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Bruce Hamilton

Lean

The Natural

A good manager knows when to let a player swing away

Published: Thursday, April 28, 2022 - 12:02

In 1985, about the time I was discovering there was a better way to produce products, The Natural, a film about an aging baseball player with extraordinary talent, was garnering multiple Academy Awards. This archetype concerning natural “God-given” abilities is common in Western culture—in sports and the arts and even in business.

Early in my journey as a student of the Toyota Production System (TPS), I observed the same archetype on the factory floor, this time applied to specific lean tools. In a very natural way, certain employees revealed uncanny, focused abilities to reduce waste. Although there was broad interest in continuous improvement, leaders self-selected themselves to excel in specific lean tools. 

Bob C., for example, a 20-plus-year veteran, took a leadership role with pull systems. He realized before the rest of us that reducing production order quantities for his component parts (leadwire assemblies) and placing them on kanban enabled him to provide on-time delivery for hundreds of configurations. He set up racks, set container quantities, created a triggering system, and trained his internal customers to “go shopping” when they needed parts. In the process, he mothballed a superfast but noisy and finicky wire stripper, opting instead for an older, slow but steady wire stripper that kept up quite nicely once production quantities were reduced to actual customer need.

Bob’s kanban rack, the first in the factory, stood in stark contrast to the previous stores: a full bay of ASRS storage. Bob C’s effort was a bold proof of concept that caught on quickly in other assembly departments. Why launch manufacturing orders for subassemblies months before they are needed, and waste capacity that could be used for parts we actually needed? Why not put every item on a pull system?

The answer to these questions was that what Bob C. had made look easy was actually not easy. The concepts came easily to him but not to others. Other departments struggled to make the pull system work. They did the obvious things, like setting up racks, containers, locations, and cards, but creating a level flow eluded them.

Many less obvious changes made by Bob C. made his pull system work: floor layout, equipment reliability, tool and material locations, machine changeover improvement, visual clarity, mistake-proofing, and good communication with his internal customers. He integrated these practices so effortlessly that their importance to the pull system was transparent.

Bob C. had what Shigeo Shingo called a “motion mind.” Every step he took, every reach and bend, even the smallest motions, he analyzed in search of the one best way to produce leadwire assemblies. While Bob C. was reducing his kanban quantities from days to hours on hand, other departments worked overtime to keep their oversized kanban stores full. 

Luckily, Bob C. shared his motion mind with other employees. He became our internal consultant factorywide, even extending to external suppliers and customers. Over time, while the entire factory became pretty capable with the kanban game, Bob C. was The Natural. He brought out the best in everyone else.

The lesson here for me is that we can all become better through practice, but the archetypal natural is a real thing. I discovered over time employees who excelled similarly, but with other best practices. One employee had an eye for mistake-proofing, another for visual control, and still another for quick changeover. These naturals collaborated, each relying on the other for depth of understanding that had an amplifying effect on our continuous improvement efforts. 

Who are the naturals in in your organization? Can you spot them? Are you enabling them to develop and share?

Discuss

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.