Why IKEA makes me question LEAN

We happen to live in a mid century styled house, and IKEA’s style often fits quite well into that design. While we own many vintage pieces, there’s something to be said for rounding out the collection with some newer stuff that can be bought cost effectively. IKEA is an interesting business in that they figured out that shipping air was wasteful. By flat packing their items and having customers assemble it themselves, everyone wins.

Now, if you’ve ever assembled your own furniture, you know it can be quite a project depending on what it is. IKEA uses all kinds of interesting fasteners, all designed such that you ought to be able to assemble it with a manual screwdriver, an included allen wrench and perhaps a small hammer. The thing is, I own a battery powered drill, and I use that (with interchangeable bits) in place of the Allen wrench and screwdriver. In theory, if I eliminated all the waste from the assembly process (say everything was packed such that the pieces came out in the exact order needed), that there wouldn’t be much advantage from using power tools. That is, when I was first taught about LEAN, we were warned against optimizing the value added parts of the process and to focus on eliminating the non value add.

So, if you buy from IKEA, then assembling it yourself is part of the value add. You specifically bought the product for this reason, to trade your time for less money. Therefore, optimizing it shouldn’t make much sense, and yet, using a power tool to do the value added work drastically cuts down on the time to assemble a piece.

In fact, power tools make many value added tasks much better (or even possible at all). And so it confuses me, if you are doing a value added task manually, why you wouldn’t focus on doing it as fast or efficiently as possible. Perhaps it’s just a miscommunication from the teachers to the students, and it is certainly true that there is many a wasteful step in many processes, but it strikes me that if technology can make a value added process better, than why would you not do that right now as well as eliminate waste?

Never have an attic

We are selling our house, and I realized this evening that having an attic is about the worst thing you can have in a house. Sure, everyone wants storage space, the reality is, after ten years, it isn’t really storage. It’s clutter. It turns out over time you just put more and more and more stuff up in the attic that you should’ve gotten rid of. It gets there because you think either ‘oh, I might need this later’ or ‘this has value, I can’t just throw it away!’

Both things might seem true, but the reality is, ten years on, neither is true for us. I haven’t the energy to sell all this stuff, even at a yard sale, so I’m willing to give it away. It might have value to someone else, but to me it has so little value that I will give it to anyone who will take it. And, in turn, I realize that if I’m willing to give it away that I never was going to need it again. The attic is just a holding area for stuff that is headed either to the garbage or to someone else who can find value. If someone else can find value in these items, then I should have happily given them away 5 or 10 years ago, when I first put them up there.

The only difference is, instead of getting rid of it in a timely manner, I’ve made my own life difficult by delaying the choice to discard it. If you want to achieve a clean workspace, you’ve got to get rid of things when you no longer need them, not just store them away on the off chance you’ll need them again.

As an aside, I did want one thing from up in the attic some time ago, but of course I couldn’t find it because there was so much other ‘valuable’ stuff up there. Clutter makes life difficult not just getting rid of it, but also obscuring what is of value. In my next house, I’m going for less storage space, thus forcing myself to make those decisions right away.

Good at heart attacks, bad at cancer

I was watching a video today from IBM that included insights from many world leaders, famous figures, and so on. A lot of times someone passes a long a video and I like it. Most of the time it doesn’t resonate for me, and sometimes there’s a single quote that sticks with you.

In this case, Fareed Zakaria said “we are very good at heart attacks. We are very bad at cancer.” He wasn’t referring to the medicine, however. He was talking about companies. His point was that companies react well to sudden traumatic events and very, very poorly to things that eat away at us slowly over time. It resonated with me not because I didn’t know the concept, but because it so elegantly states the difference between sporadic and chronic loss.

Sporadic loss is a heart attack. In software it’s the production outage. It’s all hands on deck. Everyone comes together for a few minutes or hours and rescues the system. Then we go back to the projects we were working on – crisis averted.

Chronic loss is a cancer. It starts developing and you don’t even notice it. By the time cancer has become a lump you can feel, it’s frequently too late to do anything about it. The prognosis for many late stage cancers is not good. It is very similar for chronic loss in organizations. At first, it’s a defect which generates a bunch of calls to the call center, but there’s a workaround and you deem it too expensive a fix to cost justify. So, you live with the workaround. And then there’s another, and another, and another. Over time, you allow hundreds or thousands of small failures to erode the quality of your product. Individually, none of them is an issue. Collectively, you have a mountain of a problem and a few hours of heroism won’t help you. The problem got there over years of deferred maintenance and it isn’t going to go away easily.

