Friday’s Wall Street Journal featured an article on how the CEO of AutoNation, Michael Jackson, is fed up and won’t take it anymore. He’s demanding that the Big Three car companies stop making cars just to keep production lines running, regardless of whether or not there’s consumer demand for those models. Of these "orphan" cars, Jackson says,
No customer would have asked for these vehicles that way, and they never should have been built that way. This has to change.
We’ve covered the issue of Detroit’s overproduction and excess inventory before in this blog. (Although in this WSJ article, we’re treated to the priceless claim by Mark LaNeve, GM’s head of North Amerian sales and marketing that they’re comfortable with their inventory levels (about 3.5 times larger than Toyota’s) because, "It’s not like we have some kind of crisis." Apparently, it’s only during a crisis that they need to reconsider how they do business. So much for learning from Toyota’s leadership model.) The problems with this approach are self-evident.
But how different is the situation for knowledge workers? As I read this article, I thought about the "push" model of production as it applies to the office. In most offices, people’s email inboxes are positively sclerotic with irrelevant, unnecessary, and unasked for "FYI" messages. Virtually everyone I know despises these emails. Invariably, the information is of low- or no-value to the recipient. Worse than that, the traffic jam of these emails creates an unhealthy signal-to-noise ratio, in which the really important information gets lost in the muck of this electronic rubbish.
And the burden of this useless inventory doesn’t just hit the recipient of these emails: the IT folks have to backup and maintain the email system, and the proliferation of this information creates an added headache for the legal department, which needs to deal with expensive, laborious, and time-consuming discovery issues in lawsuits.
Just as with Detroit’s Big Three, the inventory is being "pushed" on someone farther down the value stream, or someone not even in the value stream. Can you imagine a canister of body paint being delivered to someone on the transmission assembly? Or a tote of windshield wiper blades being sent to the engine assembly team? ("Bob, just FYI. I thought you’d like to see the new finish on the wiper blade while you’re working on the fuel injection.") And yet, this is precisely the situation for so many office workers.
There’s no easy solution to this problem, of course. Co-workers really are just trying to be helpful, and since copying and distributing information is effortless and free, they’d rather be guilty of a sin of commission, rather than omission.
What we need is someone like AutoNation’s Michael Jackson to say, "This has to change." And that someone is you.
You have the power to tell your co-workers what information you need and — more importantly — what information you don’t need. What stuff you want to hear about in real time, and what stuff can be relayed to you in a weekly update. What has value to you, and what’s just a waste of electrons. And they can tell you the same thing.
You can’t control everyone’s email habits, of course. But if the Pareto principle holds true in email — that 80% of your mail comes from 20% of the people in your address book — then you can certainly take care of a big portion of the crap that’s pushed upon you by having this discussion with a pretty small group of people.
Lean philosophy necessitates that a manufacturer cooperates and communicates with its suppliers. Knowledge workers should do the same. Yes, they have multiple value streams running through them so they have multiple suppliers, but why not communicate about what’s needed, and what’s simply waste?
If AutoNation can reject inventory "push," so can you.