was very happy to see me. I was in a good mood too. I asked Alex how the things are. He replied, things are going OK. I hope it would be better starting right now he added.

I can see number of charts on Alex’s office. Among them are some process charts. Some efficiency graphics. Some output charts. Some cause and affect diagrams. You have done a good job in keeping track of all the necessary things Alex. He looked at some of them and smiled. Yes, I think so. He replied.

Now I want to know more about the business and good and bad and not so good. I do it my way. I start a general conversation about the organization. I lead it to the areas I feel important. I takedown all the required stuff on a note pad. But I never ask direct questions. I have learnt over decades when you ask questions like “What is the problem with this process?” you will get almost the same answer everywhere. People will tell you what they think is the problem. Sometimes they might be correct. But my experience has told me otherwise. They are wrong most of the times. That is not their fault. If I get a wrong answer, I may not be asking the correct questions. Or I may be not be asking the correct person. But I have decided, asking direct questions itself is the problem. So I use this indirect method. I take them through a journey while noticing what I feel important. This way I can take out all the biasness and understand the process better. After all, as a consultant it is my duty to get to the root causes of the problems and finding solutions. If they know all the problems and answers why should they come to me?

(This is the part 1 of a 3 part series. Please read the part 2 of this story here.)

4 thoughts on “Lean Stories: Lean, frustrations and wins – Part 1”

  1. Well, it is real a good idea of asking indirectly to people. I have noticed that normally young researchers when asking questions, they tend to be very direct. Questions like “why is this not working?” Then is normal to you reply that the reason is this…, but in reality is another.

    I had an experience few days ago. I am working in a data analysis for payments. In reality what I am doing is to test the integrity of the information to export data to a access database. To get then done properly, you have to make sure that all data is in a correct format so that no errors can appear when you using the data in access.

    I have made some diagnostics to make sure that the quality of data was good. I found like 600 errors. There were from diffent categories. I made some diagnostics using brainstorming sessions with my colleagues to identify the reasons for that number of errors.

    Then we categorized in 5 type of errors. After that We used 5Ws to diagnose the root causes of each category of problems.

    We just used our guess based on our experiences. Then we created a countermeasures table and we started to act on the problems.

    Our results were not very satisfactory as we were expecting more…

    We did a new brainstorming session, but…we changed the approach…We created hypothesis for the supposed root causes and we tested. My surprise was that most of what we meant to be the answer of the reasons of having errors in our data was WRONG! As PYZDEK Law says: “Most of what you know is WRONG!”
    Then we started to create hypothesis, test then get the answer for the root causes of the problems. In all this process we used some t tests, Chi tests, and Variance tests. The results seemed to work.

    Then, the lesson for me is that never trust of what you know…then it is more likely to be wrong!

    Direct questions may bring wrong answers because people believe in their knowledge on things. Then, we also may assume they are right, then start to resolve problems form that. It is also very important to formulate hypothesis about the root causes of problems and test them using as much informations possible to get the right answer, then act to make the difference.

    Aristides Muhate

  2. As a consultant, I always make it a point to visit the facility and understand myself the issues before taking up any assignments or training to the personnel. this approach has helped me in most of the cases to identify the problem, assess the impact and finding the right solutions. In fact the Management have at all times expressed surprise at their lack of understanding of their own company’s issues.
    Your analysis and approach has been excellent and this is the only way we can contribute to implementing lean and to get direct benefits.
    v dwarakanath

  3. Sir, Very good article. Actually I have recruited in one of the company to implement the basic lean concepts. Here they don’t have any idea about lean, even the simplest 5S. Can Mr. Miyagi guide me to how to move forward in this situation? Even I am asking all friends if they want to share something please mail me on hhkeaiya@yahoo.co.in

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