What is Lean Coffee?

A Lean Coffee is a semi formal* meeting in which participants choose the topics they want to discuss, vote for the topics and then discuss the most voted topics during a limited time period. At the end of the ‘timebox’, the group decides to continue or switch to the next if they feel they got enough.

*by semi formal I mean the meeting is structured, but either agenda-less or very flexible about contents.

Lean coffee start is credited to Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith back in 2009 in Seattle.

Advantages of a Lean coffee

Traditional meetings are moderated in ‘push mode’: the organizer sets up an agenda and invites participants. Those may have different interests in attending the meeting, ranging from very high to almost none. Nevertheless it is often difficult to avoid attending even if interest is low and there is seldom a way to influence the content as an attendee.

In Lean coffees, the moderator ‘pulls’ the topics from the attendees, which gives everyone an opportunity to have his/her point of interest discussed. If a proposed topic does not get many votes, the attendance may not be the suitable one or the topic is indeed of no interest.
Another specific meeting may be organized or the topic left off the list.

Pulling the topics from the attendees is also a way to show respect and fight the eighth muda. Jim Benson states “When we invite people to meetings and give them a strong agenda up front, we are completely robbing ourselves of the wisdom the attendees would bring with.
In other words, Lean coffees trades passive listeners for active resources and knowledge sources. Attendees are not supposed to leave their brains at the door but bring them in and use them.

Lean coffees are time-boxed, which forces to keep focus on the subject. The participants get a feeling of greater intensity and effectiveness compared to traditional meetings.

Here is a selection of videos about Lean coffee.




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Autonomy, accountability and tunnel effect

One young employee told me “I don’t like my manager to ask me over and over again about the progress of my work. I like to get my objective and then be let on my own to achieve it, I’ll report when I’m done”.

Well I thought, you have never been project manager nor in charge of a team. You probably barely know anything about project management techniques and the difficulties to synchronize multiple outcomes, and probably voluntarily ignore the existence of dependencies between tasks for your own selfish comfort.

This kind of cocky open arrogance from someone without significant experience is not something a seasoned project manager will appreciate. Chances are that facing such a mindset, the manager will reinforce his/her control.

It is one thing to demand empowerment, autonomy and be willing to take accountability, it is another to give periodic feedback about the progress of a task or project.

What managers or project managers don’t like at all is the tunnel effect, a common metaphor in France and in project management parlance that describes the extended period during which, the customer and/or the project manager are left in the dark, without any clue about the progress of the job do be done.

At the end of the tunnel, when customers and/or project managers discover the results, chances are that the outcome is not satisfactory or can even endanger the whole project! Something that could have been prevented if there had been periodical feedback, assessment and realignment if required.

This is why software development went for methods insuring loops, scrums, instances during which the stakeholders can share the state of current development, mitigate the risks and even take into account late changes.

Giving periodic feedback is not only something to please customers and project managers, it is also something useful for colleagues and other stakeholders that are dependent on tasks or outputs. By getting feedback and insight, those stakeholders can adjust their own schedules and actions according to current progress.

Management at all levels is highly facilitated through shared visual management, like for example using a Fever Chart, a simple visual dashboard/indicator introduced by Critical Chain Project Management.

Therefore, even in organizations granting a large autonomy to their associates, there is no such a thing as getting an objective and returning to report when it’s achieved.

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Continuous Improvement: Prevent frustrations related to the S curve

When implementing some solutions, like in continuous improvement, project managers better take care about the frustrations related to the S curve.

S curve

S curve

The “S curve” is the shape of the performance curve over time. It describes a latency (t1) before the performance p1 takes off after the improvements have been implemented, then a more or less steep rise before stabilization at the new level of performance p2.

This latency time after the first improvements until improvements become noticeable has several possible causes and can pose different problems.

>Lisez-moi en français

The most trivial reason for a lack of significant effects after a while is that the solutions put in place do not produce the expected effects. It is therefore advised to estimate in advance, at the moment improvements are implemented, when the effects should be noticeable, in order to have an alert when the estimated time is elapsed.

Another trivial reason is a long cycle time. This may be the case with lengthy process of transformation, processing time or latency inherent to the process before the success of the operation can be judged. Typically, these are technical lead times, time required for chemical or biological transformation processes or “responsiveness” from third-party organizations, etc.

The delay may be due to the improvement process itself, which may require several steps such as initial training, implementation of the first improvements, measurement of their effects and time to analyze them.

Another reason, that may be coupled with the previous one, is Little’s law. It states that the lead time through an inventory or queue of work in progress (WIP) is equal to the value of this inventory divided by the average consumption. This means that if the improvement occurs at a point decoupled from the measurement point of its effectiveness by either inventory or WIP, the effect must first propagate through the queue before it can be detected. Everything else being kept equal.

Please note that this delayed improvement phenomenon or “S curve” described here in the context of continuous improvement can be found in the implementation of any project.

