The fallacy of bottom-up Lean initiatives – Part 1

the-fallacy-of-bottom-up-lean-initiatives

Yes, Lean initiatives can be started bottom-up, but I doubt they’ll get very far and last for long. Here is why.

Bottom-up Lean initiatives, e.i. improvements, are opportunities for improvement found by shopfloor people, line leaders or shop management. “Improvement” is most often understood in a broad meaning and bring up suggestions ranging from make worker routine job easier, fix small problems, make the workplace more enjoyable, achieve their work more efficiently and maybe add some value for end customers.

In order to awaken the staff to finding such opportunities, an initial training about Lean principles, the seven wastes (the infamous muda!) is often necessary, with “kaizen events” organized to hunt wastes and frame the initiatives.

Most often the improvement suggestions and bottom-up Lean initiatives remain in this format: a moderated, paced, focused and framed series of periodic workshops. The events are planned and not problem-driven, done when the workload allows it, which means when people have time and management agreement to distract some resources and time from regular operations.

Here lays a triple pitfall:

  1. People do not develop an autonomous Lean Thinking culture, but keep playing the assistants of some appointed Lean “genius”(1). If the latter is not available, the event cannot happen (so common when “black belts” are mandatory) and chances are that the knowledge gathered during these events will not remain with the team, but go away with the facilitator instead
  2. Problems are not tackled when they appear, failing to use the opportunity for learning from a real, actual and acute case. The muda hunters are set loose to “find something to improve” when the kaizen event is scheduled
  3. As the kaizen events are scheduled and too often subordinate to low workload, the “continuous improvement” is erratic in frequency, inconsistent with learning, problem solving and likely to be stopped for good at some point because “We have no time”.

The format and drawbacks of those events is not the sole reason for making me doubt about bottom-up Lean initiatives being viable. Those bottom-up ideas and initiatives assume that the suggestions will lead to real improvements.

Yet how many of them are nothing else than improving the workplace comfort, changing something to workers’ preferences or taste while assuming this will ultimately lead to (noticeable) performance improvement?

I’ve seen many such “improvements” agreed because management wanted to show willingness to back up bottom-up suggestions, foster workers’ commitment and not discourage them from the beginning. Other suggestions were agreed on the belief they would indeed improve “something”.

Yet most often the evidence of the improvement is not delivered, and no kind of measurement is set up to demonstrate the gain. I am not even expecting for an indisputable demonstration of the cause-and-effect relationship linking the “improvement” to a positive increase of performance, a trustworthy correlation would suffice.

Worse, the good idea in say manufacturing is to have parts unpacked and presented ready to assemble for assembly line workers. The unpacking and display of parts is pushed upstreams to the logistic team feeding the lines. As production lines productivity is measured and closely watched, their efficiency may well go up when the parts preparation is get rid of.

For the logistics team it’s another story, it must absorb additional workload without compensation and as usually its productivity is not measured, nobody sees the waste simply moved to it, perhaps at the expense of other useful activities.

Even worser: Value Stream Mapping is one of the most popular Lean tool and used as a waste revelator. So Value Stream Maps flourish and again muda hunters are set loose to eliminate waste. What the mappers overlook in the first place is the value of the stream they are mapping. And sometimes the process under scrutiny is a pure waste that is noticeable when seen from broader perspective, or higher altitude if you will. But this vantage point isn’t familiar to shopfloor staff.

