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!

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?

Gemba, Leadership, Lean and Continuous Improvement, The Leader

Teaching your eyes to see

An important skill for leaders is to learn to “see”.  This means seeing beyond what most people see, or at least a different perspective of the same image.  Teaching your eyes to see is a learned skill, that once mastered, opens your eyes to many new things.

Teaching your eyes to see

An example of teaching your eyes to see that I experienced while on an in depth TPS training in Japan several years ago involved learning to see 1/10th of a second kaizens.  1/10th of second is very difficult to see and is the slightest of hand motions, movements, or on equipment, tiny adjustments.  We were given the task to reduce the cycle time within a production line by 30 seconds, but to do so through 1/10th of a second kaizens.  Well, being experienced operations guys and after observing the line for several cycles, it was obvious what needed to be done.  With some changes to the layout moving equipment closer together, adjusting the material flow, and some other equipment modifications, the 30 seconds was a done deal.  As part of the training, we had to prepare a scaled drawing detailing each of our kaizen ideas.  The drawings would be reviewed by the Sensei and if approved, they would be implemented.  On day one, we spent several hours drafting our kaizen ideas and provided the completed drawings for review and approval.  The Sensei took one look at the proposals and proceeded to tear them in pieces and literally threw them in our faces and shouted “1/10th of a second kaizens”.  This happened several times for most of the day.  We were ready to kill this guy, but then suddenly, like a light switch, we were able to see these subtle movements of waste and we could see 1/10th of a second kaizens.

Although, I don’t advocate this method of teaching, it does emphasize the point that we do need to learn to see; to really see what is, or what is not happening in a process.  It is important to see those subtle forms of waste, abnormalities, opportunities, and I suggest, clues that then beg questions.  Usually good questions!

As an example, one time while on a gemba, we came across a box of rubber gloves attached to a column of the building.  Above the box was a sign that said “Gloves are for hazardous material spills only”.  I stopped dead in my tracks.  This was crazy on so many levels!  I didn’t just see a poorly made sign and duct taped glove box.  I saw many questions and concerns such as:

  • How often are there hazardous material spills happening?
  • Are spills so frequent that we think we need gloves conveniently placed?
  • Are these spills actually “hazardous materials”?!?!?!
  • With the gloves free for the taking, are hazardous material spills happening and not being reported?
  • Does the leadership even know when the spills are happening and investigating?
  • How are the gloves and wastes from the spills being disposed?
  • Assuming for a minute that it was a good practice to have the gloves available, how do they get replenished?
  • Are the people cleaning up these spills properly and adequately trained?
  • Why are spills happening in the first place?
  • Who the heck authorized this?


SONY DSCThis example is pretty astounding, scary and may seem hard to believe, but yet it is true.  It is even more disturbing that many leaders walked right past this sign during the gemba and didn’t even notice it.  Even more frightful, the building leadership had walked past it many, many times and didn’t really “see” it!


So how do you learn to see?  Practice.

Go to the floor with a specific purpose to learn to see.  For example, go with a focus to see one specific thing such as arm over reaching, bending, twisting, outdated signs or posters, trip hazards, pinch points, sign effectiveness and meaning, opportunities to cause product damage, unnecessary motion, a specific type waste stream, sources of floor debris, etc, etc.  The point is dedicate an appropriate amount of time to see a very specific focus.  Look for that focus and only that focus.  When you see it, ask yourself as many questions as you can about that particular item.  See beyond the obvious.  Look for deeper meaning, symptoms, evidence, abnormalities.  Repeat often with a new or different focus.  With practice you will soon see these things naturally and without effort.  Once you learn to see, you won’t be able to turn it off.

Nope, it’s not rocket science.  Seems too easy, right?  Try it, you’ll like it!

How did you learn or teach others to see?  Leave a comment and let me know!  If you found this article useful or interesting, please “like” it to give me feedback so I know what is of interest to you.




Gemba, Lean and Continuous Improvement

The best place for a meeting… is on the roof!

So where is the most effective place to have a meeting?

At the process, point of discussion, or the place that is most effective at visualizing your point of view, problem, or solution.

After only a couple of years of operation of a new automotive paint shop, the engineering team brought a capital project to me for approval to replace the cooling tower on the roof.  It had basically rusted out.  Without it we could not operate the paint shop.  The cost of the project was $3.5M and it was not budgeted.  Since it was out of budget, we had to request additional funding from the overall capital “emergency” fund which subsequently needed the President’s approval.  After I had reviewed and approved, I requested the engineer to schedule the review with the President as soon as possible and to schedule it on the roof of the plant.  He looked at me and said “pardon?”.  I repeated a-c-4-1446676-640x480(1)myself.  He said there was no way the President would go up on the roof.  I told him to schedule the meeting and I would look after getting the President to the roof.

Given that the existing unit was only 3 years old, I was concerned that we would be told to patch it up somehow.  There was no way that would have worked.  We would then need to come back again with additional quotes, justifications, reasons why fixing it would not work, or we would have to attempt to repair it.  We didn’t have this kind of time.  Sure, pictures might have worked, but after seeing the pictures and the actual condition myself, there was no comparison.  Within a couple of minutes of the President being on the roof and seeing the actual condition he said “where do I sign”.

So why is it so many meetings to discuss problems and proposals are scheduled in meeting rooms or offices?   Get out on the floor, the process, or the place that is most effective at visualizing your point of view, problem, or solution.

A picture may be worth a 1,000 words, but seeing is believing!

The saying “seeing is believing” is very accurate and you can learn a lot by going and seeing.  It gives you the opportunity to see or tell the real story.  It’s a lot more difficult to exaggerate or downplay something when everyone involved sees the same thing.  Additional eyes may also see different things that otherwise would go unnoticed.

As a leader have you ever had someone on your team advise you of a problem and then tell you everything is under control or “it’s not that bad”?  Later it blows up on you and you wonder what the heck just happened.  Or the opposite, where the “sky is falling” and you push the defcom5 button only to find out it was really nothing at all?  Alternatively, maybe you have tried to get something approved that was absolutely necessary and the need was obvious to you, but your boss sent you away multiple times to answer questions or get more data?  Now, how different would things have been had you gone to the location to see the specific problem or topic of discussion?

Whether it’s a process, piece of equipment, software, administrative function, or procedure, go & see it with your own eyes.  Or if you are the one making the proposal, explaining the problem, or making the case, take the team to the best location that supports your point of view and position on the subject matter.

So get out of the conference room and go to the roof!  Go and See!