Is Lean about eliminating waste or not?

Some thought leaders and Lean promoters stress the fact that Lean is about eliminating waste while others seem to get away from this idea.

Could some have been wrong? Is there a shift in Lean Thinking? What is Lean finally about? Is Lean about waste elimination or not?

Well, yes and no.

Defining waste

Waste is an outcome of problems, the result of processes not delivering what is expected but Undesirable Effects instead. In order to avoid the same consequences occurring again in future, something has to be corrected and/or improved.

So when someone mentions eliminating waste, in a Lean Thinking context, it means (should mean) solving problems.

Lean for everyone

As Lean is a philosophy for everyone, not for experts only, it is necessary for people on the shopfloor, manning machines or doing routine administration tasks to develop and hone their Lean awareness and culture by eliminating waste and solving problems.

In order to do that, they have to be trained and coached to identify problems and learn how to solve them. They will do so in their familiar environment first and yes it can turn out as a kind of systematic waste hunting.

On the other end, senior management need to setup the “True North” a far away and visible reference, a Goal to achieve for the organization. It is then necessary to solve the various problems hindering the organization to achieve its Goal and improve the processes accordingly.

This again can be called waste hunting, yet it is (should be) focused onto most important problems (and wastes) standing in the way of the organization’s attempt to achieve its Goal.

Once the True North is defined, everyone is expected to align his/her contribution to the achievement of the organization’s Goal. This means pick and work on the problems necessary to be solved.

So Lean is about waste!?

A Lean transformation is not an all-out elimination of waste, but focusing limited resources on the most important leverage points to let value flow faster to the customer.

For instance, if a machine critical to timely deliver goods to the customer has very few spare capacity and often this capacity is wasted by some problems (e.g. late raw material supply or quality issues), then solving the problems in order to reduce the waste of capacity is meaningful.

If a machine in the same process has a lot of spare, unused capacity, it may be seen as a waste of capacity too, but it would only be counterproductive to reduce this waste by running the machine more than necessary. It would end up with overproduction of unecessary parts, excess inventory and transforming raw material that can no longer be used for producing anything else.

Lean is not about waste when it means optimizing every process step by eliminating waste, simply because the sum of the local optima cannot lead to the system optimum.

Wrapping up

When some Lean promoters state Lean is not about waste, they probably mean Lean is not solely about eliminating waste, as waste elimination is a means, not a goal.

Striving to eliminate all waste will not likely end up with a Lean organization.

Yet solving problems that hinder the organization to achieve its Goal is mandatory and as waste is the result of problems, Lean is about waste.

I hope this helps.

Readers are welcome to share their thoughts.


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Stuck with continuous improvement?

This post is a kind of post scriptum to “Improving  50% is easy, improving 5% is difficult” in which I described 3 stages of improvement and ended stuck with continuous improvement as the Return On Investment (ROI) in C stage was not worth going on.

Continuous Improvement

Now assume it is not possible to radically change the process (kaikaku), because for instance it has been approved by some authority (customer, regulatory…), being on the verge of C stage does not necessarily mean this is permanent.

If the limitation to improve further are skills or experience, the situation may change over time as trainings are delivered, experience is accumulated or necessary skills hired.

If the limitation is the cost of some solution, like changing material or buying some equipment, this too may change over time and become affordable / change the ROI, thus providing opportunities to improve further without changing everything.

What wasn’t possible or reasonable at some point may become possible and meaningful.

It is therefore important to revisit the assumptions and conclusions of the improvement workshops /projects periodically and check if some conditions have changed in a favorable manner.

This is also why, after a Value Stream Mapping and/or some diagnostic was done, designing the future state should first attempt to design a perfect process. This frees the designers from actual constraints and limitations and can lead to interesting solutions.

In a second step, the constraints and limitations are brought back in and the ideal solution trimmed down to what is possible given the limitations, e.g. state of industry vs. state of art, technological or economical limitations, limited know-how, etc.

