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Bruce Hamilton


The Final Frontier

Square footage as a badge of success

Published: Wednesday, July 19, 2017 - 12:02

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first U.S. astronaut to journey to the “final frontier.” Atop a Mercury rocket, Shepard launched into a 15-minute suborbital journey reaching an altitude of about 100 miles before returning to Earth. His space capsule, Freedom 7, was a wonder of science, weighing a little more than one ton and loaded to the max with avionics and life-support apparatus.

Yet, this pioneering venture into endless space would also afford almost no space for the passenger. According to launch engineer Guenter Wendt, “Astronauts entered their capsules with a shoehorn and departed with a can opener.” I remember watching footage of Shephard squeezing into his capsule. The memory still creates pangs of claustrophobia.

Ironically, space constraints faced by NASA fueled a revolution in miniaturization evident in almost every innovation of modern society—from laptops to cell phones to transportation to medical devices to all things internet. The need to pack more utility into a small package has changed everything. Or almost everything. Here are some recent exceptions:

“We’re adding a new wing to manufacturing,” a colleague related to me recently. “We’re running out of space.”

As I glanced around a shop floor crowded more with material than machines, I asked, “What are you going to put in the new space?”

“We’re just going to spread out,” he said. “This is a good time to build before interest rates start to climb.”

Another manufacturer advised recently that he was building a lean warehouse.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“We’re relocating all of our raw material to a location that’s closer to the main highway,” he said. “We need to add several machines, so were lean-ing out the space.” 

“Aren’t you just adding more space and moving inventory farther from your floor?” I asked.

His response: “Warehouse space is cheap.”

A major hospital requested lean assistance to redesign its perinatal services in order to accommodate more patients. After reviewing the current operation, I recommended that existing space could be repurposed to handle the projected growth.

“No,” they said, “we’re cramped. We need more space, and the budget is already approved.”

It seems that decisions regarding space are driven more by claustrophobia or perceived worth than actual need. Flow distance may double or triple as a result of expansion, but additional space somehow still equates to growth. More space is viewed as an investment, an alluring addition to the balance sheet, or a badge of success. Only on rare occasions do I encounter a growing business that is interested in reducing space.

Perhaps, then, space is the final frontier. Not more space, but less. I wonder how much lean progress would be made if space were seen as a constraint for business as it was for NASA’s Mercury launch.

How much space do you have? Too much? Too little?


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.


Transformation of Perception

Hi Bruce,

I picked the following quotes from your piece:

“This is a good time to build before interest rates start to climb.”

“Warehouse space is cheap.”

"...the budget is already approved.”

They all reminded me of the times when I would eat all I could at a buffet even if overeating made me feel bad afterward. I felt bad and no sooner than when I was done. My perception of value was so warped that even a bad experience felt personally and without delay didn't cause me to change my habit at buffets.

Short-term (local) optimization and long-term (global) suboptimzation is the norm for decision making at companies I've worked for. It's difficult to overcome through reason (logic) alone. A transformation of perception must happen within. Very few people or companies achieve that.

Best regards,Shrikant Kalegaonkar (twitter: @shrikale, blog: https://shrikale.wordpress.com)

Gut Feel Often Trumps Analysis

I worked with one chemical company that kept key materials in a warehouse 1/2 mile from the plant. 

I worked with a printer that kept glue for a binding machine three football fields away.

Sensei asked one hospital, "What are all the open spaces were in the hospital?" "Waiting rooms."Sensei asked, "Who waits there?" "Patients." Sensei asked, "How long to do they wait there?" "45-60 minutes." Sensei asked, "Aren't you ashamed."

When I worked in the phone company, the outside plant people thought they needed more people to handle telephone repairs. I asked, shouldn't we just reduce the need for repairs?

As problems become more complicated, gut feel is usually wrong. A little analysis will save a ton of money and time.