Monday, January 29, 2018

We Don't Make Cars: Applying Lean to Other Industries

People don't go to Toyota to work, they go there to think"Taiichi Ohno

Although much of what we now call lean has been practiced by Toyota and its suppliers for decades, most of the world began to learn about it in the 1990s with books like The Machine that Changed the World and Lean Thinking. It has been more than 25 years since then and, although companies in a variety of industries are well into their lean journeys and showing positive results, there are still many people who have trouble thinking beyond lean as a strategy for high-volume or automotive manufacturing.

As someone who has worked in a variety of industries, I have encountered difficulties applying lean thinking in certain situations, but it was due more to cultural reasons than industry differences. Regardless of the industry, if the organization has an aim and uses processes to achieve that aim – and they all do – lean thinking applies. Lean is about continually thinking, learning, and getting better about what you do; not about producing cars. If your processes are not perfect, you don't already know everything there is to know about your business, or change regularly occurs in your organization or industry, then lean can help.

During my early days in oil and gas, I got a lot of pushback about the suitability of lean to the industry. When I heard the "we don't make cars" argument, my response was usually if Toyota produced oil & gas and we made cars, we would say lean applies only to oil and gas. The same goes for any industry.

It's Always Easier Somewhere Else

It is common to talk to people in various industries who believe that lean applies easily to other industries but is much more difficult in their own. Even within an industry, I've met people who believe their own circumstances are so unique that, even though other organizations or areas may apply lean thinking fairly successfully, it does not fit their own situation.

Getting people past the notion that lean will not work in an organization or industry requires continual coaching, demonstration, and a lot of patience. It also requires educating people about the basis for lean and how it drives learning and improvement. The key is to get people to understand lean beyond the tools so they will start to see where they have gaps in performance, knowledge, and learning. A tools-focus in lean, something that is far too common, leads people to google things like 5S, value stream mapping, or SMED, and only find examples of application to Toyota or other high-volume manufacturing situations. Seeing examples like this tends to cement the idea that the practice is unsuited to their own situation.

The Lean System

Lean is about thinking and learning, and if a business is experiencing problems of any kind, there is room to learn. The basic steps to drive lean are shown below. The key to success is to use the steps to learn by doing, which requires clarity on the expected result of each decision, action, and process, and using the actual results to see where things did or did not provide results as expected.

Lean is a system comprised of several elements that work together to drive learning and improvement and, like any system, if you leave out one or more components, it won't work.

1. PURPOSE: Every organization must understand its purpose to have any chance of sustaining success. The purpose, consisting of why the company exists (the mission) and where it is headed (the vision) must drive everything it does. The key is to make it clear, a stretch (difficult, but not impossible), inspiring, and focused on providing value.

2. BUSINESS NEEDS: Visions tend to describe the future in general terms like industry-leading, most respected, improve society, etc. This is okay because what is considered industry-leading today is not necessarily what it will mean 5-10 years from now and you don't want a specific target to mislead the organization. This element of lean thinking includes the 3-5 year objectives that make the vision much more concrete. Although many industrial companies often identify the gaps in terms of safety, quality, delivery, cost, and people development (SQDCP), it is important to tailor the objectives to the organization's needs. Basically, the objectives define how the organization needs to perform in the next 3-5 years in order to remain on-track to the vision.

Also included in this element is the one-year plan that gets even more specific regarding what needs to happen in the current year to remain on-track to the 3-5 year objectives. The one-year plan identifies the current year SQDCP targets, which defines how the organization needs to perform this year given its current processes and systems (assuming that regular problem-solving will be required to deal with the daily problems), as well as the 2-3 areas where a step-change in performance is required to stay on track to the 3-5 year objectives (i.e., kaizen/breakthrough problem-solving). Using an oil and gas producer, a current year target could be production of 25,000 barrels of oil produced per day (possible with current processes and systems), while a breakthrough could be the need to reduce cost per barrel from $24 to $18 within 3 years (which would require a step-change in processes or systems).

