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Bruce Hamilton

Quality Insider

Putting the Pieces Together

We need to look at the whole pie

Published: Tuesday, August 11, 2015 - 14:19

Summer is here and that means a family vacation to the beach, the boardwalk, and the Hamilton’s favorite pizza place. We all agree that Manco’s pizza is the best anywhere, but we differ on the reason why.

My brother, Geoff, thinks it’s the cheese—aged white cheddar in place of mozzarella. My son, Ben, says it’s the combination of spices in the sauce, but my daughter, Alison, thinks it’s the oil, maybe olive oil. Maureen, Mrs. Toast, insists it’s the dough and the thin crust. And for me, it’s the boardwalk experience—the warm summer night and the relaxed atmosphere that gives this pizza place the edge.

No doubt it’s all of these things, not just one, that make Manco’s Pizza what it is, but human nature seems to dictate a tendency to break down the whole into its pieces for understanding, and then to subjectively isolate according to our particular experience. I notice in my work that, depending upon the job title or discipline, there’s often a distinct bias or perspective for improvement. Engineers, for example, generally tend to think in terms of functional costs and view value engineering as a means to improvement. Production focuses on safety, speed, and operational availability. And quality worries that engineering and production may be cutting corners, adversely impacting product quality. This list goes on. I’m reminded of the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant, each of us trying to understand the whole through a narrow lens of our particular experience or expertise. We bring our silos with us wherever we go.

Similarly, we segment various aspects of continuous improvement in our attempt to break a big system down into digestible pieces. (How do you eat an elephant?) We recite the seven wastes one-by-one as if they exist separately from one another, and juxtapose culture and tools with questions like “Which is more important?” The tools themselves are studied à la carte, too often promoted as ends in themselves rather than means to the ends they are intended to achieve. We break off pieces of the Toyota Production System and call it “lean” when we should be looking at the whole.

Recently, the lean discussion has turned to the top manager’s role in lean transformation, declaring lack of management commitment to be the “elephant in the room,” the most important prerequisite for sustainable improvement. While I’m inclined to agree with this hypothesis, Harvard Business Review has declared that the optimal tenure for a CEO is only 4.8 years—a short time for continuity of leadership. Perhaps the next elephant in the room for lean thinkers will be boards of directors, whose average tenures are twice that of the CEO—better for long-term thinking.

In fact, I think our piecemeal learning and the vertical and horizontal extension of lean thinking over the past 40 years would be very positive if it were only holistic, building upon and deepening our understanding. Too often, however, lean implementers glom onto the latest piece of the puzzle, behaving as if the pieces already in place have maxed out or become passé. Ultimately, as with the pizza discussion, if we focus only on the pieces, we’ll never understand the whole.

How about in your organization? Are you looking at lean holistically or hop scotching from the latest trend to the next latest trend? Let me know.

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; 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.