Management attention as a constraint – Part 1

A system’s constraint, the limiting factor that is an obstacle to getting more Goal units* from the system, can be pretty difficult to identify (hence the success of my post on the topic: How to identify a constraint?!).

*”Goal units” can be money, profit, services to citizens, number of patients treated, free meals served, or whatever the organization delivers to achieve its Goal.

The Theory of Constraints community discusses the management attention as a constraint for a long time now and Goldratt himself called management attention the ultimate constraint (the one remaining when all others have been elevated). My own experience convinced me that management attention can indeed be a constraint for the whole system, from the beginning.

Misaligned organization

Striving to achieve the organization’s Goal is management’s sacred mission and it is management’s duty to align the efforts of their subordinates to achieve that objective. Lean Management uses the “True North” metaphor and Hoshin Kanri or Policy Deployment to achieve it. The Logical Thinking Process calls it the Goal and have the Goal Tree as a roadmap and benchmark. Both approaches and their tool sets can be combined.

Now too often management does not clearly communicate about the Goal neither ensure their staff’s energy and initiatives are well oriented towards achieving the Goal.

Surprisingly, some senior managers are not clear among themselves what the organization’s Goal is. Bill Dettmer published a paper on such an experience with a crowd of executives and almost as many Goals as people! The paper is downloadable at http://www.goalsys.com/books/documents/WhatisOurGoal-v5_000.pdf

Management’s attention is on something else, but not on the main objective.

When this happens, scarce resources are often wasted for meaningless purposes, on the wrong things. The longer this goes on, the stronger the evidence that management attention isn’t focused, for whatever reasons, on what really matters.

Chances are that middle managers lacking a clear stated and often reminded Goal define their own objectives for the need of guidance.

Self defined objectives

When subordinates define their own objectives because they have no “True North” to align their own and/or their staff’s work, they may define these objectives to fit their own purpose, their own views or to optimize their department’s performance. Doing so, the probability is high that the self defined objectives will be in conflict with another department’s objectives and at the expenses of the overall organization performance.

Myths and false assumptions

Lack of clear communication about the Goal and lax management may let myths and false assumptions flourish. Most often, myths and false assumptions are the result of lack of clarity, misunderstanding or overinterpretation of some “strategic intent” or senior management statements.

Management attention must foremost be on clarity of purpose, second on the alignment of all actions towards achieving the Goal. With constant attention and frequent repetition about the Goal and checking the progress towards it, deviations as well as false assumptions and misunderstandings can be detected and corrected.

Lax management

Many people have been promoted to management positions even so they lacked the necessary soft skills. Some because it was a reward for past dedication and good job, others because they were technically good and the assumption was they would also be good at managing others. The latter often does not happen.

Unfit for their position, uneasy especially when taking command over former colleagues, lacking the charisma and know-how, many hide themselves behind computers screens or in meetings and shun contact with their subordinates. Management attention is purposely not on what matters because of a form of cowardice, or to put it softer, because of uneasiness.

In order to keep social peace, middle management (at least in France) often tries to avoid frontal assault against deviant behaviors, absenteeism, poor performance and sub-standard achievement.

The situation is often paradoxical between the pressure from above to achieve the objectives and at the same time the strong recommendation not to mess up with work force to avoid social unrest, that middle management is torn between conflicting objectives.

This probably led to management positions popularity to sink to an abyssal low. The younger generations don’t want management jobs anymore.

Additionally, the new generations and their ways of teaming up, networking and work around obstacles. They have no interest in traditional management. They don’t want that kind of job and do not pay the same respect to rank like previous generations did. For them and growing part of the workforce, leadership is more important than status.

All this lead many middle managers to compromise and get lax in their management or give it up for good. Management positions are now harder to man as this kind of job lost much consideration.

Therefore, even if those managers know well about the Goal they should work to achieve, their ability or personal lax attitude does not transmit the necessary energy or inputs to their teams.

