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Bruce Hamilton


Eye of the Beholder

Things get ugly fast when we fail to understand lean concepts

Published: Thursday, June 30, 2016 - 12:56

Many moons ago, when I was just getting started on my lean journey, I visited a large automotive supplier to benchmark pull systems. My own factory had started a pilot kanban between two work centers and I was hoping to gain some insight from a more experienced source.

To my disappointment, when I was escorted to the factory, the aisles were crowded with pallets of kitted orders. “What is this inventory?” I asked my tour guide.

“That’s kanban,” he said.

“How so?” I asked.

“Every day the stockroom pulls stock for the floor,” he explained, emphasizing the word “pull.”

I thought to myself that this particular material looked just like traditional factory orders, launched before they were needed. The floor of this benchmark facility was more crowded with inventory than my own. Not wishing to be rude, I tactfully inquired, “Isn’t the kanban supposed to stay near to the supplying work center?”

The factory manager confidently responded, “Oh yes, we have a central kanban area. I’ll show you.” With that, he led me to large storage area that looked just like my stockroom, only larger. “We pull from here,” he reiterated, once again emphasizing the operative word, “pull.”

“Amazing,” I thought to myself, “the factory just swapped its ‘STOCKROOM’ sign with one that reads ‘KANBAN.’” (Thirty years later, by the way, that factory has been closed.) The point here is not to focus specifically on the tool, in this case kanban, but rather to highlight the difficulty that arises when the concept behind any tool is misunderstood. If we don’t understand what “good” looks like, we could be doing exactly the wrong thing.

Two days ago, for example, I heard a machinist jokingly describe his factory’s use of andons: “When there’s a problem with my machine, I set the andon to red, and that signals everyone that I’m away from the machine hunting for the maintenance department.” Unfortunately, although the front-line employee knows this not how andons are supposed to function, the details are less well understood elsewhere.

There is not a single lean tool I can think of that isn’t burdened by misconceptions. Following are six common ones; perhaps you can add to the list in the comments section below and we’ll keep a running tally (think we can get to 50?):
1. Ganging up shop orders with similar set-ups regardless of due date to amortize set-up time, and then calling it “set-up reduction.” This is set-up avoidance. The whole idea of reducing set-ups to “build the customer’s exact order immediately” is lost when orders wait their turn for the right set-up.
2. Creating dedicated “cells” which sit idle 80 percent of the time. People tell me, “We don’t have room for cells.” No wonder.
3. Moving the stockroom to the factory and then referring to months of stock on hand as “point-of-use inventory.”
4. Referring to work instructions as “standard work.” In fact, having a clear work standard and job instructions create an important foundation for standardized work, but too few sites understand standardized work as a dynamic choreography matching supplier capability to customer rate.
5. A subset of the above, confusing takt time with cycle time.
6. One of my favorite misconceptions came from an engineering manager who let me know that he appreciated the “eighth waste” (loss of creativity) because he was tired of his engineers wasting their creativity on production problems.

Confronted by these kinds of misconceptions, I’m reminded of an old Twilight Zone episode, “Eye of the Beholder.” Watch the two-minute clip to see how ugly things can get when we don’t have a good understanding of the concepts behind lean tools.

In the last several years, a great deal of attention has been given to creating a lean culture rather than just implementing the tools. This is an ideal I subscribe to wholeheartedly so long as we define “culture” as an environment favorable to continuous improvement, and recognize that a proper understanding of the tools by both workers and managers is a key part of that culture.


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; and he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an on-going reflection on lean philosophy and practices with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.