One of the many stories that circulate about Toyota encompasses, in my view, what Lean is all about.
Actually, more than a story, is a saying by one of its executives: "the workers in the company have two obligations. One is following the standard work. The other is improving it".
Standard work is not a stiff grid where to bury your intelligence and heart. On the contrary. What the 'grid' takes care of is all that stuff that gets in the way of your creative, best work. You remove one obstacle here, other there, and one day you have accumulated hours, days, years of solving problems into a little job helper. And it looks so simple and easy to follow only because you've taken out all those 13,598 things that didn't work. One at a time.
Sometimes, when I have a standard list of a process stabilized, that's accumulated that kind of wisdom for some months, as I use it I feel like there's a "warm hand" that is helping me do the work. I guess it's the so-called respect for people, which I'm exerting on myself. You take care of the process, and there's a tipping point where the process starts to take care of you in incredible ways. (The other day I actually measured how long it takes me from the moment I sit at the computer, to actually being doing value creating work, sound being created or modified, and it was a minute and a half. Plenty of improvement yet to do, the road never ends, but it's a great great improvement already from what I used to have).
Different kinds of work will require different kind of standard instructions, so you also develop creativity and a intuition about what to use where. I don't see it as a burden but as yet another field for personal expression (although it does require some discipline sometimes, to stop what you're doing, to face the problem and solve it on the spot, or at least leave a note to yourself) .
As an example, to get what I call the 'sonic chain' right every time, I need a detailed list of which cable goes where, which mixer parameters for each instrument... On the contrary, for performance, anything more than a text file with a few lines (like "double chorus at the doo-wap", or "semitones after the shy part", which instantly make sense to me) would be overkill.
That leads to another whole can of worms: what to standardize? We don't want to cripple creativity; the acid test is easy: the aids are good as long as they help us get quick to the fun part. But there is an element of creativity, of uniqueness in each piece of music, that cannot be suffocated. That's why, also, it's perfectly normal if with some songs we have to leave the standard altogether; It's like the painted lines on the road, they are intended for guidance and peace of mind, and 99.99% of the time are great for that, but if a deer crosses on your way you'll obviously forget about them instantly :)
A common mistake I've often made is trying to standardize too soon when I create a new process. Sometimes you just have to do the thing 'the old way' first,i.e. getting yourself through it with blood, sweat and tears, just to get a feel of the whole thing, what it looks like. Next time maybe you take a couple notes. A few times more and you can see patterns forming (damn, I always forget I have to lower volume in this part and fry my brains). Then a few reminders become blatantly useful.
Another factor of variation: follow the list as you do the task, or read it beforehand as a reminder and consider yourself trained? Again it depends.
Also, there is a different degree of granularity that is the ideal, a different tool from each job (Granularity=5: "change the guitar's string". Granularity=1: "get the packet of the strings and find the one you just broke"... etc)
So as you can see, nothing to stifle creativity here. On the contrary.
Why taking the trouble of writing stuff about how you do stuff? Isn't it a nerdy thing to do? Doesn't madness lie that way?
Well yes and no. As with most of what we do, it all depends on what's the underlying motivation. Regarding this science/art of how-we-do-what-we-do, I always find healthy to remind myself that notes, To-Do lists, calendar plans and all the like, have a main motivation: getting us to the fun part as quickly as possible.
Human brain has a wonderful plasticity; it quickly rearranges itself to do things completely different. We can be at one moment planting a rose and the next one trying to appease a crowd.
To take full advantage of such plasticity, it's a good thing to remember that the change of activity has a cost, in terms of effort --the tiny wheels inside the brain must be replaced, the microscope lenses leave place to the telescope...- By creating guides for ourselves, we facilitate that change of dies. Those guides don't need to be groundbreaking. In fact the simpler they get the better ("The goal is making things as simple as possible, not the other way round", said Taiichi Ohno). A mark on the floor, three words on a piece of paper, a colored sticker on a cable, a quick shot of a console taken with the cellphone, all can become unspeakable acts of kindness to our future self.
By creating those guides, we can move on to other part of our diverse, multidimensional life, and be sure that we'll find the way back easily later. Someone in the GTD forum called action lists 'stakes on the ground'. They tell you how far you got, and where to resume the game tomorrow.
I also find useful to compare them to those opening teasers you get on some TV shows, which brief you in a few scenes on on what happened previously. Our brain comes from car mode, grocery list mode, dialogue mode, or having a shower mode, and must be quickly and effortlessly tuned to audience mode: "I can't wait to get to Caribbean/oh look that engine is burning/The teams have given up but I know she survived". Oh, yeah, I remember now, I'm ready to go; so what's next?
