Improving  50% is easy, improving 5% is difficult | Chris Hohmann

“It is with this enigmatic sentence that one of my Japanese mentors introduced the growing difficulty with continuous improvement. What it means is that at the beginning of an improvement program or when starting in a new area, the first and usually the easiest actions bring big improvement, hence the “easy” 50%. This is also…”

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Michel Baudin‘s comments:

I have been using this method, but for the categorization of improvement ideas within a project rather than whole projects. For example, starting a SMED project on a machine with a 30-minute setup time, you find that you can get it down to 12 minutes in one week for $300 by organizing and prepositioning tool carts. This is your A idea.

Then you find that, by modifying a fixture on the machine, you can get it down to 4 minutes, in three months for $5,000. That’s your B idea. Finally, you discover that an automation retrofit can get it down to 2 minutes, in a year for $50,000, and it is a C idea.

The one issue I have with applying this kind of thinking to whole projects is that the scope of “low-hanging fruits” changes over time with the skill level of the work force. Much of what appears inaccessible at the outset of your transformation becomes cheap and easy by its third year.

I also find that how long and how much money it will take to implement an idea is easier for teams to work with than a metric like ROI. The economic justification of improvement projects is a difficult and sensitive subject.

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Is Vendor Selection Really The First Step in ERP Implementation?

A free guide that you can download from ERP Focus makes vendor selection the first of an 11-step implementation process, while defining success is the last.  In other words, they have you choose who you buy from before having a clear idea of what you are trying to accomplish.

It reminds me of a meeting at a client site where ERP implementation was about to begin. “This train has left the station,” I was told. The purpose of the meeting was to draw a “Value Stream Map” for the whole plant, in preparation for ERP, and the participants included managers from Manufacturing, Quality, Production Control, Maintenance, Purchasing, Sales, and Engineering.

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“Wisdom” and “Continuous Improvement” in the Toyota Way

Toyota’s Japanese documents and their English versions often mean different things. Recently, looking at the Japanese version of The Toyota Way 2001, I was surprised to find that what is translated into English as “Continuous Improvement” is “Chie to Kaizen” (知恵と改善), which means “Wisdom and Continuous Improvement.” In the English version, “Wisdom” was not only dropped from the main header, it appears nowhere. Continue reading

Hong Kong Power Company Holds QC Circle Convention | Quality Alchemist

CLP Power Quality Control Circle (QCC) Convention was established in 2002. It aims to offer our staff a platform to submit any creative ideas they may have to improve processes, procedures and overall operations in the form of a proposal. CLPP QCC Convention is one of key quality culture activities and HKSQ exco members were honored to be invited as guests for the Convention. Moreover, our former chairman Dr. Aaron Tong was one of judges.


Michel Baudin‘s comments:

The QC circle, born in Japan in the early 1960s and the object of a short-lived fad in the US and Europe in the 1980s, lives on as a useful tool in organizations that stuck with it, including many companies in Japan, China, India, and other Asian countries.

CLP Power has been an electrical utility serving Hong Kong for 100 years. In the jury that awarded prizes to circle projects at this convention was my friend Aaron Tong, former chair of the Hong Kong Society for Quality (HKSQ).

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A summary of mistakes about Lean

In an invitation to the Lean Enterprise Academy ‘s Lean Summit 2014, David Brunt included the following summary of Lean since 1990:

“Early implementations focused on empowered teams and continuous improvement (kaizen) or attempts to replicate a pre-defined box of tools such as 5S, SMED, SPC and kanban. For others lean became synonymous with kaizen events – that were actually kaikaku – radically reconfiguring individual operations. For some, this led to them developing their version of Toyota’s famed Production System (TPS) including their own schematic ‘house’ or ‘temple’ of lean along with departments of continuous improvement specialists.”

It is a pretty accurate account of what happened — the only major omission being the omnipresent VSMs — and it goes a long way towards explaining why the vast majority of these efforts failed. They were limited at best to superficial details of TPS, included elements that were not part of TPS, and misjudged implementation priorities. Let’s us go through the list:

