During the recent Certificate Program conducted at the foot of Peñas Blancas, participants were able to study the methodologies of Lean Continuous Improvement, a practice designed to remove waste of all forms from our daily work. It’s a very precise process improvement technique, thus one that is not quickly or easily assimilated by most people. As a result, teachers of this process, which really involves transforming the way one looks at everything in a new way, frequently use examples to illustrate the concept. Our Lean leader for the week, Brian Kopas of FabCon Precast, selected examples which would be familiar to the rural Nica audience and yet demonstrative of the ideas of Lean. One example that week stood out .
The story is of a successful conference center which, among other amenities, includes on-site lodging accommodations, a beautiful setting, exercise opportunities, and a full complement of meals for their clientele. It’s an operation that has sought to constantly make improvements in the range and quality of its offerings, so an attempt to streamline kitchen operations and meal services seemed like an obvious initiative.
The kitchen staff gladly accepted the participation of several observers from outside the enterprise, to make notes of wasted time and motion, to document actions and capture the flow of work and the demands upon the staff members. Using the Lean tools of observation and measuring, together they created a pictorial snapshot of the breadth of the kitchen staff work for just one meal of the day.
The visual was shocking, to say the least: each one of the colored lines in the photograph represents the travel of one of the staff members in preparation of one meal. It turned out that the staff members were walking miles within the confines of their kitchen, and most often incurring the high mileage as a result of inefficient placement of materials or redundant movement.
The graphic example provided an immediate blueprint for improved customer service and timeliness, less strain on the staff and better care of kitchen implements and ingredients. Upon actually seeing what a morning preparation looked like, the staff members and their outside “helpers” set out to remove as much of the wasted time and energy as they could, cleaning up the process so that it looked more like that to the right.
Granted, the travel lines were not drawn in this “after” diagram, but the open spaces in the drawing were indicative of the clean-up that was possible, all in the course of a few hours of observation, discussion, modeling and decision-making. (It didn’t hurt that these particular Lean practitioners decorated their “after” diagram with flowers along the edges, either!)
The example resonated with the participants in the Certificate Program, partly because the topic- cooking and eating- are very familiar and important activities. In part, they understood because they recognized what those spaghetti-style travel lines represented in the way of excess steps and the drain that such extra movements create during the course of a day’s labors. They could identify with the notion that there is opportunity for improvement in even the most repetitive, everyday kinds of activities.
But most of all, they attendees could identify with the example because it was of their own making. Because the example described above was one of the three Lean projects actually undertaken during our week at the conference site at Peñas Blancas. The “students” grabbed the Lean concepts voraciously, asked questions about process steps, immersed themselves in the work of the kitchen at 5:00 one morning, making themselves part of the the morning’s business, quizzing the kitchen workers, empathizing with difficulties and frustrations likely never before observed. When they had applied the tools that Brian had provided, they went steps further, preparing written analysis and reasoning for proposed changes, estimating the impacts and the costs of such alterations, and even adding the beauty of those wildflowers along the border of their diagram. (I have never seen that before!) The best example of the entire week was the one that the Nicas produced themselves.
The reality of our time spent with participants on the topic of continuous improvement methodology is that they not only absorbed the ideas, but ran with them, embraced them as though they were hanging on to lifelines in a relentless storm. Even as newly-initiated to Lean, they added their own signatures to the results, thereby further underscoring the notions of continuous improvement. Indeed, I have witnessed few Kaizen projects, in my own company and of even longer duration and study, that were as exhilarating as this one.
It’s an example I intend to use in the future, with other groups of curious learners. And it’s one that will utterly dissolve any excuse that the concepts are simply too difficult for some folks to apply. What a week….