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Lean Stories: Lean, frustrations and wins – Part 3

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

Everyone has left the workplace. It is kind of scary to be in this place once everyone leaves and most of the lights are turned off. Alex talks to me in his office. Alex wants to talk to me after everyone has left. So I slowly walk to his room. Alex is still sitting in his chair, staring at the computer. He is preparing some documents. He stops to talk to me. For him it seems to be the most important thing at the moment. I tell him how productive last few days were. I show him my cause and effect diagram. He looks little nervous. He looks at it for about two minutes, before turning to me. He was not surprised. His eyes tell me, “I knew all these. But I wanted the verification from a third party”.

“This is great work” he tells me. It is amazing how you have captured, processed and simplified causes to this issue. I am really thrilled. I know he was not that much thrilled. Although he wants to feel that way, I believe something was stopping him. I can surely say it is the feeling of guilt, which blocks his enthusiasm. He knows he could have done better. He knows he should never have fired Joe citing non adherence to lean as a cause. He knows he never wanted to hear much from his employees. He knows if he did get their involvement, this process would have gone much better. But he asks me “Mr. Miyagi what shall we do about this?” I waited for a moment and asked him to take a photocopy of my cause and effect diagram. He goes to the photocopier and takes a copy of the diagram. I tear the page where I drew my diagram. I give it to Alex, saying “Mr. Alex, keep this with you. Just have a look at this tomorrow morning. Do not try doing anything. Just leave it. Let your brain do the work for you. You will come with the answer to your own question. I will meet you next Monday to hear the answer.”

“Why did you tear the page off your book? I could have kept the photocopy”, tells me Alex. I tell him, “this in color. Color images are easy to memorize”.  He smiles and puts the diagram in his bag. We both leave the office in a moment. We go to have a coffee and talk for about an hour. Alex then drops me home. We are off to enjoy the weekend.

For me the weakened is slower than it used to be. When I was working full time, weekends seems to fly. I thought Saturdays and Sundays had few hours less than the usual working day. But it is all different now. Weekend seems much longer. But I still like them. I talk to Miki, for hours and hours. My grandchildren show up online. I talk to them for hours. I eat a very slow lunch and a dinner. We go shopping together. Some days we go to a movie. Some days we just sit on a park bench and watch young and old, rich and poor, happy and sad pass by. It makes us appreciate what we have got. I believe I am living the perfect life.

It is 5.30 am. I am up. I welcome the day and the week by saying “Good Morning Monday”. Miki was already up. She is doing her business in kitchen. I take the steps to downstairs. I feel good energy and sense of comfort. I had a nice breakfast and by 7.45 I am out to see Alex in his office. My appointment is at 8.30. Today I am in no rush. I slowly get in to a cab. Tell driver the place where I want to go. While he is taking me there, I wonder what might be these busy people might be thinking now. There are hundreds of thousands out there on the roads. All of them are rushing to their work. But I wonder how many of them really rush to their workplace mentally. Let alone rushing, how many of them might have left their minds elsewhere. How many people might be saying to themselves, “Ohh, it is a Monday again”. When I really think about it, I have never felt this way, except once or twice in my life. I always loved what I was doing. Or better to say, I did what I liked, always. So I was happy always. I never got huge salaries in the beginning, and I couldn’t afford many luxuries my friend could. Some of my friends thought I was nuts.  But I knew money is not everything. Unlike all the others who knew that, I start living that life. I found joy and peace of mind.

While I am feeling good about myself, I am near the Alex’s place. I can see his factory nearing. I looked at my clock. It is 8.25 am. I am five minutes early.

I am walking to Alex’s office. He is in his seat. He is turning on his computer. He gave me a big good morning just as he saw me. Good Morning Mr. Alex, I reply him. Without wasting a second, I asked him, what answers to your questions are. He was not surprised, not panicked and did not hesitated even for a moment. He answered, “Mr. Miyagi, you were correct. I have made all those mistakes. Whatever on the cause and effect diagram are the causes to the issue. I think we can correct them, step by step obviously. I will start making the simple changes first. I am thinking of starting with improving the worker involvement in the lean process. For the moment I think we should keep our consultants too. It is too early for us to lose them. But what I thought of doing is to form an internal lean team. People from every department will have a representative in this team. They will identify, brainstorm and come up with the best solutions. But I will have the ability to bypass all their decisions in case I believe their decision may not be aligned with the long term objectives of this business”.

Alex did not leave a single space for me to disturb him. He was doing all the talking, I was just listening. I am really pleased and happy about the solutions he has thought of. I especially like the idea of creating a lean team from the members of the business. Mr. Alex, great, you have thought through the issue really smartly. I agree with all your ideas. “Mr. Miyagi, I thought you might not agree with the bit me bypassing the team in case I wanted to.” Alex tells me. I do think it is important to guide teams to the correct decisions. 
Sometimes, a team may not be able to see the vision you have in your mind as clearly as you do. Sometimes a team may select the easy path. In these cases, you may have to exercise your power, even if it meant overriding the team decision. But one advises. Do not exercise this immediately. Let the team to mature. Alex agrees. “Yes, absolutely” he says.

So how are we going to setup the team? “I will ask the department managers to come for a meeting and then will decide on the candidates from each department. I am thinking about giving the team members a 5% increase in the salary as a measure to motivate them to put the extra effort” Alex tells me.

It makes me to think. Alex, I think increase in their salary is not a good idea. When this team gets money for driving lean, it separates them from the team their representing. Others in their departments will see these people just like they see the external consultants. In addition it will start some salary increment related discomforts among the other members too. As the cause and effect diagram says, people think they are not getting their share of lean benefits. Last thing you will need is a small set of people involved in lean to get more money. I speak continuously. Alex keeps listening.