Next: Management attention as a constraint – Part 2

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

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Katacon Europe 2018

Many months ago I was approached by the European Katacon organizers to help setting up the 2018 conference. Katacon is about kata, the Toyota Kata revealed to the mass by Mike Rother in the book… Toyota Kata. It’s about patterns of thinking and behaviour to improve and solve problems.

I modestly offered my website, blogs and networks as sounding boards to the event, not able to do much more. Now time has come to advertise the coming event!

Katacon Europe 2018, where and when?

Amsterdam will be the location, more specifically B. Amsterdam, a creative work space bridging startups, creatives, and corporates. (http://b-buildingbusiness.com/amsterdam/)  located Johan Huizingalaan 763a, 1066 VH Amsterdam.

The date is April 18 & 19, 2018 with a preconference afternoon and a Kata geek meeting for early comers to network.

The program is detailed here: http://www.katacon2018.eu/day1.php

What’s offered to participants?

If you go through the program, you’ll see that DAY ONE, besides welcoming and opening speech has 4 mini keynotes on Improvement Kata, before participants spread into study visits or workshops of their choice. Everybody meets again for the networking diner at 19:00 (7 pm).

DAY TWO starts with plenary sessions: reflection from day one, Finding new ways to learn and a testimony about Toyota senseis’ mentoring and comparing Kata with a professional sports coach. By 11:00 it will be time to breakout into various sessions to select (chose twice 1 in 5)  and plenary sessions will resume from 15:30-17:00.

Registration: http://www.katacon2018.eu/registration.php

I hope you’ll find a lot of value and have fun!

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

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Are the 5S the first steps to SMED?

This is a classical debate among Lean newbees and even among specialists: are the 5S the first steps to SMED or not? As so often there is more than just a binary choice.

Yes, 5S are the first steps to SMED

Let’s start with the pros. The 5S are a good way to restore basic conditions enabling efficient and safe work in a “legible” environment, where the clutter is taken away and everything is made simpler and visual.

5S do not only get rid of the clutter but require to fix broken equipment, replace worn out tools, overhaul machinery… 5S define rules for sharing common hand tools, locate items, make the current condition immediately visible and from far away.

The very example of this is the shadow board outlining the tool’s shapes. When a tool is missing or hung on the bad location, it can be spotted from a distance, saving the walking to the board to discover the needed tool is not available or out-of-order.

This works with document files, with the famous slant line across the file’s back. Any missing or ill-positioned file breaks the line.

5S will save a lot of time searching for tools, fixtures, documents and avoid mismatching the different versions. 5S rules are defined by the area workers themselves. They are regarded as Subject Matter Experts and the decision of how work environment should look like is delegated to them. With some limits though; 5S rules can never trump safety and health regulation rules, for example.

5S are especially recommended when trying to reduce the changeover duration with SMED.

When trying to reduce all wasted time when changing from one production batch to the next or from one production series to the next, searching for tools, jigs, fixtures, documents, parts, material, etc. is no option.

Prior good 5S help a lot smoothing the changeover operations and significantly reduce the waste of time.

5S are easy in appearance, but hard to sustain. Therefore I respectfully consider them as a school of rigor and discipline. If an organization is not capable to bring its operations and supporting departments to a high level of 5S maturity and sustain it, chances are that introducing more demanding and more complex tools and methods will fail.

That’s why I agree, 5S are the first steps to SMED.

No, 5S are NOT ALWAYS the first steps to SMED

When an organization is in the “burning platform” state, meaning quick action is required to fix a major problem, restore customer service, or bring back a decent performance level, starting with a 5S program deployment is probably not the best option. This would look like arranging the chairs on the sinking Titanic, or in plain language: diverting precious time and resources focusing on the wrong objectives.

It might surprise newcomers to SMED, but two specialists having opposite opinions about starting a SMED program with or without 5S might be both right. The good choice is simply condition-related.

If more productive capacity is direly and urgently needed, 5S is not the best option to start with. “You don’t ask people to tidy up their workspace!” as one once angrily argued. And he’s right, but he didn’t consider other conditions than the ones he was familiar to.

If the main objective is to let operators learn about the Lean basics and hone their waste-spotting capabilities, 5S would be a good pick for a starter. It brings people to gradually understand the importance of rigor and discipline as well as to continuously improve the work environment and work execution itself.


