There are two large lean-oriented Yahoo Group message boards, Bill Kluck’s NWLean and Shahrukh Irani’s JSLean. NWLean was originally started in 1998 as a networking forum between lean professionals in the northwestern U.S., but has since evolved into a very active global discussion group with over 5,000 members. NWLean teaches me something just about every day; in fact even in "daily digest" mode it is difficult to keep up with the large number of posts on pretty much every conceivable lean topic, with insight provided by practitioners worldwide.
JSLean focuses on "job shop lean" and high-mix low-volume manufacturing and has around 1,000 members. Although it was started with the noble intent of discussing a niche application of lean… it has become the forum for an epic battle of sorts between people who understand the simple power and magic (apologies to Mr. Bodek!) of "real lean" and those that don’t quite get it and believe there’s a software solution for every production problem. In fact, it seems like they sometimes conjur up problems just so they can satisfy an addiction to algorithms. Perhaps there’s a 12-step program for that addiction. But first they’d have to admit they were addicted, and that would conflict with some rather massive egos.
Unfortunately this leads to the public thrashing of anyone who dares contradict their viewpoint that "lean and TPS are just a rehash of common sense", "there is nothing more to learn from Toyota", "lean is just a smorgasborg of tools". and "any jobshop must use computerized optimization to realize its full potential." And that thrashing has led to the departure, sometimes in a very public manner, of many subscribers… some of whom I have developed tremendous respect for. That fundamental lack of understanding of real lean is why many companies, especially those near Detroit, simply don’t get why they aren’t competitive.
Last week there was an interesting coincidental confluence of thought between JSLean and NWLean. On JSLean Dr. Irani posted a question:
"These are two radically opposite worlds … one is the tech-savvy and IT-powered optimization world and the other is the pencil-and-paper problem-solving world. Which world should we live in?"
And on NWLean Mr. Kluck asked a different, but somewhat related question:
"What do we know about SAP, and how well it integrates with lean principles (or lean implementations)."
Interestingly enough, the post on JSLean resulted in zero responses. Probably because the subscribers that actually post anything all worship at the altar of the almighty algorithm, and everyone else doesn’t want to bother with the thrashing they’d take for posting an alternative opinion.
The NWLean post generated dozens of responses, most of which were IT horror stories. Shop floor process changes to accomodate the ideosyncracies of SAP (and this doesn’t just apply to SAP… several other ERP / MRP packages were also discussed), wasteful processes being proceduralized in algorithmic stone, monstrous amounts of extra inventory generated to accomodate the cascading "schedule risk" of individual operations, and of course implementation costs that can exceed $100 million buckaroos. And interestingly enough, several people chimed in with how they have gone back to using simple visual controls and Excel spreadsheets to schedule complex operations.
Visual controls and Excel spreadsheets to run a factory? That was just too much to take for some of the members of JSLean’s Future Algorithmics Anonymous who lurk on the fringes of NWLean, so there were a couple of posts spouting their usual blather on "finite multi-variant thingamabob constructionist simulatory somethingoranother". Maybe I’ll have a venti double shot no whip non-fat mocha with that. Or not. I’m a simple man who enjoys a simple cup of joe.
But think about it. About the most complex type of factory is one that makes almost a thousand cars with several hundred permutations every day. And Toyota does it with no MRP-type shopfloor control. MRP is used to handle financials, inventory costing, and the like… but shop floor control is pure manual pull with a small number of e-kanban type applications. Most "real lean" companies unplug MRP on their shopfloors. Last December our own Bill Waddell blogged on how MRP flies in the face of lean, and his book, Rebirth of American Industry, has an entire chapter devoted to "The Illusion of MRP."
"Excellence through simplicity." To me that quote from Lao Tzu has always epitomized one of the fundamental tenets of real lean. Don’t proceduralize complexity, and don’t make something more complex than it needs to be. Manufacturing really isn’t all that hard… you make something, preferably one of it, and you get it out of the operation as quick as possible. Once you remove the loads of WIP from the floor by focusing on the velocity of the single unit, you begin to realize how so much of that perceived complexity is due to not having an unwavering desire to get a product through the flow as quickly as possible.
Almost invariably when I first go into a factory, whether it is a large assembly operation or a small machine shop with a couple CNC’s, I see a huge amount of transactional waste feeding "the machine." Tracking workorders and jobs in all sorts of stages of completion (but never quite done…), inventory, and massive amounts of paperwork. And consequently no time to work on quality improvement, waste reduction, process flow improvement and root cause analysis. They have been sucked into the APICS-driven illusion of MRP. They desperately need a trip to Algorithmics Anonymous.
It’s all about flow. Simple flow. Put a magnetic white board at the center of the shop floor, draw the process in a flowchart manner, and stick the jobs (preferably in the smallest possible units) on magnets onto the processes. Voila! Just by looking at the white board you can see constraints, extra WIP, make decisions on the fly as to which jobs to process next. Shop floor operators can take control and self-manage the operation, self-leveling the individual processes. Eventually natural process improvements will become visually evident, creating cells and other "focused factories". I’ve seen some very complex jobshops that have a "FIFO pipeline" on their whiteboards feeding into the first process or group of processes on the visual tracking whiteboard.
One example I’ve seen even had hash marks on the whiteboard FIFO pipeline indicating the approximate number of hours (or days or weeks if you’re really slow…) to show roughly the lead time before a job hit the first process. Jobs in the pipeline were created in a cascading pull or kanban response to actual orders. And another even had a webcam aimed at the whiteboard, viewable over their internal network, so that their customer service folks could tell customers exactly where their jobs were at any time and how long it would take to fill a new order. No computerized shop floor control at all… in a very complex $75 million operation making leading-edge precision technology products. Their old MRP was relegated to ensuring raw material was available at the beginning of the process, and reconciling the financials after the product shipped.
So the next time some algorithm addict tries to sell you the ultimate in computerized shop floor control for $100,000 remind yourself that you could buy a thousand whiteboards instead.