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Bruce Hamilton


Ludicrous Speed

When it comes to information, fast doesn’t mean lean

Published: Tuesday, February 16, 2016 - 12:51

Mel Brooks fans will remember Spaceballs, his jocular jibe at the Star Wars franchise. In pursuit of a rebel ship, evil Lord Dark Helmet (played by Rick Moranis) orders his crew to accelerate their craft beyond the speed of light to “ludicrous speed.”

Although time travel remains within the realm of science fiction, our ability to process and transmit data has proceeded apace since I was a young lean dude. In college we expressed data transmission speed as a baud rate, a unit of measure roughly equivalent to one alphanumeric character per second. Geeks like me sat at teletype machines watching our computer programs transmit programs at the blazing speed of 32 baud (i.e., 32 characters per second) to a shared computer at Dartmouth College, which then processed that information at a rate expressed in instructions per second (IPS). Information speed was severely limited by the transmission and processing technology of the day. By the time I graduated college however, speed had progressed to millions of instructions per second (MIPS), then to billions, and more recently to floating-point operations per second (FLOPS). The trend continues today, bounded only by theoretical limits, toward ludicrous speed.

Fascination with information speed has been with us since 1953, when the first commercial computer was sold. At that time, processing speeds for the Universal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC) averaged 0.002 MIPS. Only a handful of the world’s largest corporations could afford the million-dollar price tag for the 29,000 lb device that filled a 400 sq. ft room. UNIVAC was the device that coined the term “real time,” defined as the “actual time during which something takes place” plus a few more MIPS for processing. No doubt, the technological breakthrough was amazing, if only visible to a few persons.

However, compare UNIVAC’s real-time stats to the iPhone 6, which weighs less than five ounces, and fits easily in a jacket pocket. In a 60-year span, the speed of real time has increased by nearly 130 million percent. Ludicrous speed! Moreover, smartphones are ubiquitous. Now everyone can have real-time information, not just a few large corporations. So what’s so ludicrous about that?

From a lean standpoint, these changes present a number of challenges.

First is the barrage of media presented to us every minute of the day. How many emails must I routinely delete each time I handle my smartphone? How many videos do I need to see on, for example, kanban? YouTube lists 56,600 entries. Which of these is valuable to me? Which represent misinformation? How can I confirm? In reality anybody can post any video today—with ludicrous speed. No doubt, some of these videos will be excellent, but I could sort and sift through the YouTube haystack forever looking for good information.

Second, the promises of automating lean are alluring but insidious. For example, say some people, we can do away with those pesky cards (kanbans) and replace with them with real-time kanban. This, unfortunately, separates the information from the material, assuring that the two flows will be out of sync. Moreover, the “instantaneous” information becomes invisible. Cyberspace is not a gemba. We can’t go there to see queues or delays or problems.

Third, there is a paradox in the lack of connectedness that has derived from this ludicrous speed of information flow. An increasing number of persons labor under the delusion, for example, that texting is “talking to someone.” At a time when we are finally acknowledging the importance of social science to real lean transformation, we are at the same time interposing a tool that isolates people, that creates only the illusion of human interaction.

Fourth, the ludicrous speed with which we can all whip up professional-looking presentations today has blurred the distinction between looking good and being good. In the immortal words of Dave Lee Roth, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how good you look.” PowerPoint, the original “baffle-them-with-B.S.” application, has been around for 25 years, but it is quickly being supplanted by a plethora of smartphone apps for 5S, standardized work, kanban, kamishibai, and, well, you name it! Why do we do this? Because we can. The words of my old-school TPS teacher are ringing in my ears. Responding to my PowerPoint-drawn value stream map, he replied “Don’t make it pretty, make it accurate.

Finally, as with material flow, when we focus primarily on cycle time, those nanoseconds of computer processing and transmission, we lose sight of the often huge stagnation time of computer queues, the automated overproduction of information (produced before it is needed), and the total elapsed time for information flow, which includes the batching of information before input and after output. Those times can be truly ludicrous.

I’m admittedly a participant in the information age and I benefit from its ludicrous speed. I use the Internet, for example, to write my posts and revel in the opportunity to pull in links to humorous video, historical background, and scholarly articles. But I worry that the ludicrous speed with which I send and receive information today may not be leading to more wisdom.

Please share your thoughts. Do you agree or disagree with the challenges I’ve posed? Can you think of other challenges?


About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change. Also, he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an ongoing reflection on lean philosophy and practices, with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.


Great article as usual...


You brought back some memories that I hadn't thought about in a while. I remember the punch cards and what happened when you dropped the stack after waiting in line to feed them into the reader.

You have brought up a great point.

I see it as a dual edged sword. Some aspects of our information based society have benefited lean. The ability to provide e-learning available to everyone everywhere is very powerful. The ability to create a work standard using a video is so much more powerful than old paper documentation even with pictures. In our shop we are just about to get to tablets that link our people to the video standards used for the I-Do portion of our 4-step training process. This gives everyone the same standard to refer to including the key points (the special ways to do things). The same video standard is used to audit the process by our leaders using their standard work.

To your point however about making decisions based on electronic information that is not available to all or is incorrect and so difficult to validate is spot on.

I would love to get your input on how to decide when electronic information can be used?


Electronic Information

Thanks for your response and question Paul regarding "how to decide when electronic information can be used."    I prefer primary sources to reporters.  If I can't find any Lean practitioner experience in the source, my BS-detector alarms.  Expertise based solely on book learning, be it paper or Internet does not work for me.  This filters out about 80% of the Google entries.  Also, I try to stick to TPS basics, avoiding all the "beyond-Lean" dervatives and Lean-for-this-and-that solutions.  The best sources are still Deming, Ohno, Shingo -- the inventors of TPS.   If even one-tenth of the folks who have watched "Toast Kaizen", my particular entry to cyber-learning,  also read these authors, we'd be decades ahead in our pursuit of excellence.