But all brainstorming ideas and drafts of a perfect process/ideal state should be kept in a kind of think tank and periodically checked. It may happen that one of the ideas, impossible at a given moment can now be envisioned, thanks to some evolution.


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What is Kaikaku?

Kaikaku is one of these Japanese words which found their way into the Lean lingo. Kaikaku is usually translated into “radical change” or breakthrough.

my tiny Japanese dictionary proposes “reform”, “renovation” and “reorganization”.

“Doing” kaikaku means introducing a major change in a process in order to drastically improve it (quantum leap). Kaikaku is therefore “opposed” to Kaizen, which is incremental, small steps, improvement.

Kaizen is often praised for being a safe and low-cost improvement way. By changing only one thing at a time and trying allows to observe the effect of the change and to learn from this experience.

Kaikaku will discard much if not all from the existing solution and introduce big change(s). The usual set of parameters and previous accumulated learning may not be useful anymore. The new process is likely to be unstable until all new influencing parameters are fully understood and under control. Therefore Kaikaku is feared as risky.

Yet Kaikaku is not all bad. Once Kaizen has given all that can be reasonably achieved (timely and in terms of Return Of Investment), a radical change may be the only option to improve further.

Kaikaku is often understood as innovation, bringing in some high-tech or top-notch technology.

Indeed, if a manufacturer changes his production way from cutting away material to additive manufacturing (3D printing to make it simple), it is a disruption and potentially a quantum leap in productivity, efficiency, lead time, customizing, etc.

Kaikaku can be more mundane than that, like reorganising the way of operating for instance.

I remember working for Yamaha music, assembling home cinema receivers and CD players, when we heard the headquarter was planning a switch from long linear conveyor belt assembly lines into small autonomous cells, it was kaikaku because it was disrupting decades of streamlined production.

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Chris Hohmann in Yamaha’s headquarter, Hamamatsu city

Many Kaizen events (also called kaizen blitz) are in fact small kaikakus where drastic changes are made in short time. Those events are not the best way for try-and-learn, it’s more often one expert moderating a workgroup and leading it to a disruptive solution, hence kaikaku.

If you’d like to share your thoughts or experience, use the comments below.


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Improving  50% is easy, improving 5% is difficult

It is with this enigmatic sentence that one of my Japanese mentors introduced the growing difficulty with continuous improvement.

What it means is that at the beginning of an improvement program or when starting in a new area, the first and usually the easiest actions bring big improvement, hence the “easy” 50%.

This is also known as “reaping the low hanging fruits“, another metaphor for earning easy results with very reasonable effort.

Once these easy and quick wins are done, what is left to improve requires more effort, more time or more investment.

The improvement curve is therefore asymptotic and it is increasingly difficult and expensive to squeeze out the last improvement potential, hence the “difficulty to improve (the last) 5%”

The graph shows the 3 stages of improvement

Continuous ImprovementA: quick and easy, few actions, visible results, big leverage, usually a leap in performance. Excellent Return On Investment (ROI).

B: second stage in continuous improvement, more effort and investment is necessary, but the ROI is still worth it

C: “chasing the decimals” : huge efforts and investment are required to squeeze out the last potential. The ROI is not worth it.

At some point, the Return On Investment (ROI) is not worth going on. This means that improving further what exists and/or the way it has been done until now is no more meaningful. What is required is a breakthrough, a radical change.

This is where kaizen (continuous incremental improvement) must give way to kaikaku (radical change), or in other words: as the old process or usual way cannot be further reasonably improved, it must be totally reconsidered.

Yet in many cases this is the upper limit of improvement as the process cannot be changed. Too often redesigning the product or process is not possible:

  • Design has to be approved or the new product/process has to undergo lengthy and costly qualification (pharma, automotive, aerospace…)
  • Remaining life is not long enough to pay for
  • Facilities are not flexible, can’t be modified
  • The modification would break some contract

The continuous improvement is often limited by options and decision made in early design and development stages, a fact I discuss in >this post<


Related: Stuck with continuous improvement?


