Wow, this could be the most off-the-wall question I have gotten so far. I think I can safely promise you that poetry will not be the next lean tool coming out of Toyota. SMED, A3, value-stream mapping, kanban and all the rest can rest easy, they are not in danger. At the same time, it may surprise you that I have successfully used poetry in several lean implementations and therefore can recommend it to you as well. You don’t even have to be a great poet as I’ll prove to you below.
The reason poetry can work is that lean is all about people. The thing you are trying to do in any lean turnaround is to transform the people, all of them. To do this you need to engage them and get them comfortable with change. Because lean is pretty much the opposite of traditional batch manufacturing the changes to be made are very big and will be pretty scary for most people. As a result, one of the leader’s main roles is to help others overcome this built-in fear and try new things, learn new ways. People will follow the leader if they believe he or she has a clear vision of where the company is going and conveys a sense that he or she will work with the entire team in an out-front, hands-on way to make improvements and get rid of waste. Because change is always difficult, anything you can do to have a little fun along the way while pushing the lean fundamentals and engaging all your people is important to a successful lean conversion.
That’s a pretty broad definition so poetry fits right in. Let me explain. Back when I was CEO of The Wiremold Company one of our biggest acquisitions was a company called Walker Systems in Parkersburg, WV. The company manufactured under-floor duct. They had a big, old building with a leaky roof and a floor that actually sloped downward from one end of the building to the other. We, of course, started kaizen activity right away with all of the senior management on the first teams. They had a very large area in the plant that was used to store WIP inventory in very tall racks. They called it the ICA, or Inventory Control Area.
A couple of days into the first kaizen I took a magic marker, a roll of duct tape and a pad of paper and walked out to the ICA. When I got to the first rack of parts I taped up a sign that said, “Parts Hotel Closing—This Rack Goes Away 2/25/94.” I then went down the row and taped the same sign to every rack with the dates staggered one month apart. As I was walking back to one of the kaizen teams, I went by a small office in the plant near the ICA. An attractive woman wearing a funny hat yelled out at me, “Hey you, I need to talk to you.” When I stopped she said, “What are you doing in the ICA? My people are all upset.” I asked if she was in charge of the ICA. She said she was and her name was Barbara Looney. Great, I said, come on and I’ll show you what I need you to do. When I took her back and showed her the signs she said, “Are you serious?” We had a discussion about it and I explained that this was all just sleeping money that we were no longer going to need and it could be better spent on new products, new equipment, and fixing the roof. Then I said that just to keep me up to date I wanted her to send me my sign every time a rack came down, preferably on the date on the sign.
Well, a month later I was back at another kaizen and Barbara came up to me and handed me my first sign, duct tape, and all. She also handed me a poem about King Arthur of Kaizen and how Dame Barbie and her merry men had responded to the challenge and that “racks K&L had gone away.”
ODE TO ART
“Inventory is evil,” said King Arthur of kaizen.
So he came to Dame Barbie with his plan.
“You must make these horrid racks go away
Or February 25 is your banishment day.”
Dame Barbie cried and wrung her hands,
But King Arthur had made his noble stand.
So she gathered her trusty knights around,
And now Racks K&L can’t be found.
Well, this was great and I thanked her profusely. Her response was, “Hey, we’re not done yet. I gave you a poem so now you owe me a poem.” Well, I didn’t know what to say to tell you the truth so I just said ok. I went off to a quiet spot in the cafeteria and wrote the following poem;
THE PARTS HOTEL
Welcome to the parts hotel;
It’s really quite the place!
We love our parts so very much
We give them lots of space.
They come on in to get a rest;
We treat them all the best.
They lay about for weeks or months
Just waiting to go out.
We love for them to gather dust;
In this we really trust.
And sometimes if we’re lucky
They stay long enough to rust!
They have a lot of fun here.
They make a lot of buddies.
We feel we can sell them for more money
If they get a little cruddy.
The hotel is really spacious.
The racks go straight to the sky.
If we understood the waste here,
We’d all break down and cry.
The parts fly in, but they don’t go out,
They hope that they’ll grow old.
I’m sure you’ll understand this;
Their only other option is finally to get sold.
They really like the staff here;
They treat them with such care;
Especially Dame Barbie
And the hat that hides her hair.
The location is also special;
It’s dark and out of the way.
It’s really pretty famous;
They call it the ICA.
But now the massive parts hotel
With its racks up to the ceiling
Has been exposed as massive waste
And has that shrinking feeling.
Dame Barbie has responded well
The racks are coming down.
Soon there will be no parts hotel
And no extra parts doing nothing but lying around.
I told you that you didn’t have to be a good poet. In any event at the final report out for the kaizen teams on Friday, I explained to everyone, probably 60 people in total, about what Barbara had accomplished and then read both poems. Barbara was well known in the plant for her variety of hats and her personality, and this was a little out of character for her so it got everyone’s attention and we all had a good laugh. But Barbara wasn’t done. Every month I was there for another kaizen and Barbara handed me the next sign and a new poem. I, of course, had to respond with another poem and I read both poems to everyone at the Friday report out meeting.
This went on until all the racks were gone. This freed up 23,000sq. ft. of space and $2.6 million dollars in cash. Pretty good return from poetry. Of course, this wasn’t the key gain from this exercise. The real gains came from the buy-in from our associates and the learning that occurred as Walker had to figure out how to live without all this wasted inventory. All the credit, of course, goes to Barbara. I even used this same poetry approach with an acquisition we did later in England. There we didn’t call it The Parts Hotel it was called The Sleeping Room but once again we freed up a lot of space and a lot of money.
So, yes, poetry can be used in a lean turnaround but only if you understand that lean is all about people. Get to know your people, engage them, teach them, and have a lot of fun along the way.
John Y. Shook
John Y. Shook