Chronic loss looks like a bloated production support organization. Chronic loss is when you have so many production incidents you can’t even fathom taking the time to attribute them to the projects that introduced the issues. Chronic loss is when you only talk about critical, high and medium severity defects because there are so many low defects they drown out the others. Chronic loss is when you justify that measurement system as ‘focusing on the big issues’ – the heart attacks are all you look at. Chronic loss is when you pay someone to look over the shoulder of someone else doing the work to make sure it’s done right, rather than figuring out how to error proof it. Chronic loss is batch abends that you just restart every month, or week, or night, or several times a day and never figure out why it failed.

Being good at heart attacks isn’t going to save you from cancer. But preventative care of your software will protect you against both risks.

Who doesn’t like fresh bread?

I’ve never heard anyone say “I’ll have a sandwich on day-old stale bread, please.”  So, it’s not surprising that a lot of restaurants you visit offer their sandwiches on freshly baked bread.  But, from a LEAN perspective, this creates another issue – making fresh bread before the customer wants it is waste.  First off, if you make the bread fresh in the morning, by the end of the day (without preservatives) it’s not all that fresh anymore.  Bread goes stale pretty quickly.  Second, you never know how many customers you’re going to have that day, so you have to make too much bread so that you don’t run out.  But that leads to overproduction.  Then you have to throw away bread at the end of the day.

I only bring this up because I ran into an interesting experience the other day with a restaurant who solved this problem.  They actually baked the bread for my sandwich on demand!  Yes, I’m serious.  The bread that I had was made immediately before they assembled my sandwich.

Now, this particular place was in an interesting position.  They’re a pizza shop, but they also sell sandwiches.  So, they could have piles of bread going stale, or… they figured out that they could make a very tasty sandwich on freshly baked pizza dough.  Instead of stretching it into a round and placing sauce and cheese on it, they simply stretched it into an oblong shape, baked it with nothing on it, took it out, sliced it open and built my sandwich on it.  It’s not much of a stretch to imagine modifying the recipe slightly to make all kinds of different breads on demand. 

If you’ve ever baked, you’ll know that the basic structure of a bread recipe is pretty much the same.  Sure, instead of bread pre-made they now had pre-made dough, but this has a couple advantages.  One, it was an interchangeable part now – they could use it for pizza and for sandwiches.  Two, dough doesn’t go stale like bread does.

I’m not saying its the perfect solution for every place that sells a sandwich – it works well for this place because of the nature of their business.  But it is a really creative solution to reducing waste, and that’s why I bring it up.  Things like this are hopefully moments of inspiration to find a unique way of making your own processes better – that’s why I love them.

Unnecessary process steps

LEAN is greatly concerned with waste, and yet we often don’t see it when it is right before our eyes.  Take for example, granting access to a particular website.  These days, its downright commonplace for you to simply create your own account and get going.  You name it – Facebook, banks, online retailers – all off them just let you make your own account.  And some of these places are dealing with your finances or your credit card!

Yet, we don’t think much of it.  In fact, we sort of take for granted that people just create their accounts as they need them.  But in corporate environments, not so much.  Here we rely on access requests, either emailed about or managed through service request tracking systems.  In some cases, the protection is necessary.  Companies often have closely guarded marketing plans which they want as few people to know about as possible.  But, in many cases, we make people request access to things that we’d never deny them access to.

It might not seem like much to deal with an access request.  What is it after all, less than a minute, maybe two minutes at most to create the account for someone?  But what is that cost over months or years?  It’s like a form of water torture… drip, drip, drip.  And what about the person waiting for access, twiddling their thumbs while they wait for someone else to finally get around to granting the access they need to do their job presumably?

Things like this slowly eat away at your productivity.  One little innocent but unnecessary request at a time.  If you’re never going to deny an access request, then why have access requests at all?  Just open up the system and let the users in, or leverage single-sign-on to track who does use the resources.  But having the process step of requesting access just because it’s a corporate norm… silly (and wasteful).

Get more exercise?

I don’t want to downplay the value of exercise, since we evolved far more active than most of our lives are today.  That said, the get more exercise advice, which I’ve heard hundreds of times before, suddenly struck me as a bit odd today.

