Theories of Lean and Leveling/Heijunka| Christoph Roser

ChristophRoser-200x300Christoph Roser has more impressive credentials than most Lean consultants, from a PhD in Engineering to a research job at Toyota labs, stints in operations at Bosch, and a professorship at Karslruhe University of Applied Sciences. So, if anyone is qualified to write a theory of Lean, he is, and he is trying his hand at it in production planning and scheduling.

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Setup Reduction Methodology | Alejandro Sibaja

“We may think, based in all the information about Lean Manufacturing, that many tools and methods are well understood, unfortunately on real live there is many misunderstanding about them, that’s why I decided to write this article, for one of the most popular and known tool, SMED.”




Michel Baudin‘s comments:

It’s good to see that not everyone has forgotten SMED or is taking it for granted. When you bring it up with manufacturing managers nowadays, they often respond with “Oh yeah, we had some consultants show us how to do this three years ago.”

“And how long do you take to set up this machine today?”

“I am not sure. Maybe 90 minutes…”

They think SMED is yesterday’s news, but they are not doing it, and they are often confused about its purpose. They think it is to increase machine utilization, as opposed to flexibillity.

Sibaja’s article is a valuable introduction to the subject. I would have called it “Setup Time Reduction” rather than “Setup Reduction,” which might imply that you are making fewer setups, or spending less time on setups overall. It’s not what SMED lets you do. Instead, your total setup time budget remains the same, but you are using it to make more setups and produce smaller lots of more different products.

I would also have put more emphasis on the use of video recordings in analyzing setup processes. You don’t just show up on the shop floor with a camera; instead, you have to prepare the ground carefully, secure the consent of the participants upfront, and know how to use the camera to capture the relevant details.

Sibaja’s last sentence is about using the information “in your next Kaizen Event,” which implies that Kaizen events are an appropriate method to manage SMED projects. It is not my experience. You might kick start a SMED project with a Kaizen Event, but not to finish it. Often, to achieve quick setups, you have to make changes to the machine and the tooling that require patient work over time. Standardizing the dimensions of 300 dies, for example, may take a year of incremental progress.

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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.

Formula 1 Pit Stop 1950 to 2013

William Botha posted the following Youtube video in the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn:

It contrasts a Formula 1 racing pit stop at the Indianapolis 500 in 1950 with one in 2013 in Melbourne, Australia. The time the car was stopped went from 67 to 3 seconds.

The 1950 pit stop used 4 people for 67 seconds, which works out to 4 minutes and 28 seconds of labor. If we include the external setup — before the car arrives — and the cleanup afterwards, the 2013 pit stop used 17 people for 44 seconds, or 12 minutes and 28 seconds of labor. In terms of labor costs, the 2013 pit stop was therefore less “efficient.” In a race, however, cutting the car stoppage time by a factor of 22 is priceless.

Car racing is often used as a metaphor for manufacturing, with machine changeovers as pit stops. In fact, many of the pit stop tricks are used in SMED, from prepositioning everything you need to using quick attach and release tools.

More generally, we can see the production operators as the drivers working to make the product cross the finish line, and everybody else in logistics, maintenance, QA, etc. in the role of the pit crew. This casts the time of operators and materials handlers, for example, in a different light. The operators on a line work in sequence, so that, if you delay one, you delay the entire line. The materials handlers, on the other hand, work in parallel and, if one waits, it does not affect the others.

The pit crew must be ready and waiting when the car arrives, so that it can spring into action, and the car should never be waiting for the crew. Likewise, an operator on an assembly line should never wait for parts, and cutting down on materials handlers to save money is counterproductive. A key point of Lean Logistics is to focus on effectiveness first. You pursue efficiency later, but never at the expense of effectiveness, because it doesn’t pay for the organization as a whole.


(Still) learning from Toyota | Deryl Sturdevant

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“A retired Toyota executive describes how to overcome common management challenges associated with applying lean, and reflects on the ways that Toyota continues to push the boundaries of lean thinking.”


