Featured Product
This Week in Quality Digest Live
Quality Insider Features
Don’t underestimate the power of telling your story
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Hafnium oxide key to novel applications
William A. Levinson
Deciding whether you need CAPA or a bigger boat
Matthew T. Hughes
Two engineers explain how heat waves threaten everything from cars to computers

More Features

Quality Insider News
To be unveiled during PACK EXPO Las Vegas at the Hiperbaric booth, No. N-10857
Educating the next generation of machinists with state-of-the-industry equipment
In a first, researchers have observed how lithium ions flow through a battery interface
Air-extend/spring-retract moves probe out of the way
Precision cutting tools maker gains visibility and process management across product life cycles
Expanded offering includes Smartscope E-series for 3-axis video measurement
Accelerates CAM programming time 80% to make U.S. manufacturers more productive
Pioneers new shape-memory alloys
A Heart for Science initiative brings STEM to young people

More News

Tripp Babbitt

Quality Insider

Are You a Sheet or Shelf Thinker?

How you think will govern organizational performance

Published: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 - 06:00

My first job was in industrial distribution, and with distribution came learning to count inventory. An annual inventory tax was levied, so an accurate count was important. I was given a computer list of items to count. An important lesson I learned was that to get an accurate count, there was a right and wrong method.

Given the computer-printed inventory sheet with item description, bin location, and the inventory count shown in the system, I found myself verifying the sheet rather than counting what was actually on the shelf. This led to a huge disparity in the inventory count.

The reason for the wrong count was that as I read the sheet, I would look for the item on the shelf. If the sheet matched what was on the shelf (e.g., description, quantity), the count was reported as accurate or else adjusted to the appropriate number.

However, items had been misplaced when shipments were received or accidentally moved for a variety of reasons. Items reported missing during the inventory count when counting sheet-to-shelf were actually there in many cases, just not where they were supposed to be.

So the problem for my inventory was counting sheet-to-shelf rather than shelf-to-sheet. With the latter method, I might have run across a misplaced item and still been able to count it. I missed items when I was only looking for those on the sheet.

The problem was simply one of method. Shelf-to-sheet was the better way to count inventory so no items would be missed.

Sheet-to-shelf: the wrong method

This “sheet thinking” has been perpetuated in the methods used to improve organizations. For instance, we have the seven wastes of manufacturing that are applied to service industry. Beyond the fact that manufacturing and service are different, and copying is always a bad idea, the method is also faulty because by looking at improvement in a sheet-to-shelf fashion—i.e., reading from someone else’s list—we may miss other forms of waste. Sheet-to-shelf thinking is a “seven wastes” approach that we try to apply regardless of the industry.

This is a problem with tools- and method-based approaches that begin by copying what others have done. Companies that do this miss the opportunity to discover other forms of waste or uncover better thinking. This limits the possibility of breakthrough performance.

Shelf-to-sheet: a better way

No two systems are the same. When we try to improve using sheet-to-shelf thinking, we wind up copying what another organization has found and miss the real causes of waste in our systems. Conversely, if we identify problems such as waste, design, and thinking that are unique to an organizational system, we are employing a shelf-to-sheet mentality.

Using the Vanguard Method, the three questions I have learned to ask before any tool is ever used are:
1. Who invented the tool?
2. What problem were they trying to solve?
3. Do I have that problem?

Most of the time this doesn’t come up because the approach I use doesn’t require tools. However, for those endeared to the sheet-to-shelf tools approach, a warning label should accompany the tool with the above three questions attached.

In order to improve performance in any system, we must study the what and why of current performance without assumptions or using tools that limit thinking. Doing otherwise is copying what someone else discovered in their system, not yours.

The shelf-to-sheet method requires some follow-up to achieve breakthrough improvement. It’s important to understand that the system drives performance, and that management thinking governs how a system is designed.

When thinking is in play, we can challenge assumptions that dictate the current design of work. Assumptions about managing costs, functional design, decision making, targets, motivation, and technology get a healthy analysis, and can be challenged more readily when taking a shelf approach. The design and management of work is the issue, not the use of improvement tools.