Isn’t it ironic they put means and time to optimise possible waste? A Lean-deadly sin…

What happens so often next with bottom-up initiatives is top management asking where the beef is. After all, time and resources have been used to “improve”, so where is the return on this investment? And getting no convincing answer, the whole is finally put on hold and frustrated stakeholders conclude that Lean doesn’t work. (2)

Summing up

  • Scheduled and framed workshops are not the best way to develop a Lean culture, especially if it’s the only “continuous improvement” mode
  • Teams remain helpers to the appointed Lean / Six Sigma champion, barely develop a Lean culture
  • Bottom-up initiatives are too often based on unchallenged assumptions regarding the outcome, started on wishful thinking
  • Middle management often lacks the courage to discard suggestions that will obviously not lead to meaningful improvement
  • Improvements are too often local optimizations at the expense of the greater good
  • Shopfloor staff don’t know the bigger picture, hence improve what they see and know, reinforcing the previous point
  • Proof of the reality of the improvement is not systematically delivered
    At some point top management will put an end

Footnotes

(1) “Genius with a Thousand Helpers”, in Jim Collins’ “Good to Great”.
(2) I do not approve the way some companies require a calculation of a ROI prior to any change, because the way many costs are defined are questionable. Sometimes improvement are hard or even impossible to express in numbers: reduction of Lead Time, neatness, morale…That’s why I mentioned “correlations”.

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Does Value Stream Mapping apply to Product Development?

Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is a great tool to map processes. It started in manufacturing where it is used to understand physical and information flows and quickly spread to administrative processes. It is even used in hospitals.

As Product Development is a process, so yes VSM can be used.

However, development activities have some specificities compared to manufacturing which require to adapt VSM to Development and also bring some limitations to VSM used in Development.

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The first limitation is similar to manufacturing if the activity is high mix / low volume. In such a case, the specificities may outweigh the commonalities, thus drastically reduce the interest of VSM as the time spent to map the process vs. valuable informations to get from the map isn’t worth it.

If this isn’t the case, and if the Product Development process is underperforming and needs improvement, VSM “manufacturing-style” can be used to map and analyse the development process despite other limitations. It is “good enough” to surface the biggest obstacles to better performance.

Having used VSM to describe and analyze an automotive equipment maker product development process, I could identify improvements leading to a potential 30 to 40 % Lead Time reduction depending of the nature of the project. This is consistent with what I call the Lean rule of thirds, i.e. reducing wastes or improving performance 30%.

Later on, with a more mature Product Development process this type of VSM may show its limitations.

VSM pitfalls and limitations in Development

There are many differences between manufacturing and development. For instance the definition of “value-added” is relatively easy in manufacturing while more elusive in development. Takt time is a key concept for production but does not make sense in development*. Loops are wastes in manufacturing but iterations are valuable in development.

*Takt time in manufacturing is the rate of customers’ demand. In development takt time can be the rate of new projects or product launches decided by the company.

Concurrent activities are seldom in manufacturing but common in Lean Development, and so on.

Therefore the transposition of Lean Manufacturing methods and tools is possible to some extend but with great care and adaptation. One warning about this is to be found in “The Lean Machine” Productivity Press. pp. 131–132:

Key learning about the difference between TPS and LPD is summarized in the advice Jim Womack gives Harley Davidson’s Dantaar Oosterwal; “Don’t try to bring lean manufacturing upstream to product development. The application of Lean in product development and manufacturing are different. Some aspects may look similar, but they are not! Be leary of an expert with experience in lean manufacturing that claims to know product development”.

On the other hand, Allen Ward and Durward Sobek recommend to “learn from Lean Manufacturing to improve labs and prototype shops”, in Lean Product and Process Development, Lean Institute Inc, 2014 second edition p.42.

Other resources about VSM for Product Development exist. Here are only few chosen examples:

Ronald Mascitelli discusses the usage of VSM in his book “Mastering Lean Product Development”, Technology Perspectives 2011, pp. 187-190.

There is a paper of interest by Darwish, Haque, Shehab, and Al-Ashaab, “Value stream mapping and analysis of product development (engineering) processes”  that can be downloaded here:  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272565743

Finally, the Lean Aerospace Initiative (LAI, MIT) proposed the Product Development Value Stream Mapping (PDVSM) specifically designed for Product Development. The Manual version 1.0 (Sept. 2005) can be downloaded for free from several sources, including MIT:

https://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/83453/PDM_1003_McMan_PDVSM.pdf?sequence=1

Wrapping-up

Value Stream Mapping does apply to Product Development with limitations in mind and/or adaptation to the specificities of development activities. Before rushing to map such a process, give yourself time to consider if the time invested will really be worth it, especially if the process is not likely to be common to many new developments.

