chess piece

Volleyball, Chess and the Successful Lean Implementation

Aug. 20, 2013
What are 5S and visual factory but aligning tools, equipment, materials, and information in new and “easier” patterns? 

I recently read, in Sports Illustrated, of several studies that explored superior athletic performance but that taught me something about lean implementations and culture change in general. 

In one study, high level volleyball players and a control group were shown pictures of a volleyball game in progress for fractions of a second.  Then the participants were asked what was in the pictures. 

The control group participants could remember little of what was in the pictures, if they remembered anything at all.  The high level volleyball players could report where the ball was in the picture and predict where it likely landed…not to mention where all the players were standing and what uniforms they had on. 

Another study was carried out in a similar fashion but focused on different levels of chess.  Master, tournament, and club players were all shown pictures of chess pieces from a match for just a few seconds.  Master level players could re-create about 60% of what they saw; good tournament players, about 40%; and good club players about 25%.  Members of control groups could reproduce very little of what they saw.

In both cases, the studies found that superior chess and volleyball players were like their less accomplished colleagues in most respects.  They differed primarily in this ability to quickly see and assess patterns.  Having sized up the situation more quickly, they were able to respond more quickly and more effectively. 

Further study showed that superior players simply spent more time at their endeavors than did other players.  They spent more time looking at more patterns and so were able to evaluate and respond to what they saw more quickly.

So what does any of this have to do with lean implementations and culture change?

Easy to See, Easy to Learn

First, it speaks to one of the primary foundations of lean, that is, the generation of easy-to-see, easy-to-learn, easy-to-respond-to patterns of work, material flow and information flow.  As I tell my clients, in a lean factory (or office), it’s easy to tell, at a glance, whether processes or in control or not. 

What are 5S and visual factory but aligning tools, equipment, materials, and information in new and “easier” patterns?  What is a pull system of production but creating a simple pattern for production and its scheduling?  What is leader standard work but creating simple patterns for a leader’s day? 

So the research, in a roundabout way, I suppose, confirms the validity of a basic premise of lean: People make use of patterns to evaluate and figure out how to respond to what they see. Make those patterns easy to discern, and they’ll do a better job of keeping processes in control.

Second, it speaks to why there can be such strong resistance to even the simplest lean initiatives like 5S and visual factory.  Employees who have spent thousands of hours in their workplaces have formed strong patterns.  What might look like chaos to us, to them makes perfect sense. 

I’ve run into this often when implementing 5S. I’ll ask, “What’s a good place for those wrenches lying on that electric panel?” and get the response, “Right there on that electric panel.”  I used to view this as orneriness but now I see that the employee was simply telling me the truth.  What, to me, was a random spot to put a wrench was, to that employee, a piece of an overall pattern that worked well for her.

Does this obviate the need for and value of 5S, visual factory, and pull systems?  Of course not.  Remember, those efforts replace idiosyncratic and, perhaps, complex patterns (the wrench is always on the electric panel, except when Randy uses it; he always puts it back on the gear box) with simple, standard, easy–to-learn patterns. 

It does mean, though, that we’re going to have to spend more time than we might have anticipated discussing the purpose of these and other lean methods.  We won’t be able to assume that a quick overview and a directive to “go thee forth and implement” will be enough.  A good bit of follow up and on-going support will be needed if the lean effort is to be successful.

Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. Bohan has a bachelor of arts in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master of science in organizational development from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He has published articles in National Productivity Review, Quality Progress and ASTD's Training and Development Journal. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference, Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance. Bohan can be reached at [email protected].

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