How to Think about Zero

By Jon Miller Updated on July 19th, 2020

For the past few months, businesses have grappled with the question of how to operate without its employees, customers and suppliers breathing the same air. As we enter the summer, professional sports leagues must figure out how it will safely operate. Looking ahead to the fall, many of us ask whether to send our children to school, and if not, at what cost?

Risk Versus Reward

These questions are not unfamiliar ones. To one degree or another, we weigh risk versus reward on a daily basis. We make tradeoffs, accepting a certain amount of uncertainty.  We navigate opinion, misinformation and best available scientific fact. Then, decide what to do. Today people are asking these high-stakes questions on an unprecedented scale. Much of the public debate is polarized, all-or-nothing, shut it down vs. open it up. The lack of critical thinking and problem-solving skills is painfully apparent.

Fighting Over Zero

On the one extreme, there are people who deny the problem even exists. On the extreme, people who want to completely eliminate the danger of deaths from the virus. Both are natural, human, emotional reactions when faced with large, complex problems. The arguments of both sides contain grains of truth. But the debate is often adversarial, irrational, counterproductive. One side believes we are at zero while the other believes we need to get to zero. This made me reflect on various “zero initiatives” within Lean management and whether they contain any lessons.

Zero Waste

This is a slogan, a rallying cry, not an actual possibility. It’s the nature of our universe for systems to tend toward entropy. Any attempt to add value will come with some associated waste. That said, much of the time the reward-to-effort ratio when getting rid of waste is very good.

The lesson here is that “zero waste” is too broad. It contains defects, inventory, movement, energy use, delays and much more. These require unique targets, approaches, tradeoffs.

Zero Accidents

Hospitals may call it zero harm. Factories may call it zero lost time incidents. State transportation safety commissions tout ten-year plans for zero fatalities on the highways. Even without “zero” initiatives, the philosophy and supporting practices of making safety first, at least in name, are mainstream. Indeed, without a Zero Accidents commitment, all other aspects of lean management lose credibility. Without a serious workplace-centered and people-centered daily attention to safety, how can employees do their best?

Yet leaders regularly make the tradeoff between short-term cost savings and the risk of infections, lost-time incidents or traffic safety. Replacing mold-ridden HVAC systems in a hospital is expensive. Adding safety equipment raises costs that customers won’t pay for. Highway budgets are limited, and the evidential link between a particular investment and traffic deaths is sometimes tenuous. Knowing full-well the dangers, people still go to work at unsafe workplaces, or take unnecessary risks.

Zero Accidents is a worthy goal. It is a money-saving decision, in long-term. It may not be fully achievable, but as we approach the goal, we focus in on smaller accidents. The ongoing attention to near misses, nicks and scratches, slips and very minor incidents makes the system less likely to fail in more serious ways.

The lesson may be that as long as our personal, organizational or social incentives are aligned to short-term profit, we will continue to put those ahead of safety.

Zero Defects

This phrase was coined by quality guru Philip Crosby. It challenged management to commit effort to the goal of doing things right the first time. This was contrary to the conventional wisdom that human error and defects were unavoidable. Is zero defects an attainable goal? Yes, in theory, but it is often prohibitively expensive.

The lesson here maybe that we shouldn’t accept low standards because perfection seems unattainable, but that we also shouldn’t bankrupt ourselves doggedly aiming for it.

Zero Landfill

This is a target that factories routinely achieve. However, we may be fooling ourselves by drawing a line around a factor and celebrating its zero-landfill status. Often the excess packaging material is pushed upstream. The product itself, once it leaves the factory, someday ends up in the landfill. Factories demand suppliers deliver in kits, without packaging, removing and owning it. And how many mousepads created from the scraps of automotive interior can you give away? And where do those go, once we no longer need it? Similarly, what are the emissions to build, fuel, maintain, and landfill our zero-emissions electric vehicles

No doubt there are net benefits to zero landfill thinking. It’s only possible by rethinking the product design, process design, and influencing behaviors of the employees who work there. And it’s better to start by aiming for zero landfill factories, then progress to supply chains, and eventually to entire product lifecycles free of landfill.

The lesson may be that while we have to start local in our efforts, we can never lose sight of the global picture, if we want to have a lasting impact.

Zero Inventory

This is the philosophy of continuously lowering inventory to expose previously hidden problems across the enterprise. Until we learn how to command time, space and energies sufficient to pop items into existence, we will not achieve zero inventory. Supply chains will have at a minimum, safety stock, cycle stock, raw materials and inventory for immediate use. But these standards are set, continuously challenged and minimum required inventory levels are reduced.

The lesson here may be that we have to learn how to live with it at the minimum possible level. COVID-19 and other causes of illness and death will always be with us. But we have ways of dealing with these, including vaccines, detection, maintaining healthy bodies and immune systems. And we will keep figuring out better ways.

Zero Quality Control

This is often mistaken for eliminating all inspection or quality control measures. In fact, it means using inexpensive mistake proofing methods to achieve 100% source inspection. Shigeo Shingo wrote a book about this.

The lesson about prevention and containment at the source should be clear to Lean thinkers.

Zero Breakdowns

The long-term aim in TPM, to Total Productive Maintenance, is to reduce equipment failures and breakdowns to zero. This is done through continuous improvement, predictive and preventive maintenance, raising the skills of the maintenance staff, and involving machine operators in basic daily maintenance of equipment. To varying degrees this goal is attainable. It depends on the equipment, materials, volumes and so forth. Machines are far more predictable than many of the other types of systems and their failures.

The lesson here may be that where there is established science and engineering, follow it. Educate people at all levels, involve everyone, and keep the assets that serve you in good working condition.

What is an Acceptable Number?

A quick way to reduce accidents, inventory, defects, quality control activity or breakdowns to zero is to shut down the operation. Turn off the lights, lock the doors and reduce the activity level to zero. We can achieve zero problems by having zero opportunities for problems to occur. As in arithmetic, so in reality, diving by zero yields a nonsense results.

But as we can see with these various initiatives, zero doesn’t mean nil, zilch, naught or empty. In all cases, it means “striving to get better” through systematic, responsible, evidence-driven ways.

The purpose of these initiatives isn’t to achieve zero by a specific date. It is to set up the systems, behaviors, checks and balances in our organization or society. Only this allows us to conduct our business and live our lives with the minimum of losses.

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