“This is what age does to people. NO. NO, I did not mean in a negative way Mr. Miyagi. You have tons of experience. I believe you are right. Paying them might do more harm than good. Thank you for pointing out that to me.” So how many people do you think you are going to have in your team? “About 12” replied Alex immediately. Mr. Alex, it is not good. Too many people in a team can cause problems. It is too difficult to communicate and come to conclusions easily. You will have to see a way of reducing the team to about 7 people.

“That is going to be tuff. I have to include all the senior VPs and a representative from each department. ” Said Alex. Well I understand your point. But how about creating two teams? One to set the strategic directions. This team will be your senior VPs and you obviously. Then there will be an operational team. This team will make your goals come true. How does that sound? “Mr. Miyagi, you are a master at this. How can I refuse your suggestions? Let this be that way.” I am about to give my last piece of advice for the day to Alex. Mr. Alex, do not appoint your teams today. Leave it to the next week. Meanwhile do your homework. Think about what exactly your team should do. I know you have a very good overall idea. But you have to be specific when you communicate with your team. Think about what are the powers you can give that team. You see a team without any formal form of power might not be able to perform well. This will lead to frustrations among the team members. You will have to think about how this will affect your day to day operations. Think through them. And prepare to pitch your idea. Practice before you talk to your team. Try to talk to the hearts of the people, while giving some logics for their brains to work on”. “I get the point” says Alex. I am thinking in the same lines. He added.

I am done for the day. One of the advantages of being a consultant is that you can define your working day. This may not apply for everyone. But in my case it surely is. I left Alex and heading back home for lunch. Alex, a guy with lots of business experience and lean knowledge can pull this out on his own. I am sure of it.

Today is Tuesday. I am up early as usual. I am thinking about my schedule for the day. Then I am going through the day to day routine. My phone starts ringing. It is Alex. He is going to speak to his team today. He thought he had enough thinking done already. He thinks he has to finish the first step fast. OK, I tell him. I am little nervous about the speed at which he is traveling. But if Alex is confident, then it should be fine. At the end of the day it is his business. So I speak to Alex for some time. Alex invites me to the team creation activity. I explain him to why I should not be there. And he understands and proceeds.

Few hours later I get another call from Alex. He was very satisfied about how things went. He tells me that everything has gone according to the plan. Both of us are really pleased.

A month went by. My activity planner tells me, I have to do some following up with Alex. Although Alex has spoken to me in-between, I have to do a formal study with Alex. That is how I know exactly everything is working fine. So I meet Alex and have a chat with him. I asked him the obvious question “Mr. Alex, how is your business doing? How is lean going on?” Alex replies me with a smile in his face. Everything is going good Mr. Miyagi. People are involved much more now. They are starting to feel lean is beneficial for them too. This probably is the most important thing that has happened after the meeting we had. In addition, our two teams are working well. We had some good suggestions. We implemented few of them. Things are going good. Alex is speaking with joy and pride. I feel it through his words and expressions. I am happy to hear how things are going. But I have to complete my job. So I tell Alex, I will stay observe the work for the entire day today just like I did before. Alex couldn’t understand why I should do it. But he did not object my request.

I am in the factory floor. Observing people and the work they do. I have a new notebook to record all these. But I have my old notebook with me too. This will help me to compare the before and after statuses to evaluate the improvements taken place.

I can notice few new charts replacing the stuff which was there already. These new boards are much more meaningful I believe. They are simple directions, only one or two of them, put down in big bold letters with measurable outcomes. For an example one such board says “Improve flow, Reduce Stoppages. We will clean our machines 3 times every day”. Unlike chats overwhelm people with so much of data; these simple and clear directions are much more effective.

I can observe some minor changes to the layouts in the factory. I see some empty spaces which I like. I was having casual chats with people around the factory floor and management. They all tell me more or less the same thing. They all tell me they start to like the concepts of lean. They tell me that they start to see some of the benefits already. So they tell me they are motivated by this. I think they are honest opinions, but I have to validate them before I accept them. All the consultants should do some sort of a validation to get to a correct conclusion, I believe.

I am taking lunch with one of the workers in the factory. This person is about 35 years old and used to talk to me when I was here a month ago.  His name is Andrew. Andrew was happy with lean developments too.  He says “Alex, made us understand the value of the lean practices. We have to build good quality stuff with fewer resources just to in the game. If we do not do this, we will be history. So I see why we should do lean and I see how we are going to do it. Importantly I know what our role is in the process”. Andrew tells his honest opinion about the lean movement and he talks with some passion, which is a really good sign. I casually asked him “what improvements you think make this process more efficient?” he thought for a moment. “I believe everything is going fine. But if I would like to see some improvements in the HR department and finance departments, you know people who are servicing us. It is not streamlined properly with the lean movement as I can see it. Probably these departments too have to start using the lean tools. We can get our work done quickly” said Andrew. I was very nervous when Andrew started talking saying he thinks everything is fine. I have seen many people tell the same in my lean career. Most of the times this happens when shop floor people stop thinking, thinking the thinking is the business of the bosses. This is a lean killer. When people stop thinking, lean stops. But I was happy as soon as he said “BUT”. BUT is a good word in lean, especially when it is used in connection with ideas. It always leads to new ideas, new opinions. I am happy to see Andrew has an eye on the big picture. I agree in principle, we should drive for a lean enterprise not for a lean manufacturing movement. Meanwhile, I have heard this cry when the lean is at its infant stage at any organization.
Lean by very nature comes first to the manufacturing and then spreads to the other departments. So people in manufacturing see others are not following lean. So they complain. But that is nothing wrong with it. As a consultant my job is to note all these concerns and direct actions to address them. But as a consultant I have seen the value of not trying to address all the concerns at once, and sometimes not at all. All the cries are not relevant to the process. While all the concerns are valid, when it comes to action, you have to be very careful what to prioritize, and what to neglect, obviously with valid reasons. Trying to satisfy everyone with a concern will just create issues in the system. And it is a waste.

