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Bruce Hamilton


Four Myths and Four Realities About Racing to Automate

Excelize me

Published: Monday, July 23, 2018 - 11:02

Who remembers VisiCalc, often referred to as the first killer app? In 1978, this spreadsheet software ushered in the personal computing boom. Although it only ran on Apple’s priciest computer (the one with massive 32K RAM), its ability to calculate and recalculate arrays had much to do with the explosion of information automation.

By 1985, a next-generation product name Excel conquered the market with significantly more computing capability than its predecessors, eventually adding macros, graphics, nested arrays, and easy interface with many other applications. Today Excel is reportedly in the hands of some 1.3 billion users. It’s a fascinating tool with more features than almost anyone can use.

But fascination with information automation can be problematic. In 1996, while TSSC was assisting my company with improving machine setups, I used Excel to devise an A3 improvement plan complete with graphical VSM current and target states, problems and countermeasures, and milestones and results (documented in a 2012 post, “Value Stream Wrapping.”) When I proudly showed the document to my teacher, he scoffed. “You should spend more time observing, and less time making it pretty,” he said.

I’m reminded of this advice every day during my work with customers. Why do we feel the need to digitize everything? From strategic planning to training to project management to idea systems to problem-solving to pull systems, we race to automate, believing that this is an improvement. Here are a few myths from lean implementers, quoted verbatim, that I’d like to debunk in honor of my teacher from TSSC.

Myth 1: ‘We cascade our strategy online to every department, creating a line of sight from corporate down to individual department metrics.’

Reality: Too often this multilevel bill of activities replaces the kind of human discourse needed to effectively communicate and deploy strategy. An X-type matrix, for example, nested to multiple levels, does not illuminate; it hides connections that would be immediately apparent on a physical strategy-deployment wall.

Myth 2: ‘Putting our idea system online has increased the visibility of ideas.’

Reality: Online ideas-system software hides ideas. A factory employee recently referred to her company’s ideas app as a “black hole.” Also, when ideas are digitized, the visual nature of a physical idea board is lost to myopia. We view ideas one at a time rather than as components of a system. And, even though computer literacy of the average employees is improving, the thought of using an app still scares many employees away.

Myth 3: ‘Electronic huddle boards provide real-time standardized information.’

Reality: Sure, LCDs are cheap today, maybe even cheaper than a decent whiteboard, but electronic huddle boards suck the life out of creativity and ownership from the front line. One supervisor complained to me, “It takes me much longer to enter information to the huddle board application than it did to simply write on the whiteboard. I update it when I can find the time.” Hardly real time.

Myth 4: ‘We are conducting our lean training online to save time and money.’

Reality: No doubt there is an explicit component to lean learning that might be accomplished by sitting at a computer screen, and there are slide shares for this, some available through Groupon for peanuts. But real learning only occurs through hands-on practice and coaching. This is especially true for lean learning, where concepts run counter to conventional thinking. Although the internet offers an incredible resource for learning, it’s not a substitute for tacit learning—learning by doing. Organizations that think they are saving time and money by using only online training are actually wasting both.

Implicit in all of these myths is the replacement of manual information management with a machine function, call it the internet of things, or Industry 4.0, or our next industrial revolution. But what will be the benefits? Will the killer apps really make industry more flexible and efficient, or will they merely dehumanize the workplace? What do you think? Can you cite any other IoT myths?


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.