Michel Baudin‘s comments:

You just can’t pass up an article with the perspectives on Lean of a recently retired Toyota executive, even if it is in the McKinsey Quarterly. Most interesting are his stories about plants outside of Toyota that he visited recently, where he criticizes his hosts for complacency.

Because of the author’s background, when he says “Lean,” he means TPS or the Toyota Way. He also uses Toyota’s own “respect for people.” mistranslation of its “respect for humanity” (人間性尊重) principle.  Again, it’s not about saying “please” and “thank you” but about taking full advantage of the unique capabilities people have when compared to other resources.

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What’s eating John Seddon?

I want you to cheatBack in 1992, Seddon published “I want you to cheat,” as a distillation of then seven years of consulting experience with service organizations in Britain. It contains some general principles, supported by examples. It is quite readable, and contains no personal attacks on anyone. While “I want you to cheat” does not reference any giant on whose shoulder the author sits, more recent publications from Seddon repeatedly acknowledge Deming and Ohno.

It was his comment that “This respect for people stuff is horseshit” at a conference in Iceland in 2012 that drew my attention to his work. While certainly aggressive, it was not a personal attack. The latest kerfuffle is about the following statements in his 11/2013 newsletter:

“Every time I have been to the jamboree they have had an American lean guru spouting nonsense and this is no exception. This time it’s the guru who claims lean fails because it is what he calls ‘fake lean’ and his lean is the way to go! His ‘real lean’ starts with ‘respect for people’. I can imagine ‘respect for people’ events and tee-shirts (he sells tee shirts) while there is no change to the system conditions that drive misery and other forms of sub-optimisation. Only in America; the home of the terrible diseases.

What would you call a profound idea in this guru’s head? A tourist!”

bob emiliani

Bob Emiliani

The target of this attack, although unnamed, recognized himself. It’s Bob Emiliani, and he posted a response on his blog, entitled Kudos to John Seddon.  Bill Waddell then chimed in with John Seddon – Where Ignorance and Arrogance Collide. To Bob, Seddon is like a student who did not understand the concept of “respect for people,” while Bill dismisses Seddon as a blowhard from a backward little country who has failed to understand the depth and the subtlety of the US version of Lean.

Bill Waddelll

Bill Waddell

There is a good reason while the etiquette of on-line discussion groups forbids personal attacks: they cause discussions to degenerate into trash talk and name calling. It may be briefly entertaining, but quickly turns off readers who don’t have a dog in these fights and just want to information. Besides insulting Bob Emiliani, Seddon has steamed up patriot Bill Waddell with derogatory comments about America. You reap what you sow.

I have, however, heard comments that were as strident as Seddon’s from other consultants, from Japan. They were equally dismissive of US Lean, of American management in general, and even the country as a whole. This was usually, but not always, in private communications rather than in publications. These “insultants,” however, often got away with it, with audiences looking past the invective for useful ideas, and I think it is the appropriate response. Ignore the rant and engage on substance. If some is offered, you will be better off for it.

It is also worth pondering why people feel compelled to act this way. For John Seddon, I don’t know; I am not privy to his thoughts, but I can guess. We should remember that, in the market of ideas, we in the US have a worldwide home court advantage. Ideas command more attention and are more credible simply because of the “Made in America” label.

Lean is the most ironic example. The Toyota Production System did not come out of the US, yet the worldwide internet chatter and consulting business about it is dominated by a US version known as “Lean,” which is as faithful to the original as Disney’s Aladdin and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are to Arabian Nights and Victor Hugo’s novel. Borrowing, metabolizing and even distorting ideas from other cultures is done everywhere, and is to be expected; what is special about the US is that the American version radiates back to the world and overwhelms the original.

Last year, the Olympics opening ceremony in London reminded the world where the industrial revolution began. For more than a century, the world looked to Britain as a model for politics, economics, and manufacturing, but these days are gone, and for an idea to come from Britain is now a handicap rather than a credibility enhancer.

