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Mike Thelen

Quality Insider

Changing to Lean, Part 7

The power of a child’s eyes

Published: Monday, August 18, 2008 - 22:00

As with any lean implementation in a traditional environment, culture change is the most difficult obstacle to success. A company can hire consultants, develop work teams, and begin lean initiatives, but if it only talks the talk, the initiative soon becomes just talk. Early in 2007, we hosted a kaizen blitz to focus on setup reduction in our newly-formed product cell. As one of numerous subsidiaries of a corporation, we were able to invite many people from beyond our four walls to participate and share knowledge. The goal was two-fold: To help us see during the event and help the participant’s sight when they returned home. We also involved the consulting firm that we have worked with over the last two years. During the first day’s activities, one consultant asked the operators of a gear-hobbing machine why the process was being done that way. After agonizing minutes of pondering and stammering, an operator admitted that it had simply “always been done that way.” Does this sound familiar? Later that day, the operator came to me and remarked that a kid probably would have wondered why he did things that way, but he never takes the time to look carefully at what he does. He finally understood what we mean when we say, “look at the process with a child’s eyes.” At times, we observed operators walking more than 30 feet multiple times during the setup of a machine. The obvious question was “Why are the tools so far away?” The operators often explained that they don’t have enough room. With a new perspective, we were able to redesign the work area to provide necessary tools within three feet of their point of use without losing any perceived room. One team even used PVC plumbing, hose clamps, and screws to fabricate tool holders right at the point of use on the machine. Ingenuity exists at all levels, if people have the training, time, encourage, and motivation to make improvements. How often do you walk by something without questioning why it exists? In a sales department, employees bring in desk lamps because the work area is too dark, causing eyestrain and, in extreme cases, putting people to sleep. A guest touring the department observes that the majority of fluorescent ceiling lights are burned out or the covers are missing. Many years ago, the glare from the overhead fluorescent lights made it difficult to see information on the old monochrome computer monitors. However, new, nonreflective LCD panels had replaced those monitors quite some time ago. In another case, an hourly, indirect employee spends hours of her week organizing an assembly schedule from a stack of computer-generated reports. Approximately 50 percent of the product is currently manufactured in a cell (a change from 18 months prior). Her boss believes that the cell is still using its section of the schedule. No one asks why. Six months later, he comes to me and asks why the cell needs the report if we’re “lean.” I can’t explain, because I don’t believe they do. We go and see the cell, and it doesn’t use the sheet. In 10 minutes, we eliminate hours of weekly work for an employee in a department seeking more resources. More importantly, we begin the process of generating a new report for the portion of assembly that hasn’t been through lean yet. This new report is automatically generated, completely removing the manual task from the hourly employee. As a side benefit, the report will be available for the production manager who still requires a schedule (for the time being) immediately with only those line items he needs to track. Seeing with a child’s eyes Shigeo Shingo advised that the best time for creative thinking is shortly after you wake. When you’re rested and uninhibited, the opportunity to have an open mind is greater. Avoid judgmental thinking (such as reading e-mail, reviewing financial numbers, etc.) early in the day as it creates tunnel vision for the mind. Capturing ideas isn’t as difficult as we believe. We must simply take the time to think back. As children, everything we see creates questions. Why is the sky blue, the grass green? Because we had no preconceived notions and no fear of being ridiculed, we questioned everything. To gain a fresh perspective on our day-to-day jobs, we simply need to start with asking why without fear. While it’s important for each of us to ask why, we must be given the freedom to do so. Leaders have to stimulate creativity, not dampen it. Organize brainstorming sessions where no idea is discounted. Involve a cross-functional team where everyone is equal. Shingo also noted that people with diverse backgrounds have different experiences. That provides unique ideas and can also provide expansion on ideas. Studies have proven that teams with open discussion generate more ideas than individuals. There must be time available for reflection too. As the operators learned in our kaizen, if my only thought is to perform a process and not observe it while asking why, I’ll never find opportunities for improvement. Two ideals are constant in a lean system—a go-and-see approach to problems (genchi genbutsu) and constant reflection (hansei). Few single words are as powerful as “why” in a manufacturing environment. Still, there’s one critical point to remember. If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Asking why only is the starting point. You must be willing to pursue the answer to why as well. Many suggestion boxes have this defect. When you’re required to present a problem, the possible solution and the effect of the solution (cost vs. benefit, but not necessarily dollars), you get to see the entire picture. Now you’ve become part of the solution. Changing your culture from one of complaints to one of solutions is difficult, time-consuming, and requires your full attention. Even one failure to show respect for people, regardless of the number of successes, will send your cultural change initiatives into a downward spiral. Fear not, though, for, like all things, the spiral can be reversed if handled respectfully and with follow-through. Just don’t ignore it in hopes that it will go away. In Shingo’s latest book, Kaizen and The Art of Creative Thinking (PCS Inc. and Enna Products Corporation, 2007) he dedicates an entire chapter to methods and steps for idea generation. That chapter alone is justification for purchasing the book, and the entire text is truly valuable. He goes beyond theory and principles to provide actual experiences in a simple, easy-to-read format. His ability to break through traditional perceptions and view processes with “a child’s eyes,” regardless of the application, is impressive. There’s no magic pill for lean initiatives. The lean process requires time, commitment, and determination. Companies that cannot envision the long-term commitment to lean, and only use the tools for short-term gain, will achieve some limited success. However, without the culture supporting those tools, the lean initiative will fail, becoming the “flavor of the week” that everyone knew wouldn’t last. “Even the greatest idea can become meaningless in the rush to judgment. To gauge an idea as feasible we must cut our ties to the status quo and find the balance between constructive criticism and judgment. Within that balance we will uncover crucial input for making our ideas a reality.”—Shigeo Shingo.

Previous articles in this series: Part 1: Roll-out (-through, -by, -over) Part 2: No magic pill Part 3: Lean vs. L.A.M.E. Part 4: Process improvement—where do we start? Part 5: Why are we doing this? Part 6: Does office lean matter?

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About The Author

Mike Thelen’s picture

Mike Thelen

Mike Thelen is the lean facilitator at Aberdeen, South Dakota-based Hub City Inc., a subsidiary of the Regal-Beloit Corp. in Beloit, Wisconsin. He has led lean initiatives in positions from front-line supervisor to system coordinator in various corporations since 2001.