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A Lean View on CLEAN

In conversations with Wally Klatch about the concepts of CLEAN (reference earlier e-news article?) I found the ideas challenging and reflected a bit on some of my experiences working with organizations that needed to considerably or completely re-think process designs.

In most Lean Kaizen and Value Stream Mapping efforts, we make a primary focus, the elimination of wastes and finding ways to create better flow in the subject’s processes.  Often, we will complete Spaghetti Diagrams to accompany the team’s initial “waste walk” and value stream mapping activities.  After we have established a clear idea of the current state – or what I call the “ugly truth” – about how the process is performing today, we embark on rounds of brainstorming to identify what can be done to improve the process.

A blue-sky, frictionless value stream vision

One of the exercises that I will challenge teams with is this: “Let’s start with a clean to-scale drawing representing our facility and ignore where everything is today.  What I want you to do is design a process flow that has a smooth flow.  A flow so smooth that the thing we are working never has to stop; it will move from value-add step to value-add step without waiting.”  I call this a “blue sky” layout.  Some teams find the exercise very helpful because they can engage in creative thinking about what “could be” if we were not constrained by the current organization of a building’s layout and the current location of equipment, materials, inventory storage locations and people.  In some cases, this approach yields some extraordinary thinking.

After we have our “blue sky” or “utopia” view of the layout the team is then tasked with going back to the task of figuring out what really can happen within the practical constraints of the business.  Usually, this “blue sky” concept cannot be fully achieved due to monuments (capital equipment) that cannot be moved or that are so expensive we cannot duplicate them and must leave them where they are to serve other areas of the organization.

CLEAN offers an approach that avoids problems that some lean teams encounter

The “blue sky” approach I suggested earlier does have its problems.  First and foremost, it is often difficult for a Lean team to truly think creatively.  Why?  They are too involved with and invested in the current way of doing things.  This brings to mind my frustrations with a Lean team for an electronics repair facility.  I had hand-picked cross-functional managers and technicians to do a plant-wide evaluation of their opportunities to improve cost and speed in their system.  Everything went well at first.  The value stream map uncovered that the devices coming in for repair were picked-up and put down at least 14 times from receipt to shipment and the fact that really only three steps added any value in the eyes of customers.  It was taking two to three days on average to fix something and ship it when the actual repair time was less than 30 minutes.  The spaghetti diagrams showed stuff moving all over the 50,000 square foot facility and the product had to sit a long time unnecessarily while waiting for someone to do something.

After doing a rationalization study we discovered that 80% of the volume for repairs represented about 20% of models received.  Working on a blank piece of paper they came up with a couple of blue-sky scenarios for a smoother workflow.  After the team had created to-scale cut-outs for repair benches and racking for components to use in creating a new layout inside the existing facility things began to come unraveled.

Working independently from the team I put together a workflow in their receiving dock area that would allow them to process 80% of the facility’s volume in about 5,000 square feet of space – 75% less than they were using at the time.  The “touches” would drop to five or fewer.  Left to their own devices to work on a new layout they ended up rejecting the concept of consolidation to recommend virtually no meaningful changes to the facility’s layout.

They were “stuck” on some key issues.  First, they had a robotic AGV system for taking products from the receive-open-and-sort function to repair benches all over large repairs shop they had in place.  This sacred cow could not be slain.  The idea of integrating the re-packing of the product for return to the consumer immediately upon completion of the repair was summarily rejected.  They could not conceive of the idea of developing the workforce sufficiently to allow repair technicians to perform “mundane, low skill” work, or integrating packing employees into the repair area so that the product could move in a friction-less fashion out the back door.  There were many excuses for keeping their batch-and-queue workflow in place – as they simply could not break themselves from the conventional way of doing things.

In this particular organization’s case, it was obvious to me that 80% of the product received could be turned-around and out the door in a repaired, ready-to-use condition in less than three hours, routinely.  The effect on their competitive position would have been a quantum leap – as they were operating at a good level before (two to three days turn-around).  Imagine what kind of premium they could command with being able to promise turn-around of hours versus days.

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