At the end of the day, I have a good idea about the results of the actions taken by Alex. I believe they are in general very fruitful. People start to feel lean. They are starting to live it. But obviously, there are few areas where things can improve. One of them was how lean is implemented. Yes, now I believe is the time to think about how lean is implemented.

I see Alex after everyone left the office. Alex seems to be relaxed and happy. So am I. Mr. Alex, you are doing great in implementing lean.  I can see the improvement in front of my eyes. I am really happy about it. “Mr. Miyagi, I cannot explain in words how much it means to me. I worked so hard to make this happen. You were the magic formula. I owe all the success to you”, words are pouring out with passion and joy from Alex.  I am really happy to see it. I kept silent for a while, and tell him, I am very happy about it. And I start to talk about pull system concept in lean.

Alex understands the pull concept inside out. He speaks with great knowledge. After a little pause, I ask him, “Mr. Alex, are you following pull system in your work?” Alex looks confused. He stands up and shows me the Kanban cards and small trays which carry semi-finished goods on the factory floor, pointing to them through his glass cubical. “Mr. Miyagi, obviously we do follow pull, see the Kanban system we have in place. It has reduced our WIP considerably. I am sure you notice it yourself too” he says. Yes Mr. Alex, I see the improvement. I am very happy about it. But my question was, “Are you following pull?”. “What do you mean? I am not clear. I do not work in the factory floor?” Alex tells me. His voice has changed. His facial expressions show me some discomfort and dissatisfaction. I tell him, “Mr. Alex, you are not a factory floor worker. But you are a working on an important role here. You are the big boss of the organization. You are a very important person. So you too have to practice pull”. “I understand all that. Please tell me what you want to tell me. I am losing my patience” Alex tells me. I really can see him losing patience. So I add, Alex, you are still pushing lean to your workers. They are happy still, but soon they will start to rebel against it. You have to make lean implementation a pull. Users have to come and tell you lean improvements they need and how to improve the process etc. In current status if you stop pushing lean today, I am sure people will forget lean in a month or so. So this model of lean implementation will not sustain in long run.

“Mr. Miyagi, we came up with the teams to drive these functions here, one month ago, with your advice. Now just after a month, you are coming here and telling me a completely a different story” says Alex with a higher tone. His finger is pointing to me, like to say I am the culprit. This meeting is becoming hot. But I want not to lose my cool. I tell Alex, “Mr. Alex, yes, we did all that. Those moves have started to pay dividend, aren’t they? What I am telling you is not that”, “Then what the **** are you telling me to do?” for the first time in the conversation Alex burst out, and I can perfectly understand why. I have taken him through a journey and now I tell him that he needs to do something different. This should make him unhappy. But he has not clearly understood what I want to tell him. Probably my not so good English is playing a part here. Or it may be the way I put it. That’s all history.

“Mr. Alex, I perfectly understand your frustration. I believe you have not understood what I want to tell you. I am basically telling you to get out from the day to day affairs and let users themselves run the lean initiatives. In case if they need any direction or approval from you, let them come to you. Yes, you should have an eye on the progress and you should align everything to what you want to achieve. But you should do it passively when it comes to operational level stuff. Let your VPs and other management with the users to navigate their way through. You have other things to consider now. How to get your suppliers involved in the lean movement and how you can build a competitive advantage over your competition and so on.” there is a long pause. I did not want break it. It took a minute, before finally Alex broke the silence. With much a calm voice he starts talking. “Mr. Miyagi. I am sorry. I should have never spoken to you that way. Anyway, what you are suggesting is not doable. If I lose control.. How can that possible..”  I tell him “Mr. Alex, I have been through much tough situations in my career. I have no problems. But let me remind you, you are not going to lose control at your level. You will never be able to control everything anyway. Your team needs some freedom. Give some freedom to them to make their decisions and improvements and you will see how much of a freedom and value you get in return. Just trust me and do it.” Alex thinks about a moment. OK, let’s see, he says. We discussed about how to make the changes. And then Alex, prioritized things he has to do in order to facilitate this change. We agreed to meet in a month to check the progress.

I am on my way home. I am more than happy with the outcome. I am sure Alex will pull it off. 

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.)

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.)

Mr. Miyagi’s Christmas

After their long stay in US, Thanksgiving, Christmas and other celebrations have become a part of life for Mr. Miyagi and Mrs. Miyagi. This time they are preparing for the season little early. They had many things to get done before the Christmas. With Mr. Miyagi’s heavy involvement in recent projects, he had no much time for all these. But somehow he managed to take control of everything. When one of his friends asked how he can keep things in control, he smiled and replied with his unique accent “I’m a lean man, you know.” What do you mean? Asked his friend. Mr. Miyagi replied “You know Michel, lean is not about business. It’s about life. You do lean not only in business. You do lean in your life.” Michel paused for a moment and said OK, but he was seemingly little confused. Mr. Miyagi smiled.

