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.

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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5 things to remember about 5S

I assume readers are aware about 5S. The 5S are a methodology when beginners discover them through a structured way of teaching. They hopefully turn into an approach for organizing the workplace, and eventually a philosophy for those embracing the 5S principles for guiding their personal behaviors.

Read more about Approach, philosophy or methodology

Here are 5 things to remember about 5S:

1 – 5S look easy but aren’t

5S look disappointingly simple. The traditional learning way takes the beginners through a 5-step implementation program, usually one step at a time.
This tutored and hands-on journey makes the 5S look really simple and that’s a good thing. Yet 5S’ difficulty is nothing technical nor about the principles (“all common sense”), but about getting people to think and behave differently. This is about change management.

2 – 5S are too important to be delegated to interns

If you agree with point number 1 and on the importance of 5S as a necessary foundation to build operational excellence, then you cannot delegate the 5S rollout to someone who is not fully part of the organization and not having the required authority and leadership. Considering 5S as a secondary chore and delegating it to an intern is one common management mistake about 5S.

3 – Forget about Return On Investment

5S are a basic Necessary Condition for providing an efficient and safe workplace, and from then on developing operational excellence. As such, 5S are not rolled out in search for ROI. The gains, hence ROI is pretty difficult to evaluate. How to valuate 20 square meters of warehouse freed from clutter or a better looking, clean and stainless workshop?
If the decision to go for 5S is a matter of ROI, this choice is as meaningful as deciding the ROI of brushing teeth or showering is worth it. By the way, 5S are considered “industrial hygiene”.

4 – You’ll be never done with 5S

Even an organization managed to have a full cycle of the 5S completed, it can’t claim it’s done. 5S are simply never-ending. First because it is so easy to slip back to old behaviors, to take it easy on discipline. Second because the conditions change over time and 5S rules and practices have to be adjusted. Newcomers may join and have to embrace 5S as well. They have to be trained, mentored and maybe they’ll bring in new ideas worth implementing.

5 – 5S is not about housekeeping

This is a common misconception about 5S: it’s not about housekeeping, constantly scrubbing and cleaning. 5S is about avoiding to clean and scrub, about getting smart and avoid spilling dirt and creating mess.Even cleaning and scrubbing might be necessary at the beginning, it is advised to find ways to avoid it quick because nobody likes those chores. So 5S is not about housekeeping, 5S are continuous improvement.

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Standing in the Ohno circle. And then?

Ohno circle is also known as “Taiichi Ohno’s Chalk Circle”, a circle drawn on the shop floor to materialize the observation point from where to learn to observe, see, analyze and understand.

The original method puts (commits?) the “disciple” in such a circle for extended time with instruction to watch and not leave the circle. After the time the master judged sufficient, he (would a lady-master do this to others?) will ask the disciple to tell what he/she have seen, of course expecting to feedback on something the master’s attention got caught.

I would probably never had impressed Ohno that way, nor would I have appreciated this kind of treatment. With such a vague assignment and a “creative brain”, my observation would probably have turned into a virtual mind stroll.

Getting a scolding afterwards for not having experienced an epiphany (e.i. the great revelation) while dreaming in my circle or for having dared stepping out of it would not have pleased me, at all.

As I never was never told to do it and never have done it this way, the reservations and benefits I express in this article are merely assumptions.

My reservations about the chalk circle

Holding a static position for observing and understand when there is no other reasons than the master’s saying so does not make sense.

Observation and understanding is certainly easier and more effective when observers can change point of view and ask questions.

Executing a task without knowing the purpose is not very motivating and just been told to “watch” without moving from the spot is not very respectful.

Hence my question: Couldn’t it be nothing else than a manager-humiliating exercise disguised as a master’s skill?

Being told to watch may lead to have too much to look at, especially when not familiar with the environment. Chalk circle promoters will answer that this is precisely what the exercise is meant for: get and overall impression then gradually become aware of things in foreground/background, what is normal and what is abnormal and eventually focus.

So far so good, but does a manager need such a constraint method and spend several hours to get a fair level of understanding? In the era of high speed and volatility, the understanding-to-time ratio does not make the chalk circle a method with reasonable ROI.

