Containment at the Source

By Jon Miller Updated on May 31st, 2020

The past few months have required us to rethink some long-held norms. What jobs are essential? How can we learn, work and play without meeting face to face? What’s the true cost of global supply chains? How tightly do we need to adhere to the genchi genbutsu principle? Why bother with containment at the source?

Why Bother with Containment at the Source?

People don’t directly ask this question. Instead, they live it by refusing to wear a mask in public spaces. Several who ask this question are people whom I previously considered credible Lean thinkers and practitioners. Their argument is often based in broader frustration and concern about the economic impact of distancing measures and business closures.

To some, not wearing a mask is an act of resistance to rules that seem arbitrary, unnecessary or unfair. Many businesspeople mistrust government and simply want it to get out of the way. Even allowing for all of this, what part of “contain problems at the source” don’t these so-called Lean thinkers understand?

Lean Business Processes Wear Masks

Instead of humans, viruses, and masks, let’s say we were responsible for a business. What would we do if this business had

a) contamination at one or more points in the end-the-end process,

b) no widely-available method to test for the contamination, and

c) problem detection only after two weeks, by the customer?

We would shut down the line, inspect every output, or find a way to contain process contamination at the source. As owners, we would do this to avoid the high cost of problems escaping to the customer.

In the case of COVID, we externalize and socialize the cost of failure to contain at the source. The causal chain is murky at best. With better accounting for costs, no doubt we could make better decisions.

Even Lean Thinkers Resist Change

People with more to lose than to gain are often resistant to change. Adherence to everyone else’s standards is an inconvenience, a loss of liberty. That’s not how we do things around here. We’ve always done things our way. Why should I change?

In an interesting way, the mask has become a visual control for personal accountability for containment at the source. It’s natural for humans to chafe at constraints, especially if they seem arbitrary or unfair. This is why it is so important for people who need to follow the standards to be part of their design.

Who Creates My Standard Work?

But “the person who does the work creates their own standard work” is a big myth often perpetuated by Lean thinkers. Not everyone is qualified to define the timing, sequence, outcome, and key points of every process. Some of this is specified by the customer, some by engineering, some by safety regulations, some by laws of the universe. What each person can contribute is how those elements all come together and evolve in daily practice in a repeatable way. However, even agreeing how we will create, follow and update is a standard that requires initial agreement.

Examining the Social and the Technical

Lean management is a socio-technical system. In the technical side are the math, the systems theory, fluid dynamics, neurobehavioral and other parts. On the social side, everyone who chooses to be in a group agrees on purpose, a common set of values, and that the customer or equivalent is the reference point for value. Then people create a set of rules and standards to abide by. The hard part is to understand the underlying socio-technical mechanisms and principles of Lean deeply enough to build a system that suits us.

We don’t have to be perfect in applying every aspect of Lean thinking. But we can’t refuse to practice significant parts of a system and still claim to believe in it. Without containment at the source, we shouldn’t bother with flow, visual management or problem solving. Batch-and-queue will get similar results with far less effort.

Good Thinking will Get Us Through This

Is six feet enough distance between two people to avoid infection? If two people are passing each other on the street on a breezy day while practicing containment at the source, probably. If enclosed in a poorly ventilated space with a COVID-19 carrier, probably not. People are getting distracted by the superficial artifacts such as the mask or the 6-foot distance, without understanding the underlying medical principles. The results is emotional decisions and irrational behavior. Wear a mask or not, think about your thinking, Lean thinkers.

To rephrase Albert Einstein, solving our most difficult problems will require using our best thinking.

  1. James La Trobe-Bateman

    June 1, 2020 - 8:24 am

    Very thoughtful analogy and very nicely argued. Even Lean experts and still human and have inbuilt paradigms.

  2. Sean Skinner

    June 1, 2020 - 12:43 pm

    As a lean leader for over 15 years with a great deal of healthcare practitioner experience, please be careful when you are labeling people not wearing masks in public into the refusing to wear masks box. I see many people every single day not wearing them properly and they do more harm than good (unless it is an N95 mask, which should be reserved for our healthcare workers). The WHO and CDC has not been consistent on the use of masks during this pandemic with many physicians divided on this topic. Also, if one were to truly contain this at the source hundreds of millions of people would need to stay in their homes until we have zero cases. Then, we would have a mental health pandemic. To quote Dr. David Katz, founding director of Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in CT, “social distancing is helping mitigate the spread of Covid 19, it is also preventing the development of the herd immunity needed by the public to resume their normal lives before a vaccine is developed.” I wish this were a clear cut root cause analysis. And, when you see someone not wearing a mask in public, that person just may be a physician, nurse, or former surgical tech who knows a little something about when and how to wear a mask.

    • Jon Miller

      June 1, 2020 - 12:59 pm

      Hello Sean

      I appreciate your comment.

      My intention was not to label people who chooses not to wear a mask, nor to suggest that wearing a mask is the solution to this health crisis, nor to tell people what to do.

      I have also seen the argument that it would be faster, cheaper, better for everyone to be exposed, deal with the deaths, develop immunity and keep the economy and society from eroding by prolonged shut down. None of the aforementioned Lean thinkers said they refused masks in order to accelerate herd immunity.

      Regarding the N95 mask, what you say is correct in terms of filtering out viruses when breathing in. The cloth masks are believed to be effective in preventing our exhales from spreading as far or as fast, even if some microbes do make it through.

      My point was that we all need to use our best thinking, best information and common sense, and the arguments against masks by certain colleagues seemed inconsistent with Lean precepts that they preach.

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.