"Lean-donesia": A Blog From the Past

The summer between the first and second years of my MBA program, I had the pleasure of working as a Lean coach in a garment factory in Indonesia. While I was there, I wrote 5 blog entries for a blog I called "Lean-donesia."

This week, I thought I would collate these and place them here. Just sort of a nice little trip down memory lane to see what I was thinking about 6 years ago.

Entry 1: My Introduction to Lean in Indonesia (6/11/12)

Two things prepared me for my first day at my internship with a garment factory in Indonesia.  The first was my years of fashion experience on the retail end of the business.  The second was the summer I spent working on a line in a styrofoam factory. (I take credit for the former, but I have to give my parents credit for the latter.)  Combine these two experiences, and I was prepared for the garment factory in Indonesia.  I can pretty much guarantee that not one of my classmates will have an internship experience like mine this summer.

And what's the last thing you might expect to find in this environment?  How about  lean mindset driven by the desire for continuous improvement, senior management that believes in the skill and competence of his workers, and middle managers who work directly with the workers on the line to solve problems via 5 why and SOPs?    How about the 14 principles of Lean translated into Indonesian on a white board?  How about visual management cues for production data that has been gathered for analysis?  This is what Lean looks like in a garment factory located in Bali.  It looks just like a Lean environment anywhere else in the world.  This is the beauty behind the Lean tools.  The next step is to imbed the problem solving and thinking that defines a lean culture into all levels of the workforce.

The purpose of this blog is twofold.  1) I hope to share my experiences in this environment with people who are interested in learning about Lean and seeing how it operates in another culture.  2) To entertain my family and friends (assuming that the cable is out, the books have all disappeared, and they've run out of conversation topics).  I will share my observations, challenges, and successes throughout my time here this summer.  As I wrote in the back of a book I penned for Young Author's Day in elementary school, "All compliments are welcome."  Personal growth and maturity has also allowed me the ability to accept "opportunities for improvement," although "downright criticism" might still be tough for me to take.  In the spirit of Lean learning, I will do my best to accept that if need be.

So here's to the fascinating Lean journey that I will take this summer.  I hope you come along for the ride.

Entry 2: I ended my last post iwht "I hope you come along for the ride" (6/18/12)

I ended my last post with, "I hope you come along for the ride."  I should have been more specific and said a "taksi" ride.  I could write an entire blog based solely on my conversations with the cab  here.  But, as that does not necessarily apply to my lean experience, I will save those stories for another time.

What I will share will share with you are my thoughts after the first two days of our Value Stream Mapping workshop in the factory.  The majority of my first week at work was getting to know and understand the processes for myself.  I spent time talking to the managers, as well as a great deal of time going to Gemba.  I was on the floor, watching the processes for myself.  There were some lean tools in place; 5 S had been performed on some of the lines, a pull system with kanban cards existed to trigger the beginning of the process, and there were some standardized processes in place.  From this I deduced that this was a company that was trying to become lean.  The good news is, there are still a lot of possible changes available for me to be a part of this summer.

We spent two days with a local consultant mapping the current and future state.  This was particularly interesting because the whole process was conducted in bahasa.  While I couldn't understand every word, I was surprised to find that I could follow along with the process of creating the maps.  This is primarily because of the fact this process so visual.

The atmosphere was quite different than what I would expect of a company in America.  It was more like a class room than a board room.  By that I mean the atmosphere was quite casual.  The consultant divided the group into two teams, asked them to come up with team names and a team "cheer."  This reminded me more of my store environment, actually.  And it's something that I think is worth noting, because it seemed to engage the participants. Perhaps they would respond to silly contests among each other. It might be worth experimenting with that this summer - a visual representation of who is completing their work well and on time.  It sounds somewhat trivial, yet I think it might have a chance of working in this environment.

I'm not sure as to whether it was due to this casual setting, or whether it was due to the language, but I noticed that the participants responded much more quickly, and seemed to have more to say, to the consultant than they typically do when asked a question by their direct boss (the co-owner of the company) or myself.  I'm not sure whether our questions are more difficult to answer or more difficult to understand.  That is something I seek to learn this summer.

