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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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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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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Doing wrong things much better

I sincerely believe that experimenting with Lean tools was key to spread Lean awareness, ease the principles and tools acceptance and contribute to the Lean popularity.

This was particularly okay in the “tools age”, when Lean was understood as a nice and handy toolbox.

Yet limited and non sustainable successes were hints that Lean could not be “just a toolbox”. Jim Womack, Dan Jones, John Shook and others decoded and explained Lean’s underlying philosophy, the craftsmanship making tools even more powerful, able to transform organizations, save companies and yield significant and sustainable results. So much more than tools.

Unfortunately very few people and organizations understood and embraced Lean Management. This leaves most of Lean tool users stick to their favorite tools, and like kids fascinated by the hammer still run around looking for nails to hit. Any nails.

Ironically the most “successful” organizations with Lean succeed to do wrong things much better.

“successful” here means seemingly good with implementing Lean tools, most probably scoring good on maturity or awareness checks, yet not getting full benefits of Lean in terms of true performance.

What do I mean with “doing wrong things much better”?

Take 5S. The workplaces are neat, clean, free from clutter and with lots of visual indications about where to put things, how to behave and so on. The janitor kit is top notch and the daily a day weekly cleaning schedule is displayed. This good condition is maintained for years now.
That’s all good, but 5S is not about cleaning.

What would be expected after achieving to maintain a clean and neat environment is to eliminate the need for cleaning. Reinforcing cleaning discipline and improving cleaning tools is just doing the wrong thing (keeping on cleaning) much better.

Example number two: rolling out SMED for quick changeovers on all machines seems to be a good practice as the changeovers are necessary evils, do not add value and drain some productive capacity.

Eliminating all the wastes during changeovers is therefore a Lean driven organization’s objective, right?

No it’s not.

Machines with excess capacity vs. customer demand are no good candidates for SMED. The excess capacity should be used to change over more frequently, allowing batch size and Lead Time reduction (this is Little’s law) as well as enhancing flexibility.

Further reducing the changeover duration on machines with excess capacity for the sake of rolling out SMED and “be Lean” will burn up limited resources without benefits for the system as a whole.

  • How many additional widgets can be sold thanks to a global SMED rollout?
  • How much Operating Expenses can be reduced?
  • How much inventories can be reduced?

If these questions are left without convincing answers, the system will not have any benefits but will incur the costs associated with the global SMED rollout.

Applying SMED on a machine with excess capacity is doing the wrong thing (changing over faster a machine that does not require it) much better (it is faster indeed, probably to let the machine idle a longer time).

Example number three: Value Stream Mapping

Its ability to reveal the wastes and obstacles to smooth and quick flow made Value Stream Mapping (VSM) a highly praised and favorite Lean tool. It is used by waste hunters to surface the hidden wastes and improvement points in any process. This is typically a beautiful and strong hammer looking for nails to hit.

Not so seldom do the Value Stream Mappers map a process in search for improvements without consideration of the process’ usefulness. Spending time and using up resources to analyse and improve a useless or very secondary process is nothing more than doing the wrong things much better.

So, what’s missing?

Two things are usually missing in Lean-tools savvy organizations that would bring them to a next level of performance: a system-wide understanding of causes-and-effects and focus.

A system-wide understanding of causes-and-effects means stopping to believe that the system-wide optimum is the sum of all local optima. in other words, getting rid of wastes everywhere will end up with a waste-free system.

Systems are complex, with many subsystems interacting dynamically. Local improvements will not automatically improve the system as a whole because many local optima will compete against each others. An improvement here can severe performance there.

Without understanding the system’s physics and how the subsystems operate, the local improvement initiatives are very likely to end up unnoticed, or worse counterproductive from a broader perspective.

Once the system’s physics are understood, it is key to identify the few leverage points where an action will have significant effect on the system as a whole. Once these leverage points identified, the limited resources must focus on them and not be wasted anywhere else.

How can it be done?

The answer is simple: Theory of Constraints.

Theory of Constraints (ToC) is a body of knowledge that is all about finding and leveraging the limiting factor within a system: the constraint.

Once the constraint identified, the Lean toolbox as well as Lean Management principles and even Six Sigma come in handy to leverage it and get more out of the system.

Used in a synergy cocktail ToC puts Lean on steroids and yields incredible results.

As a focusing “tool” ToC avoids burning up precious and limited resources on the wrong subjects and wrong spots, avoids “doing wrong thing much better!”.

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The fallacy of bottom-up Lean initiatives – Part 3: top-down and bottom-up

the-fallacy-of-bottom-up-lean-initiativesIn the first post of this series, I explained why bottom-up Lean initiatives have little chance to succeed. In the second post I switched the point of view and discussed the top-down driven Lean rollout attempts and their pitfalls. Neither is easy nor a sure way to succeed.

In this third post it is time to bring the conditions for success together.

Guidance comes from above

The system owners or top management are the sole legit to set the system’s / organization’s overall Goal. It is onto the ways(1) to achieve that Goal that all Lean initiatives must align. This is known as the “True North”.

Lean itself is not the Goal, it’s the preferred framework providing a way of thinking, principles, methods and a toolbox to efficiently achieve the Goal.

The Goal must be stated with clarity in order to avoid any misunderstanding and the Goal should be compelling for to motivate the stakeholders to play an active and motivated role in its achievement.

The worst Goal statement I was confronted with was “Survive another year”.

Stating the Goal alone is not enough. Top management should also set a limited set of top level indicators. In Bill Dettmer’s approach using the Goal Tree, those few top level indicators are called Critical Success Factors (CSFs). They are top management’s dashboard and ultimate steps before achieving the Goal.

Those CSFs must be set by top management for at least three reasons:

  1. It would be weird that anybody else defines the indicators by which top management monitors the progress towards the Goal it is responsible for achieving,
  2. Critical Success Factors are most often dictated by strategical analysis or benchmark, which are top management’s responsibility,
  3. Critical Success Factors constrain how the stakeholders will contribute to achieve the Goal. By this third reason I mean remaining consistent with the organization’s purpose, culture and values.

Once the Goal and Critical Success Factors are defined, enough guidance is provided from the top and it’s the subordinate level to take on and propose ways to achieve their goals, which are the CSF. The same will repeat with the next level and so on.

Lean-aware readers will recognize the cascading principle used in Policy Deployment, also known as Hoshin Kanri.

Appraisal comes from above too

If top management provided guidance, its role isn’t over yet. It is top management duty to make sure the whole organization works towards achieving the Goal and to remind and reinforce this guiding principle: working on anything else diverting resources from the achievement of the Goal is waste and is therefore invalid.

Remember, opportunities to improve are always infinite, while resources and time come in limited number. It is therefore mandatory to focus on leverage points and make wise use of limited resources.

I particularly like the Goal Tree because its logical structure lets no room for irrelevant nice-to-have that are immediately visible and their discarding rationally explained.

Enlightened management is about knowing what to do and what not do. And enlightenment can use a little help from a logical tool.

Without promoting the outdated command-and-control model, direction must be set top-down as well as the periodic checking of the organization’s right trajectory.

Constant attention is required over time in order to avoid any drift, deviant behaviors or loss of focus.

Help comes from above. Sometimes.

It’s still not enough to give direction and check the progress towards the Goal. Management’s top-down support is mandatory. By support I mean advice and backup when tough decisions need senior management to give input or take the decision, especially when those decisions lay beyond the field of authority of the lower ranking staff.

Support is also required when a settlement between conflicting objectives must be found.

From the Logical Thinking Process (Theory of Constraint) Body of Knowledge we know that conflict resolution should not seek a consensus (often disguised as “win-win” solution), but a way to “dissolve the conflict so that nobody has to give up anything except their beliefs in false assumptions.

Yet beware of drilling holes into the pyramid (2), meaning do not do what your subordinates have to do.

It is commonly accepted I hope, that leaders have to communicate the “what to change to” (the Goal) as well as the “why” of Lean transformation. It is up to the lower ranking staff in the organization to figure out “how to change”.

Achievement happens bottom-up

Since Policy Deployment or Hoshin Kanri are around, the cascading principle of top-down Goal setting and corresponding bottom-up answers is known.

Just as Hoshin Kanri, the Goal Tree uses the same principle: when the lower objectives are achieved, the corresponding upper objectives are achieved, and so on bottom-up till the top most objective (the Goal) is achieved.

Each layer of objectives is a set of Necessary Conditions for achieving the objective above. And here again, the Goal Tree provides the rational demonstration why employees can’t freely choose to work and improve whatever they want, even it seems an improvement from their point of view.

This disciplined approach may sound very constrained and limiting compared to other approaches asking staff for whatever improvement ideas. Maybe it sounds disappointingly controlled and restrictive but it makes no sense to burn limited and precious resources to “improve” whatever is proposed.

The lack of focus leads to many critics about lean lacking noticeable results compared to the time and money spent to improve. In this “open” approach stakeholders may have had their moment of glory when their proposed idea was validated, but their “improvements” didn’t impress nor last.

Conclusion

Neither bottom-up nor top-down initiated Lean journeys won’t lead to a Lean transformation success. The approach most likely to succeed is a smart mixture of top-down guidance, monitoring and assistance and aligned bottom-up contributions focusing on specific leverage points.

While top management provides the Goal to achieve and the framework within transforming the organization, the lower ranking staff make things happen working on meaningful and contributive topics.

Even if this approach looks constrained, it is more likely to demonstrate real improvement and proven, lasting benefits. Ultimately, this disciplined way should provide more satisfaction to all parties involved.

This ends the series of posts about the Fallacy of bottom-up Lean initiatives.

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Footnotes

(1) Theory of Constraints’ Thinking Processes would refer to these ways as “tactics”, while the Goal is a strategy
(2) An allusion about another one of my tales of the pyramid: the Swiss cheese

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