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How corporate Lean programs spoil golden opportunities

This is the sad and true story of a manufacturing unit of a major manufacturer in his industry.

This company has a corporate program to roll out Lean, with permanently appointed staff to support it. The Lean organisation is structured from a corporate level to sites representatives and staff appointed to support departments within the plants (Lean Promotion Office).

The corporate program is consistent and fine, designed by subject matter experts and tailored to fit both the activity and corporate culture. Such an ambitious program has a phased agenda, milestones, audits, reviews and everything necessary.

The Lean Promotion Office supporting team is therefore very busy breaking down the corporate rollout plan and preparing training sessions, coaching sessions, reviews and everything necessary.

Everyone who has witnessed such organisation and corporate rollout knows that the supporting team tends to become a swelling bureaucracy of its own, with very busy people seldom seen on shopfloor.

Comes a day in a department when the production must be stopped for supply shortages and unfortunately the stoppage lasts several days.

Once the things jobless personnel could do were done, they were left unoccupied and all by themselves, in a kind of readiness, the production being assumed to resume anytime soon.

Which did not happen, and boredom became the daily normal.

This is when the consultant regularly visiting the department shows up, and a bit upset by the waste of human skills, proposes to organize a much needed initiation to 5S.

That can’t be done.
– Why?
– 5S is scheduled later in the year, according to the rollout plan.
– But people are available now and with the current department (messy, dirty) condition it is a golden opportunity to both train people and improve the condition!
– Nobody is available for the training.
– But I can do!
– This is not compliant to our rollout plan and procedures.

As incredible it sounds, there was no way to organize the initiation and no manager would back up the proposal nor agree to give it a go.

I assume the Lean Promotion Office members are measured according to their (planned) activity and weren’t eager to mess up the plan, take any chances to displease their managers.

Production managers were blind to the situation and not knowing much about 5S, could not see the opportunity to have meaningful occupation for their staff.

To add to the sadness of the situation, when 5S training time will come, the situation may not offer the same opportunity: machines may be running, everybody may be busy and the mess and dirt may not be that visible as it was during the stoppage.

5S training will then probably be done with case studies and simulation, on restricted area at best, in order not to disturb production. This is where the golden opportunity is really lost: using a real case to act on, learn and improve.

Postponing the training and improvements to later scheduled time slot will make the actual 5S related problems last longer, cost more and waste the opportunity.


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Continuous improvement: how easily focus is lost

In an industrial environment improvement opportunities are literally infinite, especially if nothing has been done so far about improvement and maturity, about industrial best practices and considering methodologies like Lean, Theory of Constraints (ToC) or Six Sigma was nearly nonexistent.

When starting to improve, it happens quite often: committed people get lost and lose focus. Instead of concentrating on the core issue to achieving the Goal,  they dilute efforts on lesser important subjects, secondary objectives or even unimportant things.

As a consequence real improvements are delayed or even won’t happen.

How to prevent this from happening? Here are three things that will help:

  • Choose proper KPIs
  • Have a sponsor keeping some distance
  • Start with a Goal Tree

Choose proper KPIs

Measurement is the first improvement step. Choose the (few) KPI(s) that really reflect the achievement of the assigned key objectives and assess the effects of improvement efforts with these figures.

Assigned key objectives points to a Goal set by the organization’s owner or the delegate executives. Bottom-up chosen improvement targets lead most often to local optimization which is scarcely contributing to the overall system improvement, hence the reservation about point kaizen or kaizen blitz workshops focused on local improvements/problem solving.

Expected improvement is generally about productivity, quality, timely deliveries or any combination of them. Outcome should be measured in physical units, e. g. widgets per hour, right first time rate or on time in full (OTIF) deliveries.