Lean Management has long promoted Gemba Walks, not Gemba Stands, where the motto is go see, ask why and show respect.

This way is probably far more effective than standing hours in a circle.

If it wasn’t the case, Lean gurus and the Lean community would have made it clear, long time ago.

Being convinced to have observations and analyzing skills and voluntarily spend time watching from a static standpoint may lead to erroneous conclusions, a risk easily mitigated when changing the vantage point and interacting with subject matter experts.

To me the chalk circle method looks outdated and rooted in asian master-to-disciple apprenticeship, no more fit for purpose in current times.

Benefits (Devil’s advocate)

Over the years and with more experience and wisdom, I’ve somewhat softened my first impression and could see some benefits about observing while “standing in a circle”.

There are some situations in which walking around freely to observe a situation and asking people questions is simply not possible.

In such cases, having developed ability to watch, analyze and understand is indeed a great asset. Think about my trade as a consultant during diagnostics or a buyer during a supplier’s assessment.

Organized factory tours are other instances with limited possibilities to move freely or get good answers to questions. Here again, the individual ability to observe and understand is a great asset as it will yield more information than the host is willing to share.

In some cases, the knowledge about something isn’t existing and there is noone to ask for explanations. I experienced this in a factory, facing a machine with unstable performances, in a noisy and space-limited location. Spending several hours in several sessions, taking data and observing the machine’s cycles helped me understand the kinematic and some of the malfunctions.

What to look for?

Alright, I have shared my cons and pros, now what can I recommend to look for when observing, in a circle or not?

  • Look for the sequence. In industrial production, in logistics or in services, what you’re looking at may be in some degree a repeatable process. What is the sequence? In what order are things done or do things happen?
  • Look for harmony. Mastered motions are seamless. Controlled processes are operating smoothly.
  • Count. Count the resources involved, the physical units moved, produced or consumed. Count the steps walked, the number of times one person have to stoop, to pick up the phone or turn to someone.
  • Estimate. If counting is not easy or impossible: estimate. Get a sense of duration, of time elapsed between two events.
  • Look for consistency. Do your counts or estimates repeat themselves sequence after sequence or do you see variations?
  • Look for disturbances. What/who is disrupting the flow? How frequent and how long is it?
  • Look for the bottleneck. Is some spot the accumulation point where flow is significantly slowed down? Why? Is it managed?
  • Search for the muri, mura and muda, the 3 evil doers from a Lean point of view. Muri and mura are lesser mentioned, so try to spot them first. Chances are muri and mura, if they exist, will induce some muda.

These are a few hints. The question list could go on endlessly. But if your observation exercise ends up with answers to most of these questions, it may have been worth the time spent.

Feel free to share your comments and experience.


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7 questions to help you reduce projects‘ duration

On one hand, in current competitive environment, time to market and speed to respond to customers’ needs is a Critical Success Factor, often more important than sales price.

On the other hand, projects templates used in companies have “grown fat” over time with an inflation of additional tasks, milestones and reviews, thus extending project’s’ duration.

>Lisez-moi en français

Why templates grew “fat”

Organizations dealing repeatedly with projects will soon develop templates of Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) holding the most current tasks and milestones. These canvasses speed up somewhat the project initiation and insure some degree of standardization.

Over time though, the copy-pasting from one project to the next, the addition of “improvements” and requirements as well as countermeasures to problems kind of inflate the templates and the projects. This in turn extends the project’s duration as every additional task not only adds its allocated time to completion, but also the safety margin(s) the doer and/or project manager will add on top.

Most of the countermeasures and special reviews were meant to be temporary, only for fixing specific problems. But hassle and lack of rigor soon let them in the next copy-paste template and over time their original purpose gets forgotten and those specific and temporary fixes end up being… standardized!

This is how loads of unnecessary tasks extend project duration without anyone noticing it.

In order to stick to delivering on due date, and in some extend reduce the project duration, Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) proposes some solutions. Yet those solutions mainly concentrate on a smarter use of the margins without challenging the value and necessity of the tasks themselves.

Therefore, reducing the margins and sharing the risks with a common project buffer, everything else remaining equal, the reduction of the total project duration is limited.

