Category: Lean Thinking

Metrics & Culture

Hello everyone! I’m back at Michigan Tech after a second summer with Caterpillar. Although I wasn’t working directly with continuous improvement during my internship, I had a conversation about metrics and how they affect the culture and empowerment of employees that was a really big “aha!” moment for me that I wanted to share.

Before this conversation, I had primarily thought of metrics as data that you track to make decisions on what improvements to make, and then for tracking improvement success. It hadn’t really occurred to me that what you track and how you track it really affects decision making and empowerment of the front line workers.

The example we talked about in this conversation was how a customer’s maintenance department might track their performance by tracking their ability to stay within their monthly maintenance budget. Unfortunately, with employees knowing that they are being judged by how much they spend on maintenance, there are instances where some maintenance that should occur goes undone so that the metric can be met; the employee isn’t empowered to make the right choice. As a result, sometimes money is saved on preventative maintenance in the shop… only to have a more costly failure occur in the field, increasing both the maintenance costs and causing a loss in productivity.

In this case, an alternative to the dollar amount metric would be tracking the frequency of maintenance to track success: the goal would be to only have the machine down for planned maintenance and reduce the number of unnecessary failures in the field. This metric would empower employees to make the right choice about choosing to do preventative maintenance before a failure occurs, which is overall going to have a positive impact on the business!

Poke-Yoke (Mistake Proofing)

The concept of Poka-Yoke was first introduced by Dr. Shigeo Shingo in the 1960’s.  The term “poka-yoke” literally means avoiding (yokeru) mistakes (poka).  Although typically applied to the manufacturing industry, poka-yoke concepts can also be applied to the office environment, hospitals, service-sector industries, and any process where there is the potential for a defect to reach the customer.

Poka-yoke distinguishes between defects and mistakes.  A defect is an error in a process that continues through until it reaches the customer.  A mistake on the other hand, can be detected and corrected immediately.  Poka-yoke seeks to eliminate defects at the source, when mistakes are made.

There are three types of poka-yoke that are used to detect errors:

  • Contact: Identifies a defect through a physical attribute such as size, shape, color, or weight
  • Fixed-value: Ensures that a certain number of movements are made during the process
  • Motion-step: Determines whether or not only prescribed steps are completed

Additionally there are two types of poka-yoke that are used to prevent errors:

  • Warning: Alerts the operator before a mistake is made
  • Control: Prevents a mistake from being made

Examples of poka-yoke can be found anywhere you look.  For instance, the cords between your computer and your monitor, keyboard, mouse, and outlet all have different plugs.  This is an example of the contact method.  Only the correct cord can be plugged in to the correct outlet.

An example of the fixed-value method would be assembling a part with some nuts and bolts.  With the fixed-value method, the exact number of nuts and bolts required is available to the worker.  If anything is left over after the worker has assembled the part, then right away a mistake is detected because somewhere a bolt is not being used on the part.

A final example that combines the contact and warning method is the clearance bar that is seen above any drive-thru.  If a vehicle is too tall, then contact will be made with the bar warning the driver that their vehicle will not fit through the drive-thru.

McDonalds Clearance sign

Effective Meetings

How many meetings do you go to each week?  What percentage of your typical day is tied up in meetings?  Are these meetings adding value to your work and to your customers?  Lean practice is about eliminating waste, non-value adding activities.  Since knowledge based work and service driven processes seem to require more meetings than a manufacturing environment it is important to identify the value of a meeting as a lot of waste can be hidden within them.  Here are some tips to help you hold a effective and valuable meeting:

  • Identify the purpose of the meeting and why it needs to be held.
  • Identify what objectives or decisions need to be met in the meeting.
  • Create a schedule that includes the meeting purpose, objectives and decisions to share with those invited.   This does not have to be a formal agenda, it can simply be within an email of invitation request.
  • Determine the length of the meeting based on it’s purpose and objective.  Schedule shorter or longer increments of time, do not feel fixated on the one hour meeting.
  • Stick to the meeting agenda and record follow-up tasks and action items that are a result of discussion.
  • Relay decisions made and assign the follow-up tasks and action items at the end of the meting so that all attendees know what is expected at the meetings close.

Cap & Gown Shuffle: Going to the Gemba

Last week I was involved in a kaizen event that was organized to counteract problems within the ordering and distribution of caps and gowns for graduation.  Issues the team worked through were the logistics of the sporadic influx of inventory (40-60 large boxes that flood the inventory space twice per year) and the long lines customers dread to obtain their cap and gown.  One important concept I learned from this kaizen was the importance of going to the gemba.  To fully understand the issues and problems, we found ourselves taking many trips to the gemba – the place where the work happens.

As noted by Wikipedia, problems are visible at the gemba, and the best improvement ideas will come from going to the gemba. For this kaizen, we spent some time in the inventory room of the Michigan Tech Campus Bookstore to take a look at the current situation.  The picture below shows discussion during one of our gemba visits (note the large boxes that don’t even fit on the shelf).  Each time we went to the inventory room we were better able to understand the limitations of the space and brainstorm countermeasures.

