Lean: It’s About Time

By Tom Southworth | July 21, 2014

Converters must always have a plan, and plan to use their time wisely.

Seven years ago I started a regular column for this magazine with an installment titled “Oil and Inventory Don’t Mix.”  That first column was intended to be both a warning against the cash burning practice of stockpiling inventory and an introduction to lean principles. Five years and some 40 installments later, I was offered the opportunity to come back into the converting industry and practice everything that I had been preaching.

When Steve Katz asked a few weeks ago if I would be interested in writing an article, I wasn’t sure I’d have the time, but then I had to remind myself of one of my own lessons – making the time.

As I wrote in November 2011, everyone has heard a version of the idiom “there’s never enough time to do it right, but there’s always enough time to do it over.” I quoted Charles Bixton, who said, “You will never find time for anything. If you want time, you must make it.”
So why, then, do we all recognize that we must take the time to perform our tasks wisely but we are not wise enough to actually devote the time to do them?

“In truth, people can generally make time for what they choose to do; it is not really the time, but the will that is lacking.” – John Lubbock

Is it really the will that’s lacking, though, or is it the lack of something else? After all, we all seem to have the will to work very hard for long hours, so surely we must have the will to make the time for what we truly feel are wise endeavors.

It’s not so easy, though, is it? We all try, but as a wise Jedi master once admonished his pupil: “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”
So let’s all “try not” and instead, let’s all do, and it all starts with a plan.

Dust off those copies of Label & Narrow Web (or if you’re reading this online then just make a few mouse clicks) and take a look at what we talked about in September 2009.

In that article I wrote, “No one should start off on a journey without having at least some idea of where they want to go. You need at least to know the direction in which you wish to travel, and to have some idea of how you’re going to get there. I often tell people to imagine having to play a football game and not having a playbook and not knowing which end zone you need to head toward.”

Do you have a plan, or are you at least in the process of planning? Remember the quote from President Eisenhower’s speech to the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference in 1957, where he said: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction, because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.”

So, the first thing you do is to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window and start once more. But if you haven’t been planning, you can’t start to work, intelligently at least. That is the reason it is so important to plan, to keep yourselves steeped in the character of the problem that you may one day be called upon to solve – or to help to solve.

If we don’t plan how to use our time, and if we’re not frequently revisiting that plan, we’ll never find the time to do things right the first time. We’ll always find the time to do them over, sometimes at the point of a bayonet.

In October 2008, I wrote about True North, and how Hajime Ohba said that we must keep ourselves pointed toward our True North – our vision of the ideal – by doing “what we should do, not what we can do.” As business leaders we have to make the time to discover that vision of the ideal – our organization’s True North – and plan the course that we will follow to get there.

The quote from the novel The Company (2002) rings in my ears:“The problem with the world is that men think, for their ship to come in, all they need to do is put it to sea. They’ve lost the capacity for celestial navigation. They’ve lost True North.”

If you just set off, if you just head out to sea, without having a plan or without being “steeped in the character of the problem,” you will quickly founder and give up, feeling that you no longer have the time to waste.

If you’re not going to waste time, if you’re going to use your valuable time wisely, you must make the effort to understand the problem, the reason for your efforts, so that you can keep doing what you should do and not simply that which you merely can do because that was all the time you had to spare.

“The pessimist complains about the wind, the optimist expects it to change. The realist adjusts the sails.” – William Arthur Ward

In 2012, my company decided to chart a new course by bringing in a number of people from outside the company, myself included, to help steer toward True North. They had decided that they were no longer simply going to try, they were going to do, and they hired a few seasoned deckhands. In 2013, we devoted more than 2,000 hours of education and skills training on lean and other topics and we began investing heavily in teaching our employees how to problem solve and how to teach. We made a conscious decision – meaning we planned – to use our time getting ready before embarking on that journey toward True North. We have since begun a process of continuous change that hasn’t always been easy but that has always been in motion. The reason we’ve not stopped is because we are always revisiting the plan and charting course corrections.  If we didn’t, we’d be dead in the water.  Instead, we’re always adjusting the sails, jibing and tacking. We may not always make tremendous forward progress but we’re always moving forward.

So my fellow converters and time consumers, we must always have a plan that we constantly revisit and revise. These revised plans don’t have to be huge rewrites. They can just be small changes that keep us pointed – and moving – in the right direction. We need to plan our time wisely. After all, we can always buy more material, equipment, space and hire more people: we cannot buy back lost time.
I encourage you to look up past articles on lean and continuous improvement in L&NW, to attend local and national conferences – like NELMA, Dscoop or Labelexpo – and seek out others who’ve been on this journey.

It will be time well spent.

For five years, Tom Southworth authored L&NW’s Printing Lean column. Today, he is Vice President, Quality & Process Improvement at Paris Art Label Co., Inc., a label converter in Ronkonkoma, NY, USA.

Low-Tech Lean
By Bill Hanover

Shouldn’t lean itself be “LEAN?” Certainly it should! Before spending money on any lean improvement, the team should rule out the possibility of using something already owned by the company, making the fixture or device in-house or eliminating the need for the device altogether.

Working with one manufacturing company, we bolted pvc pipe and a couple of quick-clamps to a bench top to hold a work piece in place while it was assembled. We already had all but one piece of the hardware needed to complete the project and it worked magnificently. This low-tech fixture greatly reduced the strain and repetitive motion risks for the women who had to screw large assemblies together dozens of times each day. It also resulted in more than double the throughput in that area. We could have used pneumatics, hydraulics, or other more expensive and involved methods, but in the end our solution was at least as good, much easier and cheaper to implement. Our Kaizen team shortened two large tables and cut holes in the center of each to facilitate the retrieval and disposal of fiber without bending or slowing the process at a pillow manufacturing company. Initially it seemed a conveyor would be needed, but emphasizing “creativity before capital” we came up with a great low-tech method that worked even better than the high-tech alternative.

A lean approach includes not spending too much and not building too big. As a guide, ask yourself the following questions before implementing a low-tech lean solution: Is this actually solving a problem? Can it be implemented quickly and easily with items already in-house? Does it maximize R.O.I. both for time and money spent? Is this as good or even better than high-tech or high-cost solutions?
Sometimes a few pallets, a sheet of plywood, some cardboard, and a couple of 2 x 4’s are all you need to have a not-so state-of-the-art (but functional) gravity-fed supply rack. Actually, pallets are a lean building supply of choice in many companies used for temporary work benches, boxing stands, staging areas, and so on. Once again, if you can’t spend too much money but need components for your lean infrastructure, this may be the budget conscious solution you were looking for.
Bill Hanover is CCO of TPS – Throughput Solutions, a Lean Manufacturing consultancy. His email is jb@tpslean.com.
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