Now, combining CCPM with a Lean-inspired approach, projects can be shortened even more.

Challenging every task

The proposed approach is to scrutinize every task and investigate about its usefulness and its added value, as well as about the allocated resources to achieve it.

The idea is to get rid of unnecessary or low-value adding tasks cluttering the WBS and reduce the workload placed upon the scarcest and most expert resources, reduce the related costs and most of all reduce the time required for completing the whole project.

In a Lean Thinking way these kinds of tasks are wastes of resources and time and should be eliminated. If it’s not possible to eliminate them, is it at least possible to to reduce them to the bare minimum?

Here are 7 questions to help you surface these kind of resource drainers and waste generators in your WBS

1. Is this task really necessary? Why?

As soon as the purpose of one task is not obvious and cannot be simply demonstrated, some investigation is advised. Before rushing to the conclusion it useless and can be eliminated, one must verify that the outcome of this task is not required elsewhere in the project as an answer to some regulatory, standard or technical requirement.

The next question can help to answer this one.

2. What would happen if this task wouldn’t been completed?

A really useful task should answer a need. This one can be explicitly expressed in the requirements or in a procedure for example. It can also be implicit and naturally impose itself.

Most projects embed lots of reviews, gates and reporting points. These are resources and time drainer added by anxious project managers and customers. Yet not every project has very high stakes neither is jeopardized. What can make sense for a very sensitive project is not necessarily required for EVERY project.

What would happen if tasks and deliverables related to these reviews, gates and reporting would be omitted?
If a try shows nothing happens, it’s either an evidence of:

  • the no/low value
  • the lack of rigor in project management and follow-up
  • the lost sense of reviews as a management ritual

I remember a manager having put on hold projects for which project managers didn’t demand reports or reviews several weeks after voluntarily stopping to report progress.

It ultimately led to unclutter the project portfolio of several “nice-to-have” or “to-be-done-when-we-have-time” projects and free valuable capacity for sellable ones.

3. Who will benefit the outcome of the task?

In a well structured WBS no task should end “nowhere”. Who benefits from a task, usually the successor, should be directly readable in the WBS.If it isn’t the case, the value of a task as well as the robustness of the WBS must be challenged.

4. Is this task adding any value?

Value-Added is something the customer is willing to pay for. When assessing the value of a task, the right question is: can the outcome of this task be sold? Is anybody ready to pay for it?

An alternative in product, process or software development exists though, which is creating new, reusable knowledge (Lean Engineering/Lean Product and Process Development). This is considered a kind of investment.

If a task adds nothing worthy to a paying customer nor new knowledge to the company, it adds no value. To keep it or not sends back to question 1.

5. Does this task really require this resource? Why?

Once the task is assessed as useful, the next question is about the allocated resource.

One good practice is to allocate the lowest qualified resources to any task in order to save the more competent and expert resources, which are scarcer and thus more precious, from the mundane tasks that can be achieved by more common and cheaper resources.

If a task requires a scarce, expert resource, the next question is: how come?

Overburdening scarce and precious resources is one major reason for projects taking long time as the flushing of their tasks backlog requires the project managers to level the load, thus push back the completion of staggered tasks.

Many project managers compete to have the best resources allocated to their projects. Success and reliability attract attention and any project manager wants the best team in order to achieve his/her challenge. Always picking the same best ones ends up with overburdening them. Besides, not challenging the lower performers will not help them to improve.

6. Can it be done differently?

The alternate ways to consider here are both technical solutions as well as alternate resources.

  • Technically: can it be done differently so that the scarce bottleneck resource(s) is/are less required? Simpler solution may require less expert resource to implement it, for instance.
  • At the resource level, is it possible to delegate to a lesser constraint resource? Is it possible to subcontract?

These alternates should be considered for the sake of project’s duration reduction first, then for cost efficiency.

7. Must this task be done at that moment/stage of the project?

Some tasks have some degree of liberty with regards to when they must be fulfilled. Moving their relative place in the project structure may help limiting the overload and load levelling.

Wrapping up

Challenging necessity and contribution of all tasks in a project helps reveal those useless and of low added-value. Getting rid of them shortens the project’s duration accordingly, provided those task are on the Critical Chain.

This reservation is a hint about where to look first: the string of tasks on the Critical Chain.

The second benefit of this approach is to reduce the workload of the scarcest, most constrained resources, thus reducing the effect of load-leveling, hence project duration.

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Do not overlook spaghetti diagrams

What is a spaghetti diagrams (chart)?

A spaghetti chart or spaghetti diagram is the visual description of an actual flow, a snapshot of what a given flow really looks like, not how the procedures expect it to be.

The flow depicted is the path in space (usually through a factory, an office, a building, a campus, on the shopfloor, between machines…) a product, a part, a human or a file follows.

When tracing the flow on a paper, with scaled outlines of machines, desks, offices and so on, the document ends up showing a kind of (cooked) spaghetti plate, as the flow is seldom going in straight lines.

Each line is more or less the distance covered and consequently the time spent in motion or transportation, given the travel speed.

Some more about the basics of spaghetti diagrams >here<

Spaghetti diagram are pretty disappointing at first glance. They look like a toddler’s scribbling on a sheet of paper nearly worn out by the many lines. Onlookers aware that this is an actual flow may get discouraged to understand the chaos at once.


Yet it’s not enough to simply recognize that the flow is a mess and something has to be done about it. What can actually be done?

1. Question the flow

If the “spaghetti” (flow lines) are numbered – I would recommend to do it whenever possible – so that the timely sequence can be seen, search for loops and the flow going back and forth. Then question why these loops and returns occur.

A silly reason would be an employee keeping returning to a computer to check the next item from a list instead of carrying the list with him/her.

The reason behind each line (motion, transportation…) should be challenged in order to identify any unnecessary tasks and suppress them, or to find ways and means to reduce them in space and time if they can’t be suppressed.

2. Question the nodes

It’s common on spaghetti diagrams to see “nodes”, i.e. points where the flow joins to and gets away from, several times during the observation period. Such nodes can be a computer where to get information from or where to input data, an information desk, a kanban board, an elevator, a staircase, a crane, etc.

The first question to ask about nodes is why do they exist? If the answer does not lead to an improvement idea, question their location: is it well situated or does the location force the flow to come back and forth to it? if a relocation cannot significantly simplify the flow, can the “node” be duplicated and its clone wisely positioned in order to simplify the flow, reduce distances, etc.?

3. Reconsider layout

It was common in the past to have specialized shops where only one type of operation was done, e.g. lathing, milling, drilling, etc. This was convenient for accountants happy to have  homogeneous shops for easy cost calculation. Lean soon realized the wastes of transportation of parts to be processed between the shops, so flow lines were introduced. In some cases the flow is made unnecessarily complex because the machines are not well located. This is a variant of point 2 (where it’s easy and straightforward to duplicate inexpensive means), in which one must consider rational and optimized machines layout according to the path material or parts have to follow.

4. Consider choreography

According to Wikipedia, Choreography is the art or practice of designing sequences of movements of physical bodies. What I mean is combining the movements of two or more people in order to simplify and speed up the flow. This is usually interesting when motions are extended because someone has to work in front and in the back of some equipment and machine and needs to go around it frequently. By assigning people to front and others to back and synchronizing their activity, the overall duration of a cycle can be reduced. This is a common solution for quick changeovers on some production lines, cells or machines.

5. Consider crunching space

Extended routes i.e. long spaghetti can be caused by available space. Would bringing things together in a tighter space help to simplify flow and eliminate some of the wastes of motions and transportation?

This is one reason why U-shaped manufacturing cells appeared. They can be manned and supervised by less people, losing less time walking from one end to the other. The material flow is also shortened.

Besides, Leanness is correlated with compactness. Think about the relative need for lighting, cooling or heating, the cost of surface in rent or investment… Abundance of space usually attracts clutter and excess inventories, which ultimately can hinder flow.

Do not overlook spaghetti diagrams

As we have seen through these few examples, the mundane sketch can be of great help when analyzing the flow. It might not suffice by itself to solve all flow issues but can give a nice and easy head start.


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