Upgrading Our Value Stream Infrastructure

By Jon Miller Updated on August 13th, 2021

I recently visited family in the Midwest section of the United States. We could tell exactly when we crossed the county line from the wealthier, more urban, and industrialized county with a much higher tax base into the rural, sparsely populated one that was our destination. We went from driving without a care on smooth, wide, recently paved roads onto watch-out-for-that-huge-pothole, narrow, uneven roads. I love country roads. This rough and tumble part of the journey had its charms. However, it was also a stark reminder of the condition of U.S. physical infrastructure.

The American Society of Civil Engineers publishes their Infrastructure Report Card every several years. They grade the sixteen infrastructure categories of aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, parks and recreation, ports, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, transit, and wastewater. In 2017 they scored U.S. infrastructure at a D+ on a scale of A for excellent and F for failing. D comes just before F. This is a result of many years of inadequate funding for maintenance and upgrades. Fortunately, it seems 2021 may be the year when the U.S. government at long last commits to making this investment.

What Do We Mean by “Infrastructure”?

In the broadest terms, infrastructure includes the basic systems that keep a business, region, or nation going. Because they span and connect large spans and affect many people, infrastructure systems tend to be large, capital-intensive, and critical to a country or legal entity’s safety and prosperity…they tend to be public works. While the actual building of roads and bridges may be by private sector contractors, the deciding, designing, funding and deployment is top-down. Planning infrastructure requires long-term thinking, a grasp of big picture goals, and the ability to appreciate the variety of local conditions that exist.

We can categorize infrastructure in various ways. At the most basic level, there is the hard and soft. Hard infrastructure refers to physical systems needed to run a modern, industrialized nation, such as roads, bridges, airports, rail, and the maintenance and support facilities to keep them operational. Soft infrastructure refers to various institutions that keep the nation, region, or local economy going. These are services such as education finance, governmental systems, healthcare, and law enforcement.

To reflect the need to expand physical assets, a 1987 US National Research Council panel adopted the term “public works infrastructure” as follows:

[…] but also the operating procedures, management practices, and development policies that interact together with societal demand and the physical world to facilitate the transport of people and goods, provision of water for drinking and a variety of other uses, safe disposal of society’s waste products, provision of energy where it is needed, and transmission of information within and between communities

In other words, infrastructure is the sum of the processes that make it possible for material and information to flow. That should sound familiar to lean thinkers. Part of the debate today within the U.S. government is about what should be included in publicly-funded infrastructure to ensure prosperity for future generations. Do we fix and upgrade only the hard infrastructure? How much of soft infrastructure should be publicly funded, and how much left to individual responsibility? How do we make it possible for material, information, and value to flow smoothly across our nationwide community?

Infrastructure for Business Excellence

This recent trip and the debate over the infrastructure bill got me thinking about how organizations address, or fail to address, infrastructure for continuous improvement and innovation. In fact, the term “infrastructure” comes to us from French, with infra- meaning “below” and structure meaning “building.” Its earliest usage in the late 1880s referred to the understructure, or foundation of a building. Sensible business excellence efforts talk about “learning to walk before we run.” This is a metaphor for foundation-building.

The way we think about infrastructure may affect how we invest in foundation-building for long-term business excellence. If we think of it as mainly a matter of “hard infrastructure” we may focus on upgrading equipment, facilities, computer systems, or other tangible assets.

Softer elements may include things such as training, baseline performance measurement, stakeholder communication, steering committees, recognition systems, pilot projects, and so forth. The former address how to get better at moving materials, or customer-valued information through the system. The latter address how to get better at moving ideas through the organization, shifting power to the front lines, moving the right people in and out of the organization, removal of perverse incentives or other cultural artifacts that hinder business excellence. It’s a lot, and easy to understand why so many get sold on the promise of shiny new hard infrastructure.

Infrastructure for a Lean Work Cell

It may help to get down from the abstract level of business excellence at the organizational level to smooth flow at the process level. What sort of infrastructure do we need for a generic lean work cell? On the hard infrastructure side, we need equipment that’s right-sized, capable of quick changeover to support single or small lot production, and low-cost intelligent automation to simplify manual work. We also need to consider infrastructure for how material replenishment happens to and from the cell. The method of order release and triggering of material movement are also important parts of the hard (though not physical) infrastructure.

In terms of the soft infrastructure, a continuous flow relies on an escalation system to quickly find and fix problems. This includes some physical components to visually flag the problem, but is mostly a human system for responding, judging a situation, and problem-solving. Sustaining flow cell also requires soft infrastructure such as managing the daily staffing, cross-training, motivation, conflict resolution, and generation improvement suggestions. While these elements may not be unique to a lean flow cell, without them, problems soon mount and flow turns to batch.

Infrastructure, the Ideal Condition, and Go See

The U.S. didn’t have an interconnected highway system until after 1956. It required leadership vision and long-term commitment by President Eisenhower to make the commitment, and for others to build it out over four decades. This required a broad-brush vision, which allowed teams of engineers to specify in detail. While in Germany in WWII, Eisenhower witnessed the power of the autobahn, which no doubt inspired a vision of the ideal condition for the U.S.

Decades earlier, he was part of a U.S. Army expedition to observe the difficulties that military vehicles would face on a trip across the U.S. The Motor Transport Corps left Washington D.C. on July 7, 1919. It took the convoy 62 days to drive 3,200 miles to the Presidio army base in San Francisco. As a 28-year-old lieutenant, Eisenhower experienced a “succession of dust, ruts, pits, and holes” first hand, and the damage these did to vehicles. “The old convoy had started me thinking about good two-lane highways… the wisdom of broader ribbons across our land.” The coast-to-coast gemba walk was essential to his decision to build the highway system.

By definition, infrastructure is the foundation for future prosperity. Putting infrastructure in place for a nationwide transport system, for a regional economy, or for a business requires more than just a leader’s vision and smarts. It also requires going to see local conditions, looking beyond the physical to the human and cultural elements.

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