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Bruce Hamilton


Indefinite Postponement

Death by procrastination

Published: Monday, May 2, 2016 - 13:23

Today’s article is inspired by the politically-charged gobbledygook we call presidential primaries. This battle of principles turned battle of wills reminds me that the role of the change agent can be as much theater as science. In a public forum, at least, the positions of the opponents are plainly laid out for all to see. We expect candidates to take a stand on important issues.

In the less public day-to-day business of politics, however, there’s a subtler tactic exercised by opponents to put the kibosh on ideas that don’t appeal to them. In the parlance of Robert’s Rules of Order, it’s called “indefinite postponement,” otherwise known as intentional procrastination, to avert debate and deadlock. In fact, the decision “not now” is more effective than “not ever,” because the merits of the change take a back seat to arguments regarding scarcity of resources.

On their face, these arguments may seem reasonable and sincere, but my cynical side suggests to me that our resistance to change can be as much a matter of lining up the data points to fit our prejudices as they are reasoned conclusions. Whether intentional or subliminal, the not-now tactic can be extremely effective at both starving good ideas and deflecting the short attention spans of managers. In no special order, then, here is a list of 10 reasons for indefinite postponement that I hear with some regularity. Each includes a brief counterargument to prevent your lean transformation from withering on the vine. Note that all 10 of these reasons begin with “I’m in favor of lean, but...

...we should wait until we move to the new building.” This is a big mistake, because the opportunity to improve for the move rather than just moving every process in situ is lost when we wait. In fact, after improvement you may realize that the new building was unnecessary.

...we’re too busy right now.” To be sure, balance is everything and sometimes getting the orders out must take precedence, but this lack of commitment can be like Waiting for Godot (from a post I wrote five years ago).

...we can’t afford it at the present time.” More than 25 years ago Phil Crosby taught us that Quality Is Free; more recently Alan Robinson pointed out that Ideas Are Free. In fact, the best improvements cost little or nothing and quickly accrue to the bottom line.

...there are a few key hires we need to make first.” This is a surprisingly common cause for indefinite postponement. Would the same argument be offered if, say, the issue concerned providing a product or service delivery to an external customer or for dealing with a safety hazard in the factory? I understand there are proportions to consider, but the proportions for continuous improvement are often very small. In fact, sometimes the postponement may be intended to await a new hire who is less interested in lean.

...we need to get our deliveries back on track first.” This is a variant of “too busy right now.” Who can argue that the customer doesn’t come first? On the other hand, brute force delivery tactics only perpetuate the problems that led to late deliveries in the first place. Firefighting is a very tough habit to break. Our body memory and the “high” of overcoming the odds impede the application of less exciting root cause problem solving.

...let’s wait until vacations are over.” This is a perennial condition that will never end. Rather than capitulating to vacation schedules and losing up to 30 percent improvement time each year (not to mention the loss of momentum), why not seek countermeasures to levelize the improvement process?

…we’ll have to dollarize the impact first.” Here is a veiled starvation technique using traditional cost accounting measures as the reason for postponement. Taking a machine down to practice set-ups, for example, will not look good on paper, nor will building or buying smaller quantities of a part or product. Lean is learned by doing. It’s not a paper exercise, especially not one bounded by non-lean measures.

...we’ll need to first figure out how to modify our sampling policies to accommodate small lot and one-piece-flow production.” This is a circular argument sometimes advanced to defend sampling. Rather than thinking about how 100-percent quality can be confirmed at the source, we postpone smaller lots by thinking about how it can’t be done.

...we have to finish our computer system implementation first.” This is the granddaddy of excuses because it sucks up so many resources for such a long time. It seems reasonable, except that if time were spent first to simplify before automating information flow, both the IT system and the business would reap huge benefits.

...ISO XXXX must come first.” As with IT implementations, quality systems will be greatly simplified after lean improvements. At the very least, the quality system (ISO) and the quality culture (lean) should be implemented concurrently. They are two sides of the same coin.

I think this is the short list. Do you have any other reasons for indefinite postponement? Please share a few.


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.