John Seddon happens to be British. For 28 years, he has been making a living as a consultant to service organizations in the public and private sector and, as anyone with this kind of experience would, he has developed an approach to doing it. We may or may not agree with it, but it deserves a respectful hearing. What I read into Seddon’s current stridency is that he has not been getting it. I think he is turning up the volume to prevent his voice being drowned out in the Lean tsunami coming out of the US.

Seddon dismisses Lean consultants as “tool heads.” I like tools. I use tools all the time, both in private and professional life. But I don’t use them indiscriminately. Following are three questions about a tool, that I would not ask about a hammer or a phone, but would about, say, Kanban or SMED:

1.    Who invented this tool?
2.    What problem was he/she trying to solve?
3.    Do I have that problem?

They strike me as a reasonable way to decide whether to apply it or not. And where did I find these questions? On John Seddon’s website. I think I will use them with clients.


Using videos to improve operations | Part 3 – Shooting shop floor videos

Following are a few recommendations on the art of taking shop floor videos:

  1. Special requirements on shop floor videos. We have already seen that the requirements for shop floor videos differ from those of other uses of this technology. If you shoot a family or sports event, you will naturally want the highest resolution you can get, which would be counterproductive here. Likewise, shooting a video for the purpose of data collection is different from doing it for art or entertainment.For example, the Youtube video of a NASCAR pit stop looks somewhat like a shop floor video but isn’t one. It is entertaining and dramatically shot, but not usable for analysis. In fact, a shop floor video that captures everything that is needed for analysis is likely to bore anyone who is not directly involved with the target process.

    This needs to be considered when deciding who will be holding the camera. You will naturally prefer someone who is already handy with it, and that is likely to be from experience capturing family occasions, sports, or from making movies as an amateur. The ability to keep a camera steady and pay attention to lighting, composition and focus is valuable, but the camera operator will have to be coached on the specific objectives of shop floor videos.

  2. Applications to setup time reduction or to the improvement of a work station. the camera needs to be looking down at the operator’s hands. In short operations, it can be done by holding the camera with a raised arm, and using the swiveling LCD screen for control. This gets tiring quickly and requires standing in such close proximity to the operator as to possibly interfere with his or her movements.
    Many plants have mezzanines or catwalks that provide a view from above. Being observed from such a place, however, may be uncomfortable for the operators, as well as too far to zoom in on the hands and capture any voice comments. The middle ground is to shoot from the top of a stepladder located within zooming and hearing range of the operator station, just far enough to avoid any kind of interference

    Amin recording operation

    Shooting a video from a stepladder.

    This works, until the operator leaves the station to walk beyond the reach of the zoom, at which point getting down off the stepladder to follow the operator while recording causes a few seconds of the action to be lots. A better solution is to hand over the camera to another team member on the ground, or even to involve more than one camera. In any case, this needs to be planned. Image stability is not an issue on the stepladder, but it is when following an operator’s movement across the floor, and you do not want a video that will make participants sea-sick during review. While professional tracking shots require equipment that is not available in a factory, some amateurs have supplemented the camera’s own image stabilization by shooting from a wheelchair.

  3. Fixed position on a tripod for time-lapse videos. Setting the camera on a tripod in a fixed position is not appropriate for this kind of analysis, but is when taking time-lapse videos of a large area for purposes of work sampling.
  4. Recording the position and orientation of the camera. It is also necessary to record on a layout of the shop floor the position and orientation from which the video is shot. The point is to return to the same location to shoot another video to document the improvements once implemented.
  5. Number of repetitions. Traditional time studies involve taking measurements on the same operation 6 to 10 times, for the purpose of improving precision when setting standards of operator performance. But our purpose in recording operations is not to set standards but to change processes to make the work simultaneously easier, safer, less error-prone, and faster.
    All we need for this purpose is one representative execution, and the operator can tell us if there is anything special or abnormal about it. If possible, we just take it into account during the analysis; otherwise, we make another recording. To make sure we have one complete execution, we start recording a few seconds before the operation starts and stop a few seconds after it ends.
  6. Scale. The presence of people in the videos gives us at least a rough sense of scale, but sometimes we would like more precision, for example to know how far an operator has to reach for a part, or how fast a cart is rolling. The following shots show the extreme measures the Gilbreths took for this purpose, with a gridded background. The picture also shows a large and precise timer, which was necessary because they used imprecise hand-cranked cameras.
  7. No editing. We do not edit the shop floor video, except possibly to add a title and administrative data at the beginning, Otherwise, we use it in the analysis exactly as shot. It is raw data, and we want to keep it that way.