In an interview with W. Edwards Deming during the 1980 NBC television show, If Japan Can, Why Can’t We? Deming warned us against copying the Japanese, “American management thinks that they can just copy from Japan, but they don’t know what to copy!” Yet, too many improvement efforts are based in just this type of thinking. He challenged us to better thinking, not learning Japanese words to improve. In fact, I have found that native tongues and engagements without tools work better in improvement efforts.

All organizations and individuals have a choice in how they approach improvement. One approach is copying (or using tools); the other is thinking.


About The Author

Tripp Babbitt’s picture

Tripp Babbitt

Tripp Babbitt the managing partner for The 95 Method - Executive Education and Advisors. The 95 Method is about giving organizations a method to use new theories to grow business.  Babbitt can be reached at tripp@the95method.com. Reach him on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/trippbabbitt

Tripp also has a podcast and YouTube channel called, The Effective Executive.


I agree with Tripp

I obviously support Tripp, we are associates joined by theory and practice.

Do we really not understand what tools are? I do. Tripp does. Most of the readers of the Quality Digest do. 

I used to use tools in my improvement work. I admit I was wrong. I know better now and am happy to confess to previous clients & colleagues that my understanding has lurched forwards because I have new evidence and new method. 

I attribute that change in thinking to that powerful Method as originated by John Seddon.

It exposes the inadequacy of tools for example 




Response of 3 May 2011 - Questions

Mr. Babbitt,

Can I expect answers to the questions I asked regarding your article? Am I wasting my time? Please advise.

Thank you,

Fernando J. Grijalva

Your Comment was buried

For me, tools are those things that limit your thinking.  Always believing standardization is good creates a mindset that makes standardization a tool.  The "7 wastes" of manufacturing limit our thinking to those 7 wastes.  Really most things that have a label and can be copied is a form of tool.  Improvement folks love tools because they can be copied whether they apply or not.  Instead, asking what will help us learn (rather than pull out the tool kit) is a better method.

Your Comment was buried

For me, tools are those things that limit your thinking.  Always believing standardization is good creates a mindset that makes standardization a tool.  The "7 wastes" of manufacturing limit our thinking to those 7 wastes.  Really most things that have a label and can be copied is a form of tool.  Improvement folks love tools because they can be copied whether they apply or not.  Instead, asking what will help us learn (rather than pull out the tool kit) is a better method.

Are you a sheet or shelf thinker

Agree wholeheartedly with your thinking Tripp. Much of what we now call 'Lean' and re-copied back from the Japanese (aka Deming and If Japan can etc) comes mostly from the field oof Industrial Engineering. Such folk as Alan Mogenson (Work Simplification and his use of Process Flowcharts as AIAG FMEA does as the pre-cursor to doing the PFMEA - how many automotive engineers fail to use it or use a Cuase & Effect diagram to populate the causes of failure modes). Also the International Labour Organization's book on Work Study; Ishikawa's lost 3rd Cause & Effect Diagram being Process C&E); the so called "5-Why's" coming from such entities and is referenced in the Industrial Engineering Handbook 1956 where What, When, Who, Where and How and asking Why against each = 5 Why's. I owe much of this to Don Dewar of QCI International as it was refreshing to hear and learn from him in California, like your article, that many so called 'Tools' came from learned folk as we sometimes fall into the trap as my old friend Dr Howard B Aron (deceased) of Dearborn said to our Australian clients with much hilarity - "that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail". Michael W McLean Managing Director McLean Management Consultants Pty Ltd Embedding Strategic Change (Established.1988) PO Box 917 North Ryde BC 1670 NSW Australia M: +61 419 225 996 P: +61 2 9706 8566 F: +61 2 9706 8366 E:michael@mclean-mc.com.

Industrial Engineering


Mr. McLean, This information adds to your comment. I recently shared this brief summary with the Deming Group. We need to understand the contributions that IE had made to organizational system design and management, in the manufacturing and service industries.


