Saturday, 11 December 2010

Don’t waste just because it’s free

Wasted Today

I am one of those lucky Singaporeans who get not one, but two free newspapers delivered to his doorstep practically every day. From Monday to Friday, I get My Paper; and from Monday to Saturday, I get Today. In addition, I subscribe to the Straits Times.

It was raining this morning (Saturday) and as usual our free copy of Today was totally ruined by the rain as the delivery man didn’t bother to throw it further into our driveway. On the other hand, our paid copy of the Straits Times was nice and dry.

So why the difference? I can only surmise that the difference lay in the attitudes of the delivery men. In the case of the Straits Times, the vendor knows that if the newspaper was damaged by the rain, we would complain and he would have to make another trip and compensate us. In the case of the Today, he probably thinks; “Ah .. it’s free, so these people won’t dare to complain” .... and he is right.

Photo above - my neighbour's newspapers; below - ours.

Wasted toilet paper

The other day I had to use the public toilet in a shopping centre in the Bukit Timah area. To my horror, I saw that somebody had removed the entire roll of toilet paper – and these are the commercial rolls which are much bigger than the normal ones we used at home – and dumped them on the cistern. When I brought it to the attention of the toilet attendant/cleaner, he told me this was a common occurrence. “What to do? Free one; not their own money; so anyhow waste lor!”.

Sigh. How depressing to hear this. But never mind. Let me cheer you up with a joke.

Early in my career, I worked as an industrial engineer in Philips. We had many Dutch expatriates; but my boss was a Belgian. It was really fun to attend social functions with these people because they liked to trade insults/jokes about each other's country. I remember this joke told by my Belgian boss. He said; “If you drove from Belgium into Holland, how would you know that you have crossed the border? Well you can easily tell by the rolls of toilet paper hanging out to dry in the backyard. They use it at least twice, you know!”

Related post.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Sarawak Regional 5S Convention

Last Monday, 15 November 2010, I was in Kuching to deliver a paper at the Sarawak Regional 5S Convention (Konvensyen 5S Wilayah Sarawak). It was an eye-opener for me because even though we’ve had 5S in Singapore since 1986, we never organised a 5S convention. The biggest 5S event in Singapore as far as I can remember was the award-presentation ceremony for the Inter-company 5S Competition in 1989.

Organised by the Malaysia Productivity Corporation (Sarawak Office), this Regional 5S Convention drew a huge crowd of more than 250 participants. I should congratulation the MPC for having done such a great job in promoting 5S in Sarawak. The highlights of this convention were:

1) 5S Song by Sedidik Sdn Bhd (a Childcare Centre)
2) Performance by Sekolah Seni Kuching
3) Presentation of 5S Certificates to ‘5S-certified’ companies
4) My paper on “Issues of Sustaining 5S practices”
5) Presentation by Hospital Tenom, Sabah – “Enhancing excellenct service delivery through 5S practices”
6) Presentation by Jabatan Pendaftaran Negara – “Developing, sustaining and impact of Quality Environment Practices”
7) Presentation by Sarawak Land and Survey – “Organisational transformation through 5S practices”

5S Song by SeDidik Sdn Bhd

5S Dance by Sekolah Seni Kuching

Besides presentations by the four speakers, there was an exhibition by a number of 5S-certified organisations including an interesting one by Sedidik Sdn Bhd (a Childcare Centre). Personally I am very impressed by the work that MPC has done to promote 5S and the commitment shown by the award-winning organizations. Seeing the efforts and results of these companies, I think the MPC consultants have done a great job is teaching and guiding them in the implementation of 5S

They have correctly identified sustenance as a key challenge and I hope my paper has contributed a little to this very difficult topic. The key thrust of my speech was that 5S is above all a management issue and not a worker programme as many organizations mistakenly thought. As such the focus should always be on how to manage the programme in a structured ongoing manner, and I recommended that they adopt the PDCA methodology. Through a yearly repetition of the PDCA cycle, an organisation can assess its current situation, set appropriate goals, develop a good plan which is then implemented thoroughly and then the situation systematically monitored, reviewed and corrected if necessary. And such a PDCA cycle should be carried out at different levels of the organisation in an integrated manner - just like the way TQM companies implement Policy Deployment or Hoshin Kanri.
I also cautioned them that the one area that they must pay close attention to is the middle management. On there shoulders lie the heavy burden of leading the 5S movement at the operational level. They are also the ones most pressured for time. In many organisations, this turn out to be the weakest link.

As a result of seeing the huge efforts put in by the participating companies, I am alerted to one other danger. Fatigue or overload can cause the leaders at the front line to grow weary or even apprehensive of 5S activities. I have seen this happen in many organisations here in Singapore with respect to the Quality Circle movement. Still, with the PDCA approach, the management can look out for and manage this problem. As the 5S movement matures, emphasis should shift from ‘song-and-dance’ type promotion to incorporating 5S into the daily operational processes; in other words, Standardization.

Below are photos of some of the exhiibits

Friday, 14 May 2010

Lessons on Productivity from a humble bricklayer

Frank Gilbreth (1868-1924) began life as a humble bricklayer and rose to become the president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. (I guess in those days, they did not have an equivalent society for Industrial Engineers yet).

As an apprentice, he learnt his trade from a master bricklayer. Like Bruce Lee, he was not content to simply learn and apply. He observed and asked questions. He noticed that the traditional method of laying bricks had many unproductive movements. He also noticed that different bricklayers employed different methods.

Through careful study and applying an innovative spirit, he was able to eliminate many wasteful motions and simplify the method. This humble bricklayer taught the world a new discipline called Motion Study.

All the work that we do with our two hands can be broken down into basic movements called ‘motions’. For example, to pick up your pen to begin writing, you need to Reach, Grasp, Move, Position etc. Gilbreth named these motions, ‘Therbligs’, the reverse spelling of his name except for the last two letters. By careful examination of the work process, one can always improve the work method by Eliminating, Rearranging, Combining and Simplifying the motions. Subsequently, people like Ralph Barnes built on the work of Frank Gilbreth and came up with the Principles of Motion Economy. Such principles lay the foundation of Work Study and modern Industrial Engineering.

Like Bruce Lee, Frank Gilbreth exhibited the quality of a ‘kaizen mind’. He was:

a) Not satisfied with the status quo,
b) Always questioning existing methods of doing things,
c) Always looking for better ways of doing things,
d) Open to new ideas no matter where they came from,
e) Constantly coming up with new ideas and innovations.

Frank Gilbreth married a lady called Lillian; a psychologist. Together, the engineer-psychologist partnership gave the world many innovations. They had twelve children, six boys and six girls. When asked why he had so many children, Frank often replied, “Oh, they come cheaper by the dozen”. Two of their children wrote a book titled, Cheaper By The Dozen. They documented the ways his father applied the IE methods to manage their home. This book was made into a funny (black and white) movie which I saw many years ago.

An example of reduced motions

Nowadays, when we Singaporeans traveled in a bus, we would use an Ezlink card to tap on the card reader when we boarded the bus. It took only one simple ‘motion’. Compared to the previous stored value card of a few years ago, it was a significant improvement. You may say that the saving is only a couple of seconds; but applied to the line of passengers boarding a bus during peak hours, multiplied by the number of stations along the route and the thousands of trips each day, the time saving for the country as a whole is tremendous, don’t you think?

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Productivity and Bruce Lee

Last night I watched the final episode of the tv series, The Legend of Bruce Lee, a rather detailed biopic of the late kungfu superstar. His character and philosophy of life reminded me somewhat of the definition of productivity that I told you about (here) some time ago; namely:

Productivity is, above all, an attitude of mind. It seeks to continually improve what already exists. It is based on a conviction that one can do things better today than yesterday and better tomorrow than today.

(From the report of the Rome Conference - European Productivity Agency, 1958).

If I asked you for one word to describe Bruce Lee’s fighting style, the words ‘fast’ or ‘speed’ will probably come to mind. But it wasn’t just the speed of his movements that made him such an outstanding martial artist. Apparently he went to great lengths to study the movements of the various fighting styles including his own original Wing Chun style. He meticulously refined these movements, cutting away the wasteful “motions”, as what we would call them in Industrial Engineering jargon. He even tried to combine a block simultaneously with a counter-attack.

People thought he was incredibly arrogant when he posted a sign outside his martial arts school saying that he would accept a challenge from anyone, anytime, any place. Actually his primary motive was to ‘upgrade’ and learn from his opponents. And after each encounter he would befriend his opponent and was totally open to share the secrets of his own craft.

Thus we see that this man was:

a) Never satisfied with the status quo.
b) Always questioning existing methods of doing things.
c) Always looking for better ways of doing things.
d) Open to new ideas no matter where they came from.
e) Constantly coming up with new ideas and innovations.

Such an attitude is central to the meaning of productivity and we would do well to learn from him. But one aspect of his character which we want to avoid is his stubbornness. He refused to accept advice from his loved ones to seek medical attention even when it became obvious that he had a serious health problem. The rest as they say, is history.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Contents of my book Ideas@work

These are the contents of my book, Ideas@work.

Part 1: Managing the Staff Suggestion Scheme
Chapter 1: What is a Staff Suggestion Scheme?
Chapter 2: The Role of the Suggestion Scheme Committee
Chapter 3: The Role of managers and supervisors
Chapter 4: The Role of the suggester
Summary of Part 1

Part 2: The 4 stages of making a suggestion
Chapter 5: Problem finding - How to Spot opportunities for Improvement
Chapter 6: Fact finding - How to Investigate Problems
Chapter 7: Idea finding - How to Get Ideas
Chapter 8: Solution finding - How to Write Suggestions
Summary of Part 2

List of Japanese terms used in this book
References and further reading
About the author

Friday, 29 January 2010

My first published book – ideas@work

I have just published my first book; Ideas@work. It is about how to manage the suggestions programme or what is more popularly known here in Singapore as the Staff Suggestion Scheme or SSS.

To explain what this book is about, its aims and the readers it is targeted at; I have reproduced below, word-for-word, the Introduction I wrote in this book. Briefly this is what it says;

This book is mainly, but not exclusively, for managers in companies that already have, or wish to introduce the SSS. This would include most companies in Singapore that want to vie for the Singapore Quality Class or Singapore Quality Award because Employee Involvement is one of the key areas that they will be assessed on.

There are three main avenues that such companies should adopt to systematically involve their employees in the total quality process; Quality Circles, 5S and SSS. Of these three, the most difficult in my opinion is the SSS. Hence I have decided to write about SSS instead of 5S which I have more experience with. The other reason is that there are not many good books on SSS in the market which focus on the heart of the problems that companies face and come up with a comprehensive yet simple model to address them. I have also tried to craft my book in a style that will make it an easy read for busy executives.

Initially I published my book at the online book store, However, the performance has been quite dismal and I have decided to republish at a later date as an ebook. Meantime, if you are in Singapore and Malaysia; you can still purchase the print copy at S$18. Details at the side bar.



My first encounter with the Staff Suggestion Scheme was when I was working as an industrial engineer in Philips Singapore Pte Ltd. That was around 1980. One day, I saw a big exercise book that the production manager had placed at the front of one of the assembly lines. He asked his staff to write down their suggestions for improving the efficiency of that line. As the IE responsible for that line, I was curious to hear the feedback from the production operators. Thus I eagerly checked that book every morning; but to my disappointment, I did not see a single suggestion until several days later. Finally somebody wrote a ‘suggestion’ complaining that the packing area at the end of the line was very hot and stuffy. She suggested that fans be installed in that area. Since then, I have come to discover just how difficult it was to solicit ideas and suggestions from the rank-and-file workers.

In 1984, I left my job in Philips to join the National Productivity Board as a trainer and consultant. I had read in the newspapers that the National Productivity Board was sending many of its consultants to Japan to undergo training in the area of productivity management and I was very eager be included in such a program. In September 1985, I finally got my chance to receive such training when I was sent for the three-and-a-half month Productivity Development Project (PDP) Fellowship program in Japan. During that trip, I learnt a lot about how the Japanese were able to adapt the management concepts which they had learnt from the Americans, and applied them successfully in the workplace; even more effectively than their American teachers, in fact. I had the precious opportunity to visit many outstanding Japanese companies like Canon, Nipon Kokan Steel and Komatsu. I also experienced a two-week attachment in Aisin Seiki which was a subsidiary of the Toyota group.

My learning journey on Japanese productivity techniques continued when I returned to Singapore. Over the next seven years, I worked alongside many Japanese advisors who had been sent by the Japan Productivity Center to train us. Some of them, the so-called Long-term Experts (or LTEs) were stationed in NPB Singapore for periods of two or more years. Two of the experts that I worked with were Mr Hajime Suzuki and Mr Kazuo Tsuchiya. I learned a lot about Japanese management concepts and techniques from them.

Besides the LTEs, the Japan Productivity Center also dispatched Short-term Experts (or STEs) to Singapore for short assignments of about two to three weeks each time. One of them was a gentleman by the name of Motomu Baba who made several trips to Singapore. Baba-san, as we called him specialized in TQC, or Total Quality Control. I was his main ‘counterpart’ and learned much about what is today called TQM (Total Quality Management) from him. At the same time, I continued my learning journey through reading productivity books written by Japanese experts. In 1989, I had another chance to undergo training in Japan. This time, it was a month-long program on TQC organized by the Asian Productivity Organization or APO. It was led by TQC expert, Dr Noriaki Kano.

One thing I have learnt about the Japanese approach to productivity is that they placed very strong emphasis on Kaizen, or continuous improvement through Employee Involvement. (I trust that by now, there is no need for me to explain what is Kaizen). For example, during our plant visits, the Japanese hosts would invariably arrange a session whereby workers from the shopfloor would make presentations to us about their kaizen projects. Such Japanese companies usually have in place very structured ‘kaizen’ programs to encourage and empower their employees to contribute ideas to improve their own workplace. Three such programs are:

(i) 5S Good Housekeeping and Workplace Organization
(ii) Quality Control Circles, and
(iii) Staff Suggestion Schemes
In 1992, I left the National Productivity Board and set up my own consulting practice. Since then, I have undertaken numerous training and consulting assignments for companies in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia to help them to implement such ‘total employee involvement’ programs. My experience so far is that, of these three, the staff suggestion scheme is the most difficult. In my work as a management consultant, I have seen many companies that claim to have a staff suggestion scheme. On closer look, most of them were struggling to sustain it. More often than not, their suggestion boxes were empty or filled with sweet wrappers and sometimes, even cigarette butts. Other than Japanese companies, I have rarely seen any organization achieve significant success in the staff suggestion scheme. Even the outstanding organizations that have won the coveted Singapore Quality Award had to struggle to keep their suggestion schemes alive.

The root cause of this problem is the lack of understanding. It is indeed sad that almost one quarter of a century after the publication of Masaaki Imai’s book Kaizen, The Key to Japan’s Competitive Edge, very few companies have fully understood what Imai tried to teach. The staff suggestion scheme is a good example. In his book, Imai devoted a significant portion to describe how Japanese companies successfully harnessed the creative ideas of their staff through the suggestion system. Yet how many non-Japanese companies have successfully implemented the staff suggestion scheme?
Take for example this large government-related company in the defense industry in Singapore that I came across a few years ago. This company has been rated an ‘excellent’ company having won the Singapore Quality Award, our equivalent of America’s Malcolm Baldridge Award and Japan’s Deming Prize. A member of their suggestion scheme committee admitted that they had been finding it tougher and tougher to achieve the target of five suggestions per employee per year. As such they intended to reduce the target in the following year. “We want to go for quality rather than quantity”, he concluded.
I was very disappointed to hear that because that statement clearly showed that he did not understand what is meant by quality of suggestions and or what the suggestion scheme is all about. By quality, he probably meant suggestions that could bring about big tangible benefits. He did not understand that any employee involvement program that did not garner significant participation from the staff is a failure. When it comes to staff suggestions, numbers is the name of the game. It is not a zero-sum game. Both quality and quantity matter in the suggestion scheme; and if properly managed both should go up at the same time.
Anyway, I do not blame this manager. His organization, like many others had probably embarked on the suggestion scheme simply because the top management had instructed him and his colleagues to do so. Maybe the big boss had just attended a seminar where he heard highly inspiring ‘success stories’ about how other companies had benefited from a suggestion scheme. He then decided to introduce it in the company without an in-depth understanding.
Another possible scenario is that they wanted to vie for the Singapore Quality Award and one of the key factors to be evaluated is Employee Involvement. They needed to be seen to have an active staff suggestion scheme to stand any chance of winning the award.
Hence, you can see that in such an environment, the suggestion scheme simply will not last. Even if it did, the staff running it would be very demoralized.
And that is the whole purpose of this book – to help you understand what is a staff suggestion scheme and how to manage it. For a staff suggestion scheme to function effectively, three groups of people in the organization must fully understand their roles;

· The suggestion scheme committee which design and manage the scheme,
· The line managers who lead the staff who actually make the suggestions,
· The rank-and-file workers themselves; the so-called ‘suggesters’.
This book is written for the first two groups - the suggestion scheme committee members and the line managers.
Besides understanding their role, the suggestion committee must also know how to set up an effective system. Thus, I will be explaining the various subsystems that make up the company’s staff suggestion scheme.
As for the second group, the line managers, my aim is to help them to see how important their role is; a role that is often not fully understood. On their shoulders lies the main responsibility of promoting the staff suggestion scheme in their own departments or sections. They must encourage, guide and empower their subordinates to come up with more and better quality suggestions. They must help them (the staff) to understand their role in the staff suggestion scheme. Thus, this book will also address, indirectly, the needs of the last group of people mentioned above, namely the rank-and-file workers who actually contribute the suggestions.
This book is divided into two main sections. Part 1 covers the concept of the staff suggestion scheme and the roles of the three groups of people mentioned above. In Part 2, I will introduce a simple methodology that the staff can use when he is making a suggestion.
It is my desire that after reading this book, you will be able to help your company to better manage the staff suggestion scheme whether in the role of a suggestion scheme committee member or in the role of a line manager. As a manager, I hope you will understand that empowering your staff to make suggestions is part and parcel of your job. When you succeed in this role, you would have become a more effective leader and manager. I wish you every success.

Lam Chun See

Monday, 25 January 2010

Please do not add anymore S’s

In recent years, some companies and consultants have come up with their own versions of the 5S model by adding an additional S to make it 6S. Most commonly, the 6th S stood for Safety. Their aim is to place special emphasis on Safety. I have even come across one company that adopted 7S. Besides Safety, the additional S came from a Japanese word beginning with S. I am sorry I cannot recall the Japanese word, but I think the meaning had to do with work morale. I personally think it is not a good idea to add anymore S’s to the original 5S model.

1. The 5S Model is already a fairly well-known and universally accepted management concept. The term and its meaning too have become quite standardized. Hence, to come up with something like 6S will only serve to confuse the public.

2. Often the 6th S, such as Safety, does not fit logically into the 5S meaning. Each S in the 5S model denotes a set of actions or approach. Hence Seiri is Clearing; to sort and discard unnecessary items, Seiton is Organizing; to arrange necessary items systematically and so on. The result of these actions is better safety, less waste etc which further leads to lower cost and higher profitability. Safety being a noun simply does not fit into the set; unless these organizations are prepared to re-define the each of the 5 Ss in terms of nouns such as clutter, orderliness, cleanliness etc.

3. In the case of Safety, it is superfluous because it is already addressed the other 5S steps; especially Seiton, and specifically Visual Control (see example below). Safety is the result of 5S not an additional ingredient in the 5S dish. In Chinese we say don’t draw a snake and add legs to it – 画蛇添足。

Instead of trying to modify the conventional 5S model, I think companies should focus their energies on implementing the 5S more effectively. Sometimes companies having practiced the 5S for a couple of years become complacent and think that they ‘have arrived’ and try to expand the 5S movement by adopting 6S. The workers will surely be able to see that they have added nothing new. Worse still, they will conclude as I do, that the managers do not really understand what is 5S in the first place.