Gemba, Leadership, Lean and Continuous Improvement, The Leader

A Leader’s Best Question

Try something different this week.  What if we can collectively make a profound difference in our workplaces and teams this week by asking and taking action on what might just be a leader’s best question:

What frustrates you?

I love asking this question.  Well actually, I love the result of asking it.  It is astounding what you will learn from your operators, support teams, or leaders of leaders.  This is not a lean or CI thing, this is a great leadership question for any leader.  Ask it of anyone on your team whether they be hourly or salary,  work on line or in the office.  The response will provide you with some great discussion for sure, and likely actions to help them be a happier and more effective person within your organization.  Who wouldn’t want that?

Here’s the deal.  If you are willing to give it a try this week click on “Like” so we will have an idea of the impact we’ll have across many companies and industries.  Ask at least 3 different people on your teams.  Leave a comment on the post after you have asked a few people “What frustrates you?” and let us know your thoughts on the value of asking this question.

If you want to challenge others to do the same, please share this post.

Let’s do this!

Lean and Continuous Improvement

Who the heck needs standards?

Standards are all around us in everyday life and in several different forms.  Standards can be manufacturing specifications, visual controls, policy and procedures, standard operating procedures (SOP), legislation, work practices, and the list goes on and on.

So why do we so often let our guard down in the workplace when it comes to standards?

Why are standards important?  What purpose do standards serve?

Purpose of Standards:

  • Necessary condition before kaizen
  • Make the process predictable
  • Make it easier to teach new employees
  • Assure safe, quality controlled, and productive operations
  • Make problems and abnormalities visible

In the absence of, or when operating out of standard the process will have a lot of variation and will be out of control.  This is when defects are introduced impacting safety, quality, productivity and cost.  Results are unpredictable.


With the implementation of standards or when operating within a standard, the process will be stable and predictable.  Even if the standards are not the best they could be or the result not what you desire, the process will be relatively consistent and predictable.  Even if predictably bad!  Establishment of, or return to standards, are necessary before any kaizen can be made.  Why?  In the absence of the standards, you really won’t know where to begin improving the process.  How can you improve a process if there are no standards?  To make the point, if 4 operators do the same process 4 different ways, how would you know which is to standard?  Which method produces the best result?  If you made a kaizen, would it improve the process or make it worse?  You’re spinning your wheels without standards in place before you kaizen.

Once the standards are in place and the process is stable, problems or abnormalities also become very observable and noticeable as the result will suddenly be significantly off the standard result or proven capability.  The problem should be easy to find as it is typically a result of a standard violation or variation, whether it be by any of the 4Ms – Man, Method, Machine, Material.  Putting things back to standard then will permit the stability and predictability to return to the process.

The result of conducting a kaizen is to revise the standard in some manner that improves the performance from the process.  Whether that performance be measured in safety, quality, productivity or cost.  The improvement can be one, several or all four of these performance indicators.  From here the cycle of PDCA or Plan, Do, Check, Act can be repeated over and over again to drive performance improvement.

So, who the heck needs standards?

I’d argue that we all do.  I’m not sure how someone can manage and lead without standards.  As leaders, we MUST have a very high bar to insist on the highest of standards all the time!  We NEED to check, confirm and audit to standards; then repeat.  We CONTINUOUSLY IMPROVE standards as technology, expectations, customer demands, product requirements and other influences change and evolve.  Why?  To stay in control and relevant.

If you’re not convinced on standards take a look at this example:

Beer standard

Two bottles of the same kind of beer each filled to the red arrow in the picture.  Which one is filled correctly?  Anytime I’ve asked this question, the common answer is the one on the right.  Why?  Because everyone wants more beer!  Now, what if the standard is actually the beer on the left?  “Great, the one on the right has an extra mouthful!”  And my response is, “who said it was beer?”


Leadership, Lean and Continuous Improvement

Do your processes “tick-off” your operators?

Process burden is much more than just ergonomic burden!

Process burden is what negatively impacts main performance metrics such as safety, quality, productivity and cost because process burdens frustrate, distract, and exhaust the operators!

Process burdens are definitely part of the 8 wastes (TIM WOODS) but often leaders miss seeing them or realizing the impact they have on the operators and subsequently the metrics.  Process burden can mean many things.  Ergonomic burden is an obvious one, but walking, twisting, bending, steps, stepping up/down or stretching are all additional movement burdens to look out for.   A form of process burden often overlooked is mental and emotional burden.  This is where the metric impact comes from!

Mental burden comes from the number of decisions, complex or otherwise, an operator has to make.  For example, if this model number, do this.  If that model number, do that.  These decisions may involve installing different part options of colours or styles, affixing a label or not,  or choosing what part, tape, box, or component to use.  The more decisions the more likelihood mistakes will be made and the more drained the operator will become throughout their shift.