VSM is great but is only one tool among others. The value of the analysis does not come from the map but from the “brain juice” the analyst(s) throw in to sift out improvement potential and identify issues and obstacles to overcome.

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What is a spaghetti diagram?

A spaghetti diagram, spaghetti plot or spaghetti chart is the drawing depicting the physical flow or route of:

  • a part, raw material in a workshop or factory
  • a human worker in his/her work environment
  • a patient in his/her journey in a hospital
  • nurses in their station
  • a file or paperwork being handed over across offices
  • etc.

The drawing of the journey will show how intricate the route is, looking like a plate of spaghetti, hence the name.

Spaghetti chart, what for?

Spaghetti (1)These charts are used to analyze the distance covered, the going back and forth to some place, the wasted time in motion and/or transportation (muda).

People are often unaware what distances they walk in a day and management is unaware of the time spent moving around the place wasting time and energy.

Spaghetti chart are useful to redesign a layout or reposition some equipment in order to reduce the unnecessary walking time and fatigue, which is only waste.

Sometimes it is the order of steps in a process that can be changed for the sake of efficiency.

A spaghetti diagram is a welcome sidekick to Value Stream Mapping, as the later maps the conceptual route through a process while the spaghetti chart shows the actual (or future) physical one.

How to draw a spaghetti chart?

Spaghetti charts depicting the actual situation should be based on real observation. On a prepared sheet with outlines of the facility, machines, equipment, etc. the observer traces the lines as the observed object/person moves from one spot to the next.

Tips and tricks

  • The drawing should be more or less on scale, so that it is easier to estimate the total distance covered.
  • If scale is unknown, count the steps when walking and estimate an average stride length. This will help estimate all the distances and the accumulated distance.
  • When the trail is going and coming forth, draw each line separately in order to count the frequency per time unit (e.g. per quarter, per hour, etc.). it will also help to estimate the total distance by multiplying the segment length with frequency.
  • Try to depict the route faithfully. Do not draw straight lines through walls as I saw once because my explanation was not specific enough!

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Value Stream Mapping is a tool for pivoting

“Pivot” has become a buzzword in business, referring to a shift in strategy or a significant change made in product, service or business model as a result of experiment.

When a solution or an assumption does not lead to or deliver the expected outcome, a significant change may be required to adjust to the reality instead of sticking too long with the flawed parameters.

Pivoting suggests a change of direction and this is the intent with Value Stream Mapping (VSM): pivoting from vertical to horizontal.

VSM reveals the physical and information flows across an organization (horizontally) end to end, which is “pivoting” from the traditional point of view which is vertical, divisional or departmental way of considering organizations and responsibilities.

By pivoting, VSM reveals all the waste created by local optimizations and required adjustments at interfaces, e.g. duplicate inventories, buffers, different batch sizes or different rules and policies, etc.

VSM is a tool for pivoting or shifting the point of view, the way we look at value creation with the customer waiting at the end of the value stream.

Together with the improvement potentials revealed, Value Stream Map enables pivoting: changing the process, the product or the business model in some extend.


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A perfect world is a lovely place

Chris HOHMANN

Chris HOHMANN – Author

It happened during a project review meeting during which we went through the planned action sequences. A new late comer to the project raised a few questions and suggested some additions and changes to the action plan.

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One of the participants, visibly irritated by the new entrant and his interventions, snapped back: “A perfect world is a lovely place, but we need to focus on our goal without seeking perfection.”

He was referring to the constraints and difficulties limiting our possibilities and options and obviously trying to silence the newcomer.

As moderator of this meeting I calmly explained that at this stage of the project, any suggestion that contributes to its robustness is welcome. Furthermore, a description of perfection is always interesting.

