Putting an End to Circle Games


The story about JML Optical and their lean efforts is a lot like the hundreds of others you can read. I don’t know if JML is really lean or not but I was struck by this part of the story: “Some culture changes have taken place at the company, too, including lean manufacturing training and creating ways for more communication among workers. On the manufacturing floor, for instance, the supervisors now have desks in the same area, as well as a conference area where they can discuss processes together; formerly they were separated.” Communications. That really is the essence of lean and how well the leadership really understands that perhaps the biggest make or break factor in a company’s degree of success or failure.

The problem with silo management, the weakness in ERP systems, the problems with traditional accounting, the bloat in supply chains … to a large degree they all boil down to lousy communications; and lean offers improvements.

The broad area of the role of people in lean is really about communications. The folks on the floor have ideas, but poor mechanisms for communicating those ideas to other people tasked with approving and implementing changes in the areas the ideas address. Or the people on the floor could come up with good solutions, but they don’t really understand the problems in need of solutions because of poor communications.

ERP systems are essentially automated circle games – but still circle games. Information from customers goes to sales folks, who pass it on to forecasting folks, who pass it on to planning folks, who pass it on to scheduling folks, who pass it on to buying folks, who pass it on to suppliers. No wonder the information becomes garbled along the way, or is at the very least hopelessly outdated by the time action is taken. Demand pull is really just a means of cutting all of the middle-people out and turbocharging communications.

Value streams are really just a way of putting the people who have to communicate and cooperate with each other to get things done in the same room. Getting rid of email and having to coordinate calendars to schedule meetings to make decisions; and more important, getting rid of the invisible departmental boundaries that skew priorities and crate biases that inevitably bog down and hose up the decision making process. Instead they are located side by side and communications are direct, personal and ongoing regardless of function or rung on the org chart.

Accounting is largely grand collection of events on the factory floor, sliced, diced, massaged and manipulated, then handed back to the people on the shop floor in statements almost indecipherable by mortal men. Lean accounting attempts to shortcut all of this and enable people to sit side-by-side and look at real costs in practical terms must closer to when they are actually incurred –in short, better communications.

When I present lean and some of its more challenging implications to groups I usually preface the talk with the statement that most people in the audience are probably thinking, ‘but we’re different – we aren’t like Toyota’; and I tell them they are absolutely correct. Each company is unique, with its own culture, market, technology, location and a very unique set of people. If, by saying, ‘we’re different’ they mean that uniqueness means lean doesn’t apply and they should just keep doing things the way they’ve always done them, they are in big trouble; but if they mean, ‘We’re different, therefore we have to find a way to apply all of the underlying principles of lean to our company in a way that fits into our unique culture and situation’, they are on exactly the right track.

The vital element of communications is right at the core of those underlying principles. The deployment of lean should always be driven by the question, ‘will this change bring the people involved in our processes closer together – physically and in every other way – and enable them to make better and faster decisions?’ If the answer is yes the change is very likely to make you leaner, if not, well …..

Flatter organizations, value stream alignment, kanban, andon lights, visual controls, kaizen events … all of these are nothing more than communications techniques. They are all aimed at getting real information to the people required to act on it without inserting a bunch of analysts, bosses and computer geeks into the flow.

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