A Key Characteristic Of Lean Maniacs

LS 002 | A Key Characteristic Of High-Performing Lean Maniacs

A Key Characteristic Of Lean Maniacs

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • The importance of taking action (0:00)
  • The role of the Deming Cycle (4:23)
  • The example of baking cookies (7:50)
  • The role of validated learning (9:50)
  • The example of 3S’ing a dresser (12:04)
  • The general approach of 2 Second Lean (14:45)
  • Why to start taking action first in the bathroom (16:30)


The importance of taking action

Welcome to episode 2 of the Lean Smarts Podcast! I’m your host Daniel Crawford and this is the show where I share simple and actionable lean tips and advice for starting, expanding, and leading a lean life, and a lean organization. And today I want to talk to you about one of the key characteristics of high-performing lean maniacs. These are the people and the organizations that get massive results with lean, and so there’s something we can learn from them, and that’s the importance of taking action.

In the lean world there is a buzzword phrase started by a book years ago called Lean Thinking. It’s hugely important that we all learn to think in new lean ways. If we don’t train ourselves to think lean, we won’t see waste, and will not get far in our journey of continuous improvement. But, within this exhortation to be a lean thinker, do not make the mistake of divorcing it from taking lean action. Taking action is equally important! All our lean thoughts are worth nothing unless we have a habit of taking action on them. That’s why this episode is dedicated to recognizing and learning from certain lean maniacs out there that have a large bias for taking action.

I’ve had the joy and honor of meeting companies practicing lean in the form of the book 2 Second Lean. One of the more remarkable characteristics of these companies when compared to other companies practicing lean is that they are fanatics about taking action. And I actually believe this is one of the reasons for their success. They take action.

What is more common in the industry is to develop a large continuous improvement plan, and take 3-6 months developing that plan. But these 2 Second Lean companies just get started with morning meetings, 3S’ing, and fixing the things that bug them. They make it so so simple that everyone in the company can do it, every day, and every where. I’ve even known one company with 70 employees make over 4000 improvements in just two years. In the same time of 3-6 months that it took other companies just to come up with a continuous improvement plan, this company was completing between 500 and 1000 improvements.

And so in this episode I want to discuss the importance of taking action in our lean journeys. Lean has to be actionable and easy to do. If it isn’t simple, then taking action will require months instead of minutes, and likely be done by a select few instead of the complete whole.

To aid our discussion I also want to discuss the role of certain lean concepts such as the Deming Cycle (or PDCA or PDSA), the role of batch sizes in planning and execution, and the idea of validated learning. Of course we value making lean simple at Lean Smarts. And yet we still recognize that developing a broader understanding of lean can help us have more excellence in our simple actions and applications. So I’m going to venture off into some lean theory, but don’t worry! I’ll tie it all back into simple and practical application before we’re through.

The role of the Deming Cycle, or PDCA

Historically, lean has its roots in the Toyota Production System, and Toyota developed much of its management system on the guidance of a few quality experts. One of these experts was William Deming. Deming was a man ahead of his time and made many substantial contributions to quality and lean. We could spend hours learning from his many teachings, but today I’m only going to bring up what’s call the Deming Cycle.

The Deming Cycle is a four step model for continuous improvement. It is often called PDSA or PDCA. P stands for plan. D stands for do. S or C stands for study or check. And A stands for act. It’s basically the experimental method. First you plan something. Then you do it and conduct your experiment. Then you study and check the results to find what you can learn. Lastly you act to implement your learning and standardize it throughout your company or the system at large.

The key to rapid continuous improvement is spinning the Deming Cycle as fast as possible. Think of it as a massive flywheel. Once it gets moving really fast it’s almost impossible to slow it down.

This is where your view of lean has massive impact on your ability to take action and crank out PDCA cycles. If lean is something complicated, requiring walls upon walls of charts, data, graphs, value stream maps, schedules, and everything else, then you won’t be able to take action very quickly. All the employees of the company will be waiting months until someone smart in management or engineering has it “all figured out” …and I say that with a bit of sarcasm because there isn’t a single smart person in the world who can get it all figured out. But we’ll get to that in a minute. The point is: if lean is complicated, it’ll take you forever to get started and even longer to actually create momentum. A massive plan requires a massive Deming Cycle.

The biggest problem with this is the fact that it delays learning. When you start planning something, you don’t know anything. You don’t know what will work, what will not work, what challenges you face, or anything. It’s an experiment. If you’ve never done value stream mapping before, you don’t know exactly what to do or what approach to take. If you’ve never implemented 5S or 3S before, you don’t know how to manage the efforts well. It’s not until after you’ve done something the first time that you can learn from your successes and failures and make an adjustment for the next time through.

PDCA: The example of baking cookies

My wife is a phenomenal chef. Like really, really good. This weekend I caught her in the kitchen inventing a new recipe for a chocolate chip pumpkin cookie and I noticed she was only cooking one cookie at a time on her baking sheet. I thought that was interesting so I asked her why. The funny thing is she turned to me and said, “because it’s lean!” Well anyway, she explained to me that it was a new recipe and she didn’t know if her proportions were correct. So instead of baking the entire batch of cookies all at once and jeopardizing all of them, she made a batch and only scooped out one cookie of dough onto the baking sheet. After a few minutes in the oven she could tell if it was baking correctly or not and would then add more flour or whatever she needed to her bowl of cookie dough to adjust the proportions. In this way, instead of baking a whole batch of bad cookies and then trying again, she was able to test a single cookie at a time (in a fraction of the amount of time and the amount of risk to bake a whole batch), then modify her recipe, and repeat until it was perfect.

