Planning for life after lockdown

A huge number of businesses are still functioning with a distributed workforce, working from home and largely delivering what they have always delivered. Are they using the same processes though? I strongly suspect many businesses have reviewed what people do and eliminated many tasks that are expected when people are in work, but become impossible when they are at home. The question this creates is if these tasks are not essential when people work from home, are they needed at all?

This is a great opportunity to think carefully about the tasks we do each day and ask how much value they really add. There is much to learn from remote working, some of our time is taken up with tasks that are done because “we have always done it that way”. Two phrases that come to mind in this situation are

“Necessity is the mother of invention”

“When needs must, the devil drives”

Why are these important?
We have seen some incredible efforts to do new things, for example Formula 1 teams designing ventilators, engineering companies manufacturing ventilators, ordinary people using 3D printers to make facemasks, cosmetics companies manufacturing hand sanitiser.

When we have an overriding imperative we embrace our ability to be resourceful and inventive. Suddenly staff working from home is not a risk to productivity, it is a vital contribution to saving lives. Many managers and workers have found themselves working from home and needing to find new ways to communicate, new ways to manage their time, and are having to adjust their priorities to fit everything in. Inevitably some tasks are not a high priority in this situation. Now if those tasks are not significant in a crisis, how critical are they to the business overall? It is a question we should all ask, often we are too busy spinning the wheel to ask why we are doing it. This creates several wastes such as overprocessing (e.g. duplication of effort), waiting (sometimes for things that don’t really matter), motion (physical transfer of forms), defects (errors caused by rushing or distraction). We are also becoming more aware of pockets of overburden and unevenness in our organisations, as we observe people looking at new ways of working. As we decide some things are not important for now, perhaps we should consider if those tasks should be retired permanently.

Lacking access to meeting rooms and face to face meeting time has forced us to look at alternative meeting formats, for example Zoom, Google hangouts, Microsoft teams meetings. For many these technologies have been available for some time but have been shunned because they are new or “that’s not how we do it around here”. Needs must however, and now we find ourselves embracing new formats, new platforms and new behaviours. There is an opportunity in these new technologies; perhaps instead of everyone going to a specific room at a specific time for a meeting, we can use Teams to meet virtually at that time. If that saves five minutes at the start of the meeting and ten minutes at the end, for a daily meeting that is sixty hours a year per attendee. Five people in the meeting amounts to 300 hours per year. What could you do with that time? Another benefit of a virtual meeting might be a greater focus on the information that is being shared. Perhaps we can become more attentive to the business information, and in doing so think more carefully about how to present the required information in manner that is clear and accessible. Another example is accounting packs. Do we really need to prepare ten accounting packs, print them out and send them out to all attendees? Or do we need to prepare a single report in a teams folder and give everyone the same time to read the important information before the meeting. If you produce ten accounting packs a month, with let’s say 30 pages, that is a paper saving of over 7 reams of paper a year for one meeting. Not huge, but again why us eit if you don’t need to?

It is when you start multiplying all these benefits by the number of meetings and tasks across the whole business that your capacity problem becomes clearer. I often hear people say we don’t have time to improve, or e are already fully loaded. They also spend a considerable amount of time each day reworking tasks and replacing defects; do you not have enough time to fix your process? How much time and money could be saved by getting things right first time? Your investment in right first time will pay off.

If we reduce the demand for staff, what do we do with them?
This is a critical point and it is where many businesses kill their improvement programmes. They discover the tasks can be done with less staff and lay them off. They can do the same with less. Short term this is a cost saving, no doubt about it, but long term what is the impact on process improvement? Will your staff give their best efforts to improve the process if it endangers their livelihood? Would you? And what of the skills they take with them, they will undoubtedly use those skills in their next role, which could be with your competitor. Now think about this again. What happens if you use the time crated to increase capacity and grow the business. Redeploy them to relieve bottlenecks in other areas, retrain them to develop new capabilities, think more of their capabilities and potential than their cost. While the business is growing you can use all those staff who you have just trained in improvement techniques to find improvements in other areas. You will gain even more capacity, reduce costs and improve lead time. Exactly what you have been doing to cope in this time of crisis. A bonus is that you will also create a continuous improvement group from within your own staff.

When we go back to a more normal life, it will be tempting to resume all of the tasks we have been happily living without. Old meeting styles will be like an old favourite coat, comfortable and familiar. Consider this as you return to a business life after this crisis; you are able to choose what waste you reintroduce to your processes. Do you take the opportunity to adopt new ways of working and discard wasteful process steps, or do you limit the effectiveness of your operation? The organisations that let go of the activities that they have discovered were not necessary will thrive and grow in the wake of COVD19. We all need to thrive and grow, so I encourage you to create a new normal.

