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Lean manufacturing should be fun

The first task was picking a name for our team. Nick mentioned we were a bunch of lab rats. A remarkable calendar was on the wall of the meeting room. We became the Remarkable Lab Rats.

Selecting a team name was a fun way to start brainstorming.

Duane had a surprise for us a few weeks later. He must have talked about the Lab Rats at home. His daughter, an art student, made us a team logo. She did a great job.

The team facilitator posted our logo in the team room. That started a logo race. Within a couple of weeks, twenty creative team logos decorated the team room. It was incredible.


Do it for your children

When I was a young boy, I was somewhat afraid of my dad. He was always angry at the dinner table. Mad at his boss. When I pictured his boss in my mind, he had horns and a pointy tail. That did not prepare me for the workforce.

Fifty years ago, in his scholarly book, The Achieving Society, David McClelland theorized a society must increase the achievement need in its children before it could take a giant leap economically. To accomplish this, stories that illustrate achievement must be told, dominating influences must be removed, and warmth must be given to those who achieve.

Parents must learn before their children can learn. Good reason to read continuous improvement stories at work. Replacing complaints about work with stories of achievement reduces dominating influences at the dinner table. We are good at giving warmth for our children’s achievements.

It’s difficult for a stranger to get a job at Kobett Enterprises. The company prefers to hire the sons and daughters of its Leantrepreneurs. They have been listening to stories of achievement at the dinner table since birth!

Life is funny. Who would have thought displaying the parents’ achievements on the fridge door was just as important as displaying the child’s achievements?

Getting Started

Here’s how to start the storytelling process. Post this story near the time clock (or one of your own):

It was Ernie’s last week of work. My retirement present was to check the rooftop thermometer for him. It was a miserable experience. The access to the roof was on the other side of the plant. The roof was dark with no clear path to the thermometer. A couple times I had to cross a waist high wall. The wind was howling, the roof was slick, and the temperature was below zero. If I had slipped and couldn’t have gotten up, no one would have looked for me before frostbite set in. The last obstacle was a snow drift.

Incredibly, employees have been doing this task six times a day for years without complaining. A stairwell was present on the other side of the wall where the outside thermometer was located. A couple of steps and a door made checking the rooftop thermometer easy. Operators extended their breaks by fifteen minutes to check the rooftop thermometer. Since, a relief operator was needed for breaks and the new door made the long break unnecessary, the new door saved the company $6,000 per year in labor costs and it eliminated a safety hazard!

Ask employees to submit their own lean stories. Post appropriate stories near the time clock.

After a few stories, point out: every story starts with an irritation. For example, Kevin had to walk across the roof in a blizzard! Ask employees to share irritations with their work tasks. “What do you hate to do?”

The most difficult part of kaizen is finding a problem. Once the problem is identified, finding a solution is relatively easy. Since irritations signal a problem is present, sharing irritations highlights problems.

Most irritations will be eliminated by retraining. Some will provide opportunities for improvement. These will be posted as the beginnings of future stories. For example, using the above example,

It was Ernie’s last week of work. My retirement present was to check the rooftop thermometer for him. It was a miserable experience. The access to the roof was on the other side of the plant. The roof was dark with no clear path to the thermometer. A couple times I had to cross a waist high wall. The wind was howling, the roof was slick, and the temperature was below zero. If I had slipped and couldn’t have gotten up, no one would have looked for me before frostbite set in. The last obstacle was a snow drift.


How does this story end?


Old stories lead to new ideas

We are never done with a story. Reviewing old stories lead to new ideas. For example, I recently noticed I missed an opportunity for improvement in my first post, The Last Lean Question. If employees are having trouble with math, new hires must pass a math test. How could I have missed this?

How many new ideas would we generate if hundreds of people read these stories?

“The Last Lean Question

The most difficult part of lean is identifying a problem to work on. Hence, the last question in a lean improvement should be, “How could we have discovered this problem sooner?”

A lean correction from the food industry illustrates how critical this last question could be. The new oil supplier did not add preservative. The parts per million (ppm) calculation was difficult. When I gave the poundage of preservative needed to the oil tank farmer, he laughed. He would need a fork truck to add that much preservative!

I double checked my math with another type of oil that used the same amount of preservative. The computerized calculation was only one-tenth of the preservative needed. Incorrect math meant unsafe products left this plant for years. Extensive internal and external audits did not identify the problem.

