Workaholics United : Push, Pull & Standardization

Waste is a constraint. Reducing waste in your organization is one the easiest ways of reducing constraints.

And here’s a surprise—waste in offices is usually greater than in factories, especially because it’s easy to hide waste in cumbersome or non-existent processes. Creating unnecessary information inventory is another common waste in offices. Doing too many tasks “in anticipation” of a possible client, for example…

One way to think about waste is in terms of push and pull systems. A push system, like much of traditional manufacturing, produces as much product as the company can and/or wants to produce and then gets it out to the customer. The result is usually large inventories.

A pull system only produces what a customer needs and has asked for. You want to have as much “pull” in your systems as you can. Toyota has very little excess inventory. That’s why when the Prius was so unexpectedly popular, people found themselves on waiting lists for the car. Seems like a problem, but Toyota is much more profitable as a result of being so lean. You might also hear this concept referred to as “just-in-time production” or JIT (remember? — it came from the supermarkets).

I think of it this way — there’s a place for everything and everything in its place. No more. No less.

Here’s a story on how to reduce waste (figuratively and literally), by integrating people and process in a pull system.

Many places all over South East Asia (And many other places for that matter), you don’t have a conventional toilet. However, some places in Japan you don’t only have a hole in the ground, instead there is an incinerator toilet as many Japanese are shy to have their bodily disposables exposed to even sewer rats. You first press a button to start the heating system and then put a special purpose coated paper bowl liner (like a coffee filter, but don’t try using one for this purpose it won’t work) down between two sloping pieces of steel (sort of like a toilet bowl liner). You do “your business” into the paper filter, step onto a lever, and wave goodbye to your waste and any toilet paper. The toilet incinerates the filter and extra donations from you at a very high temperature, somewhere around 6,000 degrees Celcius or the surface temperature of the sun, whichever is hotter. It’s a great way to eliminate waste. However, you can’t use the toilet without these special purpose coated paper bowl liners—they’re needed to keep the steel clean while also aiding in the incineration process. Many have tried and got a good scolding for it.

A friend of mine and his wife have implemented a very simple “pull system” so that we always have just the right number of liners. Not too many, which ties up money and takes up extra space with excess inventory. Not too little which can shut down the incinerator if it’s overburdened by non-regulation uses.

Over time my friend and his wife have determined just how many boxes of this paper to keep on hand, based on the frequency of use. It happens to be four boxes. These boxes are then stacked on a specific shelf (the one closest to the toilet, not down the hall, which would create a different kind of production problem, but right where you need them—and can reach them).

On the bottom box is written—when you open this box tell Daniel or Yuko. You do tell them because it’s built into the culture of the dojo and you are part of the smooth functioning of the system. They then order 4 more boxes—and have determined, through learning by doing, just how long it takes to receive a shipment of 4 new boxes. It’s a very simple pull system that, in this case, only produces the right kind of waste.

As you can tell, there are a number of keys to success in this process.

Everything about this process is clearly visible and apparent to everybody involved in the process. If the box marked when you open this box tell Daniel or Yuko was inside a dark, hard to reach, cabinet, or it was written on the bottom of the box instead of on the flap that you have to open to get at the liners, it might not get noticed. The process relies on this visual indicator. Visual indicators or management charts, or checklists, etc. allow for communication and sharing. You can create standardized work sheets, but if you don’t have a way of seeing them, and the process, as if it were in a glass box, it’s likely that the standard practice won’t be followed and breakdown and waste will occur.

Problems have a way of bubbling up to the surface. The longer you let them simmer the bigger the problem will be when it surfaces. Our goal is to create standardized work processes that bring issues and problems to the surface, using visual indicators so no problems are hidden, at the earliest possible moment. People are stimulated by the visual, tactile and audible. People are part of the process.

Remember, we’re integrating. So it stands to reason that being able to see everything you manage is a balanced and harmonious way of creating flow in your work.

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