Is your Current State Data Garbage?

Have you ever been faced with a coworker approaching you with a perception of a problem occurring somewhere in the organization, yet there is no data to actually quantify the frequency or severity of the problem? This is an everyday occurrence for many of us. Sometimes I see personnel attempting to solve a perceived problem with countermeasures before they truly understand the problem or have quantified the current state. Though I’m proud of them taking initiative to solve a problem, I have to steer them to make sure they fully understand the current state before implementing any corrective actions. Sadly, it is very typical for problem solvers to gravitate towards a potential solution because they’re “sure” they know how to correct the root cause, only to discover, “oops – the problem didn’t go away.” Worse, we install a “fix” to eliminate the symptom of a problem without addressing the root cause in the first place (the ubiquitous “band-aid”).

Collecting data is key to understanding the current state, and will thereby clearly illuminate the problems that need addressing. This data collection need not be difficult. As a young engineer having a programming background, I recall years ago prototyping a software application to query our database and present historical analysis data on our production processes. the only problem? The data lived in the *past* and was not actionable, didn’t involve the operator, and it was not visible to the production supervisor or engineer the moment the error or defect occurred so the problem could be better understood the moment it happened.

As an example, this weekend my son and his cub scout group volunteered at a local beach cleanup day. The conservation organization putting on the event asked all participants to log the trash t
hey picked up on a check-sheet. This paper log asked you to categorize each piece of trash found and is undoubtedly intended to help understand the current state so that countermeasures might be taken to eliminate the root cause. If the problem being solved is trash on the beach, picking up the trash helps eliminate the symptom (the trash), but does not address the root cause – how/why the trash got on the beach in the first place. For instance, finding many plastic spoons might suggest the ice cream parlor across the street may need to encourage patrons to enjoy their ice-cream off the beach. In order to collect data like this, a check sheet is a helpful tool to understand the current state, but thought is required to ensure the tool is most effective.

Some ideas to help understand the current state:

  1. Collect data visibly, in the area affected. This is best done on a mobile whiteboard or flip chart right at the station or machine.
  2. Have the direct-line personnel (such as an operator) collect the data themselves, asking them to record the data personally, when possible. This helps build ownership and understanding of the process.
  3. Consider collecting data on a sampling of the process rather than logging all data. In this case “sampling” is intended to mean that you don’t try to collect data for every defect/instance – but a randomly selected subset of all occurrences. This is helpful in that it reduces the time required to collect the data and/or inspect all defects. However if you choose to sample the data, be sure the data collected will span all times, locations, machines, or personnel proportionally, so that your data is not biased.
  4. Avoid using computers, or “hidden” log-sheets not visible to everyone nearby. Involving all others in the area, even those not directly involved in the area helps reinforce the need to collect data on a problem, and emphasizes your culture of lean thinking and good root cause analysis.
  5. Make sure everyone understands the categories of the data. If you need to categorize defects or causes of occurrences, the categories should be few and easy to understand. There is no need for elaborate lists of categories. Keep it simple! By having an elaborate system of categories, you may overly complicate the problem, and add time to the data collection process.
  6. Use the data! There is no point in recording current state data if there will be no action taken. Management needs to be prepared and ready to support improvement activities to solve the problems uncovered.

If you have one hundred volunteers for beach cleanup day, would it be most effective to expect every participant to log each item found? Perhaps this would be a good time to utilize a sampling plan and only have selected individuals log the trash. In the case of my son and I, itemizing the trash found was time consuming and the categories were confusing and prone to errors. It took more time to figure out what category to count the item to than it did to pick the item up. I spent all my time trying to keep up with my son picking up the trash – and regardless of my best intentions and careful consideration of the categories, at least half my recorded data felt mis-categorized because of the confusing categories.

Good root cause analysis cannot be done without a thorough understanding of the current state. We need to think of ourselves as scientists of our processes. For successful problem solving, the science of the problem must be measured and understood before implementing countermeasures.

A Ray of Sunshine in the Muck and Mire

Often on continuous improvement journeys, we come across big hairy monsters of slime, inefficiencies, and muck. If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you’re one with the ability to see through all the waste in your processes to what the process should be. You have that gift of seeing the ideal state. You can see that ray of beautiful sunshine when your process is screaming fast and delivering exactly what’s needed. You’re the athlete in a crowd of pudge.