Indeed, the ideal or perfect solution may be out of reach for the moment, but this does not mean that all options must be rejected. An evolution of the strategy, economic conditions, regulatory, state of mind of the decision makers or technology can reshuffle the cards and open the field of possibilities.

In such a case, having a complete description of an ideal future state can be a big time saver. In addition, the ideal solution is a reservoir of ideas for future improvement and it makes sense to revisit these options periodically. One or the other constraints could disappear and new options become possible.

Generally speaking, an ideal future state can always be degraded by incorporating the various constraints, but building a solution around existing constraints without exploring breakthrough alternatives typically falls within the 8th type of Lean waste: not using people’s creativity.

The meeting resumed in a little tense atmosphere due to the enmity between the two individuals, but with the new suggestions taken into account.

When it comes to Value Stream Mapping (VSM) and sketching the future improved state (Value Stream Design or VSD), the above explanation applies perfectly.

It makes sense to study the ideal target first and then to degrade it by integrating the different constraints that may not be eliminated or bypassed in reasonable time or cost.

Those readers familiar with the Thinking Processes of the Theory of Constraints certainly try to challenge the reality of the constraints with specific tools like the Current Reality Tree (CRT) and the Conflict Resolution Diagram (CRD, aka Evaporating Cloud).

At the time of this meeting, I used a Goal Tree previously built with the participants but couldn’t investigate and challenge the constraints.
It is very likely that among the listed constraints, some are more a matter of beliefs, myths and misunderstandings or misinterpretations than real constraints.

If these false constraints can be surfaced and eliminated, the solution will certainly be better and it will prove the value of exploring the ideal state before giving up too soon.


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What is VSM good for?

Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is one of the most popular tool of the Lean toolbox, frequently associated with finding improvement opportunities. Yet VSM is more than a kind of treasure map.

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Enabling “helicopter view”

Drawing a VSM is like getting aboard a chopper and take off to watch the perimeter or process from some distance and height. I like the helicopter metaphor because we can hover over the Value Stream Map at will, focus on a particular zone, fly over the whole, fly back again and so on.
Taking some distance and height let analysts consider a zone, a part of the process or series of  operations in their global context. Even so VSM is schematic, interactions with up and downstream operations as well as information exchange are more visible than on shop floor.
Conversely, VSM doesn’t show the details and cannot replace investigations in situ.

Physical and information flows

VSM is most probably the sole tool allowing the simultaneous view of physical and information flows as well as their interactions.
VSM can reveal the hidden complexity and abundance of IT systems, softwares and applications, files and databases, often duplicate, redundant and with multiple input points.
Many wastes clutter information flow, more difficult to make out than those of the physical flow. Something the Value Stream Map shows.

Share the findings

VSM is an excellent mean to share the assessment findings with stakeholders.  I could verify it on numerous occasions; operators know well their work post and its immediate surrounding but have little knowledge about what is happening up and downstream. Support departments, especially administrative staff, know very few about operations while ops guys ask themselves what good the administrative staff do.
When working together on a VSM, even only partially, and later during debriefing ,’ all stakeholders share the same ‘picture’ of the actual state, understand  dynamic interactions  and interdependencies between the different links of the whole chain

I could witness people cooling down after understanding why their colleagues kept demanding something bothering. The VSM just made clear why this was important to someone else in the stream. From then on, not only would the irritation disappear, but the angry people change to pro actively help their colleagues, easing the later operations.

Common language

VSM uses symbols (pictograms) and terms which become a common language  between stakeholders. Concepts like flow, Lead Time, Work in Progress or wastes   are understood , even by those remote from shop floor.

When a workgroup is made of several participant without a common tongue – something common in big international corporations with multiple subsidiaries in the whole world, or to consultants assigned to such a subsidiary – thanks to VSM visual symbols, working together with this common language is possible.

Sell one’s ideas

Presenting and debriefing a diagnostic’s results is backed up by a VSM. Together with the future state map, called Value Stream Design (VSD), action plan showing how to get from actual state (VSM) to future state (VSD) it help selling the ideas for a change crafted by the workgroup.

Those receiving the debriefing and proposition, VSM/VSD provide a convenient and useful support to make the whole tangible, concrete.

It happened frequently that our debriefing after assessment was only a standing storytelling in front of a VSM. The whole story is depicted there and it is easy to take the audience in the imaginary helicopter and hover above the process.

A Value Stream Map is therefore a great communication tool.

Revealing wastes

Looking at a process from some distance helps reveal wastes that are not noticeable without zooming out. Duplicate inventories or operations in different locations for instance.
A spaghetti  diagram – natural companion of a VSM – drawn in the same time as the VSM is also an excellent tool / way to reveal wastes like unnecessary transportations, time lost in lengthy walks and motions, routes within the facility, even ‘crowded highways’, etc.

Without VSM’s ability to “zoom out” and consider the process in its whole, most of these wastes would remain hidden.

Decide and coordinate actions

Working together and considering the actual state from some distance greatly helps to take good decisions and coordinate actions which will benefit to the whole instead of trying to optimize locally. This latter way is potentially counterproductive, as interactions and interdependencies do not lead the sum of local optima to a global optimum..

Prevent static figures fooling you

Compared to data / dashboards / KPIs analysis, VSM is more qualitative but depicts the dynamic behavior or a system. Dashboards and reporting are far more static and partial; showing a “frozen picture” of past situations and do not show the dynamics and interdependencies of resources.

VSM is nevertheless completed with figures, indications of actual performance levels or potentials at the moment of mapping. They are benchmarks, either for challenging the actual results or measure progress.

Conclusion

All these advantages and benefits of Value Stream Mapping endorse the place and importance of this tool in the continuous improvement or operational excellence toolbox.
It is probably no surprise for those having experienced Value Stream Mapping, but did they notice all of the advantages?


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VSM Pitfall: unnecessary process

Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is probably the main analysis tool and the most used in the lean toolbox. Easy to understand and handle, VSM is the starting point of improvement workshops and kaizen events. It helps focusing on wastes and improvement potentials in any process.

The ease of use and popularity of VSM make them flourish on shop floor. What seems good news for continuous improvement at first glance may not be all that positive.

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Remember: while improvement opportunities are literally infinite in any environment, resources are always limited: time, availability, means…

Therefore, before rushing into Value Stream Mapping, it is necessary to focus on chosen areas and topics in order to make meaningful improvements and avoid wasting limited resources.

The worst waste would be to Value Stream Map a useless process, which would mean Map, analyze and improve a process that should be eliminated in first place.

This happens more frequently than one would think.


Countermeasures to problems and the 3% devious

Many existing processes in an organization are countermeasures and responses to problems. These problems were eventually solved once, but the process is still in place.

Should one therefore seek to optimize it or can wouldn’t it make sense to eliminate it altogether?

In the absence of statistical data on the occurrence of the problem, which is the most common case, the answer is tricky. Moreover, advocates of the process will argue that it is precisely because the process is in place no problem reappeared.

If these problems still show up in a low occurrence, are the costs of maintaining a process to prevent, resolve or dampen them consistent regarding the effects of these problems?

If not, all things being equal, isn’t it better to eliminate this process and support the relative lower cost of infrequent problems?

Finally, if the recurrence of problems is frequent, the process does not work and the right question is less about optimizing it than to invest in eradicating the problem.

An order of magnitude, probably more symbolic than real, is the management of 3%, a term due to Gordon Forward, former CEO of Chaparral Steel, which means the countermeasures in place are there for 3% of employees with deviant behavior, which penalizes 97 % of those keeping to the rules.

If a process exists because of 3% of the employees, it hides a management problem.

Should one therefore seek to improve such process?

