Tales from the pyramid – the ivory tower

In some organization, top management is cut from its base, managing from remote offices and linked to operations and organization’s real life through reports, dashboards and KPIs.

I’ve met some of those managers brilliantly talking the talk but seldom, if ever, walking it. If they would – this is what they did with me – they would understand that:

  • Their talk is wishful thinking
  • Procedures and instructions are not always applied/carried out and if they are, maybe not in expected way
  • Opportunities for deviations are as numerous as opportunities for improvement
  • People on shop floor resent a boss not showing up from time to time

Keeping secluded in their ivory tower, these managers don’t know what is really going on in the lower levels.

There, people try to overcome their difficulties with available means. They are usually positive-minded and seeking solutions to issues. Yet their options are sometimes dangerous, devious, threatening quality or customer satisfaction, costly or not in line with objectives.

Nevertheless, the management is confident in the talk and convinced that instructions given through a chain of command will reach the lower levels and be applied immediately and thoroughly.

This is, if there is no hole in the pyramid!

Rules are also set by procedures and work instructions, passed by the same chain of command or by e-mail. There is a strong belief that lower levels personnels will read (!) and act accordingly.

The best proof the loop is left open is when you spot obsolete instructions on yellow-old paper forms, forgotten on some information panel nobody ever go see.

Middle managers and team leaders probably dutifully pass the instructions, but as no one cares if they are turned into actions, the loop remains open.

Besides, none of what comes down include alternatives in case of problems, as problems are not supposed to occur.

I remember a seasoned foreman complaining about the issues with final assembly he had to cope with because the engineer in charge of the design would not come downstairs to check his design and help the assembly team.

The foreman was not welcome upstairs either.

In order to improve things, a young rookie engineer was hired to serve as liaison officer. He went up and down the stairs and waited impatiently to have enough seniority to be delivered from the chore…

This is how things can go wrong, when lower levels are forced to decide and act by themselves, with the limited information and understanding they have.

Living in a kind of perfect world, the cut-off manager often faces shameful reality when touring the shop floor with somebody able to spot it at once. It happened numerous times during my plant tours.

I also witnessed workers cynically joking about the manager they very seldom see. One wished his boss touring me around a great new year. It was end of march and a perfect occasion for the worker to show his discontent in a mischievous but somewhat effective way…

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Is 3D printing the ultimate postponement? – Part one

Imagine the first habitable base on mars. Your challenge is to pack the first cargo spaceship with all the necessary for the staff to face all maintenance issues, until the next cargo spaceship can lift up, say three months later.

Chances are you’ll include a 3D printer and enough of printer’s raw material, simply because it would be the most efficient way to provide many things needed despite tremendous logistics constraints.

Now quit outer space and consider a tanker, an aircraft carrier or container ship amidst the ocean. In some aspects, these vessels share common traits with our base on mars:

  • storage space for spare parts, raw material and machines for maintenance purpose is scarce
  • they are far from everything, can be supplied only after some delay
  • supplying them is not without some risk (weather, enemies, etc.)
  • supplying them is not only risky but comes at (very) high cost

In these cases too, 3D printing is a good option to consider as printing what is needed at the very moment it is needed is the optimum solution and ultimate postponement.

What is postponement?

In manufacturing and supply chain operations, postponement means delaying the completion of a product or packaging products until a signal assigns specific customer or destination. This is useful when many variants would lead to possible misallocation if the completion would be based on forecasts.

Put simpler, postponement delays a decision until what is expected is clearly specified. The reason is most of transformation step in a process modify the product in such manner that returning to previous state is impossible.

Example: if you cut a piece of fabric to make a handkerchief, it cannot be returned to a piece of fabric for a trousers’ leg. (except it was a huge handkerchief or tiny trousers)

Materials usually lose flexibility along the transformation process. Once transformed there is no stepping back.

Postponement is used to delay the completion or manufacturing until a differentiation point from which the item loses its flexibility (e.g. pack in white box and add customized label latter).

Because postponement and later completion is no realistic option for our vessels or space base, they must embark spare parts for all possible cases, but under constraint of volume and in some cases weight.

The embarked mix is a set of items based on forecasts and tradeoffs about what could possibly happen and what is most likely needed, still carrying the frightening risk that what will really be needed will not be included in the cargo.

Printing at will

Now if you can trade the same finite volume and mass of many different spare parts selected through complicated statistical computation for a 3D printer and raw printer material, the risk drops to almost none as any required part (as long as material is suitable) can be printed when required, and even customized to some unexpected specification change.

This is why NASA, the navy or some private companies consider to embark 3D printers and train staff in order for the unit to be independent from its supply base for a longer period.


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Benchmarking is only trouble!

It happens periodically. When managers are faced with improvement challenge, they ask for benchmarks. Not because they’re eager to take it on competition but to check if by chance they’re not already better or at least good enough, thus escape the challenge.

And this is only the beginning with trouble about Benchmarking.


It is legitimate to measure one’s performance against a standard – and it makes sense to measure relatively to the best, not the average or the worst – and to define a strategy according to the gap.

The problem is once benchmark data are given, people generally get shocked by the amplitude of the gap and start to argue about the figures, content, calculation, conditions and a long list of other items in order to demonstrate the benchmark cannot be taken as a reference for them/ the organization.

All energy is wasted to reject the evidence instead of trying to fill the gap or even challenge to leap ahead of competition.

The second kind of common problem is that benchmark is often understood as a target. But being just as good as the best is limiting the ambition to being a follower, a me-too, a substitute. Is this really what the organization’s management wants?

Besides, all the efforts paid to catch up with the best can be ruined if the leader moves further ahead.

We can assume the leader has some reserves the challenger may not have anymore or never had first hand.

Benchmark is therefore only a reference, not a target. The organization’s target should go beyond the benchmark and the way to achieve it should (probably) be different than the leader’s.

Third problem is that finding relevant benchmarking data is sometimes difficult, impossible or out of reach.

Some people/organizations may grant access to some data but refuse to give any details, pretending they are proprietary.

Some people/organizations don’t hesitate to invent such data and generally do not share details which might uncover the trick.

The problem within this problem is that data may be real and accurate, but refusing to share details – what can be understandable for the sake of data protection – leads immediately to distrust:

  • are data trustworthy?
  • what methodology was used?
  • are data relevant, accurate?
  • and so on.

Fourth problem is that top management is generally pleased with the revealed potential. Closing the gap with the leader means more sales, more profit, more productivity, less waste, less costs, etc.

How-to is not top management’s concern, that’s why middle management is often puzzled with the objectives assigned after the “big” strategy consultants made their recommendations based on benchmarks. Squeeze out 25% more productivity or boost sales 20% is easier set (sic) than done.

Middle management tend to react as described in the beginning of this post, with shock and denial.

But here I think the problem is not about trustworthiness of data. Even so figures are just fantasy, the assigned objectives are to be taken for what they are: objectives.

The proper reaction of all the organization should therefore be to find a way to achieve them. It probably will require to think outside the box, be creative, search for breakthroughs.

Doing so will most probably help the organization to leap forward, maybe even beyond the goal.

Alas, the latter is seldom seen and it takes a lot of energy to explain this challenge to scared managers.

Therefore, from my experience, benchmarking is only trouble!

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Future of Lean and additive manufacturing

In a previous post titled “How much non-added value additive manufacturing can take out of actual processes?” my prospective thinking was all about technological disruptions and the impact on companies.

The same question is valid for the future of Lean. If as I assume much of the non-added value can be taken out of actual processes by additive manufacturing, what will be left for lean practitioners to work on?

Whole processes could be reduced to 3D printers or equivalent*, taking out lots of costs and non-value added. But what may be really shocking in near future could be to reconsider what we assumed being added-value in traditional manufacturing, e.g. cutting away material by lathing, milling, etc.

*3D printers stand here for a generic expression for additive manufacturing techniques and machines. 3D printers are already well-known from the public, therefore it makes it easier at present time to refer to additive manufacturing as 3D printing.

These processes transformed raw material in something of higher value, but at expense of a lot of energy, capital and material, like shavings, for example.

With the new perspective of additive manufacturing techniques, raw material will be used in just necessary quantity, most of the energy will really be used to “add” value and almost all of the manufacturing cycle time will be added value time.