Using videos to improve operations | Part 2 – Management Preparation

Whether on the shop floor or elsewhere, starring in a video makes people nervous, particularly when they don’t know how it will be used and when it is done by strangers. On the shop floor, particularly when unions are present, operators fear that the videos recordings will simply be used against them and to  justify layoffs. Unless these fears are put to rest before the shoot, it will be tense and, if it happens at all, the quality of the data will be affected.

Following are key steps to follow:

    1. Have a clear objective. Videos can be used for many purposes:
      • Setup time reduction. This is the most common current use in Lean implementation.
      • Work Sampling. A time-lapse video of a work area can be used as a series of snapshots on which to count the people and machines by category of activity, providing rough estimates of proportions of time spent walking, waiting, carrying parts, processing work pieces, etc.
      • Analysis of team coordination. You record from a distance the movements and state changes of multiple people and machines. You don’t see the details of what each one does, but you identify situations where they:
        • Walk long distances, empty-handed or carrying heavy parts,
        • Cause others to wait,
        • Deadlock each other,
        • Fix the work done by others,
      • Details of work done at an individual station. You focus on the hands of one operator through a sequence of steps at a work station, with the goal improving both individual steps and their sequencing.

      This is necessary not only to plan the shoot so that the video supports the objective, but also to identify the people who will be recorded and the ways in which the analysis may affect them.

    2. Secure the consent of the participants. The people recorded in the video are not the object of a project but participants in it. It should only be done if they and their management agree. This entails the following:
      • Review the project with the direct supervisor of the area first, and proceed only if he or she supports it. The supervisor needs to agree to let operators participate in video analysis sessions, during work hours if they can be temporarily replaced in production, and in overtime otherwise.
      • If the plant is unionized, review the project with the union leadership. Unless prevented from doing so be constraints external to the plant, unions support the project once they are reassured that:
        • The purpose is not to make people work harder.
        • It is no threat to job security.
        • It usually improves safety.
      • Review the project with the operators, in the presence of their supervisor and a union representative if applicable.
      • There must be a clear policy on the handling and dissemination of videos after the analysis. The principle to follow is that what happens on the shop floor stays on the shop floor. The videos are not to be shared with any outsider to the project. VHS cassettes were easy to safeguard; MPEG files on hard disks are a different challenge. They need to be organized in a video database with proper indexing and safeguards, which is a whole other subject.

Using videos to improve operations | Part 1 – Overview and Motivation

This is the first in a series of posts about  the use of video technology to improve operations. This technology is now so pervasive that it is nearly impossible to buy a phone that does not include a camera capable or recording footage that is good enough for broadcast news. Journalists use amateur videos to show storm damage or expose human brutality. We use it to identify improvement opportunities in operations.

For long-time followers of this blog, this is closely based on comments I posted 18 months ago about a news article on the application of a sports video analysis package to manufacturing. The forthcoming installments, on the other hand, are completely new. 


Frank and Lillian Gilbreth did it 100 years ago

Motion pictures have a long history in manufacturing. In 1895, the first film ever publicly projected onto a screen showed women leaving the Lumière Brothers factory in Lyon. In 1904, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company shot several scenes in Westinghouse factories. In 1913, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth were probably the first to use this new technology to analyze operations, and a compilation of their films is available on line, which shows that, from the very beginning, the camera was much more than a substitute for the stopwatches used by Taylor. As is obvious from watching the Gilbreth films, where Taylor measured in order to control, the Gilbreths observed in order to improve. Taylor’s greater fame or notoriety, however, obscured this fundamental difference in the public mind, and made workers as wary of cameras as of stopwatches.

