I often hear that it’s far more challenging to develop Lean thinking in a service environment than it is in a manufacturing environment. Particularly where it is a person, and not a part, that journeys through the process. “People are not cars”, is an often-heard argument against the use of Lean principles in such service environments. The funny thing is that, to drive the point of problem detection home in manufacturing, I exactly compare manufacturing to service and healthcare processes and why, in fact, manufacturing may suffer a serious disadvantage, namely, parts don’t talk!
Lots of elements, techniques and tools in Lean focus on one and the same thing: the quick detection of problems. For me, this is at the center of enabling an organization to continually improve itself. Without problem detection, we cannot improve. It is the essence of jidoka, to make an operation stop when a defective or an abnormal condition is detected. And it is a precondition to the respect-for-people pillar in Lean, in which key elements are to develop autonomy and kaizen by all. You can read more about the original respect-for-people pillar in one of my earlier posts: https://dumontis.com/2016/06/respect-for-people-lean/.
Visual control is a concept that helps putting jidoka into practice. Through visual control, Lean companies try to make up a working place where not only the managers and foremen, but also all workers can detect trouble.
But visual control depends upon operators and managers actually spotting abnormalities. One of the messages I therefore always try to pass is that Lean should “hurt”. If it doesn’t “hurt”, if we don’t actually perceive our problems, we are not going to move forward. But are all visual control systems actually “hurting” enough, I sometimes wonder?
Many visual control systems are in fact not really “control” systems, but at most warning systems or even just plain registration systems that are not even truly in sight or visited during a management routine. A control system, like in a control poka yoke, actually stops the operation.
In reality, however, most approaches are not like that. This makes that I often feel we are not trying hard enough to really confront ourselves with our problems. (Some more info on the various quality and inspection approaches you can find in this earlier post on the future role of the quality department in Lean: https://dumontis.com/2014/07/the-quality-department/.)
If Parts Could Talk…
This is where I often wish all the parts in our factory could speak up. And I ask the operators and supervisors and managers what they think all these parts would say to them. What would be the story they would tell; what adventures did they experience?
When I ask myself this question, I get visions of parts lying on a beach. And while they’re enjoying the sun, they are making jokes at the expense of all the people working in the facility. They’re wondering why everyone is running around like a bunch of lunatics, while at the same time they — the parts — are clearly not moving towards completion. What are all these people doing, if they are not working on our progress towards the end? Don’t they understand that everything they do only costs money, whereas only if we are sent to the customer, they can actually bring in some money?
I get visions of parts that – like people sometimes — are stuck in lengthy queues; queues without end it seems. Queues where other people come in from the end and simply cut in front. And apparently, this is even supported by the management. Sometimes it’s like I’m in a queue in front of a counter and, out of the blue, there’s a manager coming from an office that I can’t even see, telling me to give up my place.
And I see parts that are complaining to the operators. “Hey, I was first, that guy came in after me!”. “Hello there, can someone maybe get me out from underneath of this pile?”. “So now you suddenly tell me I need to go to that counter instead of this one?”. “What? I’ve just been there before, but you tell me they’ve messed up and need to go over it all again?”. “So do I understand correctly that you first ask all people with the same request to come forward instead of dealing with my request now?”. “Are you aware that I already traveled some 800m in this building? And that the building is only 200m long?”. And I can think of many more.
Fortunately for team members and their management, so I think sometimes, parts cannot talk. But if they could, I don’t think many work places would be very pleasant to work in to be honest. And — as a part — don’t even start me on the annual report stating you are so terribly customer-focused…
No Stress, but Productive Tension, Yes
Back to the image of our parts continuously reminding us of the deficiencies of our processes. Now of course, the aim is not to stress our people. But as said, a system should confront us with our problems so we can work on them, one by one. In that respect, our system should not create stress, but a healthy and productive level of tension.
In designing our system, the visual controls that go with it, and all our managerial routines, we should therefore think of how we create the right level of urgency. Visualizing stuff for the sake of visualizing is not the right idea. And putting in place visual controls without embedding these in a management process is not very effective either.
You should make sure that problems “hurt”. Assure that problems are physically in the way. It should not be easy to store rejects, parts that wait for release decisions or parts that were overproduced. Don’t try to be efficient on something that is ineffective. Make it difficult. And ultimately, if you can’t make the situation “hurt”, make sure you as a manager put yourselves in the shoes of a part and speak up for the part!