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What is autonomous maintenance (TPM)?

Autonomous maintenance is one of the 8 Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) pillars, it aims to give both competence and responsibility for routine maintenance, such as cleaning, lubricating, and inspection to operators.

The aims and targeted benefits of autonomous maintenance

The ultimate goal of Total Productive Maintenance is to enhance machines’ effectiveness. TPM is a participative approach, involving all stakeholders and taking into account all aspects of maintenance. In order to achieve this goal, TPM is split in 8 pillars or topics. Autonomous maintenance is one of the 8 and is about simple mundane tasks, but having their importance nevertheless. The expected outcomes are:

  • Operators’ greater “ownership” of their equipment
  • Increased operators’ knowledge of their equipment
  • Ensuring equipment is well-cleaned and lubricated
  • Identification of emergent issues before they become serious failures
  • Freeing maintenance personnel for higher-level tasks

Operators’ ownership

Operator’s ownership of their equipment is meant to close the divide between Production and Maintenance in cases where the first claim “my job is to produce” and the second “my job is to repair”. This is mainly the case when production staff is incentivized on production output and maintenance is jealous about keeping its technical skills and prerogatives.

What happens then is that production operators do not usually care much about the equipment and machines they use and are prone to trespass speed limits, for example.

As they are not supposed to do anything about the machine breaking down, they soon find out that breakdowns are opportunities for an extra break, hence an extra smoke, one more coffee and so on.

As a result, machines stops last longer as they should: waiting for maintenance staff to come, discover the cause of the trouble, fix it, waiting for the operators to come back and resume production.

It can go the other way when production is strongly incentivized on units produced: any stoppage or breakdown jeopardizes the bonus and is immediately resented when maintenance doesn’t fix the problem fast enough.

What TPM is trying to do: give operators a sense of ownership of their equipment in order for them to take care, use it well, help maintenance technicians to find the causes of breakdowns by summarizing what happened before, and so on.

In order to achieve this, training must be delivered to both production and maintenance staff, focusing on the required cooperation for the sake of overall performance improvement. It will be a win-win cooperation: operators enriching their jobs with technical aspects and maintenance technicians being freed of low-qualification tasks for a better use of their real technical expertise. However, this must be done step by step.

Increasing operators’ knowledge of their equipment

Operator will use their equipment and machines correctly if they are trained not only for the use, but also a bit further into technical details. When operators have a basic understanding of how a machine works, they may be able to discover some causes of malfunction by themselves and give precious indication to maintenance team. With this focus, downtime can be reduced as maintenance does not have to go through a full investigation. If operators show interest and abilities, they may be trained further, to a point they can help maintenance with repairs, preventive maintenance tasks, adjustments, etc.

In my years as production manager with Yamaha, we brought teams of ladies to take care of the maintenance of automatic electronic components insertion machines. These ladies started as operators without any technical background, only feeding the machines. Step by step we trained them to take care of simple cleaning tasks, then adjustments, later exchanging more and more complicated mechanisms and finally be involved in major repairs.

Ensuring equipment is well-cleaned and lubricated

Before dreaming of repairing complex equipment, the journey starts with more mundane but important tasks: cleaning and lubrication.

But it’s more than that. Autonomous maintenance is about passing over  to operators the basic cleaning of the machines, lubricating and oiling, tightening of nuts and bolts, etc.

With these new tasks, operators will soon be able to take over daily inspection, diagnosis of potential problems and other actions that increase the productive life of machines or equipment. With appropriate prior training, of course.

Identification of emergent issues before they become serious failures

Cleaning and lubrication by operators is not a trick to reduce manpower costs by pushing tasks to lesser qualified people. On the contrary: TPM considers daily cleaning as an inspection and operators as subject matter experts. Indeed, operators using the machines and equipment daily are the best qualified detectors of early signs of problems. While cleaning they can detect: wear, unusual noises, vibrations, heat, smell, leakage, change of color, etc.

Using the machines frequently, they know best what is “as usual” and what is unusual. Someone hired only to clean and lubricate machines without using them would not be able to notice the forerunning signs of potential big trouble.

This daily inspection is key to reduce breakdowns by keeping the machine in good condition and by warning early – before breakdown – in order to remedy swiftly to unusual forerunning signs.

Freeing maintenance personnel for higher-level tasks

Putting skilled professionals in charge of challenges matching their expertise is certainly more attractive than asking them “to clean up other’s mess”, as maintenance staff frequently complain. Therefore the reluctance to train production operators for simple tasks and hand those over should not be a big deal for maintenance techs.

Production management should also see the opportunity to have better technical support for improvement and repairs, as skilled technicians are made more available. Of course, this comes at the expense of some daily minutes devoted to take care about machines instead of producing parts. In the long run, this should be a good deal, because less breakdowns, less scrap, fewer minor stops and faster changeovers thanks to technical improvements will pay back in productive capacity.

Finally, for production operators, the deal is to enrich their job with more technical content. For those immediately claiming acquisition of new skills deserve a pay raise, they should first consider that taking care of machines and equipment they are in charge is a basic expectation, not an extra requirement. Time will be given to do the daily maintenance routine. For operators it’s a shift of occupation content a few minutes a day.

Now this said, the question of a raise is to be considered in the context.

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

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Jim Womack’s hansei on where lean has failed

Lean leading figure Jim Womack posted a sincere and critical reflection (hansei) on where Lean has failed and why not to give up. I was impressed when reading it and it reinforced my respect and admiration for the author.

You can read the August 29th, 2017 post on planet lean (http://planet-lean.com/jim-womack-on-where-lean-has-failed-and-why-not-to-give-up)

>Lisez-moi en français

Jim Womack is someone to take seriously when he expresses himself about Lean, so when he posts an article titled “where lean has failed” it is probably not just a clickbait nor a questionable joke. Indeed, the critical reflection Jim shares is truly about failure from his point of view. And his point of view with regards to Lean is one that really matters.

Where lean has failed

The failure is, in Mr Womack’s opinion, manyfold:

  • It is the failure to get big organizations to transform themselves in a Lean way and have, at least, “another Toyota” emerging.
  • It is the failure to reverse offshoring, despite the rational proof that companies would be better off keeping operations close instead of trading labor costs for logistics and quality costs.
  • It is the failure to see disaffection among the workers and the growing acceptance of things as they are, without attempt to resist or change them in the Lean Community itself.

This hurts.

I am impressed by the courage to analyze and acknowledge that situation of someone who dedicated his life to promote Lean and share the knowledge. After all the enthusiasm, hype, hope and successes, this must be bitter.

Many people in Mr Womack’s position would deny the situation and keep going on, their ego not allowing them to acknowledge failure. Jim Womack not only has the courage to do it, but refuses to give up and want to avoid the “muda of denial about the situation”.

What I see from my narrower and European (mainly in France) perspective is consistent with Mr Womack’s analysis: the number of lean managers and continuous improvement champions soared in the last years but no company advertises or gets attention because of drastic improvement of its performances.

Furthermore, when called for assistance in companies, I am most of the time appalled by the (very) limited competences of the people in charge of Lean or operational excellence, a fact also reported by Karen Martin in a post on the Lean Edge https://www.theleanedge.org/256088-karen-martin-technical-proficiency-and-leadership-acumen-can-you-nail-the-problem-statement-first-time-right/

So yes, “doing Lean” is reduced to running small kaizen workshops here and there without consistency nor link to a strategic intent. It is merely about patching broken processes,solving local problems at best, or opportunistic muda hunting.

This keeps the additional layer of “Lean” bureaucracy busy and living easy with a lot of complacency about local qualitative results. Once a 5S workshop went through the first 3Ss, they’re done and feel “Lean” now. This is how Lean looks like too often.

No wonder the questions about “what’s next” or “is lean dead?” arise.

Considering Lean transformations, like many armchair generals giving strategic advice in hindsight, I would say that Jim Womack and people around him did well  addressing the diagonal of the 2×2 change matrix: promoting the “pot of gold”, metaphor for reward and benefits of the change, as well as warning about the “alligator”, symbol of the danger of the status quo. I remember well Jim recommending to have a burning platform or even create a crisis to get the change done.

This was the rationale promoting the change, the Lean transformation.

What could have been underestimated was the other, emotional diagonal of the matrix. Many of the decision makers are in love with their “mermaid”. By definition, a mermaid cannot leave the sea and therefore the decision makers stay put, close to the object of love and happy with the current situation. A happiness, they believe, they can enjoy ONLY in their current situation.

Maybe the decision makers are risk averse and see nothing else than the frightening perspective of the “crutches”, the metaphor for risks and big efforts. Indeed, many decision makers may jeopardize their actual position if they dare going for a disruptive transformation with unforeseeable results. Leading a Lean transformation requires leadership, courage, confidence and the necessary freedom to act.

Why not to give up

Despite this bleak picture, Jim Womack is not ready to give up nor let “the muda of defeatism” get in his way. If no other Toyota is likely to emerge, other success stories can be reported. Successes may be experienced in and with start-ups for example.

Acknowledging the limits of the actual Lean promotion and Lean methods training ways, mainly through workshops and workbooks, Jim calls for “thinking hard about more effective ways to pass lean knowledge along to the next generation”.

The last paragraph of Jim Womack’s post sounds like a firm resolution “to rethink the (Lean community) tactics, stick to its purpose, and better understand the challenges preventing it from staying on course”.

I encourage everyone to read the original post as well as to have a look on the comments.

Personal conclusion

It is a sad read, but I can only agree. I empathize with Jim Womack and again, I am impressed by his courage and humility.

Even if Lean loses its shine, I still measure what it brought – and still brings – to me. I think that true Lean-understanding people, once “infected”, will not get away from Lean Thinking. I will continue to promote and use everything Lean at personal and professional level, wherever and whenever it’s meaningful, which should be pretty often. Fashionable or not.

My personal belief is that Lean (Thinking) will keep lingering in operations, but the emphasis will probably shift upstreams to Product and Process Development. I also think that the irresistible wave of digitalization and all the news techs around smart factories will reshuffle the cards on how to plan, organize, drive and strive. All new opportunities to reinvent business and the philosophy, methods and tools that must come with.

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Is Lean dead?

Is Lean dead? is the provocative title of a podcast hosted by Mark Graban with guest Karen Martin. The question, the podcast description says, is “easy to discuss, but hard to answer”.

The reason Karen proposed to discuss this question is because of hearing and reading about “what’s next”, “is it time for something new?” and what seems to be a waiting for a “post-Lean” world.

There is an invitation to share thoughts about this, but instead of leaving a comment on Mark’s podcast-related post, I add my two cents here. I hope Mark and Karen won’t mind this piggybacking.

Some takeaways from the podcast

From 4:35 Karen frames the topic and from 6:05 she shares her thoughts, especially two reasons for the “what’s next?” question (rephrased by me):

  1. people don’t get great results from Lean and quit too early with the conclusion Lean doesn’t work
  2. the attention span, especially in business, is (very) short

By 19:45, Karen reminds the listeners that Lean is made of layers of quite “meaty” subjects and is made for constant learners. Yet Lean teaching programs cannot (?) do not go very deep into Lean beyond chosen tools. So it’s up to everyone to go for a never-ending learning journey. At 43:00 listeners get the wrap-up.

My thoughts on this

Ironically, the introduction of new methods and tools was once mocked as “the flavor of the month” with the preconceived belief that it won’t last. Now that Lean has demonstrated a longer lifespan than other management ways, it seems to be precisely too lasting in a time where  fashions come and go very quickly.

The methodologies life cycle

However long Lean is around now, it follows the same life cycle curve than others, made of a slow takeoff as long as long as no organization publicized extraordinary achievements with this approach or no book draw wider attention to it. Once the word spread, the methodology gets hype and many organizations and consultants go for it. After the hype spike, there is a loss of interest and a final plateau. In this later stage the methodology does not totally disappear but does not get the attention it once had.

In that regard, the methodologies life cycles look very much like Gartner’s hype cycle for technologies.

I started my career in the midst of Total Quality Management (TQM) hype, in the mid-1980s. Who aged less than 40 knows about TQM? It is still around in some form, like in the various ISO standards, but it does not get the excitement of the all the problem solving tools deployment TQM once had.

Similarly what happened to Total Productive Maintenance (TPM)? Parts of it is embedded in Lean and some companies keep TPM alive, but I barely hear anything about it anymore.

My friend and mentor Bill Dettmer witnessed the same phenomenon with Theory of Constraints. Not totally gone now, but barely known and not likely to get its fame back again. Six Sigma is said to be dead or is reduced to SIPOCs and DMAIC.

So maybe time has come for Lean to lose attention of the mass and remain a thing for true believers?

Quick wins and newcomers

The impatience about the post-Lean next thing can also come from the younger staff that did not experience the first attempts with Lean, when the organization was so inefficient that almost any structured tool deployment and kaizen events demonstrated significant quick wins. After a while and continuous sustained efforts, the remaining pockets of gains are few and hard/long to address. Newcomers experience Lean from hearsay or don’t notice anything about Lean because they are amidst of a more or less Lean environment. It’s just part of the scenery and nothing to get excited about.

Furthermore, many people have been repeatedly exposed to Lean methods and tools, have been involved in Lean workshops, kaizen events, sketched Value Stream Maps and identified wastes, sorted out, cleaned up and rearranged stuff 5S style. They share the feeling of being Lean, of being done with Lean.

The startup praise of failing fast and pivoting

My last thought about the possible fading of Lean is the growing influence of the startup movement and the praise of failing fast and pivoting. It keeps surprising me that failure can be praised, even so I understand the value of learning from failures. One Undesirable side Effect though may be the spreading of the belief that anything that does not work quickly is a failure – ok, we learned something – and it’s time to move on with something else.

Pivoting is getting away from an original idea that does not prove good fast enough and go for something else that can be 90 or 180 degrees from the original intent. What can make sense in a startup venture, stopping the experiment before the scarce resources are burnt up, may not be the suitable option where long commitment to cultural change and constant learning is required.

With allusion to Kahneman’s work, I think that for business there is a fast way and a slow one, and Lean is definitely a slow one.

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Jargon doesn’t make an expert

In a blog post I read the warning about candidates exaggerating their insight by using lot of jargon. It was about Lean Management. The author stated that when recruiting, mastering enough Lean vocabulary is important in order to catch candidates exaggerating their insight by using jargon. Any talented Lean manager can explain the same concepts without Lean management specific language, the author wrote, but inexperienced or unskillful interviewees may lean (pun intended?) on “concept-dropping.

Even so I agree with everything above, the heavy use of peculiar lingo is not specific to Lean and Lean “experts” are not even the worst.

>Lisez-moi en français

I remember a recent (July 2017) conference in which a speaker delivered a pretty convincing presentation about a somewhat uncommon approach we are familiar of. One of my colleagues, intrigued, went to see the speaker and asked him a question on a specific aspect only a true experienced expert could answer. This very question reminded the speaker of an important call he had to make and he vanished. He was indeed only “concept-dropping”.

Nothing really new. Molière, our most famous (French) playwright and actor (1622 – 1673) used to ridicule the physicians of his time in several of his works. Those experts were depicted as pompous and disputing in fantasy latin about this or that just to impress their audience or others fellow “experts” with fake erudition, while their patients usually were bleeding away.

In French slang, a “faisan” (pheasant) is a crook, a good-looking but stupid pretender. I used to hear fake experts being called “faisans”. Nice feathers, but that’s barely all.

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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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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.


Let’s assume that in the process below the improvement is a new setting at machine R1 and the effect can only be measured or assessed before the entrance of machine R6, it will take all the time for a sample to travel the whole process from R1 to R6, including the buffer between R2 and R3.

Industrial Process

Similar cases can be found in chemistry or biology when reactions need some time to happen, in curing or drying processes, 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.

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

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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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