Lean Stories: Lean, frustrations and wins – Part 2

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

I started the conversation. Alex, who are your customers? We have several customers; most of them are main sports gear sellers. We have about 12 of them as our permanent customers. We do some sales online. It is picking up. And we do sell sometimes directly to the customers, who come here. Alex replied. So you have basically retail and large volume businesses? “Yes”, Alex replied. Good. Then who are your vendors. Where do you get your raw material from? In a moment Alex turns his computer to me and shows a list of about 30 vendors. They are nicely categorized by the purchase volume. I ask another question. Alex replies. This goes on for few minutes. By now I have a good understanding of the business Alex is in. I understand his customers, vendors, audit results and so on. I have created a good launching pad.


I asked Alex to show me the value stream maps they have done. Alex walks me to a glass wall in his office where there are two maps hanging. He explains me what the process was before and what they are going to be in future. I am certainly impressed in the manner they have been done. I asked Alex who did these. He replied he did it with his senior management team. Good, I tell him and stare at the maps for a moment.

Then Alex takes me to the shop floor where they make their stuff. I see a nice work cell like work environments. I see very less inventory in the work cell or between them. I see a place where there seems to be higher inventory. Alex walks there while I was still thinking about it. He asks what is wrong, and why there is so much of inventory. He tells the workers, the expected level of inventory is only 5 pieces per workstation. Workers explain that they had a minor breakdown in the machine, pointing to a machine, and they have fixed it now. Inventory had been piling up while the machine was taken care of. Alex tells the workers it is not the expected behavior. Instead of piling up inventory, they should stop work and focus on getting the machine repaired. People in the work cell agree and try to give some excuses. But Alex was to the point. He says if there is a break you have to stop. Then he checks the maintenance records. He notices some problems with the schedule maintenance. He calls a guy from the mechanical department, asks why this machine was not maintained as per the schedule. The mechanic gives a reason. Alex says it cannot happen again. Workers go to their work stations. Alex returns for me.


I was standing only couple of steps behind Alex. I saw the entire incident clearly. I cannot explain how excited I am. How much of knowledge Alex has acquired in this short period of time. I have seen some people learning lean manufacturing from books. But some never take it into their hearts. But Alex was living lean. In my entire career, I have seen only a handful number of people with the understanding Alex has. I was very impressed. But meanwhile I was puzzled too. Why this guy has a problem with his lean implementation? I see a very mature lean manufacturing facility in front of my eyes. Everything is managed visually. There are no many gimmicks, colorful LCD panels, LED displays, hundreds of boards and posters. But yet everything was very much visually managed. As a complete stranger, I can walk into the manufacturing facility and see where the problems are. I can check whether there is a delay in one workstation. I can see whether I have excess inventory in the raw material section or in the finished products section. Simple red flag in the workstation calls the attention of a supervisor, who may attend the workstation without disturbing the workers and try to solve the issue immediately. Everyone seems to be relaxed. Everyone seems to be enjoying the work they do. Even though Alex was firm with his people, he wasn’t seemed to be an unpleasant guy. People in the factory seem to be talking to each other, which always show the things are moving well.

I am following Alex and questioning him where I have a doubt. I am thinking about the possible improvements. I am taking down notes. I draw some layouts and pictures. We go from one station to the other. After spending the good part of the day with Alex, I am ready to leave now. When are you coming back to seem me Mr. Miyagi? asks Alex. I reply him saying I will come to see him in two days. Next time I will just roam the factory myself, I tell him. He agrees. We say good bye to each other and walk away. On my way back home, I think about the problems Alex might be facing, but nothing comes to my mind immediately. Why this lean implementation getting stagnant. What makes it not to move forward?


I am in the Alex’s manufacturing facility again. I am here exactly after a week. I did some homework since I was here last time. This time I am just going to observe the facility and attend meetings with the workers and even going to go for lunch and tea with them. I asked Alex to not to come with me as it can create some distance between me and the workers. They may not act in the same way they would if Alex was there.


