Are Electronic Networks the New A3s?

I recently read this short article titled Lean Project Ideas by Dan Antony, which appeared on ehow.com. The article reviews basic concepts as defining value streams, identifying waste, kaizen events, and automation. The section that specifically caught my attention advises to "implement social media" -- that is, using electronic tools to share and illustrate improvement ideas throughout the company and worldwide locations. For example, Siemens has established an internal blog so employees can share benefits worldwide almost instantaneously while Microsoft is encouraging its employees to use podcasts to proliferate ideas throughout the organization.

A3 reports have used by Toyota for decades to document improvements, and this problem-solving tool has gained much popularity and use in the US during the past few years. A3s were named after the size of paper used to document a particular solution -- but it's the concept, and the thinking behind it, that holds the real power. Are electronic networks the next logical step in the evolution of A3s?


Lean... For the Beginning of the New

Last week, the New York Times published this great article detailing a fresh approach to creating new companies dubbed "Lean start-up." The companies that have initially embraced the method are Internet based -- "Free open-source programming tools and easily distributed Web-based software drive down the cost of developing new products and services."

Although the "Lean start-up" concept applies to both both product design and market penetration, the most important benefit is its early emphasis "and constant focus on customers." Eric Ries, who is credited in the article with coining the term Lean start-up, believes that the traditional start-up model can lead companies to invest too much in "one technology path and one business plan" -- thus, losing their ability to change and adapt to the market. Steven Blank, cited in the article as "serial entrepreneur," adds this very interesting definition: "A start-up is a temporary organization designed to discover a profitable, scalable business model."

I would surely appreciate hearing the reactions of Lean advocates and those involved in Lean initiatives to the points raised in this article.


Lean in Higher Education

Many initiatives and interventions in higher education have met with mixed success --The objective to dramatically improve colleges and universities has often plateaued after intial benefits or outright failed. I asked William K. Balzer (author of Lean Higher Education: Increasing the Value and Performance of University Processes), "Why would the results be any different after the application of Lean in a higher education environment?" His response makes some strong arguments in regard to the benefits:

"Lean Higher Education (LHE) is different in many important ways and can result in significant improvements in the critical services and processes that are central to colleges and universities. First, LHE is a comprehensive approach to institutional change and improvement based on an established set of principles and practices, increasing the likelihood of a long-term impact on faculty and staff attitudes and behaviors.

Second, LHE strikes a balance between the long-term needs of the institution and its employees. The elimination of unnecessary steps and activities that add expense and no value to the university saves resources, and it also allows overburdened employees to redesign their work so that it is more meaningful and satisfying.

Third, LHE offers an established set of practical tools for implementing change and improvement. LHE provides an established set of steps to understand, diagnose, and improve college and university services and processes with confidence.

Finally, there is considerable evidence of support for the effectiveness of LHE principles and practices. More than 50 years of use in a broad variety of organizations, business sectors, and cultures provides strong support for the 'transportability' of Lean principles and practices to higher education. In fact, a growing number of applications of LHE demonstrate significant improvements in college and university processes that result in better service to students, reduced costs for the institution, and greater employee ownership over how their work is done. Overall, LHE holds great promise for improvements in higher education at a time where resources are declining, greater accountability is expected, and higher education’s role in economic development and quality of life is increasingly important."


Thinking Lean and Becoming Green

This article by Ron Harper on the canadianmanufacturing.com site completely reveals how Cogent Power Inc. (an Ontario-based manufacturer of transformer cores and components) is experiencing "green" benefits from its Lean efforts. Through the use of tools such as value stream mapping and kaizen, Cogent reduced both cost and waste in four main areas: electrical power demand, natural gas use, nitrogen consumption, and landfill usage. In addition, kaizen events reduced the waste in packaging design and its components as well as skid design. The results of this initiative are not only benefiting the organization itself -- its suppliers and customers are dramatically lowering their respective costs as a result of Cogent's efforts.

It appears Cogent Power started on its Lean journey back in 2004, and it's reassuring to see the organization's discussion of continuous improvement on the
"Culture & Focus" part of its website.


Lean and Green in Connecticut

The conntact website (an online Connecticut business news journal) features a fine article on how the Connecticut State Technology Extension Program (ConnSTEP) worked with the state of Connecticut to develop a two-day event that helps companies become more sustainable by prioritizing and implementing green initiatives.

According to the article, three area companies -- Uretek of New Haven, Cooper-Atkins Corp. of Middlefield, and R.C. Bigelow of Fairfield -- are the first participants in the "program that would help develop new jobs in emerging industries such as energy efficiency, alternative energy development and production, and other environmentally friendly fields."

The article details the strides these companies have made toward reducing both physical and dollar waste. One of the most important aspects, as Judy Wlodarczyk (director of environmental and energy services for ConnSTEP) points out, is introducing companies to "a holistic, integrated approach to the manufacturing process."

Feel free to comment on these companies' improvements as detailed in the article. Do you believe they are on the right track?


Printing Lean

The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) has just published a special edition of its magazine called EXTRA that focuses specifically on Lean production. This edition examines some of the most efficient printing plants around the world: the Rossel Printing Company in Belgium; Independent News and Media in Newry, Northern Ireland; the Presse-Druck und Verlags GmbH in Augsburg, Germany; and the Chunichi Shimbun in Japan.

The issue contends that each of these printing plants not only have seven main characteristic properties in place -- suitable technical equipment, less hierarchical work organization, personnel qualification and motivation, quality management, continuous improvement process (CIP), just-in-time (JIT), and process orientation -- but the full potential arises from the correct interaction among them. In addition, there is a specific article dedicated to the extant to which automation has transformed newspaper production.

Please share your comments on these case studies.


The Natural Barriers to Change and Lean Initiatives

I often come across online articles that discuss the implementation of a Lean initiative as akin to purchasing a new tool box, so I was impressed when I found this article on a blog site devoted to change management. This article succinctly explains the common barriers that hinder the transformational change needed to successfully reap the benefits of a Lean initiative.

In regard to those barriers associated with senior management, the article states that "measurements and rewards may be counterproductive." That is, managers might be driven to perform in ways detrimental to a Lean initiative because their objectives and incentives might be tied to an outdated accounting system or value of inventory. In addition, the article captures what I believe to be the most important cause of resistance to change by front-line employees and operators: They "will see the change to Lean as a loss of turf or status or as a downgrading of their skills."

I'd certainly like to hear you reactions to this article. Do you think it is accurate? Are there any important barriers missing from the discussion?


An A3 Report is a Working Document

Assembly Magazine featured an impressive article authored by Austin Weber, titled "A3 Mistakes to Avoid," in a recent online edition. The piece quotes both Durward Sobek and Art Smalley (co-authors of a definitive book on the subject -- Understanding A3 Thinking: A Critical Component of Toyota's PDCA Management System) and Jamie Flinchbaugh.

A3 reports have gained much popularity during the past decade, and the rush to exploit their benefits has lead to misuse -- most notably, users treating the report as just another "form" to complete and file away. Essentially, the power of the A3 report derives not from the report itself, but rather from the development of the culture and mindset required for the systematic implementation of these reports. In addition, as Sobek points out, these reports should not be filled with excessive written narraration: "An A3 should contain lots of information displayed graphically."

Do you use A3 reports in your organization? Have they aided communication and problem solving?