Archive | March 2015

Natural born killers (II)

Does not compute

Are you struggling with Lean? You might have a Lean killer in your organization. But don’t worry, the “Natural born killers” series is here to help! Don’t miss chapter 1: “The fireman“. Today: “the Human Computer

  • Signals: Is the process flowing smoothly until somebody takes vacations or is assigned to a different project/area in the company? You might have a human computer in your team. They control the information and limit the access to critical data to others, therefore they become indispensable for the work. Sometimes they are easy to uncover, most times they are not. Even worse: in some occasions managers promote and reward those people because “they are very valuable and always find the information we are looking for”. Oh no!
  • Solution: This problem can be prevented with real standardization: all process steps and all critical data must be documented and made available at the place where it is needed. After that, extensive training is needed for all workers / shifts. This is more difficult than it seems, because human computers will not provide the information openly. My first piece of advise is: involve human computers as soon and as much as possible in your improvement work. If they feel they are the stars of the improvement process and will be rewarded for its success then maybe (just maybe) information will show up. Involve human computers in presenting the solution to management: this will make them feel responsible for the new process and will increase dramatically the probability of success. My second piece of advise is: test the solution in all possible ways. After that, test it again. Try different shifts, different people (experts and juniors), different equipment. Try all combinations and force errors to happen. This will reduce the chances of having poor standards and people will get familiar with the new information.

Human computers are a very real problem and extremely harmful, not only because they control the information but also because their behaviour might look beneficial to the process for many.

Next chapter: “the Artist”

Natural born killers (I)


Yes, it is true, implementing Lean is difficult. This is no surprise since true Lean does not only introduce new tools and ways of working (techniques), it changes how you behave and think about work (management). It changes the culture. Some people quickly adapt to those changes, but most need time and patience, and this is ok. Resistance to change is human and will be there whether you like or not, so you better get prepared for it. It is a good idea to keep in mind some signals that can indicate that change is only happening on the surface. This “Natural born killers” series shows you several situations to watch out for. Today: “the Fireman“:

  • Signals: You have put a process in place, have written standards and have trained everybody. Things work apparently ok: the metrics show progress and Lean ideas are used. But what happens if a crisis comes (a close due date, an ugly quality problem, an accident…)? Do you still stick to your standards? If the answer is “no”, then firefighting is still in the DNA of your people. Observing how people behave in a crisis can show you a lot about how well your Lean efforts are progressing. Typically a powerful person (a manager, a very experienced worker) takes control over the work, even if they were not involved in the process until that moment. The Fireman has come to town. They adopt a “command-and-control” strategy, telling everybody what to do or even doing all the work by themselves. No team work, no data, just do things my way, the way it’s always been done. In many cases Firemen belong to the “do whatever it takes to hit the numbers” school of thought.
  • Solution: In general, preparing the process and the people for a crisis before it comes is a good strategy to prevent this problem: decide in advance how you will behave (crisis standards), how you will support the process (crisis backups), what data you will need to keep things under control (KPI, visual controls), how you will control progress (crisis meetings). A crisis is an exceptional event and it is ok to handle it differently from business as usual (this means that it is ok to have 2 sets of standards to use depending on the situation. This does not mean that following standards is optional in case of problems). Be ready to check if the company is really serious about Lean when a crisis comes.

There is an even riskier variation of this problem: “The Pyromaniac”. These people force the process to fail (unintentionally or not) only to have the opportunity to show their problem-solving skills. They are extremely dangerous and must be kept under control from the beginning.

Next chapter: the Human Computer

Picture from:

Webinar: Michael Balle’s align goals to vision

Last Monday I attended a webinar about “aligning goals to vision” by Michael Ballé and the Lean Leadership Institute. It was the last of four webinars based on Michael’s book “Lead with respect”. You can find a summary with my notes here:

IMG_4333Michael shared many interesting thoughts:

  • Lean approach to vision can be described as “deliver quickly several times a day what people want“. The challenge in some cases is defining the customer (“people”) and value (“what people want”), especially in those businesses where lean has not been used very often.
  • Lean is unique defining customer needs because the needs are defined one by one. Lean abolishes generic customers: customers don’t have to fit my process anymore.
  • Companies have human capital (knowledge) and social capital (trust), both are critical for the company success. Social capital, hard to build, easy to lose.
  • Keep this always in mind when implementing lean:
    • Some work will not solve problems, it will help the corporation understand where problems are. Challenges are better understood by the corporation and therefore problem solving will be effective. This is critical.
    • Don’t standardize visuals. Let people create their own panels and change and adapt them as many times as needed. Be dynamic. Sometimes visuals are forced to be similar across the organization (trying to honor the Lean principle of standardization) but this is an error.
  • Lean financial impact analysis:ROCE = margin x turns
    • ROCE: return of capital
    • Margin: improves with Jidoka (first time quality that reduces waste)
    • Turns: improves with JIT (just in time that reduces Lead time and increases responsiveness to the customer)
  • The Lean dynamics:
    • Customer lifestyle: take care of customer’s problems at a reasonable cost.
    • Value analysis: improve quality by solving quality issues right away.
    • Value engineering: learn about customer preferences to figure out new features for your product or service.
  • Final summary: organize the company for learning (choose leaders for their ability to lead teams, teach and learn), not just for output (choose leaders for their ability to hit the numbers).


If you are interested in the webinars, they are available here:

I also recommend the book:

Webinars: LeanLeadership

This is a nice place to look for webinars and events about Lean. Many Lean experts share their thoughts and experiences, answer questions and help others improve their understanding of Lean concepts:

Very helpful!

Global vs local

This concept of “global vs local optimization” is often misunderstood. It seems obvious that splitting a process in pieces and improving them separately must improve the global performance of the process. Sadly, this is not necessarily true. What makes a part of the process excel could be exactly what kills other parts. This “what-improves-me-kills-you” effect happens more often than you might think and its effect is terrible, since the less effective part of a process impacts heavily its performance.

This simple example created by the Lean Management Institute illustrates this idea:


Genuine improvement (which means improving things your customer really cares about) rarely happens without a global approach. Focusing in isolated parts of the process will, in the best case, improve the local efficiency of an area or department but will have little impact in your customer’s satisfaction. In the worst case, everything will work much, much worse and you’ll spend hours (weeks, months…) wondering why.

Myth: Lean hates functions


It is not uncommon to find people who think that Lean hates functions (e.g. “Engineering”, “Sales”, “Marketing”, “QA”, “IT”…) This is not true. Lean recognizes functions as key elements to preserve technical knowledge and develop people, therefore they are fundamental for a company.

The problem is somewhere else. Most companies are organized by functions and, as a consequence, separate functionally the management of the process, believing that this will improve performance. The rational is that if you break a process in pieces and improve each of them as much as possible, creating big functional experts, then the process must be the best possible. Sadly, this is not true in most cases, although common sense tells you that this should work.

The problem with the previous approach is that breaking the process in pieces and optimizing each of them individually gets (in the best scenario) local optimization but a lot of waste for the process globally. Process alignment and one unique manager that owns the work end-to-end with all the functions reporting to him/her is an ideal solution (although sometimes counter-intuitive). Why?:

  • One process performed by different functions or departments increases probability of handoffs, queues and quality issues (loss of information, additional sorting). This, apart from creating quality problems, generates more lead time and waste.
  • One only person responsible for the process increases overall performance: one person is responsible for the full process, prioritization and decision-making are easier and information flow is better.
  • From the customer perspective, they can communicate directly with one person about process issues. This makes the response to problems faster. Cross-functional training is easier to do, what creates even more flexibility and responsiveness to problems.
  • Team members belong to a group who owns the process (and not just support it). This increases ownership and motivation, since work is not just “another project for another guy” but “improving my own work”.

I recommend the book “Lean Office and Service Simplified” (Drew Locher, CRC Press, 2011) for more information about using Lean and integrating functions, especially for service processes.

Functions are like a knife: very useful but dangerous if they are used wrong.

Picture from: