The empowered workforce

Jake will do anything for a biscuit. Photo by Steve Murphy


Rarely a day goes by without a tweet or an article articulating the benefits of an empowered workforce. It must be every manager’s dream, some training, a clear direction and then leave the teams to it. Before you can say the magic word “Kaizen” the workforce is engaged and profits are up. Well it didn’t work like that when I first experienced the empowered workforce over 40 years ago. Again it was while working in the local meat cube factory.

As I have written before the cube making process was tricky to control but a couple of guys had mastered it. Inevitably a natural competition arose between these two; who really was the best cuber? In the end they decided the only way to differentiate between them was to run a competition. The start was agreed and off they went. They worked to the best of their ability, only the allowed food and toilet breaks were taken, definitely no extra smoke breaks and every effort was made to keep the machines tuned. Their efforts had immediate results…the shifts output went up and up and up. The competition had gone on for over a week and even the senior staff had noticed the improvement. However the competition was governed by “Omerta”, not a word about it should be spoken to anyone. Slowly people realised that here was an opportunity… brownie points were available and all you had to do was take them. So the maintenance manager alluded to his teams efforts to keep the kit running. Not to be outdone the production manager added that he had been keeping an eye on smoke breaks and times taken for meals.
Eventually the guys got tired and analysis of the data just couldn’t settle who the best cuber was. So they shook hands, called it a draw and returned to their old ways. The output dropped immediately and the senior staff went into shock “is the equipment being fixed promptly”…”have extra smoke breaks resumed?” To save too many ructions word was leaked out about the competition and everything calmed down and went back to normal and that was the end of that.
But probably that shouldn’t have been the end of that. Had the guys been consulted and encouraged I believe some smaller but sustainable gains could have been made. Well this was 40 years ago and today we are much better at engaging our people but I fear not as good as we could be or need to be.


Efficiency now please

A giant panda enjoys a long lunch of bambo…again  Photo by Sixsigmasteve

There is a lot of talk in the news just now of how the UK plc is well down  the productivity table. A recent BBC article reminded me once again that the French are 20% more efficient than us. The article makes a good case for increased innovation and investment. Within manufacturing we definitely need more of these. What I struggle with and what is absent in the article is any reference to Lean. What about a step function increase in Lean? Lean pays off quickly, Lean really starts to engage the workforce. Why is Lean deployment not at the top of our improvement agenda? I am being driven to the conclusion that that the UK plc just does not get Lean and to change this will require hard graft and no small stroke of luck.




999,Reducing variation in ambulance response times.

Clair in the wars as usual. By SixSigmaSteve


A lot of us believe the NHS is struggling. An article on the BBC web site documented the efforts the NHS is making to improve the emergency response  of the ambulance service. For example:-

Old assumptions have been challenged; The Welsh ambulance service has redefined what is meant by an emergency. This has resulted in 90% less ambulances trying to meet the eight minute target time. Is this just juggling the numbers? For me a definite “no”. Meeting the target that you really need to meet, the “KPI”,stops you from chasing your tail trying to improve a metric that brings no real benefit.

Analyse the process; In the West Midlands they found that a lot of ambulance time was wasted waiting to discharge the patients at A&E. Deploying paramedics outside A&E allows the ambulance crews to discharge their patients and get back on the road. Analysing the process to discover where the largest amount of time was lost allowed West Midlands ambulance service to focus their efforts where they would have the largest impact.

Excellent work from everybody involved. Reducing variation improves performance in all organisations from the smallest production line to the largest service organisation.

Old School Process Control

A male baboon on the look out for danger. Darwinian process control.

Like a lot of university students of my era when I wasn’t “working on the post at Christmas” I worked on factory production lines. One local factory used excess yeast produced by Burton’s brewing industry to produce stock cubes. No not OXO another brand using a modern technique to produce a crumbly cube. The production machines were modified sweet making machines and operating one was a black art. The correct process depended on getting the right balance of gloop and water to produce cubes of the right weight and strength to allow the wrapping machine to individually foil wrap them. Too light and weak and they disintegrated in the wrapping machine, a clean was needed and time was wasted. Too heavy and they shot through the wrapper but too much gloop was used. The theory was you weighed your cubes all the time and kept adjusting the machine to keep the weight centred. Well in practice we tried to keep the cubes on the heavy side to stop the wrapper from jamming.  To stop us from gaming the system we were regularly monitored by QA.  QA came along weighed our cubes and plotted them on their chart…. Corrections were made depending on the application of Bonnie Small’s famous rules. The routine nature of the checks meant we knew when QA were coming so we knew when to tune the weight back towards the centre a bit and HOPE the wrapper worked. Also if QA decided to break their routine there was a casual network of informants…. Good souls who could be relied on to get the word to us before the inspector arrived. Everything was going dandy UNTIL…….

…….Somebody worked out how much gloop we had used and how many cubes we had made and there was a disparity…all the gloop used should have made a lot more cubes. Eventually the plant manager decided enough was enough and a sample of cubes at the end of the line was weighed. The histograms of the inline QA data and the end of line data were compared. Low and behold there were two quite separate histograms with the in-line QA data well displaced towards the centre of the specification and ours which was well on the high side. So we were well caught as the temp I was moved from moulding to packing, picking six up and putting them in a box…… cubing was not for me.

There are lessons here for any organisation looking to implement SPC. Trying to use SPC to control an incapable process will not work. It will only make things worse. Routine is the weakness of any audit or control system. Inflicting a poorly thought out methodology on the shop floor will only drive them to gaming the system.

 Coming soon;If you think “Old School SPC” sounds crazy you’ll love my post on the empowered workforce.

Continuous improvement in continuous improvement.

Take a minute and think back……


Take a minute and think back, when did you learn continuous improvement? When was the first time you thought a bit about it and started to develop a system and method to drive continuous improvement? Was it PDCA or DMAIC or were you led by reducing waste and serving the customer, the guiding principles of lean? Or to be honest none of these?

A conversation with two old fishing friends now continents apart reminded me of where a lot of my skills were founded. They were formed and honed by fishing…Yes fishing, not in the offices or factories of late twentieth century industry but on the lakes and rivers of the Midlands around our home town of Burton-on-Trent. Our guide and mentor was not Demming or Juran but more often than not Richard Walker. For many years Richard Walker held the British record for the rod caught carp. At 44 pounds the record stood for twenty eight years from 1952 to 1980. How to catch carp and other freshwater fish was documented in his authorative book “No need to lie”, one of the books that guided us to angling success. What did we learn; Understand your quarry, where do the fish live, what do they eat, when do they feed. Then practical observation…. can we recognise these situations on our rivers and lakes. We caught trout on the fly,chub in the winter, carp and barbel in the summer. To trick the trout we would make our own flies adjust the patterns until they worked. A blue dun hackle on Oliver Kites Imperial worked on our river, the original ginger hackle did not. Our own shrimp patterns were based on the contents of trout’s mouths and stomachs proved more successful than those we bought. One local caught fish on the scruffiest looking of homemade flies…I never could tell why but I suspected they trapped air … so we copied them and called it a “scruffy fly”. It worked. We weren’t even time rich , we had studies, Saturday jobs so we learned to optimise our time … fish an evening rise rather than during the heat of the day when the fish were lethargic. To catch chub and barbel we learned how to drift bait down between weeds in fast water, under trees and in tangledroots. We developed techniques to fish where the fish lived not where we wanted them to live.

Without really trying I think we learned plenty of useful skills. Observation, data collection, experimentation, benchmarking, optimisation, team building,problem solving. Were we unique? I really don’t think so! I am sure others learned the same things doing DIY, organising drama clubs, learning musical instruments or whatever floated their boat.

So let’s move to the world of work. When we pull people together to learn about problem solving or continuous improvement is it any surprise that they can be singularly underwhelmed and unimpressed. They rightly believe they have been doing this for the last twenty years or more. One man’s Pareto is another man’s histogram of costs. One man’s “plot it out” is another man’s trend chart. In the early stages of continuous improvement we should recognse that very often the skills are already there.What we really need to be doing is focusing these skills with a common language, ensuring the projects are sized so they can be completed and then getting out of the way and letting the teams use the skills they they have been polishing for decades.