And that is where I will end this particular entry, as I am positive my mother has stopped reading by this point.  I will mention that I observed a great deal more success among the participants when they had an opportunity to work together as a group, than when they tried to answer questions individually.  A little shout out to my All-Stars....we learned that lesson this past year, starting with Accounting.

Entry 3: Nurturing discipline with standardized work (7/12/12)

It has been weeks since my last post.  I have been busy with working, learning bahasa, and having my Dad visit us at the factory.  Without discipline in routine, it's very easy to let things slide (keeping up on your blog, going to the gym, or even accomplishing tasks at work).  While one of the core values of lean thinking is to allow workers the ability to be creative and independent in their work, I have learned that this (much like my blog posts) cannot be achieved without a certain level of discipline.

In my first few weeks here, we (the other managers and I) had started working on some experiments, but they were unfocused.  Something that my Dad helped us instill in our processes was a sense of discipline.  Let me explain that further.  When he was here, he helped us to create standardized goal sheets for each person involved in this project.  These are displayed in the Obeya room (ie, war room), for everyone to see.  Each goal sheet is accompanied by an activity sheet that acts almost like a to-do list for getting work done.  We then created a standardized form for running experiments.  The form includes an area to define the problem, the question that needs to be answered, the specifics behind setting up an experiment, what the results of the experiment are, and a place to identify lessons learned.  The objective of this form is to standardize the thinking behind identifying problems and running experiments in order to promote the idea of fast learning cycles.  Already in one week, we have learned more from our experiments than we had prior to the use of the standardized form.

I have heard critics bemoan the use of standardization in work claiming that they make work boring or prevent creativity.  What I've observed is that standardizing the thinking behind running the experiment makes running experiments more attractive to the workers.  When there is structure in how to think through the process, it allows the workers the ability to be creative in running the experiments, because they are spending less time "thinking" about how to actually do it.

We've only been using these forms for a week, and we still have a long way to go before it is comfortable.  Like any habit, using the forms need time to set in.  I am doing daily check ins for the next thirty days to answer questions, challenge the thinking, and to promote PDCA and fast learning cycles.  This seemingly simple concept is not always easily adapted, and my guess is that each organization will have different ways of embedding the work into their daily processes.  After a few days, the workers were asking me for a standardized process for implementing SOP's.  Not only did that challenge my thinking, but it gave me yet another experiment to run on my own.  So, I can use the standard process that I created for the workers to implement SOP's (Create SOP, Train SOP, Post SOP, Check SOP Adjust SOP - PDCA imbedded) to build the habit of using the experiment sheets.

Describing these processes clearly is no easy task.  I hope that the thinking behind our work is clear.  My favorite part of the day is our daily 4pm check in meeting.  Conducted in bahasa Indonesian (translating at the end of the meeting for sake of time), I have the opportunity to read emotions and body language without fully understanding the verbal language.  The workers from the line involved in our project are bringing great ideas to the table, and it's rewarding for me to see their investment and excitement in the work that they're doing.  For now, simply focusing on how to run an experiment, and what it means to put a countermeasure in place is the focus of my work.  All in the name of changing lives. I end every meeting with "Terima kasih untuk kerja keras anda" (thank you for your hard work).  And I mean it wholeheartedly.

Entry 4: Lost in Translation (7/23/12)

Perhaps the most challenging part of this internship is the language difference.  I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, who is on an internship assignment in Brazil.  He said he feels like he is missing out on some of what's going on because his co-workers don't always translate for him.  I would say that my challenge is different.  My coworkers are very helpful about translating for me.  I think the challenge is in the translation itself.  I can tell by the way they look at me sometimes that my English isn't getting through to them.  And there are multiple times a day where I listen to the English they are speaking and I realize I have no clue what they are trying to communicate.

We have ways around this (google translate is helpful), and we can try to say something in multiple ways.  But some of the lean concepts are complicated simply in that they are outside of the normal boundaries of managerial and operational thinking.  Trying to communicate them in our native language (bahasa Ibu) is difficult enough.  Trying to communicate them through a different language (AND a different culture) is an entirely different challenge altogether.

An example: One of the managers with whom I'm working has been talking about creating experiments designed to help embed a "sense of urgency."  One day, I said to him that while I understood what he meant by 'sense of urgency,' we didn't want to create an environment where the workers are always rushing - but rather where they can work steadily and still meet their goals."  He agreed and continued to speak of this 'sense of urgency.'  Later, he was explaining an experiment he designed that would help the worker to see at the beginning of the day, how much work they were expected to accomplish for the entire day.  I came to see that by "sense of urgency," he really meant "accountability" for achieving the targets.  The distinction between "sense of urgency" and "accountability" is very subtle even for someone who knows the language. Once I saw the experiment he designed, and understood his real goal, I felt more comfortable helping him to design experiments for this purpose.

This "lost in translation" issue happens multiple times a day.  In order to combat it, I try to use a lot of visual cues and I also try to repeat what has been said to me in to ensure comprehension.  It makes the whole process much more labor intensive, but it is a necessity in this environment.

It is also a lesson that I will carry with me after I leave this environment.  Even in our own language, we interpret thoughts, ideas, and words differently.  In order to help someone understand a new concept - it takes more than command and control style direction.  It takes patience, persistence, and perhaps a couple of white boards and markers.

Entry 5: Basic Human Needs (8/1/12)

As I've been talking to the employees here about their experiences at work, I have decided that there are basic human needs that need to be met in any working environment and that those needs cross cultures.

1. To be treated fairly.  The sentiment is that if they were treated fairly, they would be inclined to work even harder, and smarter, for the company.  (ie, Where is their motivation coming from?  Are they working simply to not get fired or make management angry?  Or are they working to truly create value for the company?)

2. Give and take.  Managers cannot take-take-take, never say thank you, and never give in return.  If an employee gives you more than what you are expecting, you must recognize the difference in some way.  (And, to be clear, if an employee delivers exactly what you were expecting, a simple thank you can go a long way). And then a manager should be able to give something in return, this helps to develop a trusting relationship.

3. Balance of work/home time.  While it may not be possible to know every employee's story about life outside of work, it is most likely safe to assume that most of them have a reason to leave work at the end of the day.  I believe that understanding when an employee needs time at home (for whatever reason), being flexible will build more trust and lead to fewer less-than-legitimate "sick days."

4. Room to make mistakes.  People are naturally afraid and disinclined to make mistakes in front of the boss.  When management literally scares employees (threatens them) to never make mistakes, employees will not grow or learn, and most importantly, the boss will never be satisfied anyway.  Supporting LEARNING from mistakes is the key to success here.  Not only will problems surface more quickly (to be solved more quickly), but as a team you can learn how to prevent that mistake in the future (continuous learning). Trust will grow in this way as well.

5. Encouragement.  It's also not enough to just "not be mean."  We all want to hear "thank you for your hard work" (terimakasih untuk kerja keras anda - in bahasa!) at the very least.

6. Work friends/family.  Whether the leader is compassionate and fair or crazy and mean, the ability to develop relationships among the work team is important (and should happen organically).  Trust among the different levels of employees as well as between them fosters a learning environment.  And it also builds support among the workers.

There is a theme here - trust.  When you start with a leader who does not truly trust the workforce, you are inclined to see an environment where the workforce "lives up" to this low standard.  In return, the workforce learns not to trust the leader.  If Trust is the target condition, these 6 areas are the kata along the way.

I don't believe this is brand new information.  I'm just struck by how deeply imbedded these needs are in various cultures and companies.  I'm pulling on my prior work experience, my fellow MBA students stories, and now my experience here in Indonesia.  The employees here have been very kind to share their thoughts and experiences with me, and this blog is a result is some of the more common themes that I have heard from them.