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Harish Jose


On Monuments and Productivity Paradoxes

When a system is trying to talk to us, we should heed its words

Published: Tuesday, July 19, 2016 - 14:20

There is a concept in lean known as a “monument.” It refers to a large machine, piece of equipment, or something similar that can’t be changed right away, and so you have to plan your processes around it. This generally impedes the flow and frequently becomes a hindrance to lean initiatives. A monument is the opposite of the “flow” and “no waste” concepts of lean. But monuments don’t always refer to equipment or similar hardware.

The worst kind of monument can sometimes be the culture or mental models prevalent in a company. This results in the following excuses:
• It might work in Japan but not here.
• But we have to do it this way.
• This is how we’ve always done it, and this is how I was taught.
• How does cutting down inventory help with my production?

The productivity paradox

From luggage to carry-on

A good example of a monument caused by a cultural model is the travel necessity known as a suitcase. During the late 1800s, the cumbersome trunk was the most common form of luggage. But when people started traveling for leisure during the early 1900s, manufacturers began to develop new designs. One of them, called a “suitcase” to emphasize its pared-down size and function, arrived during the 1930s along with the advent of commercial flights.

Suitcases were an improvement on the trunk, but they weren’t the lightweight models we’re familiar with. Usually they were carried by hand, since using a trolley was seen as a sign of weakness. Adding a wheel didn’t happen till 1972, but even then these models didn't take off immediately. Although stewardesses and women had the good sense to use them, men continued to opt for lugging heavy loads rather than wheeling them.

Around 1989, after wheeled suitcases had been on the scene for more than 10 years, a Northwest Airlines pilot named Bob Plath came up with a vertical case with extendable handles and two large wheels on the side.

It took another 15 years before a 360° spinning wheel was added; Samsonite introduced this model in 2004.

So although the suitcase is a fairly straightforward design, it took us about 70 years to create the present model, and for everyone to adopt it.

Paul David, an economic historian, wrote a wonderful paper in 1989 called “Computer and Dynamo: The Modern Productivity Paradox in a Not-Too Distant Mirror.” In it, he talked about the first productivity paradox involving steam and electrical engines. The steam engine was an outcome of the Industrial Revolution in England. All of the factories used steam engines as a source of energy. For efficiency’s sake, equipment had to be clustered around the steam engine, since everything ran from steam power. The electric motor was an outcome of technological innovations in America. Electricity was introduced to factories as early as 1890. Everybody understood that electrical power was far more efficient than steam power, but surprisingly, this technological advancement didn’t result in an increase in productivity. This was later termed the “productivity paradox.”

The reason for the lack of increase in productivity was due to the factory layouts that had been established for steam engines. Although industrial engineers replaced steam engines with electrical engines, they didn’t rearrange the equipment to take advantage of the flexibility offered by the electric motor. They were constrained by their mental models. Even when new factories were built, they followed the layout that had been used with steam engines. Equipment was clustered into one place, hindering workflow.

Factory layouts didn’t change for another 30 years, when the old management was replaced with new personnel. At that point, layouts were rearranged to follow the flow of materials. Because each piece of equipment had its own motor, equipment could be spread apart. Each operator was now in full control of his equipment. This caused a spike in productivity. The monument was dismantled since management was no longer tied to old ways of thinking.

Final words

We all work from our own mental models. A company’s culture is a collection of these models in a state of equilibrium, but when a system is trying to talk to us, we should heed its words. The story of steam and electrical engines teaches us the importance of learning from experiments and self-reflection. This is part of the “check” phase of the PDCA cycle. Sometimes we get caught up in the firefighting, and we become stuck in that mode even though we keep fighting the same fires every day. We need to find time to step back and reflect. That feeling of déjà-vu is an indication that we should stop, step back, and try to see the big picture. It’s time to reflect.

Always keep on learning....


About The Author

Harish Jose’s picture

Harish Jose

Harish Jose has more than seven years experience in the medical device field. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla, where he obtained a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering and published two articles. Harish is an ASQ member with multiple ASQ certifications, including Quality Engineer, Six Sigma Black Belt, and Reliability Engineer. He is a subject-matter expert in lean, data science, database programming, and industrial experiments, and publishes frequently on his blog Harish’s Notebook.