March 20th marked the equinox, when the duration of day and night are roughly equal all over the planet. This day comes twice per year and marks the entry into spring or into autumn. On the equinox, half of the day is day and half is night.
“Half” is an important concept psychologically.When we share with another humans, whether it is food or workload, there is a sense of fairness when half is offered. When we are halfway to completion of a journey or a task, we feel a sense that the remaining time progresses easier and faster. In sporting competitions, the half is a time to rest and reflect before continuing. Perhaps the equinox is an opportunity for lean thinkers to pause and reflect on the meaning of “half”, twice each year.
“Half” is one of my favorite triggers for breakthrough lean thinking. Taiichi Ohno in his laters years serving as advisors small companies is said to have wandered around the gemba scolding, “Half! Make it half!” to the puzzlement of his new students. Whether it was inventory, floor space, number of machines, amount of time, everywhere that he saw excess and waste Ohno challenged people to make bold changes, not small kaizens. Today, when lean thinkers encourage people to imagine what would be required to cut something in half, they are following this tradition. This conversation starter is particularly useful to open people’s eyes during the early days of learning about and adopting the lean philosophy. It can be useful as a guide for periodic value stream design activities. It applies especially well to tackling complex systemic problems such as long lead-times, inventories, overproduction and cost of poor quality. While focused root cause analysis on the immediate problems in these areas can result in good short-term countermeasures, taking a broader view by first asking “how could we cut it in half?” helps identify other avenues of investigation of systemic causes.
Year ago when I was getting started in lean consulting, a client wanted to improve but had difficulty articulating the problem they were trying to solve. They were a small family-owned business. Both profitable and proud, it was not easy to build enthusiasm for kaizen by pointing out examples of waste. The cost, quality and delivery seemed to be good enough for customers and for the bottom line. At one point, I challenged their leadership team about their production lead-times. Order should be able to go out the door in half of the time. This shifted their thinking from the consultant’s criticisms of the immediate condition, defending turf, explaining why things had to be the way they were, to imagining how things could be. They wanted to see the order coming together so many weeks faster, and knew which policies, situations and frustrations kept them from realizing a lead-time of “half” on any given day. In effect, my challenge raised their curiosity and left them with a puzzle to work out. Over a period of months and years, they imagined and realized various previously unimaginable things, seeing and repairing flaws in their processes along the way, cutting the lead-time by more than 80%.
How much of our day is “in the light” and how much is “in the darkness”? How much of our working day is dedicated to creating value for the customer, and how much to waste at worst and ancillary tasks at best? For most of us, “half” of our day spent adding value would be a great answer! The equinox is a good occasion to remind ourselves that half of the day is open to reflection. Literally, reflecting the sun’s rays but also figuratively, reflecting on our time at work and how close to half of it is spent in ways that add value for our customers.