Would it not be better, before drawing a single VSM line, to question if not simply eliminate this process?


Lack of coordination and strategic alignment

The second case is that of companies / organizations / corporations which do not coordinate lean initiatives, let shop floor / operations take local initiatives.

People in these lower levels reason and act according to their perceptions, they do not have the necessary global view nor the “zoom-out” to embrace the situation as a whole and see the uselessness of the process. They lack a kind of VSM of VSMs.

I remember at least two cases, industrial groups whose central lean offices asked the subsidiaries to run pilot improvement workshops on a process of their choice. Each workshop was required to start with a Value Stream Map.

In both cases, central lean offices had no strategy nor global plan. By default, they launched local bottom-up initiatives and assumed the people involved to get self convinced by the power and usefulness (read necessity) of a Lean transformation.

The potential problem with this approach is the risk to encourage enthusiastic launches but later put local initiatives on hold, possibly discard the improvements and order to redo on an other process, for the sake of alignment to strategic objectives or global coordination.

One can imagine all the frustration and loss of confidence of local actors if this should happen. They worked on improvements, accepted to change the way to achieve their tasks and possibly saw real improvements before a remote authority orders to stop and redo something else.

Not only all  resources used in pilot workshops would have been wasted – even so it can be called investment in training – but the credibility and sustainability of such approach would surely be impaired. It certainly will be difficult to motivate again these people for another workshop.

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Value Stream Mapping

A value stream is the sequence of all activities required to bring value to customers. The name value stream infers the value flows to customers along streamlined processes, which is an ideal seldom seen in reality. In reality value streams are cluttered with non-added value processes, tasks and steps.

Nevertheless such value streams deliver value, they could deliver it more efficiently with less expenses and efforts.

That’s where Value Stream Mapping comes in. Value Stream Mapping, VSM in short, is a value stream description method for analyzing its current state.

The first outcome of a VSM is a “process” or value stream map made with “standard” symbols, in order to give a synthetic overview of the whole process.

A VSM displays physical and information flows on the same map. Therefore an alternate name is “Material and Information Flow mapping” or MIFA for “Material and Information Flow Analysis”.

The map displays the current state and is only description. It needs to be analyzed in order to understand what hinders the smooth, continuous and swift flowing of value towards the customer.

Hindrances come as flaws in the process, loops for rework, too many inventories, sub optimized bottlenecks, quality issues, constraints, policies, inappropriate rules and many more.

Once the VSM analyzed and the improvement points defined, it is time to draw the ideal future state, known as Value Stream Design (VSD).

The way to close the gap between VSM and VSD is to carry out the action plan.

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How lean can help shaping the future – Value Stream Design

When thinking about planning or shaping the future, most people believe it requires very complicated means, software or science. The reality is deceivingly simple as it takes pens, paper and analytical skills.

Therefore when it comes to answer the question “How lean can help shaping the future”, the simplest and most common way is when people involved in a workgroup of transformation program design a future, improved situation through Value Stream Design (VSD).

From actual to future (improved) state

Depiction and analysis of the actual state of a Value Stream uses Value Stream Mapping (VSM). This mapping uses symbols or pictograms to describe processes, physical and information flows. The actual process, depicted with all its flaws, dysfunctions and improvement potentials is analyzed in search for a better, improved process.

Thus, once the map of actual state is drawn and improvements found, the sketch of the future improved state is done with a similar map, called Value Stream Design (VSD).

VSM and VSD don’t need much high-tech, a roll of brown paper and pens are enough.

The way to bridge the gap between VSM and VSD or to transform the actual state into the future improved one is the action plan.

Sometimes it requires a somewhat more conceptual step in between, like a Goal Tree or a Hoshin Kanri to identify and plan breakthroughs, before listing all necessary underlying actions in an action plan.

Nevertheless, the simplest and most common way for Lean to help shaping the future remains the Value Stream Design (VSD). It is not because it is relatively simple that it is not powerful or interesting.

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