18 October 2013

How do we waste our teams' intelligence and energy?

By Xavier Perrin (xperrin@xp-consulting.fr)

In most of the recently published books about lean, an 8th waste (muda) is added to the “7 wastes according to Toyota”. Next to over-production, waiting, inventory, corrections, motion, transportation and over-processing, "unused people skills” is indeed mentioned. Blue collars immediately come to mind: appointed only to manufacturing tasks, they are constantly forgotten when it comes to ideas and propositions requests. In this traditional way of seeing things, thinking is, above all, the white collars' mission. Even if a lot is still to be done, this obsolete way of thinking fortunately tends to disappear. Quality circles, kaizen events, daily meetings at the workstation, and other QRQC (1) meetings, are many opportunities for everyone to express their ideas in order to solve problems and enhance performances.

Yet allowing employees to speak, involving them, and even challenging them don't mean you are making the best from their skills. I even tend to observe that all of these creative energies are wasted during ineffective and useless workshops. I am not speaking about ineffectiveness due to badly conducted meetings: the problem is easy to identify, and one can find plenty of training and coaching offers to fix this problem (in some companies, a lot is certainly still to be done!). I want to speak about the hours and talks wasted because the employees weren't given a clear enough vision of what was expected from them. I am going to illustrate what I am saying with two situations recently met in two manufacturing companies.

In the first company, we found many software – worksheets for the most part – besides one ERP system. In this kind of situation, the ERP system is used as a database and each user extracts the data it needs and then processes it with its favorite application. Sometimes, the data is even managed without any regards to the ERP database, which means its coherence and wholeness can't be guaranteed. Top managers are aware of the problem, and they would like the ERP system to be used as it should be (i.e. as an integrated system) and the “satellite” applications to be eliminated. Therefore a team is formed in order to map the applications currently used and to see if it is possible to use mostly modules of the ERP system, and if not, to define how these applications should be interfaced with the ERP.

The mapping stage is usually well led and the team is efficient: there isn't much disagreement when it is only about listing and describing things as they are. It is only when it comes to how the ERP functionalities should be used that it becomes complicated. Then, we can see two sides emerging: the first side is the ones defending an “all ERP” vision – usually cross-functions representatives, such as supply chain people – and the other side, the ones defending the use of specific applications which are more efficient than the ERP according to them. These differences of views lead to heated and unproductive meetings. When the team presents its work's conclusion to the board, it is to ask for its mediation between both sides. As French genius industrial thinker Auguste Detœuf (1883-1947)(2) said: “I often saw technicians with contradictory opinions, but I never saw one that was wrong!” One can imagine how clueless and embarrassed the managers were while earing these conclusions... So they ask the team to deepen their analysis so that they can see more clearly what to do. It is easy to imagine how efficient the upcoming meetings will be...

In the second example, a team's mission is to reduce WIP and throughput-time in a particular shop floor. They go through the usual routine consisting in identifying the value-streams and then mapping them with the VSM(3) methodology. The team identifies 7 flows, which reveal a complexity that will make it difficult to implement flow processes. However, some ideas that would permit to reduce the current 7 flows into 3 are suggested. An action plan is built, and pilots are named in order to work on solutions and to expose the results from their investigations. One of them explains to us that the chosen solution isn't feasible because the additional costs involved are too high. The issue is discussed and everyone exposes its point of view and argues pro or cons regarding the solution. At the end of the meeting, the question isn't settled. Finally, the team doesn't find any solution and the 7 flows are still here, and one does tempt to conclude it can't get any better...

In these two examples, we can see that the energy and good will of the teams didn't help to improve. They didn't create anything, and didn't find out the expected solutions. And yet everyone did their best and stood up for their point of view in good faith.

Why such a skills' waste?

The reason of such a waste is the way the managers put the issue into words. In the first case, if the managers were convinced in the necessity of integrating all the process in the ERP, they mustn't ask the working group to see if it is feasible. They must express clearly their vision, for instance saying: “Our vision is that all the processes must be integrated in our ERP within three years.” The group's mission is then to identify all the obstacles getting in the way of the implementation of this vision, and to conceive solutions to overcome these obstacles. The debate between pros and cons is not relevant anymore. It is not about explaining why it would be better to keep specific applications. It is about designing, studying and suggesting solutions and conditions that will eventually lead to work with the ERP.

In the case of the second company, in expressing the issue this way: “Our vision is to have three flows maximum in order to create a continuous flow without any queue time”, the team's mission becomes clear: identifying the obstacles to the vision, and elaborating solutions in order to overcome the obstacles and figuring out how to do so. The energy and skills of the team could then be focused on the right goals. When the group will meet the direction to expose its conclusions, it won't be to say that it isn't possible. It will help the managers to play their true role: deciding to allow the resources needed in order to apply the solutions suggested by the team, or, if needed, to differ the solutions if the company doesn't have these means.

To conclude, it is easy to waste our teams' energy and intelligence. But it is equally easy to create the required conditions to set these energy and intelligence free: all you have to do is to know what you want, and to express it clearly! Though, knowing what one wants is apparently not so simple. But that's another story!

About these questions, I warmly recommend to read Mike Rother's “Toyota Kata”, in which he exposes very clearly the Toyota's approach to get the best of its employee's creative energy.


(1) Quick Response Quality Control

(2) Propos d’O.L. Barenton, confiseur, Paris, Éditions du Tambourinaire, 1948

(3) Value-Stream-Mapping

(4) Toyota Kata: Managing People For Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results, Mike Rother, Mc Ggraw Hill, 2010

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.