The Unexpected Benefit of Cancelling Everything

By Jon Miller Updated on March 17th, 2020

In the past week an unprecedented wave of closures, cancellations, and restrictions on the movement of people has passed over the world. No doubt there is more to come in the following days as local and national authorities work to contain the spread of the novel corona virus. These disruptions to our daily lives will affect everyone to varying degrees, and it’s a time for calm, patience and cooperation.

This wave of cancellation and disruption we are facing is decreed by necessity and not by collective choice. In the weeks and months ahead when things return to normal, we have an opportunity to decide whether we bring back everything we cancelled as it was, or restart in a better way. In the course of a Lean transformation we often take this approach to review a process or situation, study its elements, and recombine them in a simplified and improved way. Here are some common examples of how this is done.

5S. Remove everything from an area. Only bring back the items needed to do the work, one at a time, as they are needed to do the work. Identify exactly where that item should be located to minimize searching, motion, ergonomic issues and so forth. Compared to the typical approach of starting with red tagging to remove the unnecessary items, rearranging the items left, and creating standards for cleaning and upkeep. This approach is admittedly drastic.

Time observation. Observe and time every work element in detail. Identify the tasks and times that don’t add value such as searching, reaching, redoing, or any unsafe motion. Find the fastest repeatable time to perform each task, and recombine these tasks into a simplified process. This approach is the essence of the SMED, creating standardized work and yamazumi charts.

Value stream mapping. When mapping processes and value streams, we perform similar exercises across the flow of material, information and tasks end-to-end. Not only do we study the time at each process, but transportation, inventory, information delays, rework and other factors that add cost but not value. The purpose of value stream mapping is to develop consensus on what to leave out when rebuilding the process around the activities that add value to the customer.

Empty building. Take everything out of the factory, warehouse, office or workspace. Bring the assets required to meet customer requirements on-time, safely at high quality levels back into the building. Place them where they need to be to best serve the customer. Lean organizations do this during planned shutdowns, a slow period or periodically on a planned basis. This radical approach is not immediately available to operations whose physical space constrains ability to relocate equipment, or those with assets deeply fixed in concrete. This is also more challenging for knowledge work because the “assets” are often not physical but digital, or distributed across protein-based neural networks. However, even these organizations come to a point in the Lean journeys when they realize that significant improvement is not possible without emptying the building. Facility expansion, rebuilds or major asset purchases, or the launch of major new cross-functional projects are all good opportunities to apply this transformational approach.

Meeting holiday. This is a variation of the “empty building” approach in which all traditional one-hour sit-down meetings are cancelled. They are reintroduced one-by-one based on evaluating them with a criteria of need, or replaced by quick standup meetings, huddles or other standardized forms of constructive communication built around a tiered and time-based cadence.

The unexpected benefit of cancelling everything is that it makes our lives smaller, simpler, quieter and locally focused. As we settle down into lives of less coming and going, this also presents an opportunity to reflect. Once things get back to normal, should we go back to all of the same habits, routines and practices? What should we leave cancelled? What new routines, relationships and coping mechanisms that we develop during these challenging times should we consider continuing?

  1. Cheryl M Jekiel

    March 20, 2020 - 8:56 am

    Enjoyed reading your post. I’m also seeing many unexpected benefits of this situation. Best of all – the fresh appreciation for those around us and caring for our communities.

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