One of my favorite blogs is Cafe Hayek, hosted by Don Boudreaux, the chairman of the Department of Economics at George Mason University. From the blog’s name you can assume, correctly, that it has a decidedly libertarian bent and often discusses economics via rather unique analogies… witness yesterday’s post on Trade and Romance.
A recent post titled The Plural of Anecdote is Not Data has particular relevance, in a couple of ways, to the manufacturing world.
First off, but of secondary importance to the point of my interest, is the discussion on free trade and globalization. Basically globalization is here; get used to it. As Don’s post points out, yes many factories in Michigan have closed and that has destroyed the lives of many families. But is that the fault of "free trade?" The only people that truly believe that are the same that believe that protectionist barriers are necessary to save their companies. Try telling that to the companies that succeed globally from factories in the U.S., like Danaher and Parker-Hannifin, or to workers at the growing domestic factories of Toyota and Honda. The difference is leadership and looking inside for waste reduction and improvement, not outside for artificial market distortions. Don makes this point very well last week with an open letter to Lou Dobbs in the Christian Science Monitor.
But the point I really want to make has to do with the danger of confusing anecdotes with data. Many people, especially politicians and the groupies and wonks that adore them, make this mistake. As do many of us business types… although in a different fashion. Don writes about this danger in terms of factories closing and free trade. I’m thinking of a a smaller scale… the factory floor.
How often are we sitting in our office when an employee comes in with a story of woe? What do we do? Many will assume the information is correct until proven differently. Unfortunately many won’t even try to find out if there is another side of the story. Similarly, how many times have we sat in a conference room trying to figure out a problem, and call various people on the shop floor to ask them to describe the situation. We try to recreate what is going on only a few feet away, as if we had some form of holodeck.
Give it up. Go to the gemba.
Norman Bodek wrote a great article for Superfactory a couple years ago that vividly describes the importance of going to the gemba. Kaizen events should begin at the gemba, daily production meetings should occur at the gemba, supervisors and managers should live at the gemba. The gemba is where it happens. Don’t waste time trying to get a bunch of people to describe a situation… grab those people and go see it yourself.
Take a walk. Get some exercise. And figure out what’s really going on.