You have an opportunity to take the things you learn from coping in this crisis and use them to strengthen your business, create a continuous improvement culture and improve not only your immediate prospects, but also your long term future. Or not. I’ll leave you with this thought, W Edwards Deming said it best

“You do not need to change, survival is not mandatory.”


Lean supply chains

If the last 3 months have taught us anything about lean and process improvement, it should be that long supply chains are not lean. It is interesting that many of the businesses that should know better e.g. automotive businesses have been caught out with this problem.

One of the key components of a truly lean business is local supply chains. When COVID19 erupted in China, supply chains to many British (and global) firms were disrupted. The loss of capacity directly affected output of suppliers running long supply chains and trying to achieve JIT (Just In Time). The excess inventory in the supply chain bought some time, but very quickly those businesses found themselves with too few parts. The supply chains were not even just in different countries in one continent, they crossed multiple continents. As the crisis in China worsened, back up plans were implemented. Some worked, some didn’t, some businesses had not activated their emergency plans for so long they were no longer valid. Suppliers had ceased trading, disposed of tooling, changed materials, machinery, people, processes, all of which will have required fresh quality assessments. No doubt these were expedited, often by trading risks, the risk of quality failure later seen as a smaller risk than supply failure now.

We now face a nightmare scenario. Low output from extended supply chains and inadequate emergency response plans in the first instance, now the virus has spread to our country. The requirements for social distancing and isolation are now hampering output here in the UK – just as output in China is starting to come back online. The extended reduction in output has significant economic impact, requiring government intervention to prevent industrial collapse.

For now we must all be rational, obey the social distancing and isolation advice to ensure our communities are safe and the vulnerable are protected, but what of the future? I suggest that when we regain stability, British companies should re-evaluate the use of extended supply chains. We should onshore the manufacturing of critical components to insulate the supply chain from a further risk. With increasing severe weather events from climate change, political instability and regional unrest, long supply chains hold high risk. The risk and hence cost is not borne by the company alone, there is government level risk that is being taken through global supply chains. With some organisations transferring profit to benefit from better tax conditions, it is possible that the contributions of a business in a country don’t match the cost of large scale supply chain disruption. Whilst it can be tempting to focus on short term cost saving, the long term economic damage of a significant global event is too high a risk. This too is a feature of lean thinking, organisations must foucs on the long term strategic benefits.

If a business wants to be truly lean this must include long term strategic thinking and as a result localised supply chains wherever possible.

4S – Standardise

In the standardise stage we can access the greatest benefits of 5S. Standard work is the lifeblood of continuous improvement. Without standards, there can be no improvement, but without standardisation sustained improvement cannot be achieved. The reason for this is that inevitably improving a process will change the process. If multiple methods are improved over time the likelihood of one or more of the improvements conflicting increases. If the process is standardised, it creates trust between operators and reduces the opportunity for confusion and errors.

One way to develop and standardise is to create standard operating procedures (SOP’s). These should be simple, clear and easy to follow. The people who operate the process should create the SOP’s, since they are the process experts. The SOP should include

  • details of all required equipment, including safety equipment, to do the task
  • best practice and tips to make the task easy
  • instruction on what to do if the process moves outside of control or specification limits

In addition, the SOP should be mistake proofed and act as a standalone training tool. As with any process, regular auditing supports consistent application fo the process principles and practices.

More than anything else we are trying to create habits and change behaviour such that 5S isn’t an additional activity, it is just how things are done. This requires us to move through the following sequence

  • Unconscious Incompetence
    We are unaware that our processes or tasks are poor and in need of improvement.
  • Conscious Incompetence
    At this stage, we become aware that our processes or tasks are in need of improvement, but perhaps need graining and support to make the changes.
  • Conscious Competence
    Having had the help and support we become competent, but it is a daily struggle. We are doing all of the right things, but we must think about it constantly and ensure we review best practice.
  • Unconscious Competence
    At this stage, we have achieved the state of business as usual. We don’t consider what we do as special, because it is everyday business. We must guard against complacency though, if we don’t strive for improvement and excellence we may degrade into unconscious incompetence.

When trying to make change happen, one must consider the balance between driving forces and restraining forces. We always try to drive improvement, however, whenever we increase the drive, the resistance increases. To enable change to proceed, we must remove the resistance not increase the drive.

We also start to use the visual order created previously. Abnormalities should be visible and information shared and obvious. Red tags should be actioned and resolved. There should be a cleaning plan. The process should be documented in SOP’s, everyone should be trained and everyone should be following the process. Staff should be encouraged to improve the process in  a controlled manner, working to a separate SOP for process improvement.

