Last Sunday was an interesting day at our house. We live on a steep street near the top of one of the "seven sisters" small extinct volcanoes that dot this area of the California central coast. Early in the afternoon the college-age son of a neighbor up the street forgot to set the parking brake on his pickup. You can probably guess what happened.
His pickup started accelerating down the street, staying perfectly straight and avoiding four parked cars for two blocks, before veering slightly… right into our front yard. Luckily our landscaping includes several 3-foot granite boulders and some large melaleuca trees. The pickup proceeded to play pinball among the boulders, driving right over a couple melaleucas, and pitched over a 4-foot retaining wall into a lower garden. It missed the house by two inches, only scraping about a foot or so of window trim. There’s considerable damage to landscaping, sprinklers, and fences, and the granite boulders did a nice job on his pickup, but it obviously could have been much, much worse.
Being a small town where the police usually spend their days responding to reports of gates being left open and potential ghosts, the authorities responded in full force. Three fire trucks, paramedics, an ambulance, two cop cars, and of course the news media. In fact, we made the television news… twice. For what will probably be a couple grand worth of landscaping damage. Gotta love small towns.
The lean geek in me kept returning to the granite boulders, and the concept we all learn early on of "draining the inventory to expose the rocks." I can’t find a direct analogy, since the boulders in our case saved our house. But it got me to wondering if some rocks are a good thing. In addition to exposing problem areas, can inventory reduction also expose powerful competencies that weren’t evident before?
Perhaps your manufacturing operation has some unique technical or creative capabilities, but you’re so busy swimming through a molasses of WIP that you can’t capitalize on them. Are your engineers so tied up with figuring out what went wrong with production runs that they can’t discuss new product ideas with potential customers? Are your production operators so busy repeating failed production lots that they can’t focus on quick changeover improvements, which then create a cycle time competitive advantage?
Reducing inventory will expose problems that need to be fixed, but it can also expose those granite boulders of competitive advantage that can protect your business.
Ah, well…maybe the ultimate lean solution in this case is to outsource after all–i.e. don’t live on the side of a hill in the first place? If you don’t have the problem you don’t need the countermeasures.