I was just listening to NPR and Alan Alda was on The Dianne Rheam Show. He was talking about his participation in something called the Flame Challenge.
Here’s the backstory: when Alda was just about 11 years old, he looked at the flame atop a burning candle and wondered, “Just what is that thing?” It’s not solid, not even really ‘real’. But I can see it, smell it, feel it (in a way), even hear it, so I know it’s “there”. But…what is the IT that’s there?” So, he asked his teacher. Her answer: “It’s oxidation.” That was it. Oxidation. To a sixth-grader, of course, that’s a non-explanation. Yeah, it’s true, strictly speaking but little Alan was no more well informed about what a flame actually is.
First, I’ve had that same question Alda had regarding flames, so I went to the Flame Challenge website and looked around. I suggest you do so, as well. It’s devoted to helping science expert types communicate better to us non-science expert types.
Second, I’ve had the same experience with many lean concepts and ideas. The clearest example, in my case, is takt time. Lots of books (too many) mention takt time in the first chapter or two. Almost none of those books do a good job of telling readers just what takt time actually is. Oh, they all have a definition…in fact, they all have pretty much the same definition.
Here it is from several sources I found by searching on the term:
“Takt time…is the average unit production time needed to meet customer demand.” [Wikipedia]
“Takt time is the rate at which a finished product needs to be completed in order to meet customer demand.” [iSixSigma]
“[Takt time is t]he available production time divided by customer demand.” [Lean Enterprise Institute]
These definitions are like the answer Alan Alda’s teacher gave him: they’re accurate as far as they go but they don’t help much. My work with small companies told me that customers demanded products in large lots and small lots on generally unpredictable schedules. There was no “rate” at which they demanded finished goods. (My thinking on this was modified a bit when I got clients who supplied the auto industry. But even in that case, it wasn’t easy to think of matching production rate to demand rate, which is what the definitions seemed to advocate.)
Another example is “5S”. You might be thinking that 5S isn’t jargon; after all, it’s pretty self-explanatory, right? Here’s the thing…most “definitions” of 5S just list what each S stands for.
Let’s do another web search:
“5S is the name of a workplace organization method that uses a list of five Japanese words: seiri,seiton,seiso,seiketsu, and shitsuke.” [Wikipedia] (As if using foreign words to explain something helps make it more clear.)
“The 5 Steps are as follows….” [Kaizen Institute]
“5S is a methodical way to organize your workplace and your working practices as well as being an overall philosophy and way of working.” [Lean Manufacturing Tools]
To be fair, each of these sources goes on to say more about 5S and its use. But that effort to provide a neat, tidy definition to new and. often, strange words and terms doesn’t provide much value. It gets in the way of really getting into the “What’s it for and why should I do it?” discussion. The fact that everyone is using pretty much the same definitions and the same approaches to expanding on those definitions doesn’t help in the least. (If I hear or read one more treatise on “The Eight Wastes”, I’m gonna scream. I’ll save that rant for another post, though.)
What to do, then?
Let’s go back to the example of takt time. After doing a bunch of reading and asking other folks what the heck the import of takt time was, I finally (kind of) figured it out. All that stuff about “customer demand”, while not irrelevant, diverted me from the real import: run at a consistent rate all the time. Consistent rate…that was the important factor. Now, it’s true…if you run at a consistent rate that’s faster than the rate customers are ordering stuff, you’ll pile it up in the warehouses. And if you run at a consistent rate that’s slower than customers are ordering the stuff, you’ll run short. But the first step is to figure out how to run at a consistent rate all the time. Once you figure out how to do that (and it’s not easy if you have lots of things going wrong in your process), the whole “customer demand” thing will be pretty much self-regulating (assuming you don’t like running short or filling warehouses.)
So, I can implement lean in a variety of contexts and never once mention the term takt time. On the other hand, I talk a lot about smooth, consistent flow of information and material with all my clients. And it makes sense to all of them.