According to psychologist Arlie Belliveau:

The Gilbreths used workers’ interest in film to their advantage, and encouraged employees to participate in the production and study of work through film. Participants could learn to use the equipment, star in a film, and evaluate any resulting changes to work practices by viewing the projected films in the labs or at foremen’s meetings. Time measurements were made public, and decisions regarding best methods were negotiated. By engaging the workers as participants, the Gilbreths overcame some of the doubt that followed Taylor’s time studies.”

In other words, these pioneers already understood that, unlike the stopwatch, this technology enabled the operators to participate in the analysis and improvement of their own operations.

Until recently, however, the process of recording motion was too cumbersome and expensive, and required too much skill, to be massively practiced either in manufacturing or in other types of business operations. In addition, most managements failed to use it in as enlightened a way as the Gilbreths, and manufacturing workers had a frequently well-founded fear that recordings would be used against them. As a consequence, they were less than enthusiastic in their support of such efforts.

Use in Setup Time Reduction

Setup time reduction is probably the first type of project in which it was systematically used, first because the high stakes justified the cost, even in the 1950s and second because its objective was clearly to make drastic changes in activities that were not production and not to nibble a few seconds out of a repetitive task by pressuring a worker to move faster.

The Vanishing Cost of Shooting Videos

Technically, the cost of shooting videos has not been an issue since the advent of the VCR in the 1980s. Analyzing a video by moving forward and backwards on a cassette tape, while it appears cumbersome today, was far easier than dealing with film. The collection of data on electronic spreadsheets also eliminated the need to use counterintuitive time units like “decimal minutes.” Adding columns of times in hours, minutes and seconds was impractical manually but not a problem for the electronic spreadsheet.

With videos now recorded on and played back from flash memory, and free media-players as software, not only is moving back and forth in a video recording is easier, but the software maps video frames to the time elapsed since the beginning. We could manually transfer timestamps read from the bottom of the video player software window into electronic spreadsheets and have the spreadsheet software automatically calculate task times as the differences between consecutive timestamps.

Analyzing Data in Video Form

While this approach has been a common practice for the past 15 years, video annotation software is available today, which helps break down the video into segments for steps, label them, categorize them, and analyze them.

You can also use it to structure the data and generate a variety of analytics to drive improvements or document the improved process through, for example, work instructions. Over the previous approach, video annotation has the following advantages:It automates the collection of timestamps. Reading times on the video screen and typing hem into an Excel spreadsheet is tedious and error-prone. Plowing through the details of a 30-minute is tedious enough already.

  1. Within the annotation software, each video segment remains attached to the text, numeric or categorical data you attach to it. One click on the data brings up the matching video segment.
  2. Using parallel tracks, you can simultaneously record what several people and machines do. Of course, you can do that without annotation software too, but it is more difficult.
  3. You can still export the data you collect and analyze it in Excel, but you can also take advantage of the software’s built-in analytics.

“Video time studies” is too restrictive a name for what we do with videos. It implies that they are just a replacement for a stopwatch in setting time standards. But what we really do with videos is analyze processes for the purpose of improving them, and this involves more than just capturing times. The primary pupose of the measurements is to quantify the improvement potential to justify changes, and to validate that they have actually occurred.

Remaining Challenges

Putting this technology to use is not without challenges. Video files are larger than just about any other type we may use, be they rich text, databases, or photographs. And they come in a variety of formats and compression methods that make the old VHS versus Betamax dilemma of the VCR age look simple. More standardization would help, and will eventually come but, in the meantime, we have to learn more than we want to know about these issues. Functionally, the next technical challenge is the organization of libraries or databases for storage and retrieval of data captured in the form of videos. The human issues of video recording and analysis of business operations, on the other hand, remain as thorny as ever.

