“I wish I knew then what I know now”. Who among us would disagree with that statement?
Such is the case for so many things in life, and Lean is no different. As we all progress along our Lean journeys, we will sometimes pause and wonder why we didn’t see certain things as we do now. It’s important to remember that you can only make decisions based upon the data you have at the moment… so in other words, don’t beat yourself up because you only achieved “better” and not “best”. It is referred to as “continuous improvement” for that very reason – it’s a process, not a magic bullet, and it takes time to do right.
When we visit clients’ shops, we often see that they share the same challenges. It’s curious, really; regardless of industry, size or core competency, as we set about assessing their businesses, we see many of the same trends emerge. Lengthy part travel distances, high inventories, unreliable equipment, long, drawn-out setups, broken lines of communication… occurrences that many people just assume have to be that way since they have always been that way. Part of what makes our job so much fun is that we get to teach folks that there is in fact a different path. A better path. An easier path. The Lean path.
A big component of our guidance involves teaching managers and leaders to go to the Gemba; going to see how and where the value is actually being created for the customer. While a commonplace activity for many of us, for some this represents a stark departure from their normal daily activities. It can be downright uncomfortable for some folks, but it is imperative that they take this step to “plug in” to their operation. It is the best way to learn what is happening in the here and now – not at the end of the day when delivery reports are run, or the end of the month when financials are closed. It’s about witnessing first-hand the flow of materials and how value is being added on the shop floor, as well as making connections and building relationships with the folks who run the equipment and produce parts.
Perhaps the biggest reason for going to the Gemba is that it enables real-time communication to occur. In a non-Lean environment, processes are disconnected from each other and from decision makers. Parts are pushed, not pulled, and process challenges are not fully understood by anyone except the poor soul who is trying to fix it. Similarly, when events occur that need an authority to make a decision (which job to run on which machine, for example), it becomes vital to have as much pertinent information as possible. This cannot happen effectively if those decision makers don’t have good, reliable, recent information. If left unchecked, this kind of working environment can lead to contempt and indifference – two fatal poisons to anyone’s Lean endeavor. Unfortunately we’ve seen it happen, and it ain’t pretty.
The good news is that Lean offers us a way to get out off of this merry-go-round. Lean teaches us about wastes & non-value added activities and how to remove them to make product and information flow more freely. And really that’s at the core of what Lean is all about. It’s about making things easier and more recognizable so that data-based decisions can be made more quickly. For instance – by putting needed tools on a shadow board next to the machine that they service, it communicates that we care about giving the associate access to the tools they need to do their job, and shows respect for his/her time since they now do not have to go in a toolbox drawer for what they need. Likewise, if a tool is misplaced, the board itself communicates that quickly and easily so that the operator doesn’t have to wait until he/she needs it to find out that it’s missing.
The same practice holds true for Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE). Without making the data apparent, it becomes impossible to quantify what percentage of time machines spend making scrap, broken down or in setup mode. Instead, all we can know is that a certain machine made a certain number of parts over a certain timeframe. That’s pretty generic info, and surely isn’t specific enough to take any kind of Lean action on.
So the challenge for you is to go to the Gemba and see what you can see. Ask questions. Make a connection with someone and do something to help make their job easier. Make the data visible, obvious and current. That will be the best place to start, so when you look back you can say “I may not have known, but I did the right things to find out”.
Paul W. Critchley is the President of New England Lean Consulting. He is a Board member of the Northeast Region of AME, and he is co-author of “The Whole Professional, A Collection of Essays to Help You Achieve a Full and Satisfying Life”. He can be reached at http://www.newenglandlean.com.