Emotional burden comes from frustrations experienced while the operator is trying to do their job.  Running out of parts, components or packaging sticking to their gloves, dispensed indirect supplies jamming up or running out, waiting for assistance, tools or equipment that don’t operate smoothly, etc.  Typically leaders don’t see these type of burdens until they start to impact productivity in a significant way.  However, long before this, and often without the operator fully realizing, they are getting frustrated, aggravated, and emotionally drained.

You need to observe the process before, during, and after kaizens for an extended period of time to watch for and identify these burdens.  For example, during a kaizen of a process a team added a long handled paint roller to assist the operator with pulling forward some parts to reduce the operator’s reach.  The roller worked really well for the intended purpose.  The team moved on to other things after this kaizen.  Observing the process after the kaizen for a longer period of time and looking for burdens, one couldn’t help but see that when the operator went to use the roller they struggled getting it off the magnetic hook used to hold it when not in use.  I mean you had to use brute force to get this roller released from the magnet.  It was incredibly difficult.  Although the operator didn’t use it often, when they did it just frustrated them to no end!

It’s not hard then to understand how these process burdens can impact the operators and then lead to negative impact on safety, quality, productivity and cost.

So how do you find these burdens?

  1. Ask the operators what frustrates, tires them out or what’s the number one thing they would change in their process.
  2. Observe and watch many cycles (>30 minutes, the longer the better) focused on these types of burdens and monitor how often they occur.  Watch for > 30 minutes to increase the opportunity to observe abnormalities that happen periodically.

Make it visible!

When conducting a kaizen on a process, put a flip chart close to the process and ask the operators to write down anything they have concerns with in the process.  Explain what process burdens are and why you want to know about them, and of course, commit to fixing as many as you can.  As you do fix the burdens the operators identified, cross them off on the flip chart.  This type of visibility engages the operators and provides two-way feedback as to the concerns and as to what has been addressed.  It also spurs on more ideas and opportunities as other operators see that the issues are in fact being fixed or eliminated.

Create and visualize for operators to see a “What’s in it for me” metrics board.  Often, as leaders we show the improvement in the hardcore metrics which may not have as much meaning to the operators.  For example, based on a kaizen, we have reduced 12 seconds of waste, resulting in a 7.5% improvement in productivity.  What the operator may hear is, “great we have to work harder, faster”, etc.  So although these metric improvements are important to track, don’t forget to also track and visualize the improvements that the operators will feel themselves such as, reduction in steps/day, number of decisions reduced, twists eliminated etc.  Show both the before and after metrics.  They don’t have to be fancy and can be on a flip chart, white board, or a piece of paper at the process.

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Leadership, Lean and Continuous Improvement

Combat complacency with this simple technique.

As Leaders one of the many watch-outs is complacency creeping in to our teams.  Once it does, it can be a real battle to fight it off.  The best way to combat complacency is to always challenge your team.

Early in my automotive career when I was responsible for an engine plant, I learned this lesson of combating complacency with challenge from one of the company’s senior executives.   When I joined the company and took over responsibility for the engine plant, it was not running very well.  In fact, the engine plant was responsible for shutting down the vehicle plant multiple times a shift.  Not a good place to be!  I rallied the team as the new leader and convinced the demotivated team that we could turn this operation around if we worked together and tackled the biggest issues first and knocked them down one by one.  After a few months, they did it!  We improved the operation rate from the mid 80s to an average of 95% against a target of 96%.  It was an incredible amount of hard work and perseverance.  We were no longer shutting down the vehicle plant, had reduced the buffers between the engine plant and the vehicle plant, mean time between failures and improved and they had driven great improvements in quality.  The team was pumped and feeling very proud of their achievements.  Although not yet at the 96% target, we had demonstrated our capability with some shifts operating above 96%.

One day when after we had been achieving the 95% operation rate fairly regularly, the senior executive, let’s call him “Norm”, stood and observed the engine line for the entire shift, in the same manner as Taiichi Ohno used to do.  At the end of the shift, he called me over.  “Oh oh, I thought, I’m in trouble”.  Norm said, “you MUST do a 3 second takt change.”  I was stunned.  The line was operating at a 60 second takt and a 3 second takt change was not insignificant.  Our operating rate would crash to the mid 80’s again and the team would have to work really hard to get it back up to the 96% target or even the 95% average we had been achieving!  I argued and pushed back.  Norm wouldn’t budge.  We “discussed” the need to do this takt change for sometime and Norm was getting frustrated with me.  Eventually after wearing him down, he explained that as leaders, we must never allow our teams to become complacent.  After such hard work and achievement the team is likely to ease off and lose their edge.  The takt change, he said, was to give them a new challenge, to keep them focused, motivated, and sharp.  I  reminded him as to how hard the team and worked and that we hadn’t yet achieved the 96% target… and he responded “celebrate the achievement so far, then do a 3 second takt change”.

I’ve never forgotten that encounter with Norm that day and have always tried to keep my teams challenged to combat the enemy of complacency.  Continuous improvement initiatives to attack waste, kaizens to improve safety, quality or productivity, new more aggressive targets, introduction of new or additional metrics/KPIs, or takt changes, are all ways you can keep your team challenged.

How do you combat complacency with your team?