John Bicheno reviews Kevin Duggan’s Design for Operational Excellence, McGraw Hill, 2012

This terrific book, already on the prescribed list for the MSc in Lean Operations, follows Kevin’s earlier work on mixed model scheduling. It is not a book about product design but about the ‘tough questions’ and principles that should be considered when designing ‘dynamic business operations’, in general and scheduling in particular.

An early point is the ‘myth of continuous improvement’. The myth is that CI will simply deliver results. But it won’t unless the direction is clear. Clarification is management’s task. This sentiment seems to echo Mike Rother’s comment in Toyota Kata and Stephen Covey’s ‘start with the end in mind’. Specifically, the exact destination must be made clear and that ‘every employee can see flow of value to the customer and to fix that flow before it breaks down’. Hence, Kevin believes that every team should be charted not to improve an area but to ‘create flow’. In this, Kevin uses the same words as Kate Mackle.

Rugby fans will appreciate Kevin’s comparison between American football and rugby. The former is more ‘command and control’ with managers that set the plays, train the players, and make decisions on which play to execute next. In rugby, while coaches do develop skills and strategies, the leader on the field is whoever has to be. That is the spirit of lean.

A main section of the book is Kevin’s challenging questions. Try answering a sample before looking further down the page for the correct responses. ‘Why do we do continuous improvement? How do we know where to improve? What causes the death of flow?

The eight principles of operational excellence, needed to create ‘engine design’ for excellence, form the second part of the book (‘engine design’ because today’s drivers simply expect their car to start first time – so what is needed to achieve this?) The principles are an extension of Womack and Jones’ classic five but usefully, each comes with a ‘what would you expect to see?’ section. A sample: for the second principle ‘Make Lean Value Streams Flow’ you would expect to see, on the shop floor, one piece flow cells, different potential configurations, based on demand; for the cells, standard configurations for materials and operators based on different demands; and where appropriate, FIFO lanes, kanbans, supermarkets, and heijunka – telling clearly what to produce next.

The responses? CI: not to eliminate waste, increase efficiency, free up capacity and the like, but ‘to grow the business’. Where: not where we can get quick wins, or where problems lie, but ‘by following the road map’. The causes of death of flow: not because the leader has departed, there is no-buy in, there are no resources, and the like, but because we don’t understand why we created flow in the first place. The reason we created flow is to be able to see when it stops, knowing that it will stop and what to do when it stops.

Very thought provoking! A great set of new angles on topics that I thought I knew about, but for which I now have a new perspective. Dammit, will I ever know all about lean? Sadly (or gladly?), no.