Later that day, Mr. Miyagi and Mrs. Miyagi had a chat about the things they had to do before the Christmas. As Mrs. Miyagi took the lead, Mr. Miyagi was listening to his wife. Mrs. Miyagi talked about so many things they had to get done before the Christmas; it looked like almost too much for them. After a while Mr. Miyagi interrupted his wife and said “Miki, please bring me a pen and a notebook.” Mrs. Miyagi slowly got up from the low mattress they were sitting on and went to the office room, grabbed a pen and notebook and handed it to Mr. Miyagi. “Thank you very much Miki” said Mr. Miyagi while taking his pen and the notebook. Mr. Miyagi said, Miki we shall put down all the things we have to get done before the Christmas on a piece of paper. Mr. Miyagi with his lean experience knew, you have to know what you want to do before thinking about doing them better. So they started.

Their list did include about 20 items, which was already looking manageable. Among them were getting new cloths, buying gifts and arranging a party. Mr. Miyagi asked his wife “What do we have to do immediately?” Mrs. Miyagi highlighted few of the items on their paper. Some of them were about making a phone call. So Mr. Miyagi made a phone call immediately and completed the job. Now two items disappeared from the list. Things to be done shrunk, almost immediately. Then came the bigger stuff. One of them was buying gifts for the family and friends. Mr. Miyagi knew this needs some planning. OK, we will list down what we should buy for each person, said Mr. Miyagi. In a new page he started writing down.

Who are the people we should buy gifts for? Asked Mr. Miyagi. They prepared a simple list. There were about 15 people on the list. Then they started a small brain storming session to decide on the gifts each of them are going to get. Mr. Miyagi knew in Christmas, recipient of the gift is his customer. So Mr. Miyagi wanted to satisfy his customer. It began with understanding what exactly they want.

Mrs. Miyagi said “let’s check on Facebook. We can get some ideas”, she added. So, Mrs. Miyagi logged into her Facebook account and started searching. Mr. Miyagi also had a Facebook account (yes, he is not young by any means). But he couldn’t remember how to login or how to do anything on it. Sometimes he wandered why everyone is so excited about this thing. Anyway he was watching his wife doing the search. Then she came up with some ideas. “Look, Yuu wanted something called Xbox. He said few days back, he would love to get one for this Xmas. Hina wanted a doll” She added. Mr. Miyagi was very excited. He thought to himself, “isn’t this a cool tool to have, even in the business. You can know about what employees and the rest of the world is thinking about you?” He was silent for a moment, until Mrs. Miyagi came up with some more useful ideas.
Once the Facebook search is finished, Mrs. Miyagi proceeded to the Amazon.Com’s wish lists. She found some information about gifts too. At the end they could come up with possible gift ideas for 10 of the people. Mr. Miyagi was very impressed, but had a question. “What will happen if someone else is also buying the same things for the same person?” we can return them, replied Mrs. Miyagi. Although Mr. Miyagi knew inventory is a waste, this time he had no choice. So he agreed.

So they had to buy a 1 Xbox, 1 doll, 1 iPad for their grandchildren. Yes, these were somewhat expensive. But they valued the joy of their grandchildren than the money they had to spend. So they finalized on the gifts. In addition they had to buy a 1 Kindle, and 1 set of Lego and few more items which were not expensive. For the others they decided on Giftcards. Both Mr. Miyagi and Mrs. Miyagi agreed, Giftcards are the perfect gift if you do not know what exactly other person wants. Although they lack the looks and feel, they are very effective as a gift, as they provide the ability to exactly meet the requirement of the person who receives it.

At the end of this exercise they planned out where and when they are going to buy the gifts. Some of the gifts will be bought online. For the things they had to deliver to Japan, they decided to buy them immediately and ship. At the end of the exercise, both Mr. Miyagi and Mrs. Miyagi were very happy. They felt two hours they spent on the exercise was well worth it. They had much more in control over the things they had to do.

Mr. Miyagi in unknown territory – Solving the correct issue

Read the part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this lean story by following the links.
After the enlightening session a day back, everyone was ready to identify their problems correct. Allan and his team waited in the meeting room even before Mr. Miyagi turned up, sharp at 9.30 am. Mr. Miyagi was very happy to see everyone in the room and greeted them with a nice smile. There was little bit of ice breaking went on for few minutes and then real brain storming took place. Everyone in the room contributed and not so surprisingly they came up with different set of issues and different list for priorities. Below are the first three priorities they came up with;

  1. 1.       No continuous customer feedback system
  2. 2.       Internal team collaboration issues
  3. 3.       Lack of customer support in the process

List was very long, and they ended up collecting 32 issues, providing a great starting point for the process. Mr. Miyagi, Allan and his team were very pleased with what they have achieved within the day. They were very much motivated and enthusiastic by the end of the day.

Mr. Miyagi started shifting the focus of the group for the next move, which is identifying the root causes to the problem. They decided to attack each problem by their importance. So the first task was to identify root causes the Customer feedback related issues. In the next meeting complete focus was on why “Continuous feedbacks from the customers are not taken?”. Mr. Miyagi used two lean tools, namely the Ishikawa Diagram (Or the Fishbone diagram), and the 5 Why technique. Mr. Miyagi explained how to use these tools to the participants and they were asked for their input for the root cause analysis. Mr. Miyagi started saying “Well, I know all of you understand the purpose of this exercise. In lean, if you do not attack the correct root causes to the problem, instead of adding efficiencies, we will add inefficiencies and we will do worse than we did before. So it is very important to understand the correct root causes to each of the problems we have identified” Mr. Miyagi paused for a moment and then added, “well, let me begin by asking you why do you think you do not have a continuous feedback system”. Team wasted no time, ideas started flowing. The team member assigned to take down the ideas took down all the ideas came out. There were large number of ideas and hence it needed some post processing to find out root causes. So some ideas were clubbed to make a root cause. For an example, shorter lead times for project, no times for meetings with customer, being too busy with day to day work to meet deadlines, were clubbed to under the category of “Lack Of Time For Feedback”. And some of the root causes were categorized in to parent and child depending on their relationship.

