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Spinning Plates "Sustaining Lean Manufacturing Improvements"

October 27, 2016

I get a lot of questions about sustaining lean manufacturing improvements, and I know there are a lot of companies who struggle with it. I have witnessed this first hand, after returning to companies I’ve worked with, and seen those recently implemented improvements eroded.  Management is responsible for this failure for one of two reasons: a lack of understanding or not willing to do the work.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen...LAZINESS.  Lean manufacturing is not for those who like to sit behind desks and delegate.  You must enjoy being on the move and on the floor with your sleeves rolled up. You must learn and work consistently.

I remember watching “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson as a kid, and seeing a person who could spin plates.  This person could get as many as 15 plates spinning at once.  He would frequently go to each plate and give it a spin to keep it in the air, whether it needed it or not.   I was amazed!  Today I realize that this is a great metaphor on how to sustain lean improvements.

When transitioning processes from batch to single piece flow, the waste that provides a cloak for problems is removed.  This cloak must then be replaced with the execution of employees performing new processes to fix problems, and this takes time.  I like to tell people that implementing a new process is like having open heart surgery.  The patient will seem worse for a few days before improvements can be observed.  Processes are designed and set very close to their failure point.  When a problem occurs or an employee falls outside standard work, a solution must be ready to go.  Over time everyone learns to work in this environment and new habits are created.  So why is it so hard to sustain?

When I design and implement process improvements, I pick fifteen to twenty “plates”, and must frequently give them a spin.  If one plate comes crashing down, the whole process fails.  I have also learned that I can’t wait for a plate to start wobbling to give it a spin.  If I wait for wobbles, I will find myself in a mode of chasing variation, and chaos is inevitable.  What do I mean about giving a plate a spin?  I must have an intimate knowledge of the process and the critical factors that will enable it to become world class.  These same factors will ensure the sustainability of the process.  I continually go by and verify actions are being completed as designed, and give feedback.  Positive feedback is critical because it gives a little momentum to the person performing them.  I want to create new habits for an entire team, so every plate must be tapped many times.

Consistently checking on all the plates and tapping them will enable the critical factors to be sustained.  The supervisor learns to spin the plates and keeps the amazing performance going.  Excellence is never easy.  As soon as someone starts chasing the wobbling plate or quits spinning them all together, somebody will need to get a broom!


About the Author

Doug Terry has over 20 years of lean manufacturing experience, working with companies all over the United States, and is passionate about teaching continuous improvement principles to others.



The Value in Value Stream Mapping

October 6, 2016



I am always amazed when I start working with a large organization, and not one person can give me the whole picture from start to end (raw materials to end customer). This indicates current processes were created or evolved in departmental vacuums with minimal focus of value stream performance.

Processes in value streams induce variation and interact with each other in either positive or negative ways.  The way these processes are designed and executed is critical in how the entire value stream functions.  All or most departments may be meeting their goals, but the value stream may be performing marginally.  Companies can execute for years with processes working this way, working against each other, and not really understand the impacts. It is very unlikely that employees know the whole picture, only that some things don’t make sense.  This is where the value in value stream mapping begins.

Value stream mapping is a great tool in identifying waste and processes which are not working together for the betterment of the value stream.  It’s used to help identify which processes create value and which have waste.  It also can reduce cycle-time and eliminate waste.  I use this tool on almost every project.  (This is actually what led to the creation of Excellovation’s value stream mapping magnetic icon kits.  I wanted to find a way to make VSM sessions more effective.)  A VSM session can identify processes that have no value, which then may be minimized or eliminated.  It helps identify the way information flows through the organization, or if it is a wasteful painful process.

With all the benefits of value stream mapping, the thing that excites my passion for continuous improvement most is bringing the people of an organization together, who then can understand how things work.  This includes identifying processes that are working and ones that need change.  Together, they can then collaborate to define a future state which is better for everyone.  An effective VSM session is a team building exercise.  It creates cross-functional understanding of other people’s challenges and the realization that it takes the entire team to obtain excellence. 

This is value; this is “Learning to See”.


About the Author

Doug Terry has over 20 years of lean manufacturing experience, working with companies all over the United States, and is passionate about teaching continuous improvement principles to others.


How to Achieve Excellence with Continuous Improvement

July 25, 2016

When looking back on my 20 years of experience in continuous improvement, I repeatedly ask myself, “What is the significant factor in obtaining excellence through a continuous improvement culture?” and “Why am I so passionate about it?”  It’s no real surprise that the questions have the same answer;

Excellence is obtained through the hard work and development of people. 

One might argue that the answer is related to continuous improvement tools or lean manufacturing principles, but the real underlying reason is that people have to get better at what they do.  Day to day execution falls on the shoulders of everyone.  Helping individuals learn and accomplish goals they thought were unattainable is amazing.  I love being part of something great and seeing individuals become more than they thought possible. As leaders, we must take on this responsibility.

There are many factors that contribute to employee engagement.  What I have learned is that people who overcome challenges through their own hard work and innovation take more pride in their jobs when they are the reason behind success. They know they are valued, and more than just a warm body who runs a machine or assembles a product.  Leaders must create an environment where employees can be proud of what they have accomplished.  If they can achieve that, their employees leave each day wanting to return tomorrow. If my own employees do not feel this way most days, then I have failed them.  How do is this type of environment created?  It is achieved through vision, expectation, challenge, ownership, and recognition.

To set the tone as a leader, you must show your passion.  You are the cheerleader in building your team’s excitement to succeed.

Most employees want to meet expectations.  In my experience, most organizations do not set clear expectations.  This leaves the employee to set their own and assume what management wants.  If you want to achieve excellence, tell employees what is expected to obtain it.

Improve accountability by giving timely feedback, include praise as well critiques.  The employee is accountable for meeting or exceeding expectations, not just failures. Always challenge them to get better, and recognize accomplishments.

Most importantly, let them own it.




About the Author

Doug Terry has over 20 years of lean manufacturing experience, working with companies all over the United States, and is passionate about teaching continuous improvement principles to others.