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Innovation

Brother Moonshine, Sister Solution

High-tech companies head to their moonshine shops to right-size problems

Published: Thursday, July 5, 2018 - 11:03

We are here, and it is now. Further than that, all human knowledge is moonshine.
—H. L. Mencken

I ran across the term “moonshine shop” while reading about a kaizen blitz at Ontario-based communications firm Cogeco. “Brad, [Cogeco’s] maintenance leader, coordinates all projects relating to modifying the structures in the moonshine shop located in the warehouse’s entrance,” explained Russell Fedun, a project manager at Flexpipe, which manufactures modular structures to increase productivity and had helped Cogeco with the blitz.

“Moonshine” sounds unusually poetic for industry, especially when paired with the nuts and bolts of a warehouse shop, and I wanted to know more. Given the kaizen connection, perhaps it was a haiku reference? Turns out there are some curious layers to this try-storming work space.

“We owe the moonshine concept to a Japanese engineer named Chihiro Nakao, founder of the Shingijutsu Consulting Company,” says Flexpipe’s CEO Julien Depelteau. “He named this method after—yes, you guessed it—the illegal alcohol beverage produced during the U.S. prohibition.” No strangers to moonshining, Flexpipe offers a  nine-step checklist for creating a moonshine shop. I learned that while it’s still possible to succeed if a moonshine team lacks people who are experienced in lean or just plain interested in tinkering, those types will substantially increase the odds that useful solutions will result.

Curiouser and curiouser. How could humans who like messing around, ushered along by the dubious blessing of bootlegging, improve productivity in this high-tech age? I headed to the Shingijutsu website. “Moonshine” is apparently shorthand for ingenuity, frugality, and innovation, all rolled into one. The website lays it out like this: “Moonshine means developing valuable solutions to problems by creatively adapting materials that are already on hand. It requires looking at those materials and the problems themselves with a renewed perspective of doing a lot with a little.”

There’s a backward glance at the white lightning sort of moonshine as well, as the website explains. “This concept is based on the moonshine stills found in the Appalachian Mountains during Prohibition.... In secret, often by the light of the moon, people would take common items found sitting around, and they created stills. These stills were small, inexpensive, and easy to move if necessary. They ‘right-sized’ for their operations.”


A right-sized operation for Prohibition-era liquor: small, inexpensive, and easy to move if necessary

So that’s pretty cool, and not without a certain poetry. Also irony. Prohibition itself was meant to be a solution to the problem of alcohol abuse; instead, it in turn became a problem that required “developing valuable solutions,” most of them illegal. Too bad the movers and shakers who in 1919 pushed for the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of “intoxicating liquours,” didn’t know about moonshine shops (although they would become quite familiar with their precursor, still houses). They would have had a chance to test what was satirically dubbed the “noble experiment” first, inexpensively. Fourteen years after its creation, the amendment was repealed, having failed utterly in its mission while costing the federal government $11 billion in lost tax revenue and $300 million to enforce.

Muda, anyone? These days that sort of waste could sink a company, not to mention its CEO, faster than the Titanic.

It’s to help avoid situations like Prohibition and its unintended consequences that moonshine shops are so useful. For a modern example, we need look no farther than Seattle, where Boeing’s factories have long put moonshine shops to good use, and even aggressively amplified them in competitions called Moonshine Wars. During those two-week events, teams are given a design or production problem facing the aerospace manufacturer, along with $1,000, and set loose. The result has been dozens of cost-effective and outside-the-box innovations for the company—and a number of proud employees. They call moonshine shops the “lean power tool.”


A moonshine team at Boeing

“In moonshine shops you’re supposed to think like a 12-year-old,” said Steve Kosonen, an internal lean consultant for the company, in a 2003 newsletter. “They have no resources, but they don’t have limitations, either. And mistakes are good, because that’s how you learn.”

Elsewhere in Seattle, Virginia Mason Medical Center’s “Moonshine in a Healthcare Environment” offers its own lessons from the trenches, including this five-question checklist to determine whether a moonshine project is suitable:
• Do you understand the impact of the product (or lack of) on operators and flow?
• Do you need a product that does not exist in the marketplace?
• Does a product exist, but it does not meet your unique needs?
• Is it cost effective to buy it?
• Do you need to test an idea before you purchase?

The medical center also points out some moonshine benefits it discovered for its facility but that apply to other companies as well. Among them are staying within resource and cost constraints, enabling a clearer understanding of critical functions, and offering an opportunity for actual users to create an ideal product. These are all excellent outcomes. Learning by doing, on a limited scale such as that offered by a moonshine shop, might be one direction where we humans will be heading in a world increasingly tended by algorithms and AI.


From moonshine prototype to finished product at Virginia Mason Medical Center

Concerning the nuts-and-bolts aspects of moonshine shops, a forum about how to set them up over at the Lean Enterprise Institute attracted some useful comments from experienced moonshiners.

“Make sure your company is willing to spend money on high-risk development projects that could end in failure,” advises Brent Jorgenson. Aye, there’s the rub. All those who work for companies like that, raise your hands and count yourselves among the lucky. The rest can huddle in teams and moonshine up some solutions for enlightening reluctant visionaries in the C-suite.

“What you don’t want are ‘catalog engineers’ who only know how to buy a solution,” cautions Thomas Warda. “When it comes to equipping your shop, keep it basic. A drill press, belt sander, lathe, mill, and some simple hand power tools are about all you want.... Generally speaking, the more you spend here, the less creativity you’ll get out of it. Oh, and make sure these folks have access to the company scrap bins, too!”

Doing more with less

When the going gets lean, we humans get creative. Sometimes, as in the case of moonshine shops, we use lean constraints to dream up surprising workarounds, the kind of solutions that make it an adventure to get up in the morning. Other times, our creativity might go sideways, as it did during Prohibition, when workarounds included bootlegging or, in the case of one enterprising taverner, selling tickets to view a striped pig—the drinks available at this entertainment were included in the cost of admission. But regardless of what we do with this instinct to push against constraints, it’s satisfying to know there’s still a place for us in the value stream, where moonshine meets machine.

Discuss

About The Author

Taran March @ Quality Digest’s picture

Taran March @ Quality Digest

Taran March is Quality Digest’s editorial director. A 30-year veteran of publishing, March has written and edited for newspapers, magazines, book publishers, and universities. When not plotting the course of QD with the team, she usually can be found clicking around the internet in search of news and clues to the human condition.

Comments

Thunder Road

Having gone to college on "Thunder Road", I can only (nay, am compelled to) say, "I'll drink to that!"

Seriously though, lets not forget the truly ingenious shine runners....