3. STANDARDS: Once the gaps and performance targets are clear, it is necessary to identify the standards that need to be met in line with business needs. An example of standards within an oil and gas operation could be that meeting a production target requires an offshore platform to operate at 95% reliability, which, in turn, requires a maintenance technician to change a pump filter in 24 minutes. In another example, a coffee shop could determine that, to meet customer requirements, all customers must receive their coffee within 4 minutes of walking into the shop, requiring the person taking the order to select any product on the order screen within 2 seconds. Setting standards requires a clear understanding of the business and continual improvement.

4. STANDARD WORK: Standard work consists of the instructions that, if followed, will enable the standards to be met. In the examples above, instructions provide a step-by-step description of the work to be done to change the filter in 24 minutes or serve the customer within 4 minutes. Two key points about standard work are (1) the instructions should be created and regularly improved by the people who actually do the work; and (2) the instructions must be clear and simple to follow. It is also important that the standard work is regarded as the best known way to perform the work today, and must be followed until a better way is discovered and the instructions are changed.

5. ACTUAL PERFORMANCE: Learning requires clearly and continually measuring the actual performance to understand where the gaps between performance and the standards exist. If actual performance meets the standards – the pump filter is changed in 24 minutes – then the thinking returns to step 2 to continually assure that business has not changed and that the standards still meet the business or customer needs.

6. IDENTIFY PROBLEMS/GAPS: The real power of lean thinking occurs when actual performance does not meet standards because this is where continual improvement truly happens. For the business to improve, we need people to quickly speak up when problems occur. Whether through an andon signal (lights and music that immediately grab attention) or dashboards that are updated frequently, the key is to find ways to make all problems highlighted quickly. To assure this happens, leaders need to encourage and recognize team members for identifying problems quickly. Taking it one step further, making problems visible should be an expectation of every person in the organization.

7. RESOLVE PROBLEMS: Once problems are identified – i.e., actual performance does not meet the standard – there needs to be a consistent way to understand and resolve the gaps. Rather than calling on black belts to come in and lead the process, lean requires that everyone become problem-solvers. Those closest to the work need to be actively involved in closing the gaps and, to make this happen, leaders need to teach and coach team members how to do it. In many cases, problem-solving leads to changing standards and/or standard work to ensure that improvements stick.

8. DO IT AGAIN: The lean system requires that the process never ends, so the team needs to continue to review business needs, set and revise standards, identify gaps in performance, and solve problems.

Not as Easy as it Sounds

Although following the lean system as described above appears fairly simple and straightforward, it is anything but easy. Each step requires transformation in leadership, thinking, and culture to be effective. Two areas that generally require significant change include transforming managers into coaches and making a culture where it is safe – and even expected – to make problems visible.

The all-too-common approach of focusing on the tools will make the application of lean to other industries difficult – if not impossible. Focusing on the philosophy and transformation in the way people think and approach the business, however, will make the application to other industries far easier and significantly more successful.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Lean Journey Starts with Appreciating the Business as a System

“There is not a day I don’t think about what Dr. Deming meant to us. Deming is the core of our management.”    - Shoichiro Toyoda

According to W. Edwards Deming, the first thing he did when meeting with Japanese business leaders in 1950 was draw a diagram of a business as a system on the board (shown below from Out of the Crisis).  It was a simple diagram – almost too simple for many to understand its profound significance.  So, what is it about this diagram that literally changed the world and helped some organizations develop competitive advantages that they were able to sustain for many years?

At its most basic level, the objective of the diagram is to show that every business is a system and needs to be managed as such.  When most people hear this, they nod their heads in agreement as if it is nothing new.  After looking at the way many organizations are run, however, it becomes obvious that the concept is still not well understood. 

When viewing a business as a system, it becomes clearer which common business practices actually interfere with long-term success.  In fact, the more one learns about systems thinking, the more obvious it becomes that the chance of achieving any level of long-term success without it is very small.

Every System Must Have a Clear Purpose

Every business exists to achieve an aim and uses a series of handoffs, processes, and subsystems to achieve that aim.  Sounds simple enough but in many – possibly even most – companies, this is forgotten or never truly appreciated.  In far too many organizations, the aim is not clear, not constant, or too heavily focused on monetary gains.  Without a clearly stated and unchanging purpose that is focused on value and meaningful to everyone, people will define it on their own, leading to conflicts, waste, and significant losses.  Deming went as far as to say that without a purpose, there is no system.

