Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Automating Lean, Be Careful.

Let me first define what this post isn't.  This post is not arguing that you should not lean up through automation (Although Deming would have a field day on this topic).  Rather I argue that when starting a new lean culture you should not automate the visual indicators (visual controls) of the process.  Visual indicators broadly include any intuitively-easy-to-understand system for monitoring and controlling a process — with examples ranging from kanbans to painted golf balls — but most common is the visual control chart ( The purpose for visual controls in lean management is to focus on the process and make it easy to compare expected versus actual performance. Introducing a Lean lifestyle to an organizational culture is both exciting and frightening at the same time.  Exciting because the firm can squarely focus on value delivery and consider value in a frame they likely have not done.  Frightening because the concepts and activities which are adopted commonly share the culture to the core.   The tendency when in a new process is to try to automate as much as possible.  Don't.

When creating a lean culture the shift which occurs is to frequently use visual controls to measure constraints.  Creating a dashboard on a computer or email provides value but is too easily ignored in a immature process.  Hands on manually created visual controls instill habits that support Kaizen.

In the book 'Creating a Lean Culture: Tools to Sustain Lean Conversions' David Mann suggests.  "The visuals reflect frequent readings of the health of and adherence to the lean design. And, of course, the visuals record misses in the newly transformed process. Establish a standard accountability process through which the misses are converted into actions that sustain and improve on the transformation, as described in Chapter 5. Now you have elements of standard work for leaders that Go to the visuals regularly to verify they are being completed consistently, in a timely manner, and with appropriate specificity. Conduct the standard accountability meeting with the visual tracking charts or their data brought into the session: – Ask about the misses recorded on the visuals. – Make assignments to understand and act on the causes of process misses and system breakdowns, as well as assignments based on your and others’ observations in the area."

Again Mann implores "You might ask: “Aren't all these visuals a lot to maintain?” Not if there is a systematic process for maintaining them. In fact, that is one of the main contributions of standard work for leaders. Team leaders either do or do not make entries on the visual trackers as specified by their standardized work. Supervisors’ and value stream leaders’ standard work directs them to review the visual controls several times daily (or at least once for value stream leaders) for two reasons: one is to verify the visuals are being maintained. The second is to verify that appropriate actions have been initiated when abnormal conditions are identified on the visual controls. When considered in total, there indeed can be lots of visual controls in a value stream or entire facility. But each visual is singular. A single person is accountable for executing it. One or two or more people have specifically designated responsibility for verifying its maintenance and for taking action if it slips. And any of these visual controls is simple, straightforward, can be interpreted at a glance, easily audited, and diagnosed. Put that together with the simple, unambiguous definition of responsibilities for maintaining and using the controls and the system looks much more manageable, as it is in actual application."

From an IT perspective, visual controls might seem like an embarrassing return to the information Stone Age. Visuals are usually not very snappy looking because they are maintained by hand. People are actually counting things (how many pieces do we expect in this load; how many are actually in it?) and writing them down. Have these people not heard of computers and barcode scanners?

Lean processes are designed not to rely on the extras stashed away in conventional systems to bail things out in a pinch. Even so, things go wrong in lean systems just as they do in mass systems. By design, a lean process has little unaccounted-for slack in the system to fall back on. Because of that, lean processes require far more attention to disciplined cycle-by-cycle operation to ensure the process stays in a stable state. Otherwise, the process will fail to hit its goals and fail to deliver the business results so important in any kind of production system. Paradoxically then, in many ways, simpler lean systems require more maintenance than conventional systems.  The way to stay focused on maintenance is to manually control the indicators and constantly define what's moving the dial.

Overall, the lean management system favors hand-completed visual controls because of its bias toward pitch-by-pitch focus on process and the importance of everyone involved in a process having timely information about how that process is performing. When information is available to only a select few, whether managers or specialists, only those few can take responsibility. Indeed, only those few have the information base for thinking about why the process performed as it did, what the causes of that performance might have been, and what might be done to eliminate the causes of interruptions or to improve performance from its current level.

When thinking about visual controls think about their purpose.  What habits are you trying to control and what habits are you trying to break?  How different is accountability when controls always visible and updated?  Remember this is uncomfortable because it's new.  Often people accuse these indicators as "common sense".  We know they aren't common sense otherwise most organizations would organically be using them.  Visual controls support visual lean management.  While lean management is the number one driver for lean success, visual controls server as a fuel lean practitioners can use to build their lean culture .  

Popular Posts