Week two of the Lean Enterprise Institute’s Virtual Lean Learning Experience 2020 is underway, featuring leaders from manufacturing, healthcare, education, and supply chain leaders who have extended–and continue to extend–lean thinking and practice throughout their organizations. That is, they are buidling the elusive complete lean enterprise.
As part of the experience, LEI President Josh Howell moderated a panel discussion with Kevin Nolan, CEO of GE Appliances, a Haier company; Jim Womack, founder and senior advisor, LEI; and Jim Morgan, senior advisor, Lean Product and Process Development (LPPD), LEI. In this excerpt, they discuss the role of LPPD in building the lean enterprise.
Josh Howell: Jim Morgan, a couple of weeks ago, you put forward six guiding principles for LPPD. You’ve known Kevin and GE Appliances for many years now. Maybe you can share with us a couple of concrete examples of practices that exist at GE Appliances these days that embody some of those principles.
Jim Morgan: Sure. There’s a lot of people who’ve done some fabulous work in this space, so I think GE is quickly becoming one of the shining examples of the six principles, the practices that come out of thinking in terms of first principles and how to apply them.
There’s a whole bunch of folks at GE who have embraced this and, quite frankly, that I learn from every time I go down there. Kevin already mentioned: Kevin Mazzella, the guy who took his old job, is just a fabulous leader and has done a lot to lead this.
One of those people is named Alison Seward, who is leading a critical program for GE right now, and I think that’s probably where a lot of these examples reside. So, for example, one of the things that her team has done with regard to designing the value stream is organizing in these fishbone teams. Kevin talked a little bit about getting people from each point in the value stream together, organizing them around specific subsystems. Instead of organizing around functions, you get cross-functional folks that are organized around subsystems and the product that they’re creating. And they work together considering every step in delivering value, right from the beginning of the program. I think that’s a great example.
They also, very early on, set up a pilot line, so they could start to think about manufacturing. And they do these exercises that they refer to as “try storming,” where they just try ideas, and they evolve the product and the process simultaneously. And Allison and her team have come up with some great ideas by doing this.
It’s a team sport. They’ve also focused on their Obeya. They have reorganized it several times now to get it where it works best for them to make, not only the process in the schedule visible, but key decisions visible. Decisions are often a big hold-up in product development programs and are–can be–invisible to the team.
So, the decision that you make in one value stream or one workflow has a big impact on another workflow, and delays in those decisions and not understanding who should make those decisions, can have a big, negative impact on the program. So, Alison and her team have made those key decisions very visible. They’ve worked on making a synchronizing that work by actually creating a decision-flow diagram that everybody’s looking at, so that they understand the interdependencies between the various workflows, so that they know what the critical decision path is going forward. And then again, building and learning that pilot line is a great example of how the team learns together.
So, I think I mentioned last week, it’s very difficult to map one principal to one practice. That’s really not the point, but you can see evidence of all of those principles in the work that that team is doing. It’s just one team that I’m familiar with. There’s lots of other great stuff going on at GE.
Kevin: If I can jump in on some of the great stuff I see. When we talk about those value streams, also involved now as team leaders, we’ve got production associates. So, I think the other thing is understanding the people that are there with the product day in and day out. A lot of times I think there was just engineering arrogance, right? We think we know how to design everything. Where some of the best ideas are out of those team leaders, right? Cause they know the problems they’ve had; they know the struggles. And I think the way Alison and team have been able to embrace all the ideas. And that’s, I think the beauty is everyone’s ideas need to count. It doesn’t matter what your degree is or your diploma, it matters what your knowledge is and how you can apply it. And that’s one of the things I really see an evolution going on with these teams.
Howell: So, you just call that a couple of those principles, right? It’s a team sport, people first, people from all across the value stream. Kevin, a question for you about the six principles that Jim Morgan has shared with us. What kind of resonated with you and your experience with those principles? What do you see as their value?
Nolan: I’d say the toughest ones are probably the most valuable ones. Jim talks about synchronous workflow. It is detailed, and I remember when he first started talking about it, your head spins. It’s kind of like playing an instrument or running an orchestra, and all the things that need to be happening, how you write music for multiple things at one time. It’s a complicated matter and understanding how to synchronize those workflows, there’s skill involved and practice. And I think it sounds easy, but it’s difficult, it took us a long time. But I think that’s one where there’s huge value when you can get it right. But it’s hard to do.
