Image courtesy StarWars.com
A few weeks ago Disney released a new trailer for the upcoming Star Wars movie “Rogue One.” Somehow it reminded me of a quote from one of my favorite characters in the series:
“Try not. Do….or do not. There is no try.”
– Master Yoda, from George Lucas’ Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
One of the most powerful words you can use while implementing lean is “try.” It’s important to set this expectation early. And it’s just as important to understand that there is no rank, authority or stupid ideas when you’re embracing kaizen. True kaizen is a process of trying small changes to understand how they affect the process. Ideally, they will all be improvements, but in reality not all “improvements” actually have a positive impact. But you must try them to understand why.
Several years ago at a previous job, my team was producing a product out of a copolymer plastic that required five machining steps, followed by laser marking, assembly, and final cleaning and packaging. Apparently, everyone “knew” that the plastic was unstable and required rest periods during the machining process to ensure dimensional accuracy in the final product. However, we still had quality problems and demand was increasing. One of our new engineers designed an experiment to test the machining variables of speed, feed, and depth of cut. He simply asked the machinists and experienced plastics engineers to try, even though they thought they already knew the best way to machine the copolymer.
What the team learned that week was that they needed to treat it just the opposite of what we thought. The plastic responded best to hard and fast processing, and when done properly it diverted most of the heat from the machining process into the chips instead of the remaining material. When we combined it with what we knew about annealing processes at our suppliers, we eventually reduced that machining process down to one machine, which completely changed our ability to deliver product reliably and quickly. Our total lead time dropped from 63 days to seven days, with the ability to turn rush orders in 24 hours. That ultimately made the product one of our most profitable lines, simply because we were willing to try something different.
Even if other team members know that something won’t work, it’s often worth letting people try things so they can learn by doing. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to do this because the premise can be explained clearly and is easily understood once explained. Sometimes there are safety reasons. Safety always trumps productivity. But often, the simple act of trying and failing is a much more powerful teacher. So we must encourage our teams to try, and teach them that failing is not only acceptable but it is expected. We can learn from our failures just as well as we learn from our successes.
This process of trying and learning needs to be guided by your leaders. Changing speeds and feeds in machining or using a different sequence of steps in your standard work for assembly can have unintended consequences on the final quality of a product. Using new formats to track information for a project may make it difficult to reconcile with your current standard reporting. But there are ways to safely try almost anything. Maybe a small pilot run on an ECO or validation plan is needed, as in the above example. Maybe data needs to be maintained two different ways in parallel to evaluate the impact of the improvement while simultaneously mitigating risk.
The initial improvements are never easy: “There’s not enough time.” “It takes extra labor. We can’t afford the extra labor costs on this project.” I could probably type all day on the “reasons” I hear as to why an improvement can’t be tried. But they’re really just excuses to hide behind. It reminds me of the saying by Thomas J. Smith: “Excuses are the tools of incompetence upon which monuments of nothingness are built. Those who use them seldom accomplish anything.” My good friend Curtis first shared this saying with me years ago, and while there are many variations of this quote, they all say the same thing: stop complaining and do something!
That first investment of time needs to be made to start the ball rolling. People need to try. If they already knew how to do something that would improve the process, they would do it. Faced with “Do…or do not,” they will almost always chose to not take the chance, because they don’t know what or specifically how to do “it.”
So remember what Yoda should have said, set it as an expectation, and use it often: “Try. Just Try.”