When your boots are stuck in a bath of gunk built up from years of band-aids and patches to keep the boat afloat, you have that ever-repeating dilemma: Do you add another band-aid and move on? Or do you hit the issue with true paradigm shifting improvement – the kind of improvement that comes from being brave enough to take on years of neglect? Do you pursue the large, innovative improvement requiring more hours and effort or do you use the alternate approach of small, less demanding continuous improvement? It’s deciding between the band-aid or the scalpel.

It’s great to support small, continuous improvement to help build a culture of kaizen. To me this is a starting point in building your organization’s culture. However, it can be far more rewarding and effective at changing culture when you allow your teams to pursue the really big problems with really big solutions. Giving them the time, latitude and focus to bring together their creativity and experience to bring real change. The kind of change that allows the team to look back at their improvement with awe and pride. This gives your people engagement of what Lean really is.

photo credit: Larmer Tree Saturday: Bury Him! via photopin (license)

Standard Work for a Lean Stand-Up Meeting

The stand-up morning meeting is a daily ritual of many organizations on Lean journeys. The format for a Lean stand-up meeting varies depending on the group that is being brought together. I’ve discussed a format for cross-functional teams in one of my earlier posts. In this post, I want to discuss a daily meeting format for one’s “first” or primary, focused team.

First, let’s discuss some reasons or benefits of a daily team meeting:

  1. Celebrate progress and “Wow” moments
  2. Share mistakes and learning
  3. Share problems and roadblocks for progress
  4. Encourages team support and collaboration
  5. Remind and emphasize company vision, mission, or “true north” ideals

Here are some standard work items to consider for your Lean stand-up meeting:

Visual Management. Center the meeting around your visual management board. Every team’s board will be unique to that team and will continue to improve over time. If you don’t yet have a board, create something quickly and plan to refine over time. Don’t over analyze this; it should be an evolving tool. I’ve seen effective visual boards that comprised of nothing more than post-it notes on a blank wall.

Start-up Rituals. The opening to the meeting can start with standard questions such as below. These are the quick announcements that usually take less than a minute. Generally, the person opening the meeting will iterate through each question:

  1. Any WOW Moments?
  2. Safety Issues?
  3. Customer Issues?
  4. Visitors/Events?
  5. Other?

Daily metrics. Devote some time to review the current metrics and discuss any recent problems or trends. This will also be unique to each team and should only take a minute or two. For metrics changing less often, these could be discussed at the appropriate interval (weekly, biweekly, monthly, etc.)

Team Member Updates. Focused teams are hopefully small enough that each team member can give an individual update. These updates by each team member are for the team’s benefit; they are not specifically for the manager or supervisor. Often people want to give updates directly to their manager and everyone else practically dozes off on their feet. In order to get out of this habit, the facilitator/manager can ask questions applicable to others, or draw attention to items in the update specifically applicable to others on the team. Meanwhile, regular one-on-one meetings should give each team member the opportunity to get that direct feedback they may be looking for. A daily meeting should not replace the one-on-one time with the team member’s supervisor. The important point is that the value of the updates should be for the benefit of the entire group. Here are standard questions to consider for each person’s update (not necessarily all of them every day):

  • What did you complete yesterday?
  • What did you learn yesterday?
  • What waste or opportunities for improvement did you find yesterday?
  • What prevented you from making progress on your priorities yesterday (what interruptions were there)?
  • What mood best describes you today: sad, angry, scared, happy, excited, or tender? (Note the acronym for this is “SASHET”). See this reference for more info.
  • What are your priorities today?

Time keeping. Have an accurate clock nearby to start and stop on-time. It’s important to respect everyone’s schedule and the daily meeting should not be an exception.

Closing Ritual. As a closing ritual, I share a success or motivational quote, a random science or space fact, or a riddle. This helps end the meeting on a light-hearted and fun note. When I come across something interesting I add it to a task list on my phone as a queue to present at the morning meeting.

Five Ways to Discover Hidden Problems

Ten years ago, I worked with a manufacturing department that was beginning their Lean Journey and it was standard practice for them to produce 10% over the customer order quantity in case there were problems in the downstream operations. In many cases, this extra 10% was still not enough to cover the order after defective product was removed from the lot. Another production run then had to be started to fulfill the customer order quantity. These additional runs not only caused delays to the shipment, but it ultimately increased the cost to the customer: There were additional equipment setups, lot-release inspections, scrap product, inventory management time, packaging time, certification paperwork, etc.