3S – Scrub

Whilst the obvious impact of scrub is to get the area clean, there are a range of added benefits that greatly enhance process improvement. Rather than becoming a laborious chore, cleaning becomes a checking process that leads to continuous improvement.

Making cleaning processes a routine part of the process highlights abnormalities. These abnormalities become items to be fixed, and fixing them requires us to learn about the process and solve problems. The habit of solving problems is continuous improvement, and working in a continually improving work place encourages employees to make a positive contribution. Since each employee can see how their own efforts are expressed in the process, they are more likely to feel some ownership of the process and take pride in their work place.

Making cleaning a habit doesn’t happen by accident, it requires a strategy involving leadership will to stop the process for cleaning, and plans to ensure cleaning becomes standard work. Cleaning plans should follow the 5W1H model;


The aim of cleaning plans is to clean little and often, with everyone having the responsibility to clean as they go. Eliminating root causes prevents dirt and debris building up and reduces the time spent cleaning. When combined with visual sweeping, this technique becomes a powerful source of improvement. Visual sweeping involves looking at all work surfaces, floors, aisles, storage areas/containers and equipment and really seeing the condition of each area. You are looking for dirt and debris,  equipment that is ready to use, missing or damaged parts or fixings, excess materials, damage, storage, or any other defect relevant to the work done in that area.

As with 1S and 2S this exercise should be repeated every 3 to 6 months to adjust for changes in working practices and area usage.

2S – Straighten

Straighten is focused on organising the workplace to reduce waste. To do this we must clearly understand the frequency of use of each item. When this is understood we can decide where items should be placed and make the workplace visual.

To decide where items should be placed, we should first understand the flow of the area and look for evidence of waste. We consider 7 types of waste

  • Transport
    Do we need to move items to different locations for work to be done. If so, we could move the items closer together.
  • Inventory
    Inventory is cash tied up in the business. The longer that cash is tied up in inventory, the greater the risk of obsolescence. In addition, high cash demand for inventory increases the cash gap, stifling growth.
  • Waiting
    Waiting is `wasteful at the best of times, however, what must be tracked is waiting at bottleneck resources. Bottleneck process steps are rate-determining and limit output already If they are waiting it is impossible for the process to recover lost time.
  • Overproduction
    Production of more than is needed is a waste since it consumes time and resources, potentially taking them away from orders that the customer is waiting for. Adding stock to warehouse where it may become outdated is also an increased risk
  • Overprocessing
    Processing items more than necessary, or duplication of effort are clearly wastes or resources. Duplicated processing or elongated processing times reduce capacity and add to costs.
  • Defects
    Making something incorrectly will result in either rework or replacement. Replacement means that item took twice the materials expected, rework means it took far more labour than expected. If the item escapes from the organisation and reaches the customer, it will result in complaints and possibly loss of custom.

Understanding the flow of materials and work in the business can be accomplished using a spaghetti diagram. These are created by tracing the movement of work on a floorplan. Similarly a physical process map can be used by placing post-its for each step on a floorplan, connecting the dots and calculating the distance travelled. The diagrams can then be analysed for waste, congestion or any other problems that may contribute to ineffectiveness in the process.

Having identified the problems a new process layout can be created to eliminate as many of the problems as possible.
Some things we use daily, some weekly, some monthly and some rarely. Clearly they don’t all need to be here right now. Using the information from 1S about what is needed, decide how often items are used. Daily use items should be at the workstation. Items that are needed on a weekly basis should be close by, and as the usage gets less frequent the item can be further away. Items that are used infrequently can be in storage.

Now we know what is stored and how often it is used, we can place things to make the workplace visual. In a visual workplace, it is obvious where to go to find what they need, where to return it and what needs to be done.  Item recoil is the hardest thing to build into the system. How can we ensure that itens are returned to their correct storage location? There are many ways, using colour, shadow boards, labelling, and floor markings.

As with 1S, 2S must be repeated every 3 to 6 months to ensure routines are maintained and that the arrangements remain cinsistent with process and business needs.

1S – Simplify

We are going to run through each of the steps of 5S identifying the critical activities that enable the process. The first S of 5S is


Simplify is about removing all that is unnecessary from the area. If each of us considers the area we work in, how much of what is around us is really needed, here and now?

The first step in 1S is to take photographs of the area as it it. Don’t try to tidy up, just record how it is. Take careful note of the position you took the photos from, since you will be taking after photos from the same location. The next step is to ensure that everyone involved in the process is safe. Identify the risks in the process and ensure everyone involved also understands the risks. Provide training and equipment to all staff and ensure that waste disposal routes are appropriate for the type of waste.