Pitfall to avoid with KPIs is to choose activity-related instead of outcome-related ones, like the number of kaizen events held in the week rather than additional widgets made ready for shipping.

Teams may get some scolding for not delivering the expected results even though they were convinced to have worked hard and gotten nice results. They are just not aligned with top management’s expectations.

Back-standing sponsor

Having someone higher ranking / legit, keeping some distance from details and looking at the project with a broader perspective is a good way to prevent shop floor teams to get pulled down into details and away from their objective.

The sponsor should have authority to both help the team to overcome some difficulties, when decisions are to be made with other stakeholders and authority to demand regular reports and direct the team when necessary.

Regular reports and expectation of results are powerful incentives for the team not to lose themselves during their improvement journey.

Having a back-standing manager is common practice in the consulting business where a manager will follow, support and coach the consultants shop floor team, making sure focus is kept on the right objective and progress is consistent.
Some customers can’t understand the importance of this management they consider costs added, not value-added, an easy way to charge more (Yes this may happen, but let’s assume the consultants we’re considering are good ones with real care about delivering value and some ethics).

Well, the cost of meaningless efforts, wasted time and resources on ill-chosen or defined objectives is often much higher than the cost of the back-standing manager.

When the Goal is defined at the top-level and the objectives assigned to the teams, the project governance is usually defined as well, with someone high-ranking taking the sponsor / jury role. Bottom-up initiatives do not always have it.

Start with a Goal Tree

My regular followers are used to read my posts promoting this fantastic tool: the Goal Tree. Many of you readers may not yet be familiar with Goal Trees, and I strongly recommend you to learn more about them and evaluate the potential benefits using them.

At the beginning of a project, building a Goal Tree is a smart investment worth the couple of hours required: a well-built Goal Tree will give guidance toward the assigned or chosen Goal as well as the associated few Critical Success Factors to achieve and the list of Necessary Conditions to fulfill.

The Goal Tree is built upon necessity logic (in order to achieve… we must…) and thus prevents to get lost in nice-to-haves or irrelevant “improvements”.

From the moment I used a Goal Tree from the start myself, I kept focused, consistent and more efficient for myself or the teams I worked with. Conversely, when I thought I could save the effort starting with a Goal Tree it went not that brilliantly, with some deviations, drifting and the like.

These unpleasant experiences were powerful reminders, especially when the back-standing manager legitimately “kicked the a**”.


Chris HOHMANN

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The myth about common sense

The widespread belief about common sense is that it is innate and widespread. Another widespread belief is that philosophies, approaches or methodologies like 5S, Lean, Continuous Improvement and more are “nothing but common sense”, said with a bit of contempt.

What is common sense?

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, common sense (noun) is the ability to think and behave in a reasonable way and to make good decisions. It is sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/common%20sense

Is it common ?

My own experience tells me no. Not at all.

First, there are attitudes, reactions, answers, acts, etc. generally accepted as common sense: organizing workspace to ease work, calling for rescue when witnessing an accident with victims, refrain from using elevators in case of fire and so on.

Despite the fact they are common sense, they do not always lead to the proper behavior, reaction, etc.

For example, I keep wondering how few people are really able to spontaneously organize themselves / their environment in a safe, logical and efficient way.

Take ten people and ask them to organize themselves for a simple activity with several basic operations or tasks, some material and tools and chances are you get ten different layouts and organizations. If common sense is common, they should have come up with nearly the same solution.

Once you tell or suggest them how it could be much better organized, they generally will agree. But why didn’t they do it first hand?

Because of the second point about common sense: the perception of common sense is personal. Many times what people present me being “nothing but common sense” is not what I understand as common sense.

It should not take a seasoned consultant’s experience to understand that waiters in restaurant should try to optimize their walks, for example avoiding coming and going empty-handed.