Of course, it is a natural reaction to “up the standard” so that next time you don’t have to run twice – Simply adjust the standard order quantity to be 20% more instead of the normal 10%, and all the problems go away, right? Slap your forehead now, please.

Fast forward to present day. The company now runs exactly the order quantity requested by the customer – no more. In a recent case a customer-requested change to the part design required modifications to the tooling required to make the part. This change therefore needed additional parts above the order quantity to verify the tooling was modified correctly. This additional inspection went unplanned and subsequently there was a shortage of parts, requiring the need for an additional production run. In this case, this error led to problem solving in order to resolve why the error had occurred. Had the production team produced a standard overage quantity, the overage would have covered up the need to perform root-cause analysis and the problem would surely arise again in the future.

Where in your operations do you cover up problems with inventory? I would argue that excess inventory is a rampant inhibitor to improvement in most organizations. In many cases, inventory itself may not be the “big” waste – but rather the opportunities for improvement (problems) it hides. In many situations, the extra inventory isn’t a burden on cash or floor space – it’s easy, and relatively “cheap”. However, when we do this we need to remind ourselves that it is not the cost of inventory that is the real waste to be concerned about – the real waste is all of the other problems that are going undiscovered with our processes.

Inventory waste is certainly not related to just manufacturing. It’s a problem in all organizations: service organizations, healthcare, non-profits, education, government… Here are some recommendations to help reduce inventory in your organization:

  1. First, be the voice to educate others the real waste with inventory is the waste associated with all the undiscovered problems. You need to deliver the persistent message to point your organization towards the ideal state.
  2. Reduce any standard “overage” quantities you have. This may be done gradually or quickly, depending on the case. If potential problems may be “large” and challenging to resolve, you may want to go slower at first.
  3. Look for inventory waste in the office and other indirect support areas. These often suggest eye-opening problem areas.
  4. Look at inventory as anything in “excess” – padded lead times for example. Extra lead time works exactly the same as extra inventory to cover up problems.
  5. Use “Five-Whys” or fish-bone diagrams when looking at excess quantities to help determine the deeper problems that are going unresolved.

A New Tool for your Product Family Matrix

The elimination of waste in a Lean Journey is often stagnated when manufacturing is organized in a “functional” layout.  By having equipment and operations organized into similar functions, improvement often plateaus.  The personnel working in a functional area are often isolated or at least disconnected from other up- and down-stream operations.  For this reason, they naturally focus their improvement efforts to their respective areas.  But this ultimately limits the significant improvements possible in a value stream.

The formation of focused teams and work cells creates a paradigm shift of improvement.  Reorganizing into cellular, product family focused teams enables:

  • Reduced defects and scrap
  • Reduced process variation
  • Reduced transportation
  • Reduced batch sizes and overproduction
  • Creating true continuous, single-piece flow
  • Reduced inventory
  • Improved throughput

Using a product family matrix is a widely accepted approach to determining the best groups of products and machines.  However, when companies have hundreds, or even thousands of part numbers or assembly combinations, it can be extremely challenging to figure out how to group people into focused teams based on product families.

Industrial engineers from universities around the world have struggled for decades with the challenge of how to create “optimal” product families and have thus created multitudes of different algorithms to “solve” this eternal problem.  Meanwhile, Lean practitioners have often approached this problem from more real-world approaches.  From my exposure to these efforts, I have yet to see companies on a Lean journey apply or even be knowledgeable of these “optimizing” algorithms that are available to assist in this process.  Why would you ask a Lean-minded manufacturing supervisor to load up a mathematical model using fancy computational algorithms to figure out how to group their employees into focused teams?

Product Family Studio™ now gives the every-day practitioner or supervisor a practical tool developed on top of an academically proven algorithm to take the pain out of forming Product Families, even for very large numbers of products.   This software application allows the practitioner to creatively manage a product family matrix combined with his/her subjective judgment to come to solutions that work.

So please take a look and let us know what you think!