“Gemba walks” are not just for kaizen events.  Ideally they should be done as often as possible to provide supervisors and management with a true picture of what workers are experiencing on a day-to-day basis.  Mark Graban, a lean consultant with a focus on healthcare, recently wrote about an article by Delos Cosgrove, President and CEO of Cleveland Clinic, and his experience with going to the gemba.  These walks are not only important in industries or businesses with physical inventory such as manufacturing, merchandising, or healthcare.  In a knowledge-based industry it is still effective to go to the place where work is being done on a regular (though unscheduled) basis to “go see, ask why, [and] show respect.”

MTU Campus Bookstore Back Room
Going to the Gemba

Using a Fishbone Diagram

A recent kaizen event addressed a couple problems in residential dining: unauthorized access into the dining halls, and theft of food and utensils.  One tool that we used to drive each day’s discussion was a Fishbone Diagram.  After determining what was currently happening in contrast to an ideal state, a fishbone diagram was created to understand what problems stood in the way of reaching the future state.

The team brainstormed these problems and listed them on the diagram under headings (see picture below).  The diagram aided in creating good discussion and exploration of the problem, the team members were able to piggy-back ideas that related to each other.

After the brainstorming cooled down and the team felt the diagram was complete, various techniques were used to prioritize the issues to see which ones will be tackled and in what priority.   Common themes easily emerged showing where the team should focus their efforts.  At the end of the kaizen event the team had a clear understanding of the problem, its causes, and where to go with countermeasures to improve the problems.

Making a Good Problem Statement – Tech Fit Process Improvement

Taking the time to understand the current state of a problem can be described as the most critical part for improvement.  Many Lean practitioners will recommend at least 50% of the time invested in making an improvement be in the Plan phase of the Plan-Do-Check-Adjust cycle.  This is where you will study the problem where it occurs (the gemba) and collect baseline metrics, facts, and observations to answer the question “What is currently happening?”  From there a problem statement can be formulated to focus the improvement effort.

A good problem statement should sound something like this: “A is happening, causing X, Y, and Z.”  A is the problem and X, Y, and Z are waste.

A kaizen event is currently implementing countermeasures to respond to the problems within the Tech Fit Benefit Request Process.  Metrics were collected for a few weeks prior to the team getting together.  Vendors and customers (stakeholders) were involved to understand key issues with the process.  As a result, a problem statement was formulated:

Customer Appreciation Week Lean Tours

The Auxiliary Services Customer Appreciation Week was held at Michigan Tech a few weeks back. One event that we’d like to highlight today was the tours in the MUB which featured Lean improvements.

Heidi Reid, the Facilities and Events Coordinator at the MUB shared a bit about the tours: “The Lean tours consisted of several “day to day” continuous improvements that take place in our office and building.” The tour started off with their 5S improvement project for their inventory of office supplies. The 5S improvements to the supply closet and ordering system have been sustained for over 4 years and counting.

Standardized work was also covered on the tour, “We used standardized work for many areas including managing our guest room reservation/check-in procedure.  We utilize a practice of standardized work called knowledge folders, which are step by step instructions for many routine operations.  If a student worker needs to perform a duty they are not familiar with, they can use these folders to complete the task” stated Reid.

Other Lean improvements and tools covered on the tour were the value of auditing, daily team meetings , and visual controls.  Reid added “our office staff are working every day to improve our processes and streamline daily work, in an effort to satisfy our customer’s needs.”

The tour sparked new interest in Lean practice to those who participated.  Karen Patterson, new to the University and the Center of Diversity and Inclusion, had a positive experience on the tour.  Karen came from Portage Health, where many of the nurses are practicing Lean.  When asked about her overall impression of the tour Karen said she was very excited to hear about all of the improvements.  Karen has taken the next steps to bring Lean to her new role and will be presenting some ideas to her office at their May department meeting.

New Student PIC

Hello there,

I am Mike Leveille, a new Student Process Improvement Coordinator working in the Process Improvement Office.  I am a fourth year Mechanical Engineering student with a minor in Mathematical Sciences.  When I graduate in spring 2014 I will be commissioned as a 2d Lieutenant into the US Air Force.

Two concepts that are important in the Air Force are situational awareness and attention to detail.  The OODA loop is one way that these concepts are emphasized when making a decision.  The OODA loop was originally developed by US Air Force Colonel John Boyd for military strategy.  This decision making loop has also been adapted for use in the business world.  The OODA loop stands for:

Observe: Collect information.

Orient: Analyze the information you’ve gathered and use it to get in tune with your current state.

Decide: Decide on a plan of action.

Act: Carry out your plan.

I am relatively new to Lean concepts and continue to learn more about them every day.  I have learned that OODA loops can be compared to a cycle commonly used in Lean practice, the PDCA cycle.  Like PDCA, OODA is a continuous cycle where you continue to collect feedback and make adjustments to your decisions and actions as needed until you have the desired result.

I am looking forward to begin my first Lean projects for the office.  You can contact me at  Have a good day!


Note: Image from: