J. Miller and Company Blog

April 7, 2009

Technique is EVERYTHING!

Technique is to process as X is to Y

The words system and process have been thrown around nearly indiscriminately for the past 10 years as the panacea for all sorts of problems.

Got a problem with production? Get everybody in the same room, brainstorm the issue, then write a process map, develop a system, and train your people. And bang, just like that the problem is resolved. Onto the next, the thinking goes. And so on and so on, ad absurdum.

I’ve been to offices where the process map wrapped around 3 conference room walls, where the books of systems outlined by area of influence – marketing, sales, design, production, finance and administration – were beautifully organized on a shelf looking as if they’ve never been opened since they were completed.

And to be truly fair I’ve also heard of (not seen in action) a few companies where any new employee either was asked to read or (and this is a true WOW story) actually read before asking questions the complete manual about his area of influence. The WOW story was told by a friend and colleague who hired a new production manager. A month or so into the probationary period, the owner/my friend asked why he’d not been bombarded with questions during that month. The new production manager pulled the now-worn binder from the shelf and said something like “Because all the answers are in here – I haven’t found a question yet which wasn’t well documented in this great book!”

That production manager has now been with the company 8 years and, as my friend said recently, with that kind of initiative, his job was safe during any economy.

But recently I’ve come up against the limits of process – that point at which all the documentation in the best developed manual fails. I believe that point is technique.

Technique is defined by dictionary.com as “method of performance; way of accomplishing.”

Process is defined by dictionary.com as “a systematic series of actions directed to some end.”

See the difference? Process is a series of actions but technique defines the ‘way of accomplishing’ the action.

Without clear instructions on the ‘way of accomplishing’, without technique, you’ve defined only the first 95% of the solution, the final 5% – often the difference between success and failure – remains open to interpretation.

Here’s an example: in one of my early careers, this one as a legal secretary (my first job out of college) I was instructed in the technique of putting a letter in an envelope so that upon opening the letter was removed and opened with the top of the page facing the reader. No need to turn the letter over or unwrap it completely to begin reading. This seemed at the time an enormous idiocy with which I had to comply. Recently I embarked on a mass-mailing campaign in Seattle to introduce myself to the remodeling market and realized that this ‘technique’ learned so long ago still had power – muscle memory – over my actions and in fact made that part of the entire process simple and straight-forward.

Last year Linda Case and I spent a day at the Pella, Iowa campus of Pella Windows where we attended a Continuous Improvement Seminar. This was CI 101. It was fascinating in that it applied shop floor lessons learned from the champion of CI – Edward Demming who transformed Japanese manufacturing during the period after World War II – to the Pella operation.

Many of the lessons learned applied equally well to remodeling projects which take a longer duration. I’ve copied the notes relating to 5-S from that day. 5-S is a ‘mantra’ which seeks to reduce waste by establishing a simple and daily system which any employee can implement and use. It leads to ‘mistake-proofing’ by eliminating choices which can lead to incorrect actions.

From the remodeling point of view, a standard for organization of office/shop/trucks/job sites would lead to simplicity of training, ease with which any employee could note irregularities and increased level of communication and therefore better teamwork, leading to better employee morale.

Levels of 5-S:

Sort – eliminate the clutter:

n For example: start in the shop and put all items of like type together, make one area for miscellaneous. At the end of the sorting process all the stuff in the miscellaneous pile should have been put into other defined piles. The goal here is to REDUCE the miscellaneous pile to nearly nothing. Make a map of where everything is going to go.

Set in order – organize, label, set boundaries:

n For example: organize the shop layout so that all commonly used items are located closest to the door for ease in pulling onto the job sites; put all job site related items into one area of the shop, label the shelves/buckets/clear plastic boxes; establish big boundaries for the entire shop for (1) job supplies; (2) small tools; (3) large tools; (4) scrap and salvaged lumber (this should be a very small pile); (5) salvaged doors/windows etc (another very small pile); etc.

Shine – clean everything:

n For example: ensure that every single tool is clean, has all its parts, works well; clean off all the gunk on the opened paint cans; test the spray paint to be sure it still works and there is sufficient paint; sharpen the saw blades and pick axe blades – etc.

Standardize – create methods for ensuring standardization:

n For example: create index cards showing maintenance schedules for all tools; make chart of the shop showing location and boundaries where each major type of ‘stuff’ is stored; note on the labels of each the date of last review of items contained in the area/shelf

Sustain – create and maintain a supportive culture:

n For example: train, coach and reward all employees in maintaining the shop in its optimal configuration – putting tools away clean and repaired, noting any missing pieces or when the inventory of a commonly used item is insufficient.

Finally, although this isn’t part of the defined 5-S method, it’s vital that the owner/project managers LEAD BY EXAMPLE.

In developing a 5-S mind-set combined with an appreciation of the value of well-defined technique throughout the important parts of each process, the value of process can be realized.

In fact, the October 27, 2008 Wall Street Journal spent nearly a quarter page advocating the 5S method saying:

“5S is a key concept of the lean manufacturing techniques that have made makers of everything from cars to candy bars more efficient.”

Shouldn’t you adopt 5S in your company immediately?

Management Theory, Metrics