How could we have discovered this problem sooner?

The company had several identical plants. A oil tank farmer from another plant would have identified the miscalculation immediately. How many problems could someone from another, similar gemba easily discover? Was this problem the only reason the plant’s costs were lower than the other plants? Is the lowest cost a reason to celebrate or a reason to worry? Should all kaizen events include someone from a similar plant? Would both plants benefit? Who should we send? The last question usually leads to many questions.”

Apples to apples

The finished product samples performed well in the moisture testing oven. The in-process samples did not. The in-process sample was 40 degrees hotter. This was the root cause of the problem. The higher starting temperature caused the sample to “pop” in the moisture testing oven. This “pop” expelled oil from the sample pads, skewing test results. We only wanted moisture removed from the sample.

As a result, liquid margarine batches were continually resampled, corrected, resampled, etc. Six batches were mixed together before packaging. Each batch took 45 minutes to crystallize (emulsified by cooling rapidly). Once the product was crystallized, it was finished product.

Luckily, Tim was helpful. He agreed to get a second in-process sample after the batch started the crystallization process. Testing on the crystallized samples revealed the production process was outstanding. The margarine batches were consistently on target; very little variation existed between batches which was expected with the state-of-the-art equipment. A deficient in-process sampling procedure slowed production to the point everyone was working weekends.


The Leantrepreneur

Very few shared my passion for lean manufacturing. As I was running out of challenging problems in the research lab, my employer started lean manufacturing training classes. One brave soul asked, “What’s in it for me?” Challenge accepted. Went back to school to find the answer. The solution must apply to everyone.

My other passion is hunting with bird dogs. My performance was hurting the pack; I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with shotgun pellets. It’s irritating to walk all day and go home with nothing. I had to learn to shoot with both eyes open. Incredibly, in centuries of shotgun use, no one had invented a process to learn how to use both eyes when shooting. No wonder this is a common problem.

My lean skills, learned on the job, found a solution The Show-Me Shotgun Target (patent # 8,152,527.) Lean skills are inventing skills. If you learn to improve your employer’s products/services you will have the skills to improve products/processes off the job. Start your own company or collect royalties from others.

This process is called Leantrepreneurship. Here is my first product:

The Show Me Shotgun Target, Facebook


Maximizing kaizen savings

Today’s post is a continuation of My favorite lean interview question

Although all the Lab Rats were presentation virgins, we wowed our audience. I slowly poured the broth out of a can of coreshrunk turkey dog food. It took an amazingly long time. The turkey loaf was tiny. While the steering committee was whispering their shock, I slammed a can with a soft turkey loaf onto a tray. Some of the managers and Lab Rats flinched at the loud, unexpected sound. Nothing came out of the can. It appeared turkey was crammed into the can. That’s why our customers loved this image. It seemed they got a lot for their money.

What could the Remarkable Lab Rats do to follow this? We needed another huge success. Anything less would have been a big disappointment.

Chuck, our facilitator, knew this. He suggested a project. The company used extruders to produce dry dog food. A nearby university burned wood chips to heat their campus. Our factory sent tons of cardboard to the dump. The company had an extruder that was not in use. Could we pelletize our trash and sell it/give it to the university?

Our plan surprised the university. They were agreeable provided we supply a minimum tonnage. To ascertain how much cardboard was discarded, we asked our trash hauler to use the plant’s truck scales for a couple of weeks.

Come to find out, dog food extruders could not be used to pelletize cardboard. However, our trash project saved the company money. Our trash hauler thought we were seeking a cheaper service. Out of the blue, they lowered their price.

It’s good to have a goal for a project. However, sometimes, success does not meet expectations.

Years later, I read a story about a municipality selling their pelletized trash to the university.

The company’s other factories should have asked their trash haulers to use their truck scales for a couple of weeks. I’m sure they didn’t know what happened at plant number one. A lean story could have changed that.

How to start lean

This is a practical application of previous posts.

“What is lean?” must be answered. The best way to do this is to tell/post lean stories. After a few lean stories are told, employees will be asked to submit their lean stories. Employees have a choice: place your lean stories in the suggestion box or give them to your supervisor. Appropriate lean stories will be posted/told.

Employees/management will learn every lean story starts with an irritation. At this point, we will ask employees to examine what tasks irritates them. Employees have a choice: place your irritations in the suggestion box or give them to your supervisor.

Irritations are placed on a bulletin board above the suggestion box. Customer irritations are also posted. Employees are urged to submit feedback. If you have info that might help in solving the problem, place it in the suggestion box or give it to your supervisor. If you have a suggestion, place it in the suggestion box or give it to your supervisor.

Management must be held accountable for appraising suggestions. Each suggestion form has room for comments by three supervisors/managers. The suggestion then goes to the appropriate manager for approval/rework/denial. To make good judgements, supervisors/managers are encouraged to go to the gemba and ask questions. To hold the plant accountable, suggestion forms are numbered and must be sent to corporate. The CEO will read the best suggestions and will randomly select a few to read. When you fill out that comment section, remember the CEO might read it.

The ideal situation is employees trust management and submit stories/irritations/comments/suggestions to their leaders. If this is the situation you find yourself in, congratulations. The quality of the stories/irritations/comments/suggestions will identify immediate training needs.

A more likely scenario is employees only trust certain supervisors/managers. For example, Sally’s team quickly submitted several impressive lean stories. She is already doing what we want. Her team participated in both identifying irritations and problem resolution. Sally’s team did not use the suggestion box. Sally’s team describes her as “very helpful.” Sally has identified two employees who need a more challenging position. Needless to say, Sally will be a key leader in our lean transformation. Two maintenance department employees submitted several good suggestions; they used the suggestion box. Ben did a great job appraising suggestions. Two canning supervisors show promise. I would feel good about this outcome.

You are in a dire situation. The only feedback received from employees were complaints about management, left anonymously in the suggestion box. Your best option is to focus on hiring lean leaders. This means overhauling the hiring process. A good start is to have applicants submit lean stories. Lean leaders should have lean stories.

Jack was helpful

The pet food manufacturing plant was an impressive facility. One and a half million cans of pet food produced each day. The stream of cans only stopped when:

the work week ended,
a machine broke, or
the two-hour daily cleaning started.

When a broken machine halted the flow of cans, unsterilized cans were thrown away. Sterilized cans could be taken off the conveyor via the bright stacker. (Since these cans were not labeled, stacks of them were called bright stacks.) When the kitchen area was cleaned and sterilized, the unlabeled cans taken off the line earlier in the day were put back on the conveyor. Since I was the newest Quality Assurance technician, I worked the graveyard shift, the clean-up shift.

Everyone knew the bright stacker dented many cans. It irritated me the most because I was the one who had to decide which pallets (196 cases) had to be hand sorted for dents. All pallets from bright stacks contained many dented cans.

Finally, in a desperate cry for help, I crunched the numbers and wrote a report, “90% of the product hand sorted for dents came from bright stacks.” The supervisor on my shift told me he’s weary of trying to fix the problem; learn to live with it. Jack, a supervisor on another shift, replaced a metal sweeping arm with a rubber sweeping arm. The problem, my irritation, went away.

Looking back, I view the rubber sweeping arm as my achievement. I’m sure Jack feels the same way. Identifying a problem to solve is just as important as solving a problem. I am sure Jack would have put me on the helpful list.

Go to the gemba

Every week, Jerry posted problems/opportunities on the bulletin board. His most memorable post was, “The cost of the dry dog food exceeds expectations. Where are we wasting raw materials?”

Starting at the corn silos, I walked the entire processing line for the first time. No corn kernels could be seen between the silos and the hammer mill. I was surprised the hammer mill room was clean. The conveyance from the hammer mill to the dry mixing tanks looked fine. I passed the extruders many times every day so I knew the waste wasn’t there. Ditto for the oven and storage silos.

Immediately before the dry dog food was put into bags, it was sprayed with a water based liquid. The nozzles in the sprayer unit pointed downward. When the line shut down, which normally occurred many times an hour, all the liquid leaked out of the pipes above the nozzles. This flaw in the system cost the company 30,000 gallons of meat digest per year.

Bending the pipes upward at the nozzles prevented the leakage. This simple solution saved the company three truckloads of meat digest per year.

How could we have caught this problem sooner?

Customers had been complaining about moldy dry dog food for years. Mold needs water to multiply. Meat digest was 90% water. The over application of meat digest to the product directly under the leakage may have been responsible for the moldy product. It was the only place we purposely sprayed a water based liquid onto the dry kibble.

Customers always tell us where the process is deficient. Customer concerns must be shared with all employees. Were the meat digest nozzles pointing downward at the company’s other plants?