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By Barry Jeffrey, Mar 5 2015 08:48AM

How often do you see a section leader or manager running around like a headless chicken, struggling to gain control of what he or she is supposed to be managing day to day?

In my experience this is all too common, and contributes to arguments and a marked drop in both quality and efficiency as issues are missed and errors made.

Depending upon the industry, the look of the process and the operation may differ, but one thing that is common, is the commitment and dedication of the individual leaders to keeping the 'section running at all costs'

This dedication nearly always comes at a cost though. The stress levels that leaders put themselves under on a daily basis are huge. But why do they do this?

Let's think about it. What is of the role of a leader? What does the organisation expect of him or her? The answer is not ground breaking or complicated.

To keep their process running, producing high quality product, on time at minimum cost.

Yet in nearly all the facilities I visit, this appears to be extraordinarily difficult. I see people running around with clip boards, counting inventory, or in some cases, just looking at it. I see team members waiting for instructions or guidance. Scrap material hidden under benches or documents piling up in trays with dust starting to gather. In fact a whole series of examples of what appears to be a lack of organisation.

Another thing that you can be sure of is that the process was never designed to run like that, so what's gone wrong?

To my mind the answer is not a lack of organisation, but the fact that the process is not visual. So what do I mean by this?

One of the biggest problems that a leader faces in trying to run the process smoothly is the number of 'surprises' that they face on a daily basis. Problems crop up without warning with amazing regularity, forcing even the most hardened supervisor into 'firefighting mode' If only those problems could be seen a little earlier and investigated properly rather than having to apply a quick fix.

One of the key tools in the Lean Sigma ‘toolbox’ is ‘Abnormality management’. The process of finding a problem, then investigating the issue and applying a fix, all in a controlled manner.

Sounds simple, but unless you can actually see what is going on, how are you going to find the problem?

The answer to this is really two fold. Firstly all the common lean philosophies need to be put in place. For example, excess inventory needs to be reduced. I always say that in a ‘non lean environment, inventory is a supervisor's best friend, since the buffer it produces allows the process to continue to flow for a period whilst any problem is tackled.

This on the surface may appear to be a good thing, but the reality is that the inventory is masking the extent of the problem, and this normally means that the problem is never really put to bed properly.

Secondly we need to use a tool to be able to see what is really going on.

Ohno's Circle

Taiichi Ohno was the Toyota executive who is credited with much of the thinking behind the system known today as the Toyota Production System.

Ohno was well known for walking onto the shop floor and drawing a circle on the ground. He would then go and stand in the circle and observe, think and analyse. Learn what was actually going on. From this study he would then have enough knowledge to improve the process.

So this is what I encourage line leaders to do.

If necessary, arrange for some supervisory cover for 30 minutes (so as not to be disturbed). Armed with a pad of paper and pen, Go into the work area and stand in one central spot (it is not necessary to mark the floor like Ohno, unless you want other to do the same and compare notes). Stand in the circle and observe for 15 minutes. Do not move out of the circle, not even to ask a question, just observe. Write down any problems that you see and also things that are difficult to understand apply the 10 second rule, if you cannot understand what is going on in 10 seconds, write it down.

At the end of the 15 minutes, step out of the circle and analyse what as seen. Were there parts of the process it was difficult to understand the status of? Were there problems with flow or quality?, where people standing around waiting to use a piece of equipment like a photocopier? Consider each thing that was seen.

How could the process be made just a little better? More visual. Now in the remaining 15 minutes fix one problem!

This may seem a little extreme but it works. I encourage leaders to do this on a daily basis as part of their daily routine. As long as each time one problem is fixed or something is added to the process to make it more visual, very quickly the process will start to improve. The leader will start to feel more in control and firefighting will reduce.

All this will lead to the line leader having time to do what he or she should be doing, leading from the front and not chasing their tail.

So next time you have 30 minutes to spare, grab some paper and go and stand in a circle just like Ohno!