The other thing I think is reuse and knowledge reuse. Jim talked to us a lot initially about, you know, once Ford figured out the right way to make a door, that’s how you make a door, or how you make a hood, and what’s involved. There are certain things you can change, and other things you don’t want to–fixed and flexible.
That is hard to think of because, as engineers, we pride ourselves in always coming up with there’s a better way. That’s a better way to do things. So, fundamentally, if things were too standard, we’re out of work. Because we need to be doing something new all the time. And so, thinking through here’s the right way to do certain things and documenting that and putting those in workflow. So, Jim talks about standard work in engineering. I think in engineering, we like to think all this is knowledge work, it can’t be standard work. But everything could be standardized, and how you can think through what you do and what you design. That takes a lot of thought and time. So, I’d say those are the two big ones that I think we’re still scratching the surface of what we can do with them.
Morgan: I think just to add to that, I think one of the most challenging parts, at least for me, and some of the other companies that I’ve worked with, is that balance between fixed and flexible. What can and should be standardized versus where we can allow maximum degrees of freedom for innovation and creativity. And thinking about how you deliver best value to your customer is a good way to guide your decision making, because you don’t want it to be completely standardized so that there’s no innovation–that’s not the point of product development. But understanding the difference there is key.
Howell: Jim Womack, during your presentation a couple of weeks ago, you described six challenges that you see that we’re all facing–challenges associated with changes in work and management and our origins, and many other things, software. I’m curious, uh, what, what sort of stands out to you from the story there at GE appliances in terms of what they’re doing to address some of those challenges? They’re not, immune; they can’t avoid those challenges. We’re all, we’re all in it together.
Womack: Well, I think the big story to this point is that, beginning, you know, ballpark, 2010, GE Appliances was able to make very substantial progress in creating an end-to-end lean enterprise. That’s an enormous thing. That’s a tremendous amount of heavy lifting. It’s stick-to-it; it takes time. So, they were just getting that done; didn’t say it was perfect, but it was getting to be pretty good when, Covid arrived. And the six challenges that I mentioned that we’re all going to have to deal with–are post-Covid challenges–but not right now, soon.
But I think the challenge that’s before those challenges was just how to get through the COVID trauma, and they had this long history of learning for disaster. So, here’s the latest disaster and, it’s pretty interesting to listen about what they learned.
By the way, one of the things you have to have in these kinds of unpredictable black Swan events is that you have to have some emergency reserve. That can be finished goods. That could be plants and machinery that are just get mothballed. But here, they’re doing the same thing people did in the hospitals. To get capacity in the hospitals, they cut out elective surgery across the country, just cut out all elective surgery and created Covid wards out of what had been elective wards. And at GE, they had all these people in the office. And I don’t want to speak for you, Kevin, but I think one could say it as a, a catastrophe, a pandemic sweeps over you and say, gee funny thing, we’ve got more demand, but we don’t have enough people. Where are our reserves to deal with the crisis? And then you went down the hall and said, wait a minute, what are those lawyers doing over there, and what are those accountants doing, and what are those HR people doing? Hey, folks, let’s go create some value. So I think it’s a really fascinating story of how they took these people out and said, you know, this is going to be good for everybody in every way that you’re going to learn fine-grained knowledge of what it means to create value, and how the rest of the organization needs to support you. And by the way, you’re going to make some great products, so we don’t disappoint our customer. So, that’s the challenge they’ve been working on right now.
Again, I say, I think it’s a great story to write up there. We’re not through yet. We don’t quite know how this thing is going to work out, but I think that’s the challenge of the moment, a challenge they have really risen to … and what are you going to learn? Kevin, I just would be fascinated six months or a year from now to have a chat about what you’re not you. Yes, you, but all of your people together learned, and how they were able to be better for other reasons, going forward from this challenge. Not just that, you’re better at dealing with future pandemics, but things that you’ve learned that are actually going to benefit your business and your customer going along ways forward. Not there yet … but that is, I think, the big thing that’s going on here.