Part of that stems from the fact that it’s the holidays.  As I’ve written before, I had lost a bit of weight before and am now trying to maintain my new, lower weight.  Well, with all the overindulging, I ended up about 3-4 pounds heavier than I usually am, so I’m working to correct that before it becomes a permanent problem.  That’s when it struck me that there was a LEAN lesson to be learned here.

For one, I acquired a lot of excess inventory recently.  I was taking in more food than I needed and my body had to store it somewhere.  So, in an effort to lose that weight, I can’t simply return to eating what I ate before I gained the weight.  If I do that, I basically consume enough calories to maintain my weight, whatever it is.  And it’s currently too high for my liking.  I need to ramp down on intake for a bit to use up my inventory, so to speak.

Exercise?  I don’t exercise.  That’s not to say I just sit at my computer all day, but I’m not going out of my way to get to the gym.  Why?  Using over-processing to handle inventory?  That just sounds insane to me.  The thing is, I don’t need that much food in the first place, so to take it in, and then run around just to burn off what I didn’t need in the first place???   Exercise deals with the symptom without ever addressing the root cause that I’m simply eating too much.

Yes, there are other benefits, such as heart health and so on, but from a purely weight perspective, eat less is more than enough, and you need far less food than you think you do.

It’s the same with your processes.  Don’t treat your problems by dealing with the symptoms, like inspecting for defects rather than preventing them in the first place.

Redesigning Stop Signs

I just saw this bit of hilarity regarding what if a company were in charge of making stop signs.  Funny and accurate as it is, there are nuggets of truth in here about where you can go awry welcoming change. 

The reality is, as this so well illustrates, that all change is not good change, and therefore everyone does a disservice to the ultimate customers.  By attempting to be a partner and provide ideas within the context of what the user is asking for, the designer enables hasty, uninformed decision making:

  • “Lighten it up on the pantone scale” becomes “pink” which seems to meet the customer’s needs.
  • Reminding the users about their other demographic eventually becomes make the signs pink and blue.

The reality is, that driving any change based on the whim of your proxy for a customer isn’t a great way to approach a process.  Decisions should be based on data about your ultimate customer’s needs (in this case, something clear to the drivers on how to act at intersections).  For your product owner to be a good proxy, they must have given enough thought to what your customer desires.

At issue here is not the development process, being Agile would only serve to speed up the implementation of faulty thinking.  And sure, going to market fast with a failed design might be quickly fixable, but also might lead to a short lifespan for your product. 

Instead, a LEAN development process must extend far beyond the boundaries of actually creating something and into the realm where reasonable thought is given to who your customer is and what they really value before you go making something.  And that means making requests that add value, not just requests because your developers are responsive to change.  One possibility we seem to fail considering is not just how to take action, but whether we should take any action at all.

A short list of reasons why unit testing isn’t the best strategy

Unit testing may be a proven way to get defects out, but I don’t think it’s the best strategy.  Here’s my short list of reasons why I’d choose code reviews over unit testing.

  1. Change the code, break the unit tests.  Now you’ve got two things to maintain.
  2. Hard to mock up complex objects.  What do you do when the unit you are testing depends on a complicated interrelationship of many objects?  You’ve got to create the entire set of objects in memory, or not stub out the child functions.  If you don’t stub out the children, then you’re dependent upon a database and gold testing data.  Suddenly, unit tests are quick and easy and you aren’t even really testing a unit anymore.
  3. Doesn’t work for data which morphs over time.  Say you’re calculating something that depends on a time element.  As time passes your unit test results will change naturally but your code which expected a certain result isn’t going to.

See, I said it was a short list.  A better choice than not doing unit testing is, of course, to recognize these situations where unit testing benefits are outweighed by the downsides and to pick a different technique.  I’m sure there are many more examples where the cost doesn’t justify the benefits.  As LEAN thinking has been teaching for a long time – all work associated with defects (including inspecting for them) is waste and we should be seeking to minimize it, not make it our core strategy.

One way to think about waste

LEAN identifies eight wastes – Overproduction, Unnecessary processing, Transportation, Wasted Motion & Resources (sometimes called intellectual waste), Time (Waiting), Excess Inventory, and Defects.  The problem is, despite having identified the potential wastes people often have problem understanding if what they are looking at is truly waste.

Here’s how I like to think about it.  Imagine two identical (truly identical, the end product is exactly the same) products sitting on a shelf next to each other.  One is yours; the other your competitors.  Now, imagine you had to put one of those star-bursts on your packaging… you know, the ones that say “New & Improved!”  But instead of “new” you have to put your process step in the star-burst.  Would the content be enough to make customers choose your product over the competitors.