We need to understand what should be at our work station. The first step in deciding what should be at your work station is to decide what happens at your work station and write it down. This should be done by the people who work in the area; once there is a written description of the activities that happen at your work station, it is possible to determine what tools, equipment, jigs, materials, and other items are necessary

At this point carry out a red tag event. The people who work in the area should use the information about what happens in the area and the tools and materials needed to carry out the work. Everything else should be red-tagged and moved to the red tag storage area. Items that have been moved to the red tag storage area should only be stored for a limited time. Typically items are moved into the area within one week and disposed of after four weeks. Managers and heads of department should review the items in the red tag area on a weekly basis to identify items that would be expensive or impractical to replace, items that can be used effectively elsewhere and items that can be disposed of. It is always good practice to check not only if an item is needed, but also how many are needed.

Finally don’t think of 1S as a one-off event. It will need to be repeated every 3 to 6 months because items will be brought back to the area and not returned to storage and over time the usage of the area could change.

5 steps for preparation for 5S

Many people have heard of 5S, however, people often think of 5S and associate it with housekeeping. So, is 5S just an extreme form of housekeeping? Certainly not!

5S was originally used in Toyota to improve performance. The ‘5S’ referred to five simple everyday Japanese words that everyone would understand. The thought process was that by keeping the words simple and grounded in day to day language, the worker could focus on the intent not remembering complex terminology. When this technique was first imported to the west, the trainers used the Japanese words and created an obstacle that should never have been part of the process. The driving force for this was seeing the task not the process. Copying the Japanese implementation across language and cultural boundaries failed to communicate the philosophy and structure behind the process. 5S is an integral part of kaizen linked to elimination of waste and focus on value. For that reason, I use five simple English words – I only teach in English.

The 5S’s are;


Another misunderstanding from the west was adding a sixth S, safety. Safety is of vital importance, however, adding safety as the sixth S misses the point. The five S’s are grounded in an assumption that everything is safe. If the process isn’t safe don’t wait for 5S, deal with the safety issues before starting 5S, after all why would you work with an unsafe process?

Preparing for 5S is vital and too often organisations don’t invest enough to ensure they create the right environment that allows employees to succeed. There are five critical steps to creating the right environment for employees to succeed at 5S.

  1. Create policy and a plan.
    To implement 5S successfully the organisation must establish a clear policy that documents the benefits of 5S and the roles and responsibilities for implementation. The leadership team must be united on the need and purpose of 5S. The team who create the policy and plan should be drawn from all levels of the business. This is to ensure that the potential pitfalls and problems are identified and discussed. Through this discussion the business can ensure alignment between all levels of the business and significantly reduce the opportunities for conflict. The policy should explain the behaviours and standards the business will adhere to regarding 5S.
  2. Write the Procedure.
    Document the process for implementing and managing 5S. 5S is a form of standard work and supports employees and management alike in understanding the benefits and advantage in standardising working practices. Implementing 5S without standard work will make the process much more difficult than expected.
  3. Create a red tag format and area.
    Standard red tags used throughout the business create consistency. This consistency ensures that everyone is clear about the meaning and purpose of any red tag in the business. The red tags also contain standardised information allowing correct identification of the item, date tagged, reason for tagging and disposition of the item. This item can then be placed in a fixed area for disposal or storage.
  4. Create a red tag log.
    Red tagging alone won’t create a clear picture of the items in the business that are not required. The red tag log allows management to track items and the decisions made regarding their disposition. The log also allows tracking of location, cost and stock level.
  5. Communicate the plan and train those involved.
    Once all the preparation is done, communicate why 5S is important and what benefits implementing 5S will bring. Once this is communicated throughout the business select the first team to implement 5S and train them how to implement the process.

Preparing properly for 5S will increase the speed of adoption and the likelihood of success. The leadership must understand their role in the process. Leadership should not be dictating, they need to collaborate with the workforce. The most effective activity that leadership can undertake is to identify and remove obstacles to progress, ensuring that employees have the tools and resources to succeed.
Read the future posts on how to implement each of the steps of 5S


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Marketing and statistics

I had a really good day yesterday. I was fortunate enough to have a project proposal selected for use by Lancaster University’s Business School for an MSc final year project in Marketing.

Getting a project selected is both a support and a responsibility. I didn’t realise that the project accounted for a fun third of their final year marks. Although they have nothing left to do for the remainder of this year, it is a serious responsibility for both the students and for me to ensure that two things happen. We must ensure that the project runs smoothly and yields a successful result. In this case, a successful result means a market study that helps my business. Of equal importance is ensuring the students achieve the highest possible marks in their final dissertation.