F.W. Taylor heavily influenced Lillian M. and Frank B. Gilbreth who are considered parents of Industrial Engineering.She is considered the first lady of engineering "By 1912, he [Frank B. Gilbreth] left the construction business to devote himself entirely to "scientific management"-- a term coined, in Gantt's apartment, by a group including Gilbreth. But to him it was more than merely the mouthing of slogans to be foisted on a worker at a job in a plant. It was a philosophy that pervaded home and school, hospital and community, in fact, life itself. It was something that could be achieved only by cooperation--cooperation between engineers, educators, physiologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, economists, sociologists, statisticians, managers. Most important--at the core of it all, there was the individual, his comfort, his happiness, his service, and his dignity." Pioneers in Improvement and our Modern Standard of Living IW/SI News, Issue 18, September 1968, pgs. 37-38 Some of the publications by the Gilbreth inlcuded: Psychology of Management (1912) Motion Study for the Handicapped Fatigue Study Applied Motion Study Bricklaying System The Foreman in Manpower Management Scientific Management in the Operating Room. They are considered the pioneers in the Hospital Improvement process . "Japanese industry is the envy of the world for its efficient and humane management practices. Yet, as William Tsutsui argues, the origins and implications of "Japanese-style management" are poorly understood. Contrary to widespread belief, Japan's acclaimed strategies are not particularly novel or even especially Japanese. Tsutsui traces the roots of these practices to Scientific Management, or Taylorism, an American concept that arrived in Japan at the turn of the century. During subsequent decades, this imported model was embraced--and ultimately transformed--in Japan's industrial workshops. Imitation gave rise to innovation as Japanese managers sought a "revised" Taylorism that combined mechanistic efficiency with respect for the humanity of labor." Manufacturing Ideology: Scientific Management in Twentieth-Century Japan William M. Tsutsui The origin of TPS, previous to Dr. Deming's arrival in Japan, started when Ken'ichi Horigome, Tsuneo Ono, Yoichi and others (in the 1920's) were exposed to the theories of work measurement and design developed by Frank B. and Lillian M. Gilbreth. Later, Tsuneo Ono influenced Shigeo Shingo, IE and Taiichi Ohno, IE.

12 days ago


Originally conceived by Frank and Lillian M. Gilbreth, the “tabletop improvement experiments” have been used in Japan since 1925 to teach important principles of continuous improvement. They were adopted by Shigeo Shingo. 

Lillian Gilbreth, IE, received in the name of the emperor of Japan the "Third Class of the Order of the Precious Crown'' for "Outstanding contribution to the guidance and diffusion of scientific management and industrial development" (1968) 

Deming-Gilbreth Connection 

During his life, Dr. Deming had considerable interactions with several Industrial Engineers such as, William Golomski, George Box, Ryuji Fukuda, W. Allen Wallis, Frank B. Gilbreth, Ben S Graham, Sr., Joseph Juran, Frank Gryna Jr., Hitoshi Kume and others. 

“It was Dr Juran who pointed out long ago that most of the possibilities for improvement lie in action on the system, and that contributions of production workers are severely limited”. W.E. Deming 

IEs helped Dr Deming operationalize his theory of management in Japan. Many had IE education and were applying scientific mgmt since late 20's. 

Dr. Deming worked with Ben S. Graham, IE and others in the study of administrative processes in middle 1950's. He provided statistical knowledge in support of the study of work processes. 

What is IE 

"Industrial engineering is concerned with the design, improvement, and installation of integrated systems of people, materials, information, equipment, and energy. It draws upon specialized knowledge and skill in the mathematical, physical, and social sciences together with the principles and methods of engineering analysis and design to specify, predict, and evaluate the results to be obtained from such systems." (AIIE,1955) 

IE body of knowledge typically includes: Systems Engineering, Applied Decision Theory, Human Factors Engineering, Industrial Costs & Controls , Industrial Systems Simulation, Engineering Economics, Work Process Analysis & Design, Facilities Planning, Layout & Design, Manufacturing System Design, Engineering Probability & Statistics, Design of Experiments, Statistical Quality Control, Quality Engineering, Operations Planning & Control, Production Planning and Control Management, Operations Research, Modeling and Simulation.... In addition to this, courses in the humanities and engineering design process. 

-Deming was Honorary Life Member of American Institute of Industrial Engineers


Fernando J. Grijalva


 Mr. Babbitt,Could you


Mr. Babbitt,

Could you please provide me with a definition of a tool? A list of some of the tools left unnamed in your article?  


Thank you,

Fernando J. Grijalva