Even the non-added value that cannot be suppressed – a former colleague of mine positively calls it “value enabling” – like all the fragmentation of the process between different techniques/machines, hand-offs, transfer, wip, etc. may simply disappear or at least seriously shrink.

Value Streams will become shorter and efficient, some Value Stream Maps limited to the order input and 3D printer!

While today about 2% of the lead time is usually added value, in near future it could soar up to 80% or more!

Future of Lean, Lean in the future, what is your point of view?

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Lean in digital age: sensors and data

In near future, technology and especially connected objects – smart things stuffed with sensors and so-called wearable devices – will supercharge Lean improvements.

One example of such already used device is given in a Mark Graban podcast about Hand Hygiene & Patient Safety. In this podcast (Episode #205), Mark’s guest Joe Schnur, VP Business Development at Intelligent M, explains how his wearable solution called smart band, (see video below) helps gather huge amount of accurate data compared to human observer with a clipboard.

You may listen to the whole podcast or skip to 13:30 and more specifically to 15:00 to hear about the wearable smart band, 21:50 about the data gathering.

Human observer has its limitations as to what information he/she can catch and how accurately it can be done. Think about fast events occurring often and/or tasks not easy to watch because of the layout. Human observations are therefore often limited to ticks on a pre-formated check sheet.

As human observers are high cost (compared to newer technology), they are used in limited number, during limited time and usually with sampling techniques.

Appropriate technology can gather many data for a single event: temperature, motions, duration, acceleration, applied force and what ever embedded sensors are designed for. These devices capture everything of each event, not only samples.

The cost per data point is obviously in favor of technology, not only because of quantity of data but also its quality (read accuracy). In near future the cost of these technologies will further drop, making automatic data collection available almost for free.

The mass of data captured allows using big data techniques, even so data scientists may smile at the “big” in this specific case. Nevertheless, with more smart objects and sensors everywhere (Internet of Things, Smart factories, etc.), the flood of data will grow really big and allow process mining, correlation search on a huge sets of parameters and more.

I am convinced that in near future, most of Value Stream Maps will be generated automatically and updated real time by such kind of devices/data sets, with ability to zoom in on details or zoom out for a broader view at will, and more.

The same systems will be able to pre-analyze and dynamically spot bottlenecks and sub-optimized parts in the process, make suggestions for improvements if not corrections by themselves.

  • Artificial intelligence with machine learning ability will suggest improvements based on scenarios stored in their literally infinite memory or on their predictions about potential problems.
  • The Internet of Things (IoT) will be made by objects communicating and interacting with each other.

What is likely to come are intelligent monitoring systems for any process, that build and maintain themselves, hence smart factories.

So, when Lean goes digital to that point, what will be left to humans?

This is a topic for a next post and an opportunity for you to give your opinion in a comment.

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You may also be interested by my series about What jobs in the factory of the future?

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Tales from the Pyramid – the hole in the pyramid

No senior manager ever denied his/her organization does not suffer a hole in the pyramid. I coined this expression (originally in French) after seeing it in all companies I visited as a consultant.

Pyramid with a hole

The hole in the pyramid is a management vacuum left by middle managers who do not (fully) take over their management role. Most often those managers:

  • are former lower level employees promoted to management, e.g. best worker promoted team leader, foreman or even production manager, or technical expert
  • promoted to manager, e.g. R&D or production engineer promoted to department manager, etc.
  • didn’t get any training or coaching about management, had to self-teach mostly by trial-and-error
  • are proud of their promotion and happy about compensation and benefits
  • are awkward and uneasy about management and leave it (to others) whenever possible
  • hide in paperwork, reports, and Excel sheets, behind computer screens in remote offices
  • are source of resentment from both their boss and subordinates.

Their boss cannot rely on them and often have to substitute themselves for them. The subordinates and often former same-level colleagues will not get fair treatment or decisions nor support in execution.

>Lisez-moi en français

The promoted manager inclines either to take the hard way to wipeout former friendship, the soft way trying to please everyone or no way at all, trying to push (unpleasant) decisions up to his/her boss.

