Lessons From The Dogged Dog

Dora is my nine pound poodle. We make quite a pair.

My wife studies her ways and points them out to me. When Dora wants to eat, poop, play or sleep she lets you know it. She engages us with her eyes and posture. She paws and pokes. She stands nearby until her need is addressed.

No question, we indulge her. But, on the same note, she models “dogged” determination to me.

I don’t know about you, but being “dogged” determined is something that I could exhibit a bit more of as it relates to contributing to our team.

Pressing a little harder to achieve a goal or continuing to attack a persistent hassle sometimes takes another hour, day or week before giving up. It comes down to whether I am “dogged” enough to persist.

I ran across a quote this week:

“Don’t start because it’s easy. Start because it’s worth trying. Don’t stop because it’s hard. Stop because you’ve tried your best.”

“Dogged” individuals aren’t daunted by tough challenges. “Dogged” individuals try longer than most others.

Would others describe you as “dogged”?

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Everyday Lean

When you look around you at work, there are some things that aren’t ideal. Not exactly right.

Usually, they are tolerable. Things you can work around. Things you can fix later. Things where you can adjust to accommodate.

Perhaps you are the only one who sees it. It’s right in your area. No one else sees it because it’s your practiced, experienced eye that recognizes the variance.  That’s where being lean kicks in.

If you aren’t lean, you leave those things that aren’t exactly right alone until you can’t ignore them anymore.

Things that aren’t exactly right don’t get better. Fixing them later as compared to earlier is not lean. It leads to a larger cost to repair, more downtime, perhaps injury.

Lean kicks in when we have the discipline to take a look around every day. Note the things that aren’t exactly right. Work with the team to get it right.

The trick is to understand that you can complete that process every day and probably find something not exactly right. We become leaner when we deal with them quicker.


Quick Start Sets The Pace

“Who is late will be punished by life.”

—Werner Herzog

When it comes to being “lean”, we can have no better habit than starting on time and well.

When the work day starts, it is imperative for every person to be in place with machinery ready to run and material ready for processing. If any of the three aren’t ready, it results in multiple people standing around and waiting. That kind of waste sets the tone for the day.

Having all three in place also enables us it have an opportunity for a  ” great first hour”. Through years of experience I’ve noticed the best teams consistently start well every day. They set the tone by getting good results early. Establishing the momentum early creates the opportunity for a great day.

A slow start can be overcome. But, more often,  a slow start leads to mediocre or poor performance.

If you aren’t happy with how your team is performing, examine how you are starting at the beginning of the day and when you return from breaks. Make improvements there. It will show results.


“Lean” Thinkers Are “Lean” Doers

Hopefully, as we talk about where to look for opportunities to “lean” up our company, it generates your awareness of lean opportunities where we work.

But, being “aware” of lean opportunities and taking action to become leaner are two different activities.

To become leaner, we have to act.

What kind of actions?

Speak up. Describe to colleagues the things you see that aren’t lean. See what they think. See if you generate ideas to make it lean.

Experiment. Once you have a few ideas, pick one or two to try out. Conduct the experiment and see what happens. Recognize that each experiment tried helps you to have greater understanding. With that greater understanding, try again.

Assume there are better ideas somewhere. There probably are. None of us is smarter than all of us. Share experiments and what you experienced with others. They may have had experiences that allow you valuable insight.

The more you work to lean things up, the more confidence you develop that thinking about lean and acting upon those thoughts is the way to success. As your confidence grows, you are willing to put in the effort with the knowledge it will bear fruit.

Become a ” lean” thinker. It will lead you to “doing” lean as well.


Take the Time to Put Fresh Eyes on a Situation

Fresh eyes see things differently.

The “lean” strategies of “going to Gemba” (leaving the desk or the office to spend time at the workplace to see what is going on) and “standing in the circle” (taking time to stand in a circle at the workplace and spend it observing and listening) cater to this understanding.

I was visiting with a plant manager who recently took a week to go work on a machine to see what was really happening: “I was checking on the machine regularly but we weren’t making any progress. But, when I stopped to work with the guys, we really began to make some progress. I would time things. We would make changes. We would catch the good things and eliminate the bad. I began to see things I couldn’t observe passing through. We were able to help things up and down the line.”

The struggle is finding the time to take time. But, those who bite the bullet and take the time are reporting that it makes such a quick difference, they wonder why they put it off.

Taking the time to do an improvement effort creates capacity with existing resources. The discipline of putting new eyes on a situation with an aim toward improvement will pay dividends. Leaders who can’t pull it off will be falling behind.


What Makes a Team Effective?

What makes a team effective?

You can answer this as a teammate or leader. But, here are the questions for which everyone needs answers:

Does each player understand what his job is and understand how the team prospers when that job is done well?

Is there a premium placed on good, honest and transparent communication? Is all the information at hand to do each job well?

Is each person developing skills and abilities which increase her value to the team and to the world?

Do teammates respect each other and work to add to each other’s effectiveness?