Her secret was reducing the batch size to a single cookie and testing it as fast as possible. This is how she learned to make it perfect. Once she mastered the ratios on one cookie, she could bake the whole batch with confidence.

The role of validated learning

This is the idea of validated learning. Eric Reis goes into depth on this in his book The Lean Startup, and it’s very smart, but it’s basically about making something so small and bite-sized that you can test it quickly and thereby learn quickly from each successive iteration or cycle.

When you’re planning something like a lean transformation at your company, you don’t know how to come up with a perfect plan–perhaps because there is never a perfect plan! And you cannot learn what’s good or bad until you have the opportunity to spin the Deming Cycle one time and see what worked or not. If your continuous improvement plan is so complicated that it takes 12 months just to find out if it’s working, you’re going to have an exceedingly hard time transforming your organization.

But these 2 Second Lean companies aren’t like that. They make lean so darn simple that everyone can start taking action in small ways almost immediately. By making it small, they can learn quickly. And also, because it’s small, the consequence of one bad action is small and easy to deal with. This is in contrast to the high-stakes 12-month plan, the value stream map, or kaizen event, in which the results must be good or management gets upset.

Perhaps the biggest idea to share in this podcast episode is that the smaller you make lean, the more actionable it becomes. When Paul Akers invented the phrase 2 Second Lean, it came from his teaching to make a 2 second improvement every day. Now you and I may be very busy people, but even we can come up with a small improvement that shaves off 2 seconds from a process every day. I can do that.

3S’ing my dresser at home

Even on a weekend at home recently, my wife complained at how messy my dresser was and asked me to organize it. But being a lean thinker I thought to myself, “I could organize it, but honestly I don’t want to have to organize it ever again and deal with the hassle of a disorganized dresser. How could I 5S this thing so that the clothes are never messy again?” In the next 5 minutes I found some scrap foam poster board, cut it to size with scissors, and created dividers inside the drawer so that each clothing type had its own little compartment. A compartment here for folded shirts, another compartment here for folded shorts, and so on. The result was beautiful! Well, the foam poster board was a bit cheap but it’s getting the job done. I’ve spun the PDCA Deming Cycle one time with very cheap materials and very little time. If it’s wrong or I need to change it, no problem! My plan is to experiment with it over the next few weeks or months and someday–once the design seems stable enough–I may buy permanent dividers or create them myself out of wood or plastic.

Side note here: I only 5S’ed one drawer in the whole dresser! But what’s important is that I’ve trained my brain to keep lean simple and to value even the smallest of improvements. Because of this, I take action! If instead I had to pull out a CAD software program, measure the internal dimensions of the drawer, and design a solid model of the perfect clothing divider system, I would have never gotten started! I’ve got too many other things to do on my Saturday morning. And also, my first design would probably have been a disaster and not what I eventually wanted after time and experience using the dividers.

So the take home message is this: too many companies and too many individuals don’t get started with lean because they make it too complicated, and it slows down their ability to take action, learn something, and take more action.

The general approach of 2 Second Lean

If you are completely unfamiliar with the approach that these 2 Second Lean companies are taking, popularized by Paul Akers at his company Fastcap, it is pretty unconventional compared to the rest of the lean industry. But it is downright brilliant, incredibly simple, and fun. The basic strategy of a 2 Second Lean company implementing lean in a fun and simple way looks like this:

  1. Start a unique daily meeting to engage, inspire, and train employees to be lean thinkers
  2. Begin doing 3S by starting in the bathroom – I’ll comment about this in just a minute
  3. Get everyone to start making a daily 2 second improvement
  4. Get everyone to make a short 60 second video of each 2 second improvement before and after
  5. Open your company up to give lean tours to other people and organizations

It’s actually not more complicated then that. The brilliance of this approach is it is simple and engages everyone. The value stream mapping, 1 piece flow conversions, and everything else can wait. They will happen. But by taking this simple approach you can unleash massive action throughout the organization and create a lean culture from the very beginning. It’s what you need to create any sustained movement.

Why you should first take action in the bathroom

Now I mentioned the second step to start in the bathroom and promised I would say more about it. This may sound ridiculous to you if you’re committed to traditional lean or cannot see the business impact in the bathroom. But consider it this way. By starting in the bathroom it’s like cooking one cookie at a time versus the entire batch at once. You could start your 5S or 3S journey by marching straight out to production and taking it all on at once. But your people don’t know what they are doing at first. And what about office people? You’re much better off being seriously funny starting in the bathroom, involving everyone, and creating a lean standard for a 3S’ed bathroom–cleaning supplies and toilet paper included. By starting small you can learn rapidly and involve everyone at the same time. Once the recipe is perfect enough, expand it everywhere else. It should all look as good as the bathroom.

If you don’t want to start in the bathroom or are doing lean a different way then 2 Second Lean, that’s fine! Even Toyota in 2005 gathered over 600,000 improvement suggestions from employees in Japan alone. That’s over 11 improvements per employee per year. And more than 99% were accepted. There are other ways to do lean. But you have to make it actionable. If your front line employee can’t do it, you’re going to fail. If they have to get an engineering degree to even hold a conversation with you about lean, then you’re missing the point, and I’ll even argue that you don’t know what lean is about.

Make lean so small and simple that everyone can take action on it every day. If you can’t do that, you’re not going to make it.