Teach, Coach, Mentor and Inspire

What is the essence of high quality leadership?  One of my previous mentors inspired in me a direction of leadership I find helpful in my role as an engineering manager.  In the midst of chaos with manufacturing leadership, it can be tough choosing between working “in the trenches” with your team, and retiring yourself to the sidelines in your new role as coach and leader.

Here is the direction for leadership I find most effective:


Remember, once you are placed in a role of leadership, it is time to let go of your ego.  Undoubtedly your skills and abilities contributed to being promoted into leadership, so it is only natural to be reluctant to share these skills with others.  Teaching others your prized abilities may actually feel as though you are losing control or that your position is threatened.  It is your job as a leader to build team members who will grow to outsmart and outperform you.  That is the result of being a successful teacher.  So of course you should feel threatened!  Learning to get past this however helps prove you to be a successful leader – so don’t worry; you’ll progress as well!

We are all busy as leaders.  It can be exceptionally challenging to carve out time to put together regular trainings.  Do not feel as though teaching has to be a big, formal affair requiring hours of preparation.  Creating a training can be as simple as a guided discussion with your team on the topic of choice.  You can pull out the knowledge of your team, and contribute points in the discussion from your own experience.  It can be as simple as a list of bullet points.  Let the discussion around the topic guide the learning implicitly.

Ultimately, let go of your ego and embrace the discomfort of protecting your skills; it’s time to build a team of individuals stronger and more skilled than you.


Here’s where you need to picture yourself on the side of the court as your team plays ball.  That’s the vision at the team level.  You are there to create the game-plan and pitch in guidance at the important moments.  Who will be playing forward on the high-profile projects?  Who is going to be on defense protecting from problems that arise?  Do you know how the work will be distributed amongst your team?  Do you schedule your upcoming projects and queue them up based on availability and skills?  Meanwhile at the individual level, are you working to align your team members’ aspirations and skills with their growth path?  Are you anticipating and removing barriers to advance each individual towards their goal?


Is it a struggle for you to resist offering unwanted advice when your team members present you with their problems?  It may be difficult to avoid simply telling them what to do.  Are you practicing humility in your leadership?  The art of being a good mentor in my view resides in the skill of humble inquiry.  Asking the right questions to lead your subject to a solution results in greater future autonomy and problem solving skill.

Mentorship at its roots is based on caring.  Understanding and executing your role as a mentor can be incredibly rewarding.  When grounded in the basis of unbiased caring for the individual, you are able to build incredibly rich relationships and truly improve the lives of those you mentor.


Do you believe in the vision and mission of your organization? I recognize not all companies have clear visions and missions, if at all, sadly.  I believe it takes more than simply “liking” the company or industry you work in.  As I say, work is work!  It’s tough and challenging and tiring, and we expend a lot of energy providing value for our organizations.  Often our jobs have facets that are less exciting or rewarding.  This is when it is important to tap into the inspiration of leadership to give you the energy to push through the difficulties to reap the rewards of your efforts.  If you have reached success in your previous roles and have come to enjoy a leadership position, undoubtedly you harbor a fondness of your industry or line of work.  There is a spark within each of us.  It may take practice to articulate that inspiration.  But it’s an important exercise for you to perform regularly for your team and your peers.  True leadership inspiration builds the spirit within one’s team to reach heights not achievable otherwise.  Some days your team is going to feel dog tired.  This is when you need to remind them – teach them – of the inspirational light you have found.  You don’t have to have a team of speech writers behind your message.  Find your own words; they will do wonderfully well with a bit of practice.

Teach, coach, mentor and inspire.  They are words to lead and live by.


Having Trouble Sustaining your Lean Culture?

Stop whining how hard it is to “sustain” your continuous improvement efforts. You have not yet reached the transformational shift to real Lean if you are having to arm wrestle your people into sustaining an improvement culture. The ugly truth for most companies is unless you reorganize into teams of people who are focused on specific product families, you will not leverage the improvements possible with a Lean culture.

If your company is still organized in functional teams rather than focused teams, you will eventually hit an improvement wall. It is too hard to continue improving if the individual can’t reach in and shake sense into the entire flow of a process. The processes they own get improved – that’s it, no more. You limit the individual’s ownership of a process if they are organized into functional areas rather than in focused teams.

The transformational possibilities – and ultimately the path towards truly self-sustaining continuous improvement – lies within the individual who is able to see and interact with the entire process of adding value – not just one functional area. The team that owns much longer paths of a process can influence more, see transformational possibilities easier, and ultimately break through that barrier to reach continuous, sustainable improvement.

LeanProToolbox has developed a tool to assist Lean practitioners form Product Families.  Be sure to check it out.

Process Mapping: 6 Steps for a Deep Understanding

Are you struggling on your Lean Journey to cross train or to educate newer employees on complex technical processes? In this post I explain how Process Mapping is a best practice technique to understand the most challenging processes – whether they are business or manufacturing processes.

Some processes are very complex from a technology standpoint, each having many, many inputs and outputs. For example a typical injection molding machine today might have a hundred machine parameters for a specific process. Add to that the complexity of preparing raw material, the flow dynamics of the material in the mold, and the processing of the part downstream and you have a multitude of inputs to manage. The outputs of these complex processes can be equally complex to determine the root cause for so many potential types of defects.

As you can see, there can be a tremendous amount of knowledge required and therefore it is a challenging task to educate and cross train. This holds true whether we are talking about manufacturing or business processes. Of course in all cases we need to strive to rethink, minimize, and possibly even eliminate processes that do not add value to the customer – but let’s focus on understanding the current state today.

In an earlier post, I described how to apply A3 Thinking in a group setting using a whiteboard for collaborative problem solving. In this post, I am digging in deeper to describe how to create a Process Map to fully understand a particular process. I have found going through this exercise with experts and newcomers together is an excellent way to “hash out” differences of understanding and paint a complete picture of how a process works. The facilitator need only be skilled at asking questions of the team; no prior knowledge is necessary.  After going through this exercise many times for very complex processes, I am absolutely sold on its effectiveness.

What is a Process Map?

  • A visual representation of the current process
  • Captures all inputs and outputs to a process

Process Map

How do you create one?

  1. Assemble both experts and newbies at a whiteboard (using a computer tends to be less engaging)
  2. Define the scope of your discussion (starting and ending process steps)
  3. Define each main step in the process
  4. Define all conceivable inputs. Each should be measurable and must include a unit of measure. For technical processes, the unit of measure assists at planning future experiments to deepen the scientific understanding of the input.  Each input should be defined as a noun. It may be helpful to consider the 6M’s to determine all the inputs:
    1. Manpower
    2. Machine
    3. Material
    4. Measurement
    5. Method
    6. Mother Nature
  5. Define all conceivable outputs. Each should also be measurable and must include a unit of measure. Consider each of the defect types from the process step and list those as well.
  6. Work through each step in the process.

During the facilitation of this exercise, questioning everything is the key ingredient. This should not be a “me teach, you listen” exercise. Rather, the engagement should be in asking questions and poking sharply by asking “why” and “what if” questions. I have found these discussions also bring about innovation ideas and many “wow moments.” I should also note that often cause and effect discussions arise (that is “if this, then that happens” type comments). These are important to understand, but I recommend leaving these details out for a future session dedicated to that very topic – and one that I hope to have a future post on.

Process Map Example

Visual Management of Focused Teams using a Whiteboard

Visual Management is an important tool in your organization’s quest for Operational Excellence. I mentioned in my last post a great way to create action using a whiteboard for cross functional teams. Today I want to present a whiteboard layout that I have used for well over a year with a focused team (such as an engineering support team). This particular layout is suitable for teams of individuals who generally work on similar tasks, but tend to work individually (or as team members on other teams).

It can be very challenging to maintain focus on one’s highest priority task. We often face a constant supply of distractions and other “fires” that may interrupt working on “the #1 priority.” In addition, I believe many people tend to procrastinate tasks they find stressful, difficult, or simply feel ill prepared to work on. How do you deal with that?

I believe there are three components to break work down to maintain progress on the highest priority work.

1. Focus – Maintain visual focus on what is the #1 priority. This simple task is critical. Having daily meetings with one’s team and the team leader or manager is where the #1 priority is clearly communicated. This is not a “command and control” mechanism – this allows each team member to communicate with their team what is their top priority. A whiteboard is a critical component to this communication system.

2. Disciplined Thought – Inevitably other issues and questions arise during the day which interrupt one’s work. This is where disciplined thought comes into play. Everyone must be able to prioritize their work individually. Sometimes higher priority issues do arise, and we need to exercise our professional judgment to go ahead and switch gears. At other times, we’ll need to embrace the issue and have the discipline to set it aside and continue working on the previous (#1) priority.

3. Disciplined Action – “Work is work” as I say. Our work is challenging, isn’t it?! Embrace that. Enjoy the challenge of becoming a master. This takes practice to continue working on your priority task through distractions that arise. Consider the important concept of “pulling work” not “pushing it.” Do not begin work on your next action until your first priority is complete. Agree with yourself and your team what your priority is and maintain laser focus on that item until completion.


This whiteboard layout uses a grid pattern and “super sticky” Post-It Notes. The tasks or projects (actions) are written on the stickies and placed in the appropriate region on the board. The top two rows are for the top two priorities for each person. The “Interruptions” area is to communicate what interruptions have taken away from the priority items. During the daily meeting, the interruptions can be discussed and prioritized accordingly. Below this row is an area of queued items to be worked on next. There is an “On Hold” area near the bottom of the board for tasks that needed to be halted or stalled for some reason. And at the bottom there is an area for completed tasks. This area can be cleaned out every week or two as appropriate.

Another important note is that it is very helpful for each individual to meet with the team leader or manager periodically (every week or two) to re-prioritize tasks in the queue and discuss progress and needed feedback.

Lean Stand-Up Meeting: Get Ready for Action!

Many Lean focused organizations adopt some sort of daily stand-up meeting. These daily meetings may take different forms depending on the type of team, the typical problems to solve, and the nature of the business. Common elements to the daily stand-up meeting are: they tend to be short (5-15 minutes), have a visual management component (such as a whiteboard), and are conducted standing (as opposed to sitting) to keep discussions brief. There are multitudes of potential formats appropriate for these meetings. However I am going to present one type of format you can use for a daily meeting that may be well suited for bringing together a cross-functional team, such as management or supervision staff. This particular format was developed in part by two of my mentors, Kevin Meyer and Steven Kane. Both have many years of experience in Lean culture transformations.


The problems this format aims to address include:

  • How to communicate issues that need attention between functional groups
  • How to motivate individuals into action on particular issues
  • How to provide a forum for discussion of various business problems

The types of problems that are brought up in this meeting format tend to be “smaller” nagging types of issues that need attention. Many of these items deserve problem solving for continuous improvement, but some issues may be simply a matter of calibrating priorities between teams or individuals.

What’s needed:

  • A white board (preferably a magnetic white board) formatted into a grid with the first column for the names of those present at the meeting, and then 31 columns to show visibility for an entire month
  • “Super sticky” 2×2 Post-It notes (click here for more info)
  • Other magnet “do-dads” for other needs of the group (month names, stars, lines, etc.)
  • Black, red and green markers

How it works:

  • Each person comes to the meeting with any issues for others on a pre-written Post-It note. The comment could be in the form of a necessary action item or problem to solve. The Post-It note should include the name of the person originating the issue, the date, and the person receiving the issue.
  • The receiving individual will choose on what day they will report back the resolution and place the sticky on that date.
  • For the current day, each person reports back the status of any sticky notes. If the issue is not resolved, they place a “red dot” with a marker on the sticky note and moves the issue out to a new date. If the issue is continuously moved out, it will end up with “lots of red dots” which eventually becomes more and more uncomfortable as the person continues to move out the issue.
  • When the issue is completed, a “green dot” is placed on the sticky note to show closure. The individual would give an update on the closure, as necessary.
  • A magnetic line indicator shows today’s date above the corresponding column and delineates the current month (to the right) and the following month (to the left)
  • Green dot items are left until the first of the month
  • Include a line above the weekend dates
  • Note, it is important to use this system as a way to create action and accountability and to celebrate the improvements that result in the Action Board. Use stars or other decorations to celebrate accomplishments and continuous improvements to keep the meeting positive.
  • You can also incorporate KPI’s, Project updates, etc. into this meeting, depending on your needs.


Why it works:

  • The forum provides just enough peer pressure to support action and accountability, but not so much that it becomes overly stressful. The point is not finger pointing; it’s about action.

If you would like to watch the (free) LSSAcademy podcast describing this stand-up meeting format, click here.