Do we feel good about the services and products we provide? Do we have pride in what we do?

Is it easy to be on this team? Is it easy to do what is expected of me without stupid obstacles being in the way?

Honest answers to these questions identify areas where our teams can get better.

As the questions arise and shortcomings are identified, the place to best start fixing them is through discussion among your team.

Discuss it. Consider some options. Try something different. It’s the “lean” path to excellence.


Good Habits Contribute to Lean Operations

Yesterday I mentioned in describing the books I am reading that “good habits can add up to lean operations.” I was asked how that was so.

It’s a systematic process.

Waste in time, motion or material points us to opportunities to get leaner. When we see the waste, we say to ourselves, “How do we make that waste go away or lessen its impact?”

Our next action is to begin to try things that are designed to change the impact. It’s one experiment after another. We make some changes until we feel like we have gotten the improvement.

We all have learned that once we have determined a better way, we have to put efforts in place to “sustain” the change. We write down the new procedure. We train the new procedure. We work on it diligently until it becomes a “habit.”

What we know about habits, whether good or bad, is that we do habits on automatic pilot. Which means we do them without having to think too hard about it.

Thus, good habits strung together have the effect of creating a lean operation or a lean person. The more we can do, the better we become.


The “Why” Behind the “What”

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

In the course of our work life, we learn things. We start a new job, we learn how to do it. We frequently get told “what” to do without learning the “why.” After awhile, the familiarity of doing the “what” becomes comfortable. We forget about searching for the “why.”

That’s why the process of asking “why” five times is such a great lean technique. It suggests that we step back and examine the things we know to be true and see if the “why” is the same as it once was.

I heard a story. Newspapers in England were made with odd-sized, large paper. A new publisher assumed that the paper size was used because it was cheaper.

Upon examination, he learned the bigger paper was more expensive. He couldn’t get anybody to tell him why they used the more expensive paper. He researched it.

It turns out that many years earlier, the government had taxed newspapers on the number of pages they printed. Thus, it made sense to use larger pages in order to print papers with fewer pages. It saved on taxes.

Eventually, the tax law changed. But, the newspapers went on using the more expensive paper. It was an ingrained habit. It cost a good deal more. No one bothered to ask “why.”

While I hope we don’t have those kinds of things in abundance, I wonder if there aren’t a few.

Take a look around. Examine what we do. Ask yourself: “If we were starting over today, would we do it that way?”

Ask yourself: “Do I know the ‘why’ behind the ‘what?’”

It may lead you to a fresh outlook.


Lean Operations Make “Evidence-Based” Decisions

I was listening to a discussion about “evidence-based policy.”

The idea is that many strategies and policies are created from theories and feelings. Frequently, those aren’t fortified by fact and experience. They end up being wrong.

According to Richard Thaler, a University of Chicago economist, it takes three things to create evidence-based policy:

  • Modesty. A willingness to believe you don’t know all the answers.
  • Curiosity. A desire to dig for better answers and creative solutions.
  • Willingness to collect data. A commitment to collect data to find out what “is” as compared to what you “think” might be true.

These attitudes are fundamental to “lean” operations.

To seek leaner operations, you must approach things with the idea that you can always be better.

The curiosity is behind asking “why” five times. Things aren’t always as they seem. What appears to be solid may actually be shaky. It takes constant digging to get to the truth.

Data drives it all. We have to be willing to test our theories. Learn from them. Tweak things based on what we learn.

So, if you want to create a leaner operation, ask others how they would do it and what the problems are.

Be willing to try things out.

Let the facts generated direct your future activity.


A Record Year in Shipshewana

I was in Shipshewana at our mill yesterday. They had a celebration about their fantastic year.

The team in Shipshewana set records in timber and logs purchased, the amount of timber logged by our crews, and the amount of lumber cut, assembled into pallets and shipped. They also put two-thirds of their pallets through a dryer. The drivers covered over a million miles recovering logs and shipping pallets.

As you might have expected, all these records have resulted in record bottom line results.

I have several observations:

Among our operations, they are among the best at making measurement matter. They make an effort at measuring everything and drilling down on the results. They use measurement to trigger lean efforts. The efforts result in regular small improvements that mount up. It is a virtuous cycle which eventually yields records.

It took extraordinary teamwork to build on this. Our manufacturing ability pushed our procurement team which stretched our sales team. Having an achievement mentality drove every piece of our operation to greater heights.

It takes extraordinary leadership to accomplish such results. Our plant manager Dorothy Hostetler and her team have worked to inspire and drive the progress. What I observed in Shipshewana was a great team working together to accomplish great results.

One of the greatest challenges we face in business is to put another great year up after achieving one. Our team in Shipshewana has strung a few together.

The challenge is to maintain the lean edge. To pay attention to the numbers. To be diligent in the process of asking how we can improve. To be disciplined in trying new things to make more improvements.

My congratulations go out to the Shipshewana team. It was a privilege to be among them as they celebrated their progress.