I consider the aim to be comprised of the mission (why the organization exists) and vision (where it is headed).  In practice, this means that the organization must stay true to its mission while assuring all targets, objectives, and activities support achieving the vision.  In the most advanced lean thinking organizations, this is much more obvious than in other companies.

The Interactions Must be Clear and Continually Improve

In addition to assuring the aim is clear to everyone in the organization, the interactions between each person and team needs to be clear and continually improved.  Organizations operate in a highly complex manner and gaining an understanding of the interactions and how they create value for the customer is a difficult but necessary task. 

A critical point about systems is that every person in the organization must understand how the work they do contributes to the aim.  This means, for example, that a Maintenance Technician understands his or her role is to assure machines are capable of producing parts of the right quality when needed.  To do that requires high reliability, fast turnaround for maintenance and repairs, and helping the machinists understand how to perform routine maintenance activities quickly and effectively.  Managers have the responsibility to help team members understand their work to this level of detail, including developing an understanding of whom they support in the overall system.

Standards must be established to clarify the work and the interactions and clearly communicate to people what is needed to assure materials and information move through the system to produce value consistently.  Whenever the standards are not met, problem-solving must be done to understand why and to make corrections.

Leaders Must Understand the Level of Complexity

Appreciating systems goes beyond understanding the interactions that take place throughout the organization.  It includes the understanding that the results of actions are not always simple and easy to determine.  For example, forcing the supply chain team to reduce the cost of incoming materials can result in increasing overall costs for the company, even though logic would dictate otherwise.

Organizations are complex, and the larger the organization, the more complex it becomes to understand the effect of a decision or action.  Large-scale changes can, and often do, have damaging effects that are difficult to predict beforehand, and are not easy to understand afterwards.  All changes must be accompanied by an expectation of the effect on the organization, and results must be continually checked against the expectations to drive learning and help improve understanding of the system.

Fragmented Thinking vs Systems Thinking

The more one develops an understanding of systems thinking, the clearer it becomes that many commonly accepted business practices hamper, rather than help, improved performance.  An example is the heavy focus placed on individual performance by most organizations. Systems thinking naturally puts the accountability for performance on the system to a much greater extent than on the individual.  Deming used to say that 94% of the problems a company faces come from the system (and are therefore management’s responsibility) and 6% are related to the people in the system.  The time and emphasis generally put into a typical performance review system, however, shows that many of us believe the exact opposite.  We rate, rank, and hold people across the organization responsible for performance in a system that is most likely flawed.  In other words, rather than focus our efforts on improving the system when performance is below expectations, we assume that putting pressure on the individual will improve results, even though the person may have little or no authority to do anything other than try harder, go around the system, or focus on making it look like improvement is occurring whether it actually is.

When traditional performance reviews are combined with the process of setting objectives, the result is often optimization of one team or individual rather than the system or the organization’s overall aim.  For example, a finance team that focuses on improving the closing process by requiring extra work from the operations team could result in taking time away from producing products or fixing problems and, although the books are closed faster each month, overall performance may suffer.

The typical organization chart is another example that shows the popularity of fragmented thinking.  The most commonly used layout for an organization chart shows little more than who has power.  Using a chart that is organized by the system (e.g., names and titles on a system diagram), however, would show where people fit in the value stream, as well as the relationships between internal customers and suppliers.  It would be much more valuable to helping people understanding their jobs than a chart that shows who the boss of whom.

These are simple examples that demonstrate the destructive effects of leaders who do not understand how systems work.  When the system is not understood and actively managed, priorities are unclear, causing continual conflict between people and teams, and effectively destroying the system.

Managers are Responsible to Create and Improve the System

When leaders come to the realization that creating, managing, and improving the system is their responsibility, the organization will begin to transform.  The focus moves to the most important parts of the organization and people start truly working together, rather than against each other, to improve performance.

Although appreciation for a system is only one of the four elements of what Deming referred to as his System of Profound Knowledge, it is something that helps provide context for the others – theory of knowledge, knowledge of variation, and psychology – and the understanding that they must all be present and work together to drive transformation.