One interesting discussion centered around co-operation compared to collaboration. I have long held the belief that whilst most organisations work hard at co-operation, it isn’t really what they need to do.You see co-operation is what happens when all parties set out to give the minimum away and achieve the maximum personal and functional gain, regardless of the impact on the overall organisation. Collaboration is a different matter altogether. Collaboration requires all parties to be open about their wants and needs, then work out how to deliver the maximum possible benefit for all parties, whilst ensuring the needs of the business are protected.

Collaboration creates trust and bonds teams together within functions and across functions. This bonding, and trust creation makes collaboration a key aspect of process improvement, and project work.

So how did this apply to a marketing degree project?

The students and I are inextricably linked for the next few months. If I have not explained the project brief clearly enough, they will be unable to achieve a high degree mark .That is why I must ensure that I answer their questions fully and act on the tasks we agree. For their part, the students must work through the brief diligently and ensure they answer the questions thoroughly. It will be interesting to see what results come from the project.

The students now have a few weeks to create their marketing proposal, once that is agreed, they will conduct the market research over the summer and present it back to me in August. I seem to have two very smart young ladies taking care of my project, I look forward to the insights and strategies that come from their analysis.


Lean? Six sigma? TPS? How about just improving the customer experience.

There are so many models out there for process improvement that I fear the reason for having the models gets lost. You can’t see the wood for the trees. How do we get back to seeing what is in front of us?

What lies at the heart of all of the improvement methodologies?

I would argue that the reason for doing any of this is the same; a basic desire to improve the business. The next question is to improve what? Why improve at all? All businesses are there to service the needs of their customers, whether that need is for doughnuts, cars, phones, accountancy services, medical aid, it doesn’t matter. If we can find a way to service the customer’s needs better, then perhaps we can find a way to make everyone’s job more secure and grow the business. If we can make more money along the way even better.

So why do we obsess about all these different methods?

Everyone tries to understand how someone else, who we perceive is better at something, does it. We all study someone, we are taught subjects in school, how to answer questions, how to solve problems, how to make things better. Unfortunately, our education systems teach us to copy, imitate rather than innovate, so we look for models and systems to copy since that is our conditioning.

Therein lie the seeds of ruin for many improvement projects. We go, we study, we focus on what, but we fail to understand why. The real question for improvement is, why do it? Many companies who engage in process improvement, lean or six sigma projects do so to reduce costs. That cost reduction is often accompanied by job losses, which works in the short terms, but destroys trust between workers and management, and makes future improvement projects almost impossible. This is because there is an internal, short term focus for the business. Management are changing every 3 to 5 years, every new set of management focus on the perceived deficiencies of their predecessor, then proceed to change the direction to make things better. W Edwards Deming identified these factors in his seven deadly diseases. Short term goals, lack of constancy of purpose, job hopping by management, performance reviews, focus on visible figures, excessive medical costs, excessive legal costs.

American Management thinks that they can just copy from Japan. But they don’t know what to copy

W Edwards Deming

How do we succeed?

As Simon Sinek observes, we must start with why. Why do we want to improve? Is it to better serve our customers or to make more money? As United Airlines have recently shown, just saying that your customers are a priority isn’t enough. If customer service was at the heart of their principles, that video of security guards dragging a paying passenger from a flight would not have been possible. To truly succeed, a business must focus on improving the aspects of their product or service their customers value most. It must not be done to simply improve margin, but to reduce the level of defects, improve customer satisfaction, eliminate the opportunity for defects, reduce lead time, reduce waste.

This focus will lead the business to look at the process for creating customer value; reducing defects, eliminating the opportunity for defects, reducing waste all deliver lower costs for the business and better service for the customer. Reducing waste and defects means that less time is wasted on defect correction and replacement, this gives a shorter lead time and lower costs. Determining a long-term strategy, and setting in place a review process to ensure the strategy is sustained will ensure constancy of purpose. Focusing on these factors and ensuring that all the changes are sustainable for the long term may be harder, but is ultimately much better for the business.

In summary, focus on your customer needs, plan for long term success, and make changes that are consistent with your long-term goals. Don’t copy what others have done, understand the link between their long-term goals and improvement activities. Once this is understood for their business, focus on your own business and use only the tools and techniques that support your own long-term goals AND your customer’s needs. If you ever find a conflict between these demands, always choose your customer’s needs; long-term success can only come from repeat business, and repeat business only comes from satisfied customers.

Profit in business comes from repeat customers, customers that boast about your project or service, and that bring friends with them.

W. Edwards Deming