Lean implementers: don’t forget engineering!

Just about everybody says that the involvement and personal engagement of top management is the main challenge in Lean implementation. “Key to the success of lean manufacturing,” said the keynote speaker at an industry association meeting in Santa Clara, CA, “is that the leadership team needs to fully buy into the method and remove workplace obstacles so that employees can achieve results.” While he didn’t say it, I am sure his audience heard that management doing as he says is all it takes to implement Lean successfully.

In an informal survey taken recently by blogger Vivek Naik among his readers, no one mentioned insufficient mastery of the engineering and management tools of Lean as a cause of failure. The existence of tools is generally recognized, but most consultants and implementers take them for granted. They are assumed to be simple, widely known and not new. Some, like Bill Kluck, even call the tools “trick shots.”

When you read that the details of Lean tools are widely known, you wonder where and by whom. How many manufacturing managers or engineers do you know who understand heijunka, cell design, work-combination charts, SMED,  the proper use of andons, mistake-proofing, or jidoka? Considering that these tools are the results of 75 years of development at Toyota, and that most of the Japanese literature on Lean is about technical content, I find this dismissal cavalier, to say the least.

It does not happen in other human endeavors, like building a world class soccer team.  Top management commitment is obviously required, but no one would claim that it is sufficient. You don’t hear of dribbling, passing, shooting, receiving or throw-ins as low-level skills that everybody has anyway and that you don’t need to focus on. Soccer teams actually train relentlessly to develop and maintain these skills, and everybody involved, even the fans, fully realize their importance and admire the star players for their mastery.

To understand the issues, and remedy this situation, I would like to dive deeper into the following topics:

The engineering dimension of Lean, and the other dimensions

So why is it different in the competitive game of manufacturing? For one, it is more complex than soccer, and few people have a holistic view of it. One who does is my colleague Crispin Vincenti-Brown, and he has identified four dimensions to this game, and you must pay attention to all if you want to win. They are as follows:

  1. The engineering of production lines.
  2. Logistics and production control.
  3. Organization and people.
  4. Metrics and accountability.

4 dimensions of manufacturing

In the US, the Lean movement has ignored the engineering dimension. Logistics receives some attention, but Lean programs are overwhelmingly focused on the last two: organization and people issues, and metrics. It is out of balance, and I believe this is a key reason for Lean programs to fail.

Lean implementers, whether employees or consultants, come from a variety of backgrounds. In the US, few are engineers. You see MBAs, psychologists, marketing people, and the occasional cognitive sociologist and defrocked priest. There is nothing wrong with having all these different perspectives, as long as they don’t blind you to the whole picture. The psychologist takes engineering for granted while the engineer does the same for people issues and the production control manager thinks that everything revolves around planning and scheduling….

On the one hand, you cannot have a successful implementation unless you address all these dimensions in the right sequence. On the other hand, you cannot expect any individual to master all of them, but you need a team that does, in which every member understands that his or her perspective is not the whole picture, and leadership that can pull all the strings into a coherent approach.

What is special about engineering on a factory floor?

This still does not explain why it is Engineering of production lines that is given short shrift, even in a country like the US, that has contributed so much to this field, and that still has a vibrant engineering community in other technical specialties. What is it about the engineering of production that sets it apart?

The heat of the forge, the sparks from welding, or the din of the assembly line, and interactions with the people who work in these environments,… are not for everybody. Most universities do not know how to teach this kind of engineering. Its subject matter straddles what they call Industrial Engineering and Manufacturing Engineering.

Industrial Engineering (IE), as taught in American universities, is generically about how people work, and gives you no process-specific knowledge. Manufacturing Engineering (ME), on the other hand, is heavily focused on metal working operations, as if these were the only processes worthy of the name “manufacturing.” In principle, you should be able to become a Manufacturing Engineer specialized in all sorts of other fabrication or assembly processes, but the label is in fact used only in metal working.

