This year is the 20th anniversary of a Lean LEGO simulation I designed. I think it was the first Lean simulation ever that explained no Lean tools whatsoever. Nada.
A few years earlier a colleague of mine designed a first version of a Lean simulation and I was intrigued. It was not long before I joined giving Lean training with this simulation and also joined the efforts to improve the game.
The game we had was quite generic. Participants would play several rounds of a simulated process and in between we would discuss results and give input by explaining one or more Lean tools for the participants to use to improve the process in the next round.
Over the years I started to see a pattern: quite often the input we were about to give did not seem to match the conditions of the previous round and the state the group of participants were in.
In 2003 I joined a new company formed by two colleagues. One of the first things I did was to design a new Lean game. By then I did not know anything yet about Toyota Kata or The Toyota Way 2001, both explaining the importance of a challenge.
But a challenge was the centerpiece of the game I created: reduce the lead time to an “impossible” level while meeting customer demand. This challenge was given to the participants after the first chaotic round. In the next rounds, the participants would, invariably, create substantial improvements while working with increasingly lower levels of work in process. (Essentially, our only input would be a limit on the permitted work in process.) Just about all groups were able to meet the “impossible” challenge and many were even able to exceed it.
It worked like a charm! No need to explain any Lean tools. No resistance to our interventions. And, most importantly, an enormous feeling of accomplishment for the participants:
They created all the improvements all by themselves.
And if they can do it with LEGO, then they can do it with your own processes as well!
We gave this training many times as an introduction to our company for prospective customers. During these events, the daughter of the owner would take care of the catering. She saw all these groups passing by and on a certain day she expressed her amazement:
You guys explain next to nothing but all these groups arrive at very similar solutions.
I took it as a compliment.
The Lean LEGO workshop I designed was adopted by several other consultancy firms and according to my former employer they used it with over 50.000 people to date as an introduction to Lean. It became a classic in our region.
Fast forward to 2012. At that time I already had almost a decade of experience with helping organisations to become Lean without explaining much of the Lean tools. I also had 2 years of learning Toyota Kata under my belt when I met Pascal Pollet and Mark van Pee from Sirris at Mike Rother’s apartment.
Of course, Sirris also had a Lean game they used as a Lean introduction and I shared the experiences above with Mark and Pascal. They were intrigued and decided to set up an experiment. The outcome blew them away!
Pascal wrote a little report on it that was published on my Dutch website. Now seems to be a good time to share his story in English to commemorate the 20th anniversary of my Lean workshop design.
The secretary experiment
Originally published in Dutch on December 13th, 2012, https://www.leanmanagement.nl/het-secretaressenexperiment/
Toyota is globally acclaimed for developing Lean manufacturing. But how hard was this really? Is this the work of geniuses or is it all a bit overstated?
To test this, we did an experiment a few weeks ago. The question we wanted to investigate with this experiment was simple: can people without any background in Lean manufacturing independently invent the most important Lean tools themselves? As guinea pigs for the experiment, we chose four secretaries, who we knew had no Lean background knowledge whatsoever.
At the start of the experiment, we first had the secretaries simulate a chaotic production situation with Lego blocks, in which the usual problems were ingrained in the setup: an illogical layout, a lot of going back and forth by a warehouse person, large lot sizes,… After about ten minutes of production, we stopped the simulation and recorded the main performance measures: productivity, Work-In-Process (WIP), quality, and lead time.
We then gave the secretaries three clear objectives:
- Reduce lead time by 90%
- Increase productivity by 30%
- Ensure that “all necessary material is supplied when it is needed”.
The latter means that the material may not be delivered too early (because this will take up unnecessary production space), nor too late (because then you will get unwanted production stoppages in the next step. This last objective (wisely handed to us by our own coach Emiel van Est) is quite demanding and proved to be essential during the experiment.
In addition to the three objectives, we also taught the secretaries how to implement improvements: carry out experiments in small steps and rigorously apply the Deming PDCA (Plan – Do – Check – Adjust) cycle (the ‘improvement kata’) with each iteration. Our task was limited to guiding the secretaries in applying this PDCA (the ‘coaching kata’) without making substantive suggestions ourselves.
The result of this simple experiment stunned us. After seven iterations and two hours of experimentation, the initial objectives had been achieved and the secretaries had come up with all the relevant Lean tools for this situation themselves. The layout was adapted to a flow situation, the work content was balanced across the various steps, the warehouse function was eliminated, the lot size was reduced to one piece, and above all, a fully-fledged visual kanban system was set up.
A number of improvements (such as the layout) were quite obvious and were therefore already realized in the first iterations. Most impressive, however, was their independently invented kanban system. This system was devised to meet the third objective. It was also nice to see that they came up with their own name for this: the stop procedure. The idea behind the shutdown procedure was simple in itself. In the sixth iteration, it was agreed to call STOP if WIP started to accumulate anywhere.
This experiment quickly went haywire, as the auditory STOP signals were quickly forgotten and ignored. So they needed something better than an auditory signal. That is why it was decided to work with a visual signal (the kanban cards in Lean jargon) in the seventh iteration. Post-its were used for this, which were called ‘delivery carpets’.
Now what has this taught us? Well, you don’t have to be an expert to come up with the Lean manufacturing tools. Basically 3 things are enough:
- a clear direction
- a good improvement process (PDCA)
- a light form of coaching to keep you on track.
Even more, this approach ensures that you develop a system that is tailored to your company and also excludes resistance. After all, it is not about ideas that are imposed from outside, but that are developed by the employees themselves. And admit:
No one is against their own ideas.
Pascal Pollet & Mark van Pee