While waiting for my orders, I too often have time to see waiters focused on one single thing, e.g. return to the kitchen but not taking the opportunity to take away empty dishes, empty bread basket… no, they’ll walk an extra way for that, usually after customer’s signal.

It is common sense that “optimizing” the walks would reduce tiredness, or isn’it?

If it is, so why so many waiters just don’t do it?

Remember, common sense: the ability to think and behave in a reasonable way and to make good decisions.

The same works for safety, a matter people keep puzzling me with their ability to endanger themselves – and possibly others – with behaviors, organization, way of thinking or decisions that are all but contrary to common sense: “Sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts”.

5S, Kaizen, Lean… nothing but common sense?

Basically I do agree 5S, Kaizen, Lean, etc. are nothing magic and could be “discovered” by anybody using common sense.

But if it is only that (said with a bit of contempt by people who don’t impress me much with their achievements), how come the same 5S, Kaizen, Lean, etc. are credited with such high failure rates?

How come their rules and principles are so often resisted if they are “only common sense”?

In my opinion, common sense is recognized once people really able to demonstrate how common sense applies demonstrate it. And those are few.


Conclusion 1: common sense is not that common
Conclusion 2: common sense gets common and widespread once taught to the mass
Conclusion 3: I hate the concept of “common sense”


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Downsides of kaizen events

In a previous post I explained what kaizen events are and ended it with some reservations. In this one I’ll explain why. I am no opponent to kaizen events, I simply point out the deviations I have witnessed.

kaizen events are quick actions performed in a very limited time, limited perimeter and focused targets. To achieve it, the group has to comply with the standard format.

Participants are rushing from one assigned task to the next, like remote-controlled by the moderator. There is little time and opportunity for participants to really understand, reflect and learn.

Therefore Kaizen benefits to managers solving problems in their area and moderators or kaizen office members for new scores but seldom benefits participants nor even the company, in the long run.

Why company seldom benefits from kaizen events?

First because the kaizen event is no good learning organization, as participants do not develop their own abilities to see problems and improvement potentials, design and carry out experiments to solve issues.

Kaizen event-driven activities keep depending on few champions to lead them.

No planned session means no improvement. People are not trained to improve by themselves nor entitled to do it outside the events.

Kaizen activities in general are welcome in a slowdown to keep paid people busy, but when business returns to normal, kaizen returns to low priority. Continuous improvement is understood as periodic improvement and performance is leaping from one level to the next according to events.

Kaizen events are focused to local problems. These local problems may be solved locally at the expense of some other area or process.
They lead to local optimizations which in sum cannot be the optimum for the whole system/company.

Put differently, kaizen events serve cherry picking independent problem solving, not always aligned with the Goal or really contributing to the organization’s Purpose.

In “Toyota Kata”, Mike Rother explains: “improvement workshop does not require any particular managerial approach. (../..) This may explain some of the popularity of workshops“. Further: “Since the workshop team moves on or is disbanded after a workshop ends, we have to expect that entropy will naturally begin eroding the gains that have been made.

The fast pace of kaizen events is used to overcome resistance to change, yet systematically rushing to implement solutions is a mere top-down approach.

So-called participation is only about giving a hand, seldom the opportunity to truly participate, e.g. Express, analyze, understand, experiment, build, argue, buy-in, carry-out, and learn.

Some organization develop lean champions only and depend on them for any lean-kaizen activity. When those champions have enough experience and track record of achievements, they’ll sell themselves to another company, leaving the previous one without real legacy.

Who’s to blame then?


Related: What is Kaikaku?


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What is kaizen event?

You may know from a previous post that kaizen means continuous improvement. A kaizen event is a planned session for improvement on a limited perimeter, usually focused on a peculiar topic or issue and limited in time. A kaizen event lasts generally a week or less.

Shorter kaizen events are often called kaizen blitz, a reference to WWII blitzkrieg, or fast moving warfare. In German blitz means lightning.

