Friday, September 25, 2009

"Lean" Experts Stand in Line?

A few years ago, I was at the largest Lean conference in North America (or the world maybe), with over 1400 Lean Manufacturing experts attending. Lean Manufacturing is a way of thinking that espouses the evilness of batches; batches just make parts wait, and wait, and wait, causing inventory to build up and delivery lead-times to grow longer. Unfortunately, the people who know this don't live it. When lunch was announced, 1200 or so of the experts got up and stood in line. Two problems: the organizers, experts themselves, should have known better; the attendees should have known better. On my way to the exhibition hall (to be productive until I could quickly slide through the buffet line), I felt like saying to all those in the lines waiting to get to the food, "Flunk! Flunk! Flunk!"

In our Lean Thinking classes, I tell people a simple example: for many, many years I've been putting the creamer in my cup and then pour the coffee. It mixes automatically and I avoid the waste of the stirrer, or washing a spoon. If you note each of the actions, you'll see my method cuts the number of activities in half.

In one class, an engineer said that he has no inventory and therefore batching and some of the other wastes don't apply to him. I asked him how many emails he has in his Inbox. "A lot," he admitted. "That's inventory," I said, "and it causes waste. In fact, almost all of us treat that inventory poorly. We read the most recent first. That's last-in/first-out (LIFO) which isn't necessarily good inventory practice."

When I mention this to other Lean experts, I tell them I'm waiting for the email application that will kanban the messages (i.e. only give me another set of messages when I've responded or deleted the first set of messages in small, manageable groups). The kanban concept is supposed to be good to improve flow in manufacturing operations, and reduce inventory and costs. We should be able to apply the same to emails. Anyone know how to do this?

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