This discrepancy can be a problem for Top Management awaiting return on investment and wishing it as quick as possible. This is all the more true if the activity is highly competitive because an improvement can determine the competitiveness and/or profitability of a project, an offer or even of the whole organization.

It is therefore recommended that the project leader reminds the likeness or certainty of the S curve, even to the managers pretending to know it. Under pressure of business they tend to “forget” it.

The second problem with delayed effects concerns those closer to execution who expect some benefits from improvement, such as problem solving, elimination of irritants, better ergonomics, etc.

Assuming that the operational, shopfloor staff have been associated with the improvement, their frustration and their impatience to see changes is even more important. Without promptly demonstrating that “it works”, there is a significant risk of losing their fate, attention and motivation.

In order to prevent this, the project manager must choose intermediate objectives in short intervals in order to be able to communicate frequently on small successes.

The recommendation  is to look for a weekly interval and not exceed the month. The week represents a familiar time frame to operational staff, and the month being, in my opinion, the maximum limit. Beyond the month it usually becomes an abstraction and attention gets lost.

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Future of Lean: is a robotic motion a waste?

Motion and transportation count among the 7 basic muda or wastes, that should be eliminated or at least reduced to their bare minimum in order to be leaner.

Now, with the probable rise of robotics, will robotic motion (and transportation) still be considered a waste?

The Lean definition of waste is any consumption of resources, including time, that does not add value. Motion and transportation do not transform nor modify parts or products to something of greater value for customers.

If the transportation means or resources used to move parts or products change to high-tech solutions, the definition of waste remains valid. They may reduce the related time, the strain on human operators, be autonomous but whatever, moving or transporting something is still a (necessary) waste.

The same applies for robotic motions. Thanks to their multi axis construct, robots may be more efficient in motions than humans, thus reducing time, nevertheless, the motion remains a waste.

What about vacuum cleaning robot,robotic lawn mowers or autonomous vehicles?

These devices deliver a service a customer is ready to pay for: having a clean floor, a cut lawn or being transported somewhere. In the current state of technology, there is no way around a moving device.

I am not aware of self cleaning flooring and clean room solutions may not be affordable for households.

Motion and transportation are in those cases part of the value-adding process. That said, if the vacuum cleaner, lawn mower or autonomous car travels more than necessary for purpose, the excess motion/transportation is… a waste.

Any thoughts to share? Use the comments.


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OEE Rescue: OEE is composite and does not tell much per se

Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) is probably the most widespread and well-known among KPIs in industry, which does not mean that everyone likes it. OEE rescue is a series of posts that aim to balance the love-hate comments about this KPI as well as debunking some myths and misconceptions.

In this post: OEE is composite and does not tell much per se

Yes, OEE is composite. OEE is expressed in a single dimensionless value. It’s a ratio, a multiplication of 3 other ratios (availability, performance and quality).

Not familiar with OEE? Follow this link

What I immediately liked when I discovered OEE is the fact that multiplying 3 fractions leaves the result smaller than the smallest fraction, meaning it is a very aggressive and challenging KPI.

Any worsening of one of the 3 constituent will amplify the worsening of OEE, which in turn should trigger quick countermeasures to stop the KPI to plunge.

I do not agree OEE per se doesn’t tell much. The original intent, I assume, was to provide management with a single value in order to get an instant feeling about how the overall performance stands, as well as a convenient benchmark when comparing machines, lines, workshops or factories. And it does the job well..

This advantage of being synthetic is also a drawback as it is necessary to “disassemble” OEE to its components in order to understand which of the availability, performance or quality is the evildoer.

But again, I see here an interesting “constraint” for management: the head of department will review OEEs and get a broad feeling about how well the various lines or cells of his/her realm are doing. When intrigued or alarmed by a poor OEE, he/she will turn to the supervisor or line leader to get more information.

The latter needs to know more precisely what’s going on as it is his/her responsibility to keep OEE at best. This required dialog is, from my point a view, a good way to have management commit to interact in both directions: top-down and bottom-up.

I suspect that the managers not liking OEE struggle to drive and maintain theirs on the expected level. Instead of looking how to boost their OEEs, they probably prefer criticizing the concept.

It is one thing to display a quality rate of 93%, a machine availability of 90% and a performance rate of 95%, which at first glance look good, and another thing to report a OEE of 79.5% which is exactly the same (0.795=0.93×0.90×0.95), except for the perception.

Yes, OEE is humbling.

By the way, there are other KPIs that are composite like the On-Time-In-Full (OTIF). When OTIF is bad, is it the On-Time or the In-Full part that hurts? You don’t know until you dig deeper into the details. Would you dare replying to your furious customer measuring your performance with OTIF that this KPI is composite and does not tell much per se?

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The cobot controversy part 2

The new robots arrive, the humans remain

This post is a personal reflection about a statement of German Labor Union “IG Metall” posted on the union’s Website https://www.igmetall.de/robotik-tagung-2015-17975.htm titled “The new robots arrive, the humans remain(Published November 26th, 2015 and still online June 2017).

From the original article, in short

The article opens on this statement: “A new generation of lightweight robots comes into the factories. IG Metall sees more opportunities than threats. Provided that the human being plays the leading role in the cooperation with the new robots, IG Metall chairman Jörg Hofmann emphasized at the robotics conference in Berlin. The new robots come: smaller, lighter and closer to humans (collaborative robots, i.e. cobots). IG Metall wants to take advantage of the opportunities created by the increasing use of lightweight robots and new forms of cooperation between man and machine in industry.”

The tone is set. The union is not opposed to see increasingly installing robots near humans, neither the idea of collaboration between humans and cobots, provided the human keeps the upper hand.

The union recognizes the opportunities the robots bring in: reduction of human exposure to monotone or health-endangering work and creation of new, qualified activities. It mentions nothing about extending the employability of aging workers though, like other authors highlight as an additional benefit.

In order to develop a new kind of cooperation between man and machine, new forms of work have to be encouraged with expanded job profiles and possibilities for action for the employees. For this, other qualifications are certainly necessary than today” explained Hofmann on the occasion of the meeting before works councils and representatives from science and politics.

At the same time, however, it is necessary to prevent people from being marginalized in the “ballet of lightweight robots“.

Ballet, I assume, is to be understood here as the choreography of man and cobot working together. For example: the cobots grabs a part, moves and present it to the worker and while the cobot is holding it, the worker can work on it. Once the human cycle done, the cobot will take the part away and grab a new one for a new cycle.

“Under the assumption that the exploitation potentials of the new robot generation are actually exhausted and the human robot collaboration is co-designed by works councils and trade unions”.

I am not sure about the meaning of the “assumption” but it is clear that the union wants to have a say about the future human-robot collaboration.

The article goes on with a warning:  in future, manless factories are not an option. While the worker teaches the robot, literally guiding him by hand thanks to ease of use, makes it possible to give the employees a new role.

The use of the new robots also offers opportunities to improve competitiveness and secure employment,” says the IG Metall chairman. It is a matter of intelligently combining the use of people and machines, which means that labor costs are, in sum, lower, while qualification and ergonomics are at a higher level. Added value creation and employment can therefore remain in Germany.

Article analysis: understanding the vantage point

In order to fully get the (underlying) messages of the speech, some premises should be reminded:

  • Labor unions in Germany are reputed as consensus-driven as compared to the traditional French unions which are more hard-liners, opponents and politically-ideologically driven
  • The hype around robot, automation, big data, machine learning and so on is not likely to fade soon
  • The rise of the robot in manufacturing, in whatever shape and size they’ll come, is an accepted fact
  • Beyond a government supported program, Germany developed a brand: Industrie 4.0
  • If Germany would refrain developing and using robots, cobots, etc. for the sake of safekeeping human jobs, another competing nation would take advantage of it
  • The development of those technologies and Germany’s leadership is key to ensure a future for German high-tech manufacturing equipment makers
  • Labor unions are primarily seeking to protect and improve workers’ conditions and benefits
  • Labor union’s existence makes sense as long as there is (human) labor and the union’s power is a function of their members count
  • The speech was delivered during a meeting before works councils and representatives from science and politics (not business)
  • The speech is a mixture of showing openness and ambition to play a key role in defining rules and use cases altogether. In order to maintain the union’s acceptance about robots, some (limiting) conditions must be accepted by the robots promoters / employers: the human workers keep the upper hand, should not be driven out (maneless factories) neither marginalized by automation.

It is suggested that all the automation frees the human worker from dangerous and mundane tasks, improves ergonomics (working conditions at large) and provides opportunities to enrich the job content and raise workers’ qualifications.

Beyond the stance, wishful thinking?

Let’s switch to investors’ and industrial engineers’ point of view. There is no point in systematically letting the humans have the upper hand when it comes to automation. It probably will not give an organization a competitive advantage nor systematically improve the process.

In some cases, unmanned factories are an option from the point of view of optimal investment and operations, so why should it be a taboo?

Why should investors and engineers agree to let the (probable) weakest link in the process (humans) have the upper hand? And why, if not because of threat, would they let works councils and trade unions co-design new processes?

Accepting those limitations while competition will probably not is accepting to join a race with self-inflicted handicaps.

It makes sense in politically correct parlance and for trying to avoid new luddites smashing the expensive new technology in anger.

Personal conclusion

My personal conclusion is that unions see the threat of losing their power as the number of workers will plummet, thanks to new technologies. On the other hand, fighting against new technology would endanger Germany’s leadership in the machine-tool and manufacturing equipment, right during the Industrie 4.0 hype.

Losing the leadership to foreign makers could also lead to lose jobs, hence weaken the unions’ importance.

Unions need to show their subscribers that they care to protect their interest in this uncertain working future and no one would benefit from a new luddites uprising.

I assume the German union goes the Realpolitik way and tries to find an acceptable compromise.

Comments welcome.

You may also like: The cobot controversy – part 1

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