Archive for June, 2012

Small Is Good, And Powerful

If lean has taught us anything, it’s smaller is better. Smaller machines, smaller factories, smaller teams, smaller everything.

The famous Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, said all politics are local. He meant all action happens at the lowest levels (in the districts and neighborhoods), where everyone knows everyone, where the issues are well understood, and the fundamentals are not just talked about, they’re lived. It’s the same with manufacturing. But I’m not talking about local in the geography sense; I’m talking about the neighborhood sense. When manufacturing is neighborhood-local, it’s small, tight, focused and knowledgeable.

We mistakenly think about manufacturing strictly as the process of making things—it’s far more. In the broadest sense, manufacturing is everything: innovation, design, making and service. It’s this broad-sense manufacturing that will deliver the next economic revolution.

Previously, I described how big companies break themselves into smaller operating units. They recognize lean favors small, and they break themselves up for competitive advantage. They want to become a collective of small companies with the upside of small without of the downside of big. Yet with small companies, there’s an urge to be big.

Lean says smaller is better and more profitable. Lean says small companies have an advantage because they’re already small. Lean says small companies should stay small (neighborhood small) and be more of what they are.

Small companies have a size advantage. Their smaller scope improves focus and alignment. It’s easier to define the mission, communicate it, and work toward it. It’s easier to mobilize the neighborhood. It’s clearer when things go off track and easier to get things back on track. At the lowest level, smaller companies zero in on problems and fix them. At the highest, they align themselves with their mission. These are important advantages, but not the most important.

The real advantage is deep process knowledge. Smaller companies have less breadth and more depth, which allows them to focus energy on the work and develop deep process knowledge. Many large manufacturers have lost process knowledge over the years. Small companies tend to develop and retain more of it. We’ve forgotten the value of deep process knowledge, but as companies look for competitive advantage, its stock is rising.

Lean wants small companies to build on that strength. To take it to the next level, lean wants companies to think about manufacturing in the more-than-making sense and use that deep process knowledge to influence the product itself. Lean wants suppliers to inject their process knowledge into their customers’ product development process to radically reduce material cost and help the product sprint through the factory.

The ultimate advantage of deep process knowledge is realized when small companies use it to design products. It’s realized when people who know the process fundamentals work respectfully with their neighbors who design the product. The result is deeper process knowledge and a far more profitable product. Big companies like to work with smaller companies who can design and make.

Tip O’Neill and lean agree. All manufacturing is local. And this local nature drives a focus on the fundamentals and details. Being neighborhood-local is easier for small companies because their scope is smaller, which helps them develop and retain deep process knowledge.

Lean wants companies to be small—neighborhood-small. When small companies build on a foundation of deep process knowledge, sales grow. Lean wants sales growth, but it also wants companies to reduce their size in the neighborhood sense.

The People Business

Regardless of industry, product, or country, we’re in the people business.

Got a problem? Problems are solved by people, and our first word is usually – who. Who has fixed something like this before? Who can make the problem go away? Who has the chops to pull it off? Our first thought is about people.

Want something done?  Work doesn’t do itself, people do work. Whether we want a wrench turned or a project run, our first thought is about people.

Need help? People help people. First thought – people.

Our businesses run on people. Factory workers are people, suppliers are people, leaders are people, and so are most managers. Day-to-day we are neighborhoods that make stuff and families that provide services. (Some of us spend more time with our coworkers than our families.)

But lately, in the name of productivity, there’s an unnatural shift from people-thinking to machine-thinking.

Productivity is good, and we all need it. To get it, we standardize our work; we define step-wise business processes to mechanize; we create scripted approaches to drive out variability. All perfectly good machine-thinking, but we must be careful not to tip into a Frederick Taylor frenzy.

People are best at some things, and machines at others – we all know this. But we’ve got to keep it in front of us. Mechanize things that machines do best, and free up people to do more people-work – that’s the ticket. But we spend far more corporate bandwidth mechanizing work than people-izing.

People-work is governed by choice, feelings, relationships, and creativity. Even the best six sigma squad can’t mechanize that, nor should they try. But what if we invested in improving our people-work like we’ve invested in improving our machine-work? What if we allocated time for our people to improve their ability to decide? What if we had a sea of highly trained creativity experts (people) to help our people create? What if we taught our people how to foster deep personal relationships? Productivity squared.

We’ve got to remember that we’re in the people business and we always will be – relationships, choice, decisions, and feelings cannot be taken out of our work. And we’ve got to learn how to improve our people-work.

Improving people-work is different than improving machine-work (that’s for a different post), but the first tool in the toolbox is trust.

Just Start

Starting is scary – we’re afraid to get it wrong. And we let our fear block us from starting. And that’s strange, because there’s never certainty on the right way because every situation is different. Fact is, you will be wrong, it’s just a matter of how wrong. But even the level of wrongness is not important. What’s important is starting because starting gives us the opportunity to respond to our wrongness.  And that’s the trick – our response to being wrong is progress. Start, be wrong, refocus, and go. Progress.

The biggest impediment to finishing is starting. Don’t let perfection get in the way of progress. Just start.


Things aren’t impossible on their own, our thinking makes them so.

Impossible is not about the thing itself, it’s a statement about our state of mind.

When we say impossible, we really say we lack confidence to try.

When we say impossible, we really say we are too afraid to try.

The mission of impossible is to shut down all possibility of possibility.

To soften it, we say almost impossible, but it’s the same thing.

When we say impossible, we make a big judgment – but not about the thing – about ourselves.

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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