For each of the main root cause this process was repeated asking the magic question “WHY?” This lead to identification of the exact roots needed to be attacked. This process was completed successfully, finding eight root causes which need to be eliminated from the system. But Mr. Miyagi knew the process was not over until the customer had their say. Mr. Miyagi said “Allan, we need the input from the customer too. You will have to make this happen. We will need to talk to customers and make them agree for this process”. OK I will try; said Allan, but what are we going to do with them? We are going to do the same thing, replied Mr. Miyagi. OK then, replied Allan.

Allan managed to convince two of their current customers and one of their old customers for the process. Same process took place. They found some similarities between root causes, but found some remarkably different leads from their customers.

By the end of the process, Mr. Miyagi, Allan and his team had a fairly simple set of root causes to be solved, instead of seemingly complex issues. They applied various techniques in the lean arsenal to eliminate the root causes. It was by no means a walk in the park. But it was an interesting one, which Mr. Miyagi in particular enjoyed a lot.

After about six months, Allan’s team members got the grab of the lean process. Allan himself became a very knowledgeable in the lean process. Mr. Miyagi and the team had solved ten problems by this time. Allan and his team saw a significant improvement and it made them to work even harder. Mr. Miyagi planned the hand over and executed the plan. People were trained and allocated roles to push lean initiatives forward. Mr. Miyagi planned to exit by the end of the ninth month. Despite, Allan’s request to stay for long Mr. Miyagi was confident that process is now fit to run by itself and told him he can assist as and when required.

Mr. Miyagi was happy for the improvement he made. As much as Mr. Miyagi taught Allan and his team, Mr. Miyagi learned from them. Mr. Miyagi left the organization confidently. Allan’s team did better and better. Mr. Miyagi visited them on request and gave him expertise.

Did you learn something from this story? If so please leave your comments. Also do not forget to click the “LIKE” button if you like the story.

Mr. Miyagi in unknown territory – Identifying the problem

If you haven’t done so, please read the first and second parts of this story
With the last chat Mr. Miyagi had with Allan, he was trying to figure out the possible courses to the problem. Time passed and the Tuesday came. By 9.30, Mr. Miyagi was in front of Allan’s desk. To his surprise this time Allan was in this desk. Allan greeted Mr. Miyagi warmly. After all settled, Mr. Miyagi started presenting his plan.
Allan, I think I have to understand your process more. So I will sit with you in almost all the meetings you attend. Is that OK? Asked Mr. Miyagi. Well that is no issue. But what kind of meetings you want to sit in. internal or external meetings? Asked Allan. Both, replied Mr. Miyagi with a slight smile in his face. You are going to sit for a long time said Allan laughing loud. So I will sit in the meetings you have with your potential customers, ongoing project meetings and even in the meetings with the old customers. I want to understand what your customers need, added Mr. Miyagi. Well that’s fine. I will introduce you as a consultant to our company said Allan and Mr. Miyagi nodded in agreement.

Mr. Miyagi sat with the team from Allan’s company in every possible instance in their meetings, except for few confidential meetings. He was especially interested in understanding what makes customers unhappy. After about a month Mr. Miyagi started to understand some gaps in the process. For his trained eyes some of the processes seemed much disorganized. While attending the meetings and observing what people do, Mr. Miyagi discussed with employees of every level to better understand what they think. He took notes carefully and shared knowledge with Allan and the management and even with the other employees. By the time first part of his study ended, Mr. Miyagi decided normal lean practices has to be implemented carefully, under the radar, to avoid the resistance from the workers, who are very much happy with the existing way of work. He devised a plan with Allan. Allan with his experience in the trade and as the owner of the organization, and his vision where to be in the future, gave his valuable input to the plan.

Mr. Miyagi decided to use 5 Why technique straight from lean manufacturing books to get to the root cause of the main problems. But defining the problems was a hard task. Mr. Miyagi suggested a brain storming session. Allan agreed. So the first brain storming session was scheduled with selected people representing each area of work. Ground rules were set and the session began. Mr. Miyagi specifically let attendees know they will not be judged on their opinions and they do not have to try thinking whether their ideas are good or bad. If you have an idea, just put it out, said Mr. Miyagi. Ideas are what matters, he added.

It took about five minutes to get the first idea from the group, and phase picked up with the time went by. Mr. Miyagi soon ran out of space in the large white board where he jotted down all the ideas. And he had to get the help of computer attached to a projector to get down some of the ideas. At the end of the event the group came out with about 30 possible problems they see in the process. It all seemed very familiar to Mr. Miyagi, he recalled an instance where it took more than half an hour to get the first idea out and ending with around 20 ideas in only few minutes.

Now having a set of problems, it is the time to put them in order of importance. First task was to identify the three most important issues to tackle first. Mr. Miyagi gave all in the room, including Allan, half an hour to discuss the issues and come up with an order. He returned to the room after an half an hour and checked what the team came out with.

Allan and his team had some success in putting the problems in order of their importance to the system. Their list looked like below.

  •        Not getting signoffs from the relevant parties at the end of each phase of the project
  •        Testing time for the software is not enough
  •        Employees lacking motivation to complete the projects on time
  •        Delays in support services from other vendors
  •        No enough documentation of the process and so on…

Mr. Miyagi was looking at the raking given to the problems, and had a smile. With his unique accent, said to the audience, “you have done a very good job. I must say you have put your heads together to come up with these rankings”. All in the room clapped in joy. There was a great sense of relief in their faces. Mr. Miyagi was waiting till the room goes silent. Mr. Miyagi started speaking again.

“Let me tell you a story. I was working as a consultant for a paint manufacturer some years back. They were doing everything right, except their sales. They couldn’t simply sell what they manufactured. They sold some, of course, but not enough to get a positive bottom-line result. Do not misunderstand. They produced one of the most impressive paints including beautiful shades and vast variety of specialty products. Still they had the problem of selling them. They called me for help. After studying the system for weeks it was clear to me they haven’t answered one important question, and that makes all the difference. They failed to ask themselves “what our customer needs from us?” Do they value, what we think they value? In fact they found their customers do not value the product as they value their products. Customers looked at completely separate set of characteristics in evaluating their product. With series of activities they changed some core principles of their business to better align to the customer requirements. They are one of the leading companies in the trade today.”Mr. Miyagi paused and continues. “Let me ask you again. Do you think the order you put out is correct? You are trying to define value as you see it is. For an example, you will think testing product rigorously will make the customer happy. But is it the case? Or is it something else. Just think what your end customer would need from you. And we will re do this exercise tomorrow, once more with one critical change. That is with you in the shoes of your customers”

Everyone was listening to Mr. Miyagi and there was absolute silence in the room for few minutes. Mr. Miyagi introduced a key lean concept of “Value from the customer’s eye” to the group. Entire group was seemed enlightened on the subject. Everyone left the room except Allan. Allan came to Mr. Miyagi and said “that was one hell of a lesson. You put it through beautifully. I am seeing a complete new set of problems now than I saw few minutes back. Thank you Mr. Miyagi” Mr. Miyagi replied him with a rise smile and a humble look in his face. We will meet tomorrow, right at nine thirty, said Mr. Miyagi. With a great satisfaction of what he achieved today, he did some preparations for the next session.

Mr. Miyagi used two of lean manufacturing’s most important tools today. I am sure you were able to identify them when you read the story. What are those tools? What do you think about the teaching technique used by Mr. Miyagi? Do you agree to what he had to say? Or do you have a different idea? Please leave your comment below. Do not forget to click the “LIKE” button below.

Mr. Miyagi in unknown territory – The Next Move

Mr. Miyagi, after his disappointment with Allan, came back to his home, and went through his day to day work. He was still thinking about the office he saw. He was thinking how different that office was. It was a truly new experience for him. Mr. Miyagi thought to himself, “Implementing lean manufacturing in that environment would have been an interesting challenge”

 Time passed, it was 2.30 pm. His doorbell rang. Mrs. Miyagi, opened the door and spoke to the visitor, and came back to Mr. Miyagi and told him that there is a visitor called Allan to meet him.  Mr. Miyagi wasn’t surprised. He slowly walked to the door and asked, “How are you Allan?”, “you are about six hours late” he added with a smile. Allan said he is very sorry about what happened early in the day. And he explained that he was with one of his former customer, who is very much unhappy about the service his firm was offering. Meeting was scheduled to be finished by 10 am, but it went on till 12 in the noon. “Last thing I want to do was to walk out from that meeting” added Allan. Come inside, invited Mr. Miyagi. Both sat on a sofa and started talking about what happened in the morning and what is going on in the business in general.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Miyagi came with a nice pot of tea and kept it on the table and disappeared. Mr. Miyagi helped Allan with making his tea and made himself a cup, and had a sip. Mr. Miyagi explained Allan how different his office was. Allan smiled and said “We embrace the open culture. We do not care what our people do in or out of our organization, if the work is done”. “OK” said Mr. Miyagi and asked “Allan, how do you define work? And how do you know it is done?” Allan was stuck for a moment. And he replied “Mr. Miyagi, well we have a detailed project plan with a manager responsible for the entire project and every member is assigned specific tasks from that project plan. That is how we basically work”. OK Allan, you replied how you delegate work, but how do you measure the work is done? asked Mr. Miyagi. “Well, when the project is gone live, that is when the project completed, we have completed each task. It is simple” Allan replied. “OK, then how do you get problems after the completion of project? Has some one not done their job correct?” asked Mr. Miyagi. Allan replied after thinking little “Yes, we have found in some cases people have not done their job correct. But that is not the major issue. Sometimes, or if I may call it, most of the times, customer disappointment is something to do with we do not match to their expectations. We have gone through all the routines we should follow in a project. But still we have all these problems. If the customer is not happy, we are in trouble, although we have delivered all what we agreed. This is how our industry works, I guess”

With this explanation, very important thing hit Mr. Miyagi. With his vast experience, he recalled similar scenarios from various industries and how they overcame the issues. It was somewhat clear to him that there is a problem in the main process itself. Process of understanding what customer wants and converting it to the language their firm understand, and creating the solution and converting it back to the customer’s language, all familiar to Mr. Miyagi. He is a consultant himself, he knows what can go wrong in the process and has good experience in correcting them. Although Mr. Miyagi cannot even wright a piece of program for himself, he knows writing the program is only a small part of the process. He knew and felt there is something wrong in the full process. With all these in mind, he asked Allan “How about the quality of your software? I mean is it working well? You know I do not understand this technical stuff. I just want to know how you test the quality of your end product. If I may bring an analogy, when I was working for a manufacturer making electrical items, they used to check the quality of the product from the designing stage. They evaluated the design of the product and then they checked the raw material, and then they routinely checked the product after every stage of manufacturing and then they used to check the finish product as well. How do you do this in your case?” Mr. Miyagi tried to understand whether there is a problem with the core product Allan’s firm is making, which is the software they develop.

“Well, we do follow somewhat similar process. Our architects design the solution after looking into the customer’s requirement”. “Architects?”, Mr. Miyagi asked with curiously. Allan smiled and said “Yes, Architects. Well they do not build or design buildings in our case. But they do design our solutions”, Allan paused for a moment and started all over again. “Well after creating the design, our specialist from each area takes over and them and their respective teams will do the coding. They will do a testing themselves and we have some separate set of people to test the system. They also do testing before releasing the product for last stages. And even after all the integration is done, we do another full testing to check whether the solution is working as we intend it to be. To be honest, we comply at least 90% of the times with the original requirement specs. With some of the corrections, we might comply up to 97%. This is a very good figure, considering our industry.” Although Mr. Miyagi could not understand everything Allan was explaining, one thing was clear from Allan’s explanations. Allan’s firm delivers value to their customer from their perspective. So he asked “Well, still your customers are not happy, aren’t they?”. Allan said “Yes, sadly, that is the problem”.

Mr. Miyagi wants to end the conversation for the day. “Well we will discuss this further in next week. When can we meet?” asked Mr. Miyagi. Well we will meet next Tuesday, sharp 9.30 am said Allan. Mr. Miyagi agreed. He with a fatherly smile said, “You better be there by 9.30”. Discussion took almost an hour and Allan left after thanking Mr. Miyagi. Mr. Miyagi was still thinking, with all his expertise he felt little confused and he felt this is not going to be easy. With today’s discussion between Mr. Miyagi and Allan, there is much more light on the issues they face. Now things are slightly clearer than it was earlier.

What did you understood with this discussion? Please leave your thoughts as the comments to this post. If you liked the story so far, please press the “LIKE” button below.

Read Part 3 Of This Story

Mr. Miyagi in unknown territory

Mr. Miyagi, was going through his normal work just like any other day, until he got a call from an unknown person, who introduced himself as Allan. Allan went on to explain how he got the contact number of Mr.Miyagi and how many recommended the service offered by him. So to Mr.Miyagi, it was clear, Allan is a client interested in lean. So he asked, “Mr.Allan, how I may help you?”. First please call me Allan, no Mr. is required. Then I am interested in implementing lean manufacturing principles in my workplace, replied Allan. Well, OK. Said Mr. Miyagi. Can I know little more about your organization, he added.

Well, we do programing for our clients. Our software helps to improve their efficiencies. We currently have 32 people working for us altogether, including me. I am the owner and the CEO of the company, said Allan without a pause in between. OK, how can I help you, asked Mr. Miyagi. After a little pose, Allan replied. Well, we have few issues. With the recent growth of our organization, we are struggling meeting our deadlines. We are frequently getting complaints about the performances of our products. And we are losing some money too. We need your help to come out of these issues.

Mr. Miyagi is not a techie, so he had his share of concerns when it came to working with a high tech company like Mr. Allan’s. So Mr. Miyagi asked “Allan, I am not a technical person. I am not sure how I may help you?” that is exactly what I want, replied Allan with enthusiasm. We got few of most renowned consultants to help us here. And we hired some of the most talented project managers in the industry. But we couldn’t come out of the problem. When I was speaking to one of my friends, he recommended you. Apparently he was in similar situation and you have helped him out of his issue. Who was your friend asked Mr. Miyagi with some enthusiasm. My friend is Dave, running the paint shop near your place, replied Allan. OK, said Mr. Miyagi. His mind went through the pleasant memories and challenges he faced in that implementation. Mr. Miyagi thought to himself, “let’s give it a try. I should be able to manage it”, and said “OK, Allan, I will have a look. When can I come to meet you?” Tomorrow, replied Allan immediately. Mr. Miyagi agreed to pay a visit the other day, and made few notes in his notebook. And he collected some of the information on the web. He studied how software companies work and compared it with the information he gathered on Allan’s software firm.

As agreed, Next day, 10 am, Mr. Miyagi was in office to meet Allan. The office looked funny at the first glance. Most of the people who seem to be working in the office, did not wear formal stuff. They wear T-shirts, shorts or anything they can grab. Mr. Miyagi was struggling to find the way to reception, and found later that there is no reception. But with one very helpful young guy, he found Allan’s desk, but couldn’t find Allan. “He will be little late and will be here in 10 minutes”, said a girl emerged from the clutter. “Thanks” Said Mr. Miyagi and he went on to observe the office.

It was clearly a different experience. The desks were not boring like in a traditional office. All the desks had something of interest for that person, like a photographs, ornaments, flowers, plenty of soda cans and so on. Everyone was taking to each other freely. Some had their headphones on. Some can be seen playing computer games. Mr. Miyagi imagined trying to implement one of the basics of lean, 5S, here in this office. He couldn’t stand that thought and started smiling. In addition, unlike most of the places Mr. Miyagi was working, he couldn’t find immediate signs of problem like huge piles of WIP, mountains of rejected products and so on. So he was challenged by what he saw. By very nature, Mr. Miyagi loved the challenge.

Time passed by, now the time is 10.25. Still there is no sign of Allan. Mr. Miyagi was little upset, thought about calling Allan on his mobile number. But at the end decided to go. He walked out of the building stopped a cab and he is on his way back.

While he was travelling, Mr. Miyagi was thinking about what he saw, and trying to relate that to the problems the company faced. He wandered, “is every software company like this? If so why only these guys face problems while others don’t?”

What do you think? Why Allan’s organization is facing these issues? Do you think there is something wrong in this culture? Or do you see any other root cause? Please leave your thoughts as a comment below. In addition, if you like the story so far, please let the world know by clicking on the “LIKE” button below. Story will continue soon..

Read Part 2 Of This Story

Mr. Miyagi in the supermarket Part III (Final)

If You have not done already, read the part 1 and Part 2 of this story following the links.
Mr. Miyagi was just observing the customers and how they behaved. He did it for couple of days very quietly. With Richard’s permission, he entered the security room sometimes, where it was showing all the stuff from security cams. Mr. Miyagi thought this to be a nice cockpit to observe what people are doing inside the supermarket. Mr. Miyagi noted few interesting customer behavior.

After a while, Mr. Miyagi went to the customers and wanted to talk to them. Mr. Miyagi wanted to get their input to the problem store was facing. He prepared a simple questionnaire with questions like,

  •           How often do you visit this store?
  •           What are the other supermarkets you visit?
  •           Etc

But Mr. Miyagi did not ask the questions directly, just like they were in paper. He introduced himself to the customer, and while the customer was shopping, he walked with them with their permission, and asked a question when the time is right or when he observed something interesting like customer getting angry, or he is looking for the goods or he is going back to a shelf which he already went to before or when the customers were happier.

After almost a week in the shop floor, and collecting useful insights, Mr. Miyagi turned to the employees. They had few interesting thoughts too. Mr. Miyagi tried finding out the changes earlier “Lean Implementation” made. He also assessed the knowledge of the staff on lean manufacturing. In addition, he collected observations made by store employees on changed customer behavior. Interestingly, some customers were very close to the employees and in fact gave golden inputs to the employees, which were never communicated to their management or even if they were communicated never translated to actions.

Mr. Miyagi set up a session with the employees and management obviously including Richard. Mr. Miyagi went to a white board and asked employees few questions. And he took down the answers. Nobody was allowed to interrupt the other employees. They collected more input. By this time, Mr. Miyagi was very clear on the reasons to the problems faced by Richard.

Mr. Miyagi wanted to present information he collected in a simple manner to the problem. So he chooses a very simple yet very powerful lean tool, “Ishikawa Diagram”. The main diagram contained the main problem, the drop in the repeat customers with few reasons.

One of the main axis of this Ishikawa diagram contained the “Poor grouping of items in the supermarket” as the main reason. Another main axis contained, frequent stock outages, another main axis contained longer queues in cashier counters in peak times due to the reduced numbers. And there were few more.

Then Mr.Miyagi went on with a 5 Why exercise, to get to the root cause of the each problem. Successful completion of this exercise revealed some simple root causes. One of them is the lack of understanding and sometimes misunderstanding the concepts of lean manufacturing. Reduction of stock without thinking about the consequences in the big picture of customer satisfaction and profitability in long term was a classic example. In addition, it was understood that there was no customer feedback facility to get their feedback. There was a book called customer comments on a corner nobody would bother to go. And sure nobody bothered to leave their valuable input. So everyone was very happy, deceiving themselves thinking customers are happy. But it was not the reality. Not before, certainly not after the lean implementation. Mr. Miyagi knew with his experience, customer’s point of view was essential for a healthy organization.

So how to solve these issues? How can we go where we were earlier asked Richard? Well you tell me, answered Mr. Miyagi. Richard was puzzled, so are the others in the discussion. Isn’t that a part of your job replied Richard, with a slight smile on his face. Mr. Miyagi replied “It is our job, not mine. You have to do it even when I am not around. You know I will not be with you forever. So you will have many problems to solve yourselves, in the real lean way. I will show you the way; you find answers to your own problems. After all I am not the expert on your field, but you are. With the problems, are the solutions” Mr. Miyagi replied. With no other choice, Richard and the team went on with the job, job of finding answers to their own problems, the “Lean Way”.

In contrast to what they believe Richard and his team found it to be fun to solve their problems. Initially, Mr. Miyagi had to do some intervention. But with the practice, it went nice. So they found few answers to the identified problems. They decided after doing some math and calculations, this time including customers in the picture, to increase the number of times the shelf are filled each day. They thought, small batches would help in some cases but will be troublesome with the items with fluctuating demands. So they agreed on different levels of stocks for main item categories and more importantly, will measure the stock outages and customer complaints each day and will work out the requirement for the coming day to archive the optimal levels, where customers are happy and profits would not suffer. Certainly, they can increase the returning customers.

All agreed that they need to understand lean correct. Few workshops organized on the weekends. In addition, these workshops will work as team building events making them much more effective and fun. Customer feedback mechanism was understood as one of the main areas to improve on. So they appointed cashiers to get the feedback of their customers. It was the easiest point to collect data. Customers can give their feedback without spending any extra time or effort, just while their bill is prepared. When implemented, as expected, customers came out with tons of good ideas and comments. Customers loved the idea.

Richard himself came with an idea in a session to capture the details like name, address, email and so on of their customers. He pointed out this will be invaluable, as this data base can be used to keep the customers coming back. Team agreed, debated on how to do it. Finally they agreed on a solution. When the customer fills out a form with their personal information, they will receive a free gift card, which they can redeem next time they come to the store. It worked again.

There were many other improvements to the system, but one of the main introductions was the continuous improvement. Team was broken into few small sub teams; each was responsible to identify a problem or an opportunity to improve. They have to come up with a solution. This team will meet every week. All the ideas will be presented to each other in a full team meeting, and everyone will understand what the problem is and what the solutions are. Then the solutions will be implemented, measured and results will be revisited in the meeting followed.

After a month of the initial implementation of changes, Mr. Miyagi met Richard. Richard was happy, but Mr. Miyagi pointed him to some more improvement opportunities.  At the end of the time frame they agreed initially, Mr. Miyagi was happy to see all his targets were achieved. Richard wrote him a bonus check in addition to the agreed amounts for the services Mr. Miyagi offered. Everyone was happy, but Mr. Miyagi was much happier to see the improved results and smiles in the faces. He knew back in his mind, it is just the beginning, there are more to come. He was happy as Richard and his team is geared up to take the challenge just like in any good lean organization.

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