Lego_022aSome of them cannot switch to management and incline to return to operational tasks whenever possible instead. This is common among maintenance staff.

Others go an opposite way and refuse any task not compatible with their new status. Working all day behind a computer screen is a symbol of the busy manager, so no way to spend time on shopfloor or take care about the team. Of course this is a personal and convenient interpretation of management’s status.

The problem top management suffers from is the fact the hole in the pyramid is virtual: positions are manned but job isn’t done.

Top managers most often have to step-in, substitute themselves for lower position. Doing so distracts valuable and limited time for tasks which are not theirs and lack time to fulfill the tasks they’re paid for. I use to say they get pulled down.

Victims and guilty

To my surprise, every time I describe a situation in such terms to managers, they heartily agree, all too happy to find an empathetic consultant understanding their daily suffering.

Well, only until they hear the rest of my discourse.

The top managers are, in my point of view, victims and guilty. Their guilt is not to coach and develop their subordinates in a way they get empowered and able to take over their job, including the unpleasant tasks.

Sometimes this is a source of power: letting others be dependant on the boss makes him/her indispensable. In the long term though, this can cost the boss the next promotion as he/she is indispensable where he/she currently is.

Sometimes it is simply the weakness not to take time to coach, pretending to do it faster or better instead. I know, I behave in such manner myself sometimes in the past. I must confess that letting subordinates pull you down can be pleasant: easier tasks give a rest from boring, challenging or delicate higher level tasks.

But this is not what is awaited from high ranking managers.

Mending the hole

What to do with the hole? The answer of course depends on the specific situation, but giving a chance to the person holding the position is a good start:

  • having a face to face discussion about the requirements, the mutual expectations, the gap and how to close the gap
  • give the manager coaching, training if necessary
  • set objectives the SMART way and monitor results
  • discuss the results and seek consensus about the next step
  • if no consensus in sight, the boss is the boss

Sometimes efforts are useless, it is the wrong person for the job.

I remember several cases in which the head of department was the wrong person and obviously suffering from the situation. The proposal to return the person in his/her expertise, excellence or comfort zone, usually the previous position was welcome and the story ended reasonably well.
In some other cases there was no other option than sacking.

The hole has to be mended with new recruitment.

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Tales from the Pyramid – What versus how

Newly promoted team leaders or even managers do not always know how to behave in their new role, especially those climbing up the ladder from operations and technical backgrounds.

What these new managers do not always understand is the sudden switch from orders to carry out to empowerment with more autonomy and decisions to take.

What versus how

The lower the position in the hierarchical pyramid, the more job execution is dictated. Procedures, instructions, work guides, worksheets detail the “how” to do, in what order, with what means and so on, letting little freedom to do differently.
This is particularly true in industry with high standardization.

Lego_018aWhat can appear as fearsome alienation is often a cozy non-commitment execution role, depleted from any responsibility and further stress. As long as you stick to the instructions, as stupid as they may be, you are safe from reproaches.

Conversely, the higher to the top of the hierarchical pyramid, the more autonomy is granted, with increasing demand about engagement and self-management. higher positions are given goals and objectives, the “what” to achieve, without specifying how. The choice of “how” is left to the discretion of the subordinates.

Thus the former line leaders, technicians or skilled workers, used to receive and to execute instructions are often somewhat confused when making their leap onto managerial functions.

They are now in charge and must learn to translate the “what” they are assigned into “how” to their own subordinates. Of course, most of the time the transition is sharp-edged, there is seldom training or coaching to help the newly promoted to find ways into their new role.

Digging the hole into the pyramid

Some find their way by trial-and-error, a long and sometimes painful process with former pals being the less forgiving in case of error.

Some may regret their former comfort of mindless execution and some never really embrace their new role. The latter fill the ranks of the “good workers gone poor managers”.

Among them, many will fill their positions without delivering expecting results nor behaviors. They create what I call the hole in the pyramid.

But this is the next story.

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Should robots look human to be likeable?

I wonder why so many robots projects are based on human-like androids. The human body is a great system with some mechanical complexity, but also many limitations. Thus, copying the human body for robots may end up in sub-optimized and over complex systems.

