Recently a colleague from Germany visited and I toured her around several companies well along on the lean journey. One was a small manufacturer of a complex artistic product, designed to order or to a catalogue, where several of the jobs take considerable craft skills. In one step team members in their own room paint tiles in defined areas—like paint by number. I asked the owner a typical lean question: How do they know if they are ahead or behind? She answered: “They have a target of each doing five per day and as long as the group averages that output per member we are meeting our sales target and I am happy.”
This of course rattled my lean sensibilities. Aren’t there differences in the time it takes to paint different products? How do you know through the day if you come and see if they are on target or not? How do you know how many painters you really need? The owner explained: “I know the output by the end of the day and they have been consistently on target. They can work it out amongst themselves. If we installed a timer it would create stress and lower morale. She added that they were in the process of developing standard work for each standard product with diagrams on the paint sequence and “it would be most valuable in teaching new painters who did not yet have their own routines.”
Our next trip was to Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, Michigan where they call themselves a software factory creating custom software unique to each client. Highly skilled computer programmers work in this unique environment where the mantra is “joy.” Their software development process is in many ways highly structured using lean principles. “Technical Anthropologists” live with the customer to define the requirements and these are turned into cards, each with one feature to program. The time to code the cards is estimated by a team, including programmers, and then the customer decides which features they are willing to pay for and which should be discarded. A project manager places the approved cards on a “work authorization board” in a matrix of pairs of programmers at the top and days of the week as the columns. The pairs of programmers take one card at a time and do the coding knowing the time estimates (See Photo Below). They use colored dots to indicate whether they are working on a card (yellow), are done and ready for quality control (orange), or are having a problem (red). A string across the board shows the current day. The project manager at a glance knows if they are ahead or behind. Programmers working in pairs are intensively focused on coding, talking to each other about the best way, and yet look relaxed and are smiling. If they get behind they are not punished, but someone will come to help and then try to understand what the problem was and how they can improve. Every single week the customer meets with them to review the week of work, so that creates a paced customer review. In other words, this is lean 101 applied to software programming.
Which of these situations is better? The first case is sometimes called “Self-directed” teams who have a quota and figure out for themselves each day how to meet it while allowing for individual differences. In the Menlo case, teams are paced by a work authorization board with different times allotted for different tasks? Menlo is an environment that thrives on “joy” and claims the cards on the board provide a sense of accomplishment. Both are very human-centered cultures and both involve highly complex, skilled work.
Ultimately every organization must decide for specific tasks how detailed the standards should be and in what time increments the process should be paced. The concept of “takt” in lean is a way of pacing work so it flows at the rate of customer demand. We see in these very different types of work opportunities for creating a pace which reflects the customer demand, whether it is daily pacing by a quota, pacing by hours in the case of the Menlo work authorization board, or continuous like an assembly line. In all of these cases the pacing can be experienced as part of oppressive management “breathing down my neck.” But in all these cases, with the right type of supportive leadership, focused on the customer, the business, and team members, it can be experienced as a joyful day of accomplishment at work.
Dr. Jeffrey Liker is professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan and author of The Toyota Way. He leads Liker Lean Advisors, LLC and his latest book (with Gary Convis) is The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership