Now I’m a Believer

October 14, 2011 - | Filed under: COE, Lean thinking


Unlike my blog-posting colleague, I’m a relative newbie at lean, having spent my years out of college in the newspaper business and only recently making the jump to Fisher’s Center for Operational Excellence. I’ve pored over the Lean Enterprise Institute’s Lean Lexicon, scratched my head at A3s and learned very well how to nod politely at jargon as I scribble down mental notes for later. No amount of memorization, however, has taught me more about the transformative power of a lean approach than my first simulation.

Only weeks into my employment at COE, I joined a small group of my colleagues and employees from member companies for the three-part, day-long effort, hosted by Institute for Lean Systems Executive Director David Veech. My table’s task: To cobble together the hull and carry out final assembly of a Star Wars-inspired Lego aircraft with enough small pieces to strike fear into a playground full of toddlers’ parents.

lego naboo starfighter

An example of the final product in the lean simulation.

With a stack of directions, the first round seemed simple enough, mimicking a batch production system still used by many companies. But when game time came, the results were an unmitigated disaster, wasted pieces and frustrated “factory workers” everywhere. The second round, a simulation of a company partway through a lean transformation, wasn’t much better as purchase orders piled up and attempts at “milk runs” for Lego pieces floundered.

Round three, a simulation of a fully lean enterprise, was catharsis defined. Tasked with picking up a carefully chosen selection of Lego parts for the final product, I flew around the room and handed off deliveries with a smile. Completed Star Wars fighters began piling up and the collective morale – as grim as a Netflix boardroom at times – skyrocketed. Literally and figuratively, the pieces were locking into place. And the jargon made sense.

Only after the dust cleared did I realize it was necessary to feel the intense frustration of a wasteful production system before I could appreciate the logic of lean. The problem in many industries today, however, is that operations don’t realize they’re in round one because the status quo is so ingrained. Even once the “Aha!” moment comes, much work remains to be done, and change – even for the better – isn’t easy.

It’s the job of those of who have experienced round three to communicate its value. I’ll certainly never look at Legos the same way again.



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