The Change 2: Running the Business

The training sessions that followed focused first on a new way of managing, one aimed not merely at the short term, but also at long-term survival. Participants were exposed for the first time to the Deming/Shewhart cycle of plan, do, study, act (PDSA) and were challenged to see how the laws of nature and human nature in conflict affect the workplace.

Challenged to look at their organization from the outside-in rather than the inside-out, they were introduced to the fundamental idea that what really matters is what takes place on the work-floor, the only place where value for customers can be added. They learned about the value stream: how non-value-adding processes must be seen as support or as muda, the Japanese term for potentially unnecessary, including management, that should be minimized or eliminated in order to refocus resources on adding value.

We have difficulty dealing with uncertainty,and will, at times, believe things that are not true to maintain a sense of control. Life and business are uncertain, however. Like navigating a boat down a fast-moving river, most of what matters is beneath the surface. Maps and charts help, but one can never fully trust them, so one keeps a sharp eye on the surface of the water, looking for ripples that may hide rocks or other obstacles.
A destination is needed, a vision, so a course can be set effectively.To remain alert, one needs to be well rested.

But like too many businesses, RES did the opposite, with workers buried in reports, arguing in the offices, never looking directly at the work flow, and then making up for internal inefficiencies by working long hours, sacrificing home for work life, and mistaking self-imposed stress for a dedicated work ethic.

Confidence had to be earned, otherwise, what was being taught would only be practiced when the owner was watching, and change would not be sustainable. Upper management had to learn the skills that they would eventually hand to the supervisors and willing workers. Only afterward could they learn what they would need to do to function more effectively as managers in a systems aware company. The aim was to shift the focus away from dysfunction to function.

As Tolstoy wrote,

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

And so it is with companies.Those that are well run tend to be more similar than different. I had previously had had success in helping organizations improve their effectiveness with a system I developed to eliminate waste, and focus on the essential operations. Borrowing liberally from Japanese kaizen thinking, especially as detailed in Jeffrey Liker’s books (2004; Liker & Meier, 2007) on Toyota, and the Deming/Shewhart cycle, I called it at the time, the Real Production System™. It was tailored into a Spanish Language version and with their involvement, evolving into their own RES Production System.
Its principles are:

  • Use common-sense, low-cost tools and measures, mostly paper-based (for example, drawings, checklists, and other techniques that do not cost a lot of money)
  • Look for solutions on the work floor where real work is done, by real people using tangible objects.
  • Aim to eliminate waste, especially wasted effort. (Waste is anything that does not add value to the final product.
  • Make it simple.
  • If a problem seems insurmountable, break it down into small steps.
  • Every major problem is the result of many small ones.
  • Encourage dialogue. Everyone touched by a process needs to have a seat at the table.
  • Create temporary solutions to stop the bleeding,
  • but keep working on it until you weed out the root problem.
  • Test in small ways before implementing. What seems to make sense in our minds does not always translate to the work floor. Untested ideas are only opinions.
  • Paper it—that is, if the new procedure solves a problem or improves a process, write down the new method and make it the new agreed upon operating procedure.


The system’s most important tool, SimplyLookingTM,challenged workers to solve problems by going to where the work is actually done and “simply looking” in order to thoroughly understand the situation. It is the missing element in many management systems, the elephant missing from the room. Tools from the classic lean toolbox originally from Japan were taught as well. They included the eight wastes (overproduction, waiting time, internal transport, overprocessing, excess inventory, motion, defects, and unused creativity), the five Ss:

  • Orderliness (seiri and seiton) – to maximise efficiency and effectiveness by reducing people’s workload and human errors through simplifying processes;
  • Cleanliness (seiso and seiketsu) – to maximise effectiveness by contributing to a healthier life, safety and wellbeing as well as enhancing transparency; and
  • Discipline (shitsuke) – through training and education to enhance the level of morale which leads to increased quality of work/life and work standards (Osada, 1991).

as well as kanban (visual cues to induce an action), and poke yoke (mistake proofing).

By the end of the consultant’s second visit, managers were challenged to practice what had been presented. For the first event, they were to choose areas to simply look at on their own. They chose three: the manufacturing line that fills gallon jars with sliced peppers or pickles, forklift usage, and the office. Split into teams, they were to enlist the help of supervisors and workers in discussing what they had seen and to use flow charts, fishbone charts, and traffic diagrams to map their observations.

to be continued…

About the Author

Dan Strongin works with medium to small companies, helping them master the art and science of managing.

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