We could expect, however, those who pursue degrees in IE or ME  to be comfortable on a production shop floor, but most aren’t. Some years ago, my colleague Hormoz Mogarei and I gave a seminar to PhD candidates in Industrial Engineering at Stanford University. We wanted to tell them what we did to get them interested in working with us. Their response, however, was that it was beneath them, and that they had not gone this far in school to do such low-level work.

For factory work, Shigeo Shingo had identified two types of engineers to avoid: the catalog engineer, whose solution to every problem is buying new equipment, and the “no” engineer, who always has a reason why it can’t be done, has been tried before, or won’t work. One more category that did not exist in Shingo’s day but does today is the PowerPoint engineer, whose focus is animating slides.

Historically, with the exception of Lillian Gilbreth who had a PhD, the key innovators in this field, from Frederick Taylor, Frank Gilbreth and Alexei Gastev to Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo were all self-taught and had no advanced degrees. To this day, the engineers who are most comfortable and effective on a production shop floor started working there as operators in their youth and later went back to school or  learned  through continuing education or apprenticeship programs that alternate extended internships with classroom training. These engineers combine the requisite technical knowledge with an understanding of the operator experience and the ability to work with operators on improvements.

Engineers in Lean implementation

And having practical, shop-floor minded engineers in your plant is still not sufficient. You also need to use them effectively. In manufacturing, if you provide an “engineering sandbox,” organize for people to tinker in it, and provide some form of recognition, you will get results. The engineering sandbox is a space set aside and outfitted with the resources needed for tinkering, experimentation, and prototyping. It is used both by individuals and teams.

Engineering Sandbox

Engineering Sandbox

In Wikipedia, the space you can use to draft an article or an edit before publishing it is called your “sandbox,” and it is similar in concept to the engineering sandboxes you find in factories, that are often called “Kaizen areas” even though the experimentation that takes place can exceed the scope of what is commonly designated as Kaizen. This space is best located in a secluded area, away from heavy traffic and prying eyes and, as it is shared by multiple individuals and teams, access to it must be managed accordingly and often takes place outside of regular working hours. Chihiro Nakao calls this activity “moonshine.”

The implementation of Lean involves engineering projects at multiple scales, from continuous improvement to new plant design. Which no engineering group can be large enough to execute on its own. While many companies set up a “Lean Engineering” group and task it with transforming the entire plant, it cannot work. The engineering group does not have the bandwidth to do no matter how hard its members apply themselves and, even if they did, the production organization would not own their output and would reject it.

Lean engineering group forging ahead

Lean engineering group forging ahead

The only way it can practically be done is by the production organization, under the leadership of its management at the appropriate level, with the engineers in a supporting role. The concepts emanate from the production organization. The engineers help with calculations, research available resources, generate technical drawings, and coordinate the use of contractors if needed. And they apply the lessons learned through improvement to new plant and new line designs where they play a central role.

NIX Octopus

Retrofit to a multicavity injection molding machine

At the start of setup time reduction projects, the focus is on organizing to prepare better before stopping the machine, which achieves initial results, mostly through the work of production operators. But to reduce setup times from 1 hour to less than 10 minutes, you need to go further and modify the machine, which requires engineering. And it’s not all about hardware. More and more machines are computer-controlled, and also require changes to their process programs. The picture to the left shows a device conceived and built by plant engineers, and retrofitted to an injection molding machine to separate the parts by cavity and better trace quality problems.

Correcting the imbalance in the US Lean movement

I am not the only one who has been working to lack of attention to engineering in the US Lean movement. J.T. Black, a professor of IE at Auburn University in Alabama, now in his seventies, was possibly the first American academic to recognize the significance of Lean and make it central to his teachings. Art Smalley, a consultant who is a Toyota alumnus, has also been vocal. But it is an uphill battle. Two of my books, Lean Assembly and Working with Machines, are on this subject, and both are outsold by Lean Logistics, which isn’t.