The session is formatted, phased. Participants go through the exercise with scheduled duties like gathering data, draw a situation map, analyze the problem, design a solution, try and adjust and prepare and present the conclusion.

>Lisez-moi en français

Most of kaizen events’ objectives is solving a given problem. The company’s kaizen office or the like generally has a list of improvement potentials and/ or problems to solve or a kaizen event can be organized ad-hoc to solve an urgent new issue.

After the event, the group is dismissed, remaining actions to be completed by some members or delegated to somebody.

Kaizen events (should) involve people working in the perimeter/ process and are considered subject matter experts. The event is driven by a moderator which most often takes leadership.

People from outside the perimeter are welcome for they have no preconceptions and their candor forces the others to explain the situation clearly, extensively.

Kaizen events are popular at executive level because they are limited in time, have clear objectives and can be measured in terms of return on investment.

Managers don’t like the idea to pay someone for non-productive work, non-framed continuous improvement activities are seen as recreation or cool hanging out.

Framed by a standard format, limited in time and under accountability of the moderator, a kaizen event is acceptable investment.

The limited time is not only to limit the costs and backlog while participants are gathering, the limited time is also putting pressure on them.

Kaizen events, kaizen blitz are often used to overcome resistance to change. The change is so quick that most opponents will realize the change or its implication too late to build up their resistance.

Going on with warfare example, it is like overrunning a defense line without spending time to convince defenders to surrender.

I have some reservations about kaizen events as they are too often lean disguises for productivity improvements betraying the kaizen spirit.

>More about downsides of kaizen events in the next post.
>related: what is Kaikaku?

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What is Kaizen?

Kaizen is a Japanese word made of two Chinese characters meaning “change for better”. The common translation of Kaizen is “continuous improvement”.

Kaizen is about small incremental improvements without spending much money, involving everyone from managers to workers, and using common sense. Kaizen encourages small improvements day after day, continuously.

It is an on-going, never-ending improvement process. It’s a soft and gradual method opposed to breakthrough or a disruptive approach like scraping everything and start from new.

Kaizen is about solving every days’ problems like avoiding small parts to fall from production line or searching tools, preventing errors, smartly limiting material handling and so on.

Examples of Kaizen

Here are some improvements examples done in the Kaizen way from my early days as production manager of a Yamaha hi-fi plant

  • Refilling in masked time electronics components from 2,000 parts boxes into custom made 4,000 parts cardboard boxes reduces machine stop frequency for reloading. The refilling itself can be considered waste, but it saved much operator time allowing them to concentrate longer on more adding-value task, being less frequently interrupted by machine stops because of component shortage (box empty).
  • The previous improvement help setting up a new U shape machine layout in the workshop, allowing to downsize from a 5 machines/ 3 operators system to a 5 machines/ 2 operators system.
  • This cart is also an example of kaizen; a tool board and a tissue roll have been added onto a standard tool rack. Rolling the cart to the machine to tend saved motion and search time as everything needed was always handy.
  • In manual assembly lines, the use of gravity (free energy!) to dispose finished parts or scrap saved movements; a hole in work table let parts fall into a lower crate through a wide diameter pipe.
  • Adding a simple positioning jig on a sheet metal bending machine allowed to bend 2 chassis in one machine cycle against only one originally.

Kaizen isn’t a method itself, it is a state of mind striving to solve little problem and improve constantly.
Yet in most organizations people are not allowed to make changes at will. In the western world Kaizen is usually organized as workshops or events in order to keep control of the outcome and impact on processes.

Continuous improvement is meant to be continuous, ongoing, therefore done every day, always. This sounds obvious but is seldom the way it is done. The preferred approach is to conduct scheduled workshops focused on a specific issue to solve in a limited time. This is called Kaizen blitz or Kaizen event. I’ll discuss the pluses and minuses of these workshops in another post.

Kaizen is everyday, everybody,  everywhere improvement


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