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Up and down


This is the cathedral of Salamanca, Spain. It’s old and beautiful so it’s always full of visitors trying to get access to it, especially the gothic towers. The stairs that go up are narrow and long (it takes approx. 2 minutes to go to the top) and there is little room to move. In the past people tried to go up to the tower when other people were going down from the tower, so problems were frequent: people getting stuck and nervous, some panic attacks, long queues. The result: unhappy visitors.

Today there is a visual system that controls the flow of people. Surprisingly, this simple screen has made a big difference. Well, maybe it’s not such a big surprise: it is visually easy to understand, it combines color, graphs and text, and tells everybody in a very effective way if they are allowed to go or if they have to wait (and how long). Now the visitors know what to expect, no more hurries, no more frustration. Instead, there is a very good flow of people going up and down quietly and enjoying the visit. And best of all, people can organize themselves without any external help. Self management in place!

These are the wonderful views over the city from the top of the tower. It’s worth the wait!

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A Daniel T. Jones conference


Last Friday I had the pleasure to attend a Daniel T. Jones conference. His speech was full of thoughts and insights about lean, based on his many years of experience. Some remarkable ideas he shared with the audience are:

Lean as a management system for delivering accelerated performance. This means that Lean is a dynamic system and not simply “a better way of using resources” (static). The 2 main differences with classic management (Taylorism) are a) Lean involves front line in improving their work and b) Lean promotes learning through repeated practice in solving problems

Classic management rules: “command and control” + “experts own improvement” + “compliance”. Lean transformation means: Focus (“From managing by data to closing vital few gaps”) + Build cooperation (“From silo politics to focus on delivering value”) + Building capabilities (“The organization supports front line learning”).

Learning practice a) begins with knowledge of the work creating a standard (TWI), b) deepens using PDCA /Lean tools and c) uses A3 to solve business problems

Management must move from “telling what to do” to “asking questions that provoke the right thinking”. Telling people what to do takes away responsibility from the person. Management main goals are a) find and frame problems by observing (at the gemba) front line learning and b) challenge, enable and remove obstacles for front line while they are solving problems.

And his final summary!

  • Expert roll-out does not work. It is not sustainable.
  • Lean is not a Copy-and-Paste exercise
  • Manager commitment is basic. The classic expectation “You are my lean expert, solve my problems for me” is an error.
  • Lean means everyday work. From everybody.
  • “Accelerated incremental learning” beats “big projects”
  • Management most important question is not “How can I help you?”. It is “What are your problems?”


How to mislead everybody



Visuals are great tools to reduce errors and increase speed. However they must be designed with care, because wrong visuals are worse than no visuals at all.

The picture above shows a signal in LA airport indicating the direction to the boarding gates. Apparently going either to the left or to the right is ok for anybody, but passengers soon find out that gates to the left are for business class and gates to the right for economy class. The signal is not strictly wrong but is definitely confusing. As a result, crowds of people were wandering around trying to find out were the boarding gates were, which produces waste in the “boarding process”: defects (wrong gate), waiting (queueing twice), transport (suitcases moving more than needed), motion (people moving more than needed),…

This is another example from Chicago airport:


This gate monitor showed for more than 2 hours a flight to LA, but the plane really flew to Las Vegas (as the rest of the monitors in the airport correctly indicated) . I counted more than 50 people who asked if Las Vegas was really the destination when they got to the gate. The gate crew called the maintenance department at least 2 times to repair the monitor (no success). When we were boarding, some passengers were still a bit worried about being on the wrong plane.

When designing visuals, don’t let them be misleading. A visual is a very simple and effective way of helping people. Make sure they really help.


Underground Poka-yoke


Poka-yoke is a Japanese term that means “mistake-proofing” or “error-proofing”. Simply put, poka-yokes are mechanisms that make errors visible or, in their most advanced form, impossible to do. The world is full of poka-yokes, some designed on purpose, some not.

You can find one example in the picture. A broken subway turnstile with a sticker that a) tells everybody that the mechanism is broken, and therefore, not ready to use and b) prevents any customer from putting the subway ticket in the slot (what will have unexpected consequences)

Old-fashioned solutions


One of the best ways of applying lean is using the simplest solution possible. In these days it looks that IT and automation must be part of the perfect solution, but it’s not always the case. In this brand new modern restaurant they have decided to use a simple system to link customer-table-food. Nice, visual and cheap.

Don’t take me wrong, I have nothing against computers, they are powerful and make our life better. However sometimes they make the process objectively worse: more complicated, difficult to use, difficult to learn, information is hidden, problems are difficult and expensive to solve. And all that is waste.

Help your customers help you!

I’ve found this sign recently at a hardware shop in Madrid. It was in a self-service area were customers could manually pick up different types of screws, pins, nuts and similar stuff. It explains what is the recommended use of 2 different types of hinges, shows how to decide if you need them right or left oriented, and supports the written information with pictures.


Maybe it’s not technically perfect (is there anything perfect, anyway?), but there are 2 things that I found outstanding from the communication point of view. First, it is simple. Simplicity is key, especially when you expect the user to read it alone. It’s incredible how many signs try to cover all the bases and as a result the signs are difficult to understand and create great confusion. Second, it tries to push decisions as close as possible to the final user. It puts the information at the point where it is most useful. And this is very cool. This strategy reduces the probability of error and increases speed of decision at the same time. Yes, it’s time to forget those old-fashioned stories that say that quality and speed are opposites.


Maybe the quality and speed of decision have increased at this shop with this type of signs, maybe not. But just the fact of trying is really great.

Why culture matters

I visited Crete recently and one of the first things that shocked me was the traffic. The way locals drove their cars was… creative. One picture follows to put everybody on the same page:


What you see is a single lane road, with 2 cars overtaking a third one, which drives on the emergency shoulder. We could talk for hours about standardization, visuals and similar things, but what surprised me the most was something different. Those were rental cars, most probably driven by tourists, who (very likely) don’t drive like this in their home countries. Just a few days on the island made them behave very differently.

All of us who have failed many times doing lean (6sigma, OpEx, continuous improvement…. you name it) projects know how easy it is to forget the importance of culture. Help your people understand this and you’ve done 50% of any improvement initiative.