I assume the idea about having robots around us as cybernetic domestic servants, pets or caretakers in near future is scary, therefore scientists and inventors try to give their machines a more familiar look.

But should robots look human to be likeable?

Lego’s interpretation of R2D2 and C3PO

Remembering the Star Wars droids, the android C3PO looks somewhat human, is knowledgeable about many things but clumsy. R2D2 looks more like an industrial vacuum cleaner or an oversized can, but so smart and effective.

Both are likeable despite their respective looks, talents and limitations.

Another example is the couple made of Wall-e and his gynoid-friend Eve. The first is believed to be male and looks like a cubic panzer with binocular periscope while Eve is identified as female (not only by her name) despite her far lesser sensitivity than Wall-e.

Again, these two are likeable, and whatever happens to any of the four, good or bad, moves us. The human-like look of a robot does not seem to be very influencing their likeability.

About the authorIf you have an idea why so many robot projects go for androids, feel free to share in a comment!

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VSM Pitfall: unnecessary process

Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is probably the main analysis tool and the most used in the lean toolbox. Easy to understand and handle, VSM is the starting point of improvement workshops and kaizen events. It helps focusing on wastes and improvement potentials in any process.

The ease of use and popularity of VSM make them flourish on shop floor. What seems good news for continuous improvement at first glance may not be all that positive.

> Lisez-moi en français

Remember: while improvement opportunities are literally infinite in any environment, resources are always limited: time, availability, means…

Therefore, before rushing into Value Stream Mapping, it is necessary to focus on chosen areas and topics in order to make meaningful improvements and avoid wasting limited resources.

The worst waste would be to Value Stream Map a useless process, which would mean Map, analyze and improve a process that should be eliminated in first place.

This happens more frequently than one would think.

Countermeasures to problems and the 3% devious

Many existing processes in an organization are countermeasures and responses to problems. These problems were eventually solved once, but the process is still in place.

Should one therefore seek to optimize it or can wouldn’t it make sense to eliminate it altogether?

In the absence of statistical data on the occurrence of the problem, which is the most common case, the answer is tricky. Moreover, advocates of the process will argue that it is precisely because the process is in place no problem reappeared.

If these problems still show up in a low occurrence, are the costs of maintaining a process to prevent, resolve or dampen them consistent regarding the effects of these problems?

If not, all things being equal, isn’t it better to eliminate this process and support the relative lower cost of infrequent problems?

Finally, if the recurrence of problems is frequent, the process does not work and the right question is less about optimizing it than to invest in eradicating the problem.

An order of magnitude, probably more symbolic than real, is the management of 3%, a term due to Gordon Forward, former CEO of Chaparral Steel, which means the countermeasures in place are there for 3% of employees with deviant behavior, which penalizes 97 % of those keeping to the rules.

If a process exists because of 3% of the employees, it hides a management problem.

Should one therefore seek to improve such process?

Would it not be better, before drawing a single VSM line, to question if not simply eliminate this process?

Lack of coordination and strategic alignment

The second case is that of companies / organizations / corporations which do not coordinate lean initiatives, let shop floor / operations take local initiatives.

People in these lower levels reason and act according to their perceptions, they do not have the necessary global view nor the “zoom-out” to embrace the situation as a whole and see the uselessness of the process. They lack a kind of VSM of VSMs.

I remember at least two cases, industrial groups whose central lean offices asked the subsidiaries to run pilot improvement workshops on a process of their choice. Each workshop was required to start with a Value Stream Map.

In both cases, central lean offices had no strategy nor global plan. By default, they launched local bottom-up initiatives and assumed the people involved to get self convinced by the power and usefulness (read necessity) of a Lean transformation.

The potential problem with this approach is the risk to encourage enthusiastic launches but later put local initiatives on hold, possibly discard the improvements and order to redo on an other process, for the sake of alignment to strategic objectives or global coordination.

One can imagine all the frustration and loss of confidence of local actors if this should happen. They worked on improvements, accepted to change the way to achieve their tasks and possibly saw real improvements before a remote authority orders to stop and redo something else.

Not only all  resources used in pilot workshops would have been wasted – even so it can be called investment in training – but the credibility and sustainability of such approach would surely be impaired. It certainly will be difficult to motivate again these people for another workshop.

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Five good reasons to gemba walk

1. See what changed

Manufacturing shop floor or administrative processes are like gardens: things develop by themselves, not always the way it was expected.

If you have a garden or even a pot with a plant, you may have experienced that regardless to the effort you pay to grow something, it does not always grow the way you expected or something else grew instead.

It is the same in operations, despite procedures, rules and reports, what was intended often develops in some deviant way or does not develop at all. It is like discovering weeds that grew stealthy while expecting the desired flowers or vegetables to bloom.

Just as some weeds can grow overnight, some small deviations can affect processes. Only by frequent visits can these deviations be noticed before they develop into a major problem.

Staff on the shop floor and directly involved may not notice such deviations. They may lay out of staff focus or are often “solutions” to bypass difficulties or problems. In the second case, staff took a decision without full knowledge or without assessing all the possible negative side effects.

A manager in his gemba walk may notice the deviation and with his broader point of view, understand the potential trouble.

It is not that a manager / executive has an inborn ability to see such things, but having lesser detailed knowledge than shop floor’s subject matter experts, he/she may wonder and ask about things staff involved do not pay attention to any longer. Most often, deviations are discovered because someone asked a question about an odd thing he/she could not understand.

If the gemba walk is not frequent enough, the deviation may remain unnoticed long enough to develop as a real problem, while frequent tours may help sighting such potential problem before they actually become one.

Like a frequent visited garden is better tended than one which looks neglected with all the weeds that grew high and strong amidst the flowers, processes and shop floors reflect the attention management pays.

2. Stay connected

Managers and executives are not expected to know every detail of operations, yet frequent gemba walks help them to keep knowledgeable about most important things and keep an overview.

I feel embarrassed for a manager each time he/she must ask someone else to get the answer to my (consultant) questions. The questions I ask are related to the persons’ position. If they cannot answer it’s because most of the time they’re not connected.

Of course this is an evidence of some management flaw and a good reason to dig deeper in my assessments.

Sometimes the span of responsibility is so wide that a single person cannot be knowledgeable and the question is obviously for another staff member. Most of the time though, the manager cannot answer because of his/her disconnect with operations.

A periodical gemba walk maintains the link and keeps manager connected with the reality, even so not in the nitty-gritty details.

3. Make sure staff follows you

Management too often issue their instructions during a short meeting or via mail, procedure and take for granted the staff will carry out the instructions like a disciplined line of command in the army.

Alas, employees seldom stick to this old fashioned way of working and “orders” are not automatically carried out, or not exactly the way it was expected.

Remaining cut off with the staff in a remote office can lead to some nasty surprises when objectives are not achieved and no in-between check was performed.

>Read my Tales from the Pyramid post series about this

Staff may also not follow the instructions because of some misunderstanding.

In any case, a gemba walk can make sure staff follows instructions properly and timely.

4. Walk the talk

Almost all managers are good about the talk. They’re used to present the way processes work, how operations are carried out and how value is flowing. But most of the time managers repeat what procedures and quality system require.

It happens that the walk after the talk shows a different story and when it happens, it’s embarrassing for management. Nobody believes the too often heard excuse: “usually it’s not like this”. It only adds to the poor impression and the embarrassment.

Periodical gemba walks help managers for the talk and identify what to improve so that the walking the talk reflects the reality.

5. Pay respect

A gemba walk is not (only) an inspection tour. It is a way to show interest to people carrying out the tasks necessary to company’s success. Those in turn are usually proud about their achievements and like to see management caring about them.

A gemba walk is an opportunity to check if everything needed for their job is available, usable, etc. as the resources there are important for company’s success.

A gemba walk is also an opportunity to show the lower level staff they are important.

A sincere good morning can make a person’s day. Asking a question about a process step and true listening can make a person proud to explain the ins-and-outs and motivate him/her.


Management is easily trapped in the ivory tower. Many decisions and problems to solve are brought to its remote place and if managers do not pay attention, they get disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday shop floor life.

A periodical – short – gemba walk is a good preventive action with many positive side effects.

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