Want to attend a great, low cost Lean Conference with fantastic keynote speakers and presentations? Then the 2012 Mid-Atlantic Lean Conference is for you. Mark your calendar for November 7-8 and plan for travel just north of Baltimore, Maryland

The conference is designed to help organizations of any type accelerate their results with lean tools and principles.  The attractions include:

  • Five keynote discussions by prominent lean authors and internationally-recognized, inspiring thought leaders including: Kevin Duggan, Mike Rother, Robert Miller, Harry Moser and Bruce Hamilton.
  • Thirty-two one-hour presentations by lean practitioners describing their activities, results and lessons-learned, including one that I am presenting “Introduction to A3 Problem Solving”
  • Dedicated presentation flights on lean healthcare, Toyota Kata, lean K-12 education, and lean IT and software development
  • Vendor exhibits from over a dozen product and service providers for organizations interested in lean, so don;t forget to stop by our booth. We have some great, fun things for you!
  • Door prizes, awards, and a grand prize raffle

There is still time to sign-up! For general conference information, go to


To register, go to the conference registration page at


I look forward to seeing you there! – Tony

A True Bottleneck

June 20, 2011

bot·tle·neck [bot-l-nek] –noun

–  A place or stage in a process at which progress is impeded. (1)

I had the pleasure of experiencing a true bottleneck operation a couple of weeks ago. My friend Dave makes his own wine and each year I lend a hand to bottle the results along with a few volunteers (his Dad and wife). I’ve helped Dave do this a few times over the last couple of years. This year, knowing my background in lean, he asked if I would help streamline his operation so we could have better flow (pun intended).

Now, bottling this wine is more a labor of love than trying to reduce waste or understand value from the customer’s point-of-view. But I can understand that when we have a few hundred bottles to do (I’m exaggerating a little – it just felt like that many) that Dave wouldn’t want to have to spend all day doing it.

So what’s the first thing to do? Go to gemba or in this case Dave’s basement and kitchen. Dave had the usual setup like the previous year’s but with a few new twists – pun not intended (see the Current State Value Stream Map). The process steps were:

  1. Rinsing the bottles (batch operation)
  2. Filling the bottles (gravity feed, two people, and as part of the changeover we had to mix varietals)
  3. Adjusting the fill height (because of the filling method – the amount below the cork is critical to quality)
  4. Corking
  5. Sealing (putting the fancy seal over the cork – no real function, just decoration)
  6. Labeling (so we know what year and grapes)


As you can see from the Value Stream Map there is a lot of waste, but without going to gemba, you might not recognize it just from the VSM. You see that for the most part it is a push system, each operation pushing bottles ahead to the next operation whether they are ready for them or not. You may also notice that there is plenty of transportation waste; moving the bottles upstairs to the kitchen for sealing and labeling (and ultimately back downstairs). You may say that adjusting the fill level in the bottle is also waste; I would agree. It’s just that we haven’t fixed the filling operation yet to give us the perfect poor (the bottles come in various sizes and shapes). So after all this analysis you may feel the need to roll-up your sleeves to make this a more streamlined operation with flow (pun intended – again). But, I can save you the trouble. The true bottleneck was at Dave’s process “Adjusting”. He was always talking, wanting to take pictures, commenting on the wine and generally not paying attention to his work. So the bottleneck in this operation was Dave (sorry Dave). Since Dave is the “Herbie” (from Eli Goldratt’s book “The Goal”) we should probably put him up front next year maybe with his Dad to keep him on track! So in reality, I wouldn’t change a thing. We have fun doing this and since we are the ultimate customer, we just enjoy our day.

O.k., I may want to make some improvements next year; hey, it’s my nature.


(1) The definition of a bottleneck from dictionary.com

“Don’t bother people for help without first trying to solve the problem yourself.” – Colin Powell


I thought I would use this quote from General Colin Powell as we get closer to Veteran’s Day. I like this quote because it reminds me that we need to “see” the problem so that we can start to find an appropriate solution. I don’t think Gen. Powell was trying to say that if you if have no expertise in that area that you should try to solve the problem. I think he is trying to say that instead of just going to your boss and telling him or her that there is a problem and off-loading it on them, you should try to take ownership of the issue.


This would happen to me all the time when I was a supervisor. My technicians would come up to me and say “We have a problem” and then the ‘20 questions’ game would begin. I would ask them questions that I know my boss would want answers to. So I realized that I needed to train my techs on how to present the problem to me. It didn’t take long before they realized that when they brought a problem to me they would anticipated the questions I would ask them and they would be ready with answers. This allowed them to start to take ownership of the problem. Many times they already had the answer and just wanted to run it by me, ask my opinion or present viable options. I hope in a small way I was able to help the technicians have a little more control and ownership over their work.

“The best approach is to dig out and eliminate problems where they are assumed not to exist.” – Shigeo Shingo

One Sunday my wife asked me if I would help her pull weeds on the side of our house. I want to stay a happily married man so of course I said “Yes.” We move into this old house (built in1929) last fall and are still getting used to the idea of living in the suburbs. When you live in a big city, in a condo, you pay maintenance fees and someone else does all this stuff for you. Well, it is our turn to be good stewards of this little house and we want to treat it right.

Small tree stump right next to house foundation.

The previous owner did a great job with the interior of the house with painting and decorating, but my nice way to say it is that she didn’t pay as much attention to the outside. We had a service come out last fall and trim back some of the trees, especially one that was growing right next to the foundation by the fireplace.

So while we were weeding, I really got into it and sought to get the weeds out by their roots. Some of these things were really big and really deep. Then I came up to the spot where the tree used to be and there blasting out of the ground were new shoots. So I started to dig. I dug a little more. I had to start digging in all directions just to try to find out where the roots were. Then my epiphany hit, this is exactly like trying to get to the root cause of any problem.

Sometimes it is easy to get to the root and pull it out. Sometimes you thing you got the root, only to find that it is coming back six months later. Sometimes you have to do a little digging. Sometimes you have to do a lot. Sometimes where you started is completely different where you ended (like some of the vines I dug up that traveled several feet away). This is exactly what it’s like when we are trying to do problem solving and root cause analysis.

What is really easy to understand is that, yes, it takes longer to get to the real root, but if you don’t it will just come up later again. How much time to we have to spend getting to the root cause? From my experience, I had to dig far enough so that I knew it wouldn’t grow back again. If I dug any less, it would show up again. If I dug more, it would be a waste of time. The key is to know when to say when. 

Many organizations do not give their employees enough time, tools or training to let them truly get to the right level of root cause analysis. Take a lesson from digging in the weeds – don’t stop short or you’ll just see the problem again in the future and don’t dig too far or you’ll be wasting time, energy and effort. Find the right amount that you can move on to other areas and make them better.

Here are some resources that will help you with problem solving & A3, error-proofing (poka-yoke) and getting to the root cause. I hope this helps. – Tony