I spent the first full day in the facility. I was there until the last employee left the office. Alex came to me and asked about the progress. I showed him some notes I gathered and discussed some of the points. Then I left the work place with Alex and I will come tomorrow to do the same thing. On our way back Alex says “Genchi Gembatusu”. What is that? I asked Alex. He started laughing. I though this is a Japanese word. Wasn’t that what you did today, called. Ohh.. I see. It was like Greek to me. Believe me I did not understand either word you said. It should be pronounced like “Genchi Genbutsu”, I pronounce the word the correct way. Alex laughed and said; now it sounds Greek to me. We both laughed, and I tell Alex, Mr. Alex, you see if you want to take anything to your soul, you have to do it in your mother language. I always think in Japanese when I think about things closer to my heart. Same way, if you want to communicate something effectively so that others will take it to heart, you should do it in plain English. Just call this “Observation”. Alex seems to agree.


The second day began with the breakfast with workers. It continued the same way like the previous day. Now workers start to talk to me. They ask me where I am from and what I am doing here. I tell them the truth. I am in a work cell. A worker puts the red flag in his table. Supervisor is there in a minute. A problem. Good thing to happen. I think to myself. The supervisor asks what the problem is. The worker has a problem with his machine. It is not working correct. Supervisor inspects the issue and decides he cannot do the work himself. He asks the mechanics to come. They come there in a minute. They fix the machine, oil it and polish it. They update a record on the whiteboard and goes back to their workstation. Work as usual.


In another place few people have gathered around a worker. They seem to be doing some sort of an interview with the worker. They all wear a kind of a uniform and looks like in mid-twenties. I observe them from a distance. The worker is not keen to answer them. But he does nevertheless. Once they leave, I ask the worker who they are. He tells me they are the members from the “lean team”. Lean team, I asked him again. Yes, “Lean Team” from STAT Lean consulting firm. The worker replies. For the first time, I see a problem with the lean implementation here. For the first time I get evidence of people have no interest in lean. Or at least one person is not very enthusiastic about lean.


Day three. I am going through my routine. I am with the workers. Today I get to attend a meeting. This meeting is conducted by Alex. All the employees are in the meeting. It was a prescheduled meeting which will happen every Thursday in the morning for fifteen minutes. Alex will update the users with the latest status of the business. Alex tells about some drops in the predictions. But nothing to worry he says. We will get good business in future. We are working with some big sport gear sellers. So we should be fine. Workers including manager show some comfort.


He tells about the change he is going to make to the shop floor. He is going to change the work cell layout. He adds, this was to facilitate the free movement of the trolleys carrying stuff. It will also lower the travelling time, he says. It is a waste we attack with the lean manufacturing initiative. Workers show no emotions. He adds few lines about the changes in the global economy and how it has affected them. And he thank the workers for working hard. Exactly after fourteen minutes and thirty seconds after the meeting began, everyone goes back to their work areas. Yes I had a stopwatch in my hand and I timed it. I wanted to know how punctual the meeting was. I took many notes while the meeting was taking place.


Friday is here. I am working with the Alex’s team. They treat me as one of their coworkers. I have built a good relationship with them. Throughout the day, I talk to them. I ask subtle questions. I ask them how the layout change will affect them. Some say it won’t make any difference to them. Some say it will actually be counterproductive. One point out to me the possibility of increase in distance between work cells and the additional handling might come from it. Some say it will actually be a good thing. Everyone had an opinion. No body speaks a word about it in the meeting. Interesting. I think to myself.


In the tea break, they employees seem to be very relaxed, partly because it is the Friday. In addition they seem to like me. They like the fact I talk to them. I laugh when they joke. I share their emotions. I am not pretending. That is my nature. They like it. They talk to me more. They tell me stories. They tell me things happened here in the past. They tell me about their families. They tell me how long they have been working here. I tell them about Japan. I tell them about my childhood in Japan. They listen to me with great interest. Some of them tell me I have a funny accent. I tell them to talk in Japanese so that I can judge their accent. They laugh. I laugh. We are having a good time.

The day and the week ends, so is my notebook. It is almost ran out of space. I think I can give some input to Alex. But I want to put it in a more logical manner. So I draw a simple cause and effect diagram. I want to focus on his main worry for the time being.(Click on the image to enlarge)

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


One thought on “Lean Stories: Lean, frustrations and wins – Part 2”

  1. I am currently working on a project of lean implementation in an organization where no one has heard the word lean before. This story gives a very good learning to me. Eagerly waiting for the 3rd part of story to read the conclusion and suggestions of Mr. Miyagi.

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