  1. “Empowered teams.”  As a manager you have a team to work with. What decisions should you allow this team to make on its own? This is best subjected to the sleep-at-night test. Knowing that you are responsible for the outcome, what can you delegate to the team and still sleep at night? It obviously depends on the team. If it is a team of production operators with 10 years of TPS practice behind it, the answer will not be the same as if they are beginners. Implementations that start with empowering teams put the cart before the horse.
  2. “Continuous improvement (kaizen).” Lean, or TPS, are often described as approaches to continuous improvement (CI), when CI is in fact only one component of the system. You cannot convert a plant from mass production to Lean manufacturing by continuous improvement, because it is not about tweaking details. For example, if you have implemented cells in machining or assembly, you can make them perform better with CI, but you have to have cells first, and that is beyond the scope of CI.
  3. “Replicate a pre-defined box of tools.” It can work, if your situation is sufficiently similar to the one you are copying, you really know what the tools are, and you master them.
    • SMED and Kanban are tools of TPS but often misunderstood. For example, you often see SMED used to try to increase equipment utilization instead of flexibility, and Kanban is often confused with the two-bin system or even reorder-point.
    • SPC is not part of TPS. This is so shocking to American and European professionals trained by the Quality establishment that they just inserted it back in, regardless of what Toyota actually did. The latest examples of SPC control charts at Toyota are from the 1950s.
    • 5S is part of TPS, but is mistakenly assumed easy to implement because its technical content is trivial. In fact, the absence of technical content is what makes it difficult to implement and certainly unfit for an initial project.
  4. “Kaizen events” are an American invention and not part of TPS. As Brunt points out, the name is misleading, because what they do is not Kaizen. The popularity of this method over the past 25 years and the confusion created by the name have in effect prevented Lean implementation from including the real Kaizen.
  5. “Departments of continuous improvement specialists.” The creation of these departments has often made Lean implementation into a function alongside Production Control, Maintenance, or Quality Assurance, with the result of making it a professional specialty instead of part of everybody’s job. It works to make a good show for outside visitors, but not for much else. This department cannot be large enough to have the capacity to do all that needs to be done. Even if it did, it does not have the authority to make the changes take root in daily operations.

These efforts failed because the approach was simplistic. Both the technical and managerial content of TPS are deeper and take a while to learn. A successful implementation, particularly is a different industry, is not based on copying tools but on understanding underlying principles and deploying them as appropriate to the new context.

The Creative Benefits of Boredom | HBR Blog Network | David Burkus

“[…]a certain level of boredom might actually enhance the creative quality of our work […]”


Michel Baudin‘s comments:

It is one step away from claiming that boredom makes you creative, which would make no sense. The frustration of boredom may motivate you to use your creativity, but deliberately boring people in order to make them creative is not something I would recommend.

I think that creativity is innate, but much more widely spread than most managers and engineers believe. The example in the article is about sales;  I am more familiar with manufacturing, where most jobs are repetitive, tedious, and boring.

They jobs are also tiring, but most production operators will tell you that they don’t mind the tiredness as much as the slowness of the clock. Boredom is their number one enemy, and participation in improvement activities a welcome relief from it, as well as an opportunity to be creative.

People who are bored by repetitive tasks go “on automatic.” Their hands keeps executing the sequence of tasks with accuracy and precision, while their minds wander off to, perhaps, the lake they fish in on week-ends. While on automatic, you don’t think about improvements.

Changes in the routine, whether deliberate or accidental, refocus their minds on the workplace. This includes product changes, spec changes, rotation between work stations, or any breakdown like defects in the product, component shortages, or machine stoppages. During theses changes, while engaged, your mind is focused on responding as you were trained to, and avoiding mistakes. If you think of better ways to do this work, they go on the back burner in your mind, while you attend to immediate needs.

Depending on the management culture, operators may or may not be willing to share these ideas. They may be afraid of humiliation by a tactless manager, or they may fear that improving their job puts it in jeopardy,…

To put to use the operators’ creativity, you have to organize for this purpose, and it can’t be while the line is running. This is why continuous improvement requires structures, procedures, and leadership.

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Learning and Experience Curves in Manufacturing | Quarterman Lee

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“Learning Curves have traditionally been used for cost estimating and training purposes. However, they have a much wider applications, including Manufacturing and Marketing strategy. They underly the concept of Continuous Improvement. Like compound interest, they generate large benefits from seemingly small, incremental change.

The learning curve came into prominence during World War II when Army Air Force scientists noticed that the cost for a given aircraft model declined with increased production in accordance with a fairly predictable formula. Each time the cumulative production doubled, cost declined by a fixed percentage. In the aircraft industry, at that time, this reduction was about 20%. Learning curves underpin the concept of Continuous Improvement.

Michel Baudin‘s comments:

It’s good to see a well-documented, informative article by Quarterman Lee on a topic that is often ignored in the Lean literature but that I think if fundamental to the economics of improvement.

The title mentions both Learning and Experience Curves, but the body of the article is only about Learning Curves. The difference between the two is that Learning Curves are only about labor, and were developed first, in World War II, as Quarterman points out. The Experience Curve is a generalization due to Bruce Henderson of the Boston Consulting Group in the 1960s, which applies the logic not just to labor but to all costs.

The Experience Curve theory is predicated on the notion that there is such a thing as a meaningful cost per piece, and asserts that it decreases with cumulative volume along an inverse power curve, the evidence for which is in the evolution of market prices with cumulative volume in a variety of industries.

The effect of this curve on pricing in an industry depends on its clockspeed. In electronics, with product lives of four years, it is dominant. In cars, where the experience accumulated for over a century is still relevant today, we are so far on the curve that it is not a major factor.

The justification for an inverse power law is in fact simple. It stands to reason that, the more you have already made of a product, the easier it is to make the next unit, and therefore that costs should decrease as a function of cumulative volume. Since we are talking about a broad trend, it should also be a smooth decline.

Could it be linear? No. It would mean a straight line in cartesian coordinates.and that would lead to negative costs, which makes no sense. If you toggled the y-axis to “logarithmic,” a straight line would represent an exponential decline. But it would not make sense either, because it would mean that you could produce an infinite volume for a finite cost. If, as in the above picture, you make both axes logarithmic, a straight line means an inverse power law. Costs never go negative, and it still takes an infinite amount of money to produce an infinite quantity. This is why, among the simple possible decline patterns, it is the only one that cannot be excluded based on its logic.

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Demand/Capacity Curve | John Dyer | IndustryWeek

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“True company growth can be achieved when the maximum capacity is increased by breaking bottlenecks and the sales team makes promises to the customers that the business process can support.”


Michel Baudin‘s insight:

John Dyer presents the capacity of a business as a constraint set by the slowest operation in its process, also known as its bottleneck. In manufacturing, at least, it is more realistics to think of it as fuzzy.

If a solid line exists, we don’t usually know exactly where it is. Even an operations manager who claims to know it won’t share that information with colleagues.  Right after claiming in a meeting that production is running full blast, he or she miraculously finds a way to squeeze 15% more out of it.

If  a perceived bottleneck is a purely human process requiring no unusual skills, it can eliminated by rebalancing the work. Dyer’s discussion is centered on where it is a machine and its capacity can be increased by process improvement.

But does this mean that continuous improvement should be focused exclusively on the bottleneck? In many cases, the bottleneck is the most sophisticated machine on the floor, and increasing its capacity  requires engineering knowledge that is not present in the factory’s work force, and can only be done by bringing in outside experts.

On the other hand, the work force has the skills needed to improve the performance of other operations. This can ensure that the bottleneck has the materials it needs at all times, and free human resources that can be trained to operate and maintain the bottleneck, and eventually to improve it.

This article has a “Part 2” about  why it is so difficult to work with in-house suppliers . Dyer’s term for in-house suppliers is “intercompany suppliers,” which confused me, because I took “intercompany” to mean “between companies,” the way “international” means “between countries.”

His point is that in-house customers may be bad for a supplier because transfer prices calculated on a cost-plus basis can be below market prices. This causes in-house suppliers to give preferential treatment to their external customers.

A remedy that Dyer does not seem to consider is to make transfer prices between divisions match market prices. This works as long as the supplier division has external customers — or the customer division external suppliers —  through which market prices can be known.

In many cases, in-house suppliers make parts based on the company’s unique technology, that have no outside market, and for which there is no market price. Transfer prices then have to be negotiated in a way that is “fair” to both sides. Figuring out what that means is a conflictual process, that is avoided by treating the supplying division as a cost center rather than a profit-and-loss center.

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Lean Manufacturing at Thomson Reuters Eagan Manufacturing, Distribution & Engineering Plant

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Michel Baudin‘s insight:

Employees talk about “Lean Manufacturing,” and what it means to them. They talk about continuous improvement, and participating in events, but what do they have to show in terms of changes made to operations? What they discuss most is 5S, and second to that is standard work. The say nothing of setup time reductions, improvements in flow, pull systems, mistake-proofing, or equipment modifications.

No numbers are given about achievements. The customers find the plant appealing, which is good marketing, They say they have reduced costs and improved quality, but they don’t say how much for either. The only number quoted is that an employee was able to cut his lawn mowing time at home from 3 hours to 2 by better planning his mowing route, using what he had learned at work.

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Following the Muri Mura Strategy | Jon Miller

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In the Seattle Times article Boeing Dreamliner on track, but rework may stretch to 2015, aerospace executives reported to Wall Street analysts the company’s historic scientific milestone of bending the fabric of time and space, as Dreamliner production achieved a state of being both on track and notably behind at once.



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