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Lean Thinking and Information Flow

by Mary Morgan
October 30, 2014

Lean Thinking and Information Flow

by Mary Morgan
October 30, 2014 | Comments (8)

It’s hard to believe now, but just 10 years ago, the Internet was not as ubiquitous as it is today. Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn – these words were not part of our common language. Google was just starting to become a noun and a verb – as in “you can Google that”. In Manufacturing, the Information Age was moving toward us like a slow moving volcano. 

At the time I was working in a Transmission plant as an Industrial Engineering manager and was charged with organizing the company’s “Lean Implementation” documentation on the company’s Intranet (the internal Internet). I needed to learn how to use the software in order to design the website, including how to copy and paste URLs into the site to link to the documentation.  

As with any new technology, there is a snowball effect. New technology often spurs more new technology and there’s technology to learn on top of existing technology. Plus you’ve got the problem of multiple folks engaging with technology (and the same information) in different ways. Much of the information I needed to link to resided on multiple employees’ hard drives. Creating an online repository where documents could be uploaded (and convincing others this was a good thing to do) was a hurdle. No small endeavor as getting product out-the-door was the focus. Taking valuable time to go through a series of steps to place information on a shared server?! Not interested. Besides, opening up the documents from the hard drive was quicker. All one had to do was access the shortcut from the desktop and there it was. This “works for me” attitude was strong. I remember seeing the power of information sharing, but not knowing how to help make it a reality. Getting others to see it and truly embrace it was a struggle.

While this was happening, we were also just getting started with using the Value Stream Mapping (VSM) methodology on the factory floor. VSM has three main flow streams – Process Flow, Material Flow, and Information Flow. Over and over again, at the end of VSM workshops, I could see the rich opportunity in working on streamlining Information Flow. But consistently the Process Flow and Material Flow streams were where all of the Kaizen Burst ideas originated. Why? Because improvement, in the form of metrics, could be visualized and tracked. Working on improving communications wasn’t as concrete an assignment, and yet it was a clear problem we needed to solve. The lack of fast interaction and reliable information was sub-optimizing our effectiveness. 

The more experience I’ve gained in my career, the stronger I’ve felt about this power of improving organization effectiveness through improved information flow. This is what led me to return to the University of Michigan to pursue a master’s degree in Information Science. Most of my career has been spent on making the production floor more efficient, ie. the delivery of a product. I remember how excited I felt when I could finally spend time learning and teaching methodologies to improve the delivery of Information. 

What I learned built on my Engineering background and has confirmed my belief that the lean community, and industry in general, can benefit tremendously by utilizing more efficient information/knowledge management methodologies. As my work has moved beyond the shop floor and across industries, I’ve seen how these opportunities are not unique to manufacturing. Knowledge Management, Social Media, Website Design, Search and Retrieval aides, and Digital Libraries are but a few ways to streamline information flow and they apply to almost every industry. 

Here’s an idea. Library and Information Science majors should be as actively sought out as engineers are in this information rich era. Well done Intranet design can drastically reduce the amount of time that employees search for information. Having a good information governance system can enhance quality metrics by ensuring that the most recent and truly relevant data is found and utilized. Meta-data (information about information) can provide the valuable “why” things are to be done to a certain standard, as well as aid in search retrieval, while keeping documentation concise. Understanding the “why” of a standard can increase the likelihood that it will actually be followed.

I’m curious, what problems with information, information flow, and knowledge management are you experiencing?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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8 Comments | Post a Comment
kevin kobett October 30, 2014
2 People AGREE with this comment

The number one information problem I have encountered is the lack of sharing customer instructions (more commonly called customer complaints). These instructions are mandatory for lean.

For example, one summer paint was peeling off customer's gym floors. The solution was evasive until it was discovered red paint never peeled. Using this color as a control the root cause was discovered and the problem disappeared.

Only four people had access to these customer instructions. What would happen if everyone knew? Usually only the number of customer instructions are shared with employees. Not helpful.

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sabrina henry October 30, 2014
3 People AGREE with this reply
I've seen this information challenge many times in HR especially when there have been changes in policy or procedure and they need to be communicated throughout the organizaiton, not just within HR.

The challenge is compounded when there is a strong central structure with smaller regional offices. Often the information, and more importantly the learning experience that comes along with the adjustmens and interpretations that inevitably occur with a change, take too long to reach managers and employees and can result in waste in the process


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Mary Morgan November 01, 2014
Thanks for your insightful reply, Kevin.  I totally agree.  Why do you think that this feedback is tightly controlled

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kevin kobett November 03, 2014
IMO the main reason it is not shared is people do not realize how important customer instructions are. It is common for managers to share the number of customer instructions and catagorize them (product, packaging, etc). This info is not specific enough to drive innovation. What about the product does not meet your satisfaction? Your info board should look like Amazon's product review.

Secondary reason is a manager might be hiding a problem. Once I reported a new formulation was inferior than the old formula. Even though customers were complaing the manager buried the info. My report included a new testing procedure so two souces of info indicated a problem. When starting lean, all managers must be assued past incidents will not be held against them


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Jon Dailey October 30, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
I concur with others about the concept of the importance of information flow. All too often, though, I find that either the systems designed to improve information flow or the process used to develop a new system are flawed.  IT solutions should be used to support (improve) a business process, and the designers must maintain discipline to exercise PDCA cyclea on any new system.  All to often, these systems are designed and implemented in a vacuum, without the input of the key process stakeholders.  Additionally, designers all too often don't allocate enough resources when planning implementation to properly problem-solve the systems, and improve them based on feedback from the users.  The result can be a system that may not actually improver the efficiency of information flow.  As lean leaders, we must challenge the process used to create, sustain, measure the edfectiveness of, and improve these informarion systems.  We all benefit when PDCA cycles are engrained in our cultures

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Kyle Kumpf October 30, 2014
As a consultant I've been in companies where their ineffective information flow undermined improvement. As an employee, I've also been part of an IT project where proper PDCA was not utilized and we spent months of taking 1 step forward and 2 steps back. Proper planning and stakeholder engagement are key to any improvement initiative, but all too often, in my opinion, the push from above stifles the upfront front work that is necessary to bring a project successfully to completion. Sometimes, it takes a setback like this to open an organizations eyes to the necessity of PDCA

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elaine October 31, 2014
2 People AGREE with this comment
In complex manufacturing processes the information flow issues can be even more fundamental. Some of the best work I feel I have done in the past 20 years has been in unlocking tactic knowledge and sharing that within a team of operators. It all happened by accident almost when we were looking at human error in our processes. The root cause of the human error was not knowing how to correctly respond to a problem. Operators had to learn how to fix things rather than be trained - it was the old apprentice model. Tease out the tacit knowledge form all the members and have a heated debate about the best response and you soon have a comprehensive troubleshooting guide. We did root cause on each new issue as they came up.

The result was very low process variation and a sense of calm on the factory floor. It felt great for everyone. I totally agree that information flow is a golden nugget waiting to be mined


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Mary Morgan November 01, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this reply
I loved your reply, Elaine.  Harnessing tacit knowledge can be powerful!  

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