Here’s some of your taglines you’d have to write:

  • Our employees walked 1000 feet further than the competition to build this!
  • We have a really long conveyor belt!
  • Reworked extensively due to defects, but it’s just a good now!
  • Sat around for two weeks before being shipped to the store!
  • Packaged by a rocket scientist!

The one that usually trips people up is the waste of defects.  Sure, customers don’t want defective products, but if you got to a good product by inspecting it vs. building it right do you think that’s a selling point for your customer?  Would your customers be grabbing for that product over your competitor’s product if these were your taglines?  I think not.

A trip to Wendy’s

If you’ve read my personal blog prior to me starting this one, you know that I enjoy frequenting fast food places.  It’s not because I particularly love fast food (I don’t mind it), but because I enjoy watching people work there.  They’re great places to observe lean (not) in action.

As many days go, I pop out for lunch right around noon, pretty much assured to hit the lunch rush.  It is really no fun to watch a fast food joint off hours – there isn’t enough volume to really get a sense of what’s going on.

The first thing I observe about this particular Wendy’s is the horrible traffic flow they’ve created.  Due to the placement of the entry and the drive-through, drive-through traffic blocks the entry to the rest of the parking lot.  Therefore, some number of people sitting in the drive-through line really want to get a parking space and go inside.

Once I was inside, the line was long.  This isn’t particularly unusual at this Wendy’s, but  I wasn’t really sure what was going on until today.  On this particular day I noted that a Wendy’s employee was standing in the line with the customers.  She had in her hand a pen and a pad of paper which she was using to take the customer’s orders before they got up to the register.  Presumably the thinking was “if we get all the orders taken then it’ll go much faster when they get up to the register.”

I’m sure you recognize this as obvious batch-and-queue.  They were taking all the orders, then going to enter the orders, then fill the orders, etc.  As an aside, Wendy’s is apparently quite prepared to use this tactic, as the pad of paper was actually a extremely complicated (and useless) design.  I was so amused, I took a picture of it with my cell phone camera.

It’s hard to tell from the picture, but the paper has all kinds of sections for filling out your french fry order, your drink order, and a whole section of codes for specifying the burger or chicken sandwich you want.  Of course, the employee used none of these sections.  She just wrote my order in pen at the top, right over one of the sections.  Clearly this was not a brilliantly designed tool.

After taking the order of the 5-7 people in front of me, my order, and maybe one or two after me, the woman returned to behind the counter to help fill orders.  In a funny twist, when it came to my turn, I handed her the same paper that she had handed me and she keyed in my order.  After taking my money, I then proceeded to stand in the crowd of people who now had “efficiently” had their order taken and keyed in but didn’t have any food to show for it.

My food eventually showed up, in my estimation no faster than if I had just stood in line without all this added paperwork, and I sat down to eat my lunch.  While eating I overheard the employee who did all this pre-ordering nonsense say to another “see how much faster the line went when you do the paper?”

I shook my head in disbelief and almost went up to say something to the manager about how silly they were.  Here’s what I observed to be the real issues:

  1.  The perception that paper was faster was really the woman returning back to the value add part of the store.  By being behind the counter she effectively added another person to the factory and made it go faster.  It would have been faster with or without the paper orders by virtue of putting another body on it.
  2. There’s an enormous amount of motion waste going on.  The Wendy’s kitchen is U-Shaped, and so if you need something from the other side of the kitchen (which you shouldn’t, but I watched them do it) you have a very long walk to get it.  The order in which a burger (or other sandwich) is assembled is crazy.  Instead of simply reaching from left to right one bin at a time for lettuce, tomato, pickles, etc. you have to move your hands all over this series of arbitrarily ordered bins.  No thought to the efficiency of motion exists at all.
  3. Because of the shape of the kitchen, people are constantly passing each other essentially on collision courses.  The kitchen isn’t organized to minimize collisions as people run around trying to assemble an order.
  4. There’s massive amounts of inventory cluttering things up.  Piles of buns falling out of their inconvenient storage location, stacks of papers (for wrapping burgers) piled up and so on.

I’ll grant them that they’re trying for a team effort to get things done, but I’d say thus far Wendy’s is my poster child for poorly flowing goods when it comes to the fast food business.  I’ll still go back – both because I like their chicken nuggets better than McDonald’s and I’m kind of tempted to draw them a spaghetti chart and a short list of recommendations.