Waste (="not value") has been fought by countless warriors, who have classified it in different manners in order to develop their strategies better. As the information in the interwebs on the different kinds of waste is a plethora, I'll limit myself here to a brief explanation of each kind according to my division of choice, with an example in a "traditional" field of application, and other more music related, taken from my personal experience when possible.
Let's say you want to cook rice. To make the example easier, let's make it plain rice: just rice and boiling water.
When the rice is in contact with the boiling water,it gets cooked. In other words, in that moment value is created. Everything else around that contact, (even if it is what makes that contact possible) is waste.
Waste must be eliminated. Value must be enhanced. Let's play a little bit with the factors.
Let's say that you live in a planet where there's no water. To get a pot of water for cooking, you have to trust in smugglers who charge astronomic prices to go to the other extreme of the galaxy. After you place your order, you have to wait 6 weeks, and hope that the guy on the mission wasn't caught in a space control.
All of that is previous to the water being heated and meeting the rice. All of that is waste.
Now let's say that you have a regular planet Earth kitchen with running water. In it, you have to walk eight steps to grab a pot, then five more to go to the tap and fill it, and then three more steps to put the full pot on the heating surface. All those steps are waste, too. Of a different magnitude than in the previous intergalactic example, but sharing something in common: they all must be fought, reduced and eliminated; they don't add value to the product. The guy who will eat the rice couldn't care less about how the water for the rice was obtained.
This concept applies to any process, including the creative one. I'll go again with Ian MacKaye's definition: the value is created when the music falls into someone else's ears. That someone else doesn't care if you had to stay up all night to get the riff for the song's bridge, or if music just keeps coming to you naturally even as you sleep. He doesn't care if the crystalline production was obtained after 7 hours of tinkering with a compressor, or if it was all a happy accident put together in less than 3 minutes. It is us, inside the kitchen, who should be concerned about all those burdens, and aspire to destroy them every day, so we can concentrate more and more on what matters.
Behind all the dazzling tools and techniques developed in Lean, there is a common basis: the scientific method.
Sorrily, thanks to the entertainment industry, the word 'scientific' evokes the image of a pedantic teenager, with presumable difficulties to get laid, dressed in white coat and doing silly things with baking soda (on that regard, it's curious how many Hollywood productions equate "scientist" to "mad scientist").
But the scientific method, in fact, is the best tool we have for the exploration of reality. To move ahead through reality and reach objectives, we have to do trial and error anyway. That trial an error can be done haphazardly, or, if you want to maximize your results, in an orderly manner. That's what the scientific method provides.
The scientific method works through iterations. The most popular model to describe those iterations is the Shewhart cycle, popularly described as PDCA (Plan Do Check Act). I prefer Shewhart's original formulation as PDSA (Plan Do Study Adjust), although, in the end, it's just a matter of semantics; just go with the words that speak more to you. Here is a basic description of each stage:
Taken to the field of music, here is an example where I think I practiced these steps intuitively, many years before I knew what the PDSA cycle was. In my band in those times, when we rehearsed (Do), I used to record the sessions and later listened to them writing an index card for each song with arrangements and things to improve, lookouts (Study)... that way, in the next rehearsal, we could discuss quickly each song and its 'hot spots' (Plan) before start playing it (Do).
I cannot tell you how great the results were, in terms of both playing quality and also motivation: this kind of cyclical structure got everybody on the same page quickly, and we never had to start a rehearsal 'in cold', out of the blue anymore.
All of this looks like a lot of work in addition to everything you already have. What's the point of so much analysis? Wouldn't time and energy be better employed just firing up the DAW and going ahead into the next idea, hoping that force of habit will take us by the hand and that's all the organization required?
That's for each to decide on their own. In my case, it sure pays off. The more uncertain the environment is, the more you need a system. And a music maker faces a lot of uncertainties, both external and internal.
The point of so many systems and lists is not to create 'cookie cutter' solutions for songs, increasing quantity at the expense of quality. On the contrary. I want tiny, well greased machines, that take care of the boring parts of every process, so that when the moment of actual creativity is in front of me, I can give it my best shot.
Modern life is often death by paper cuts. Stuff gets in your way, a bit here and a bit there, none of it is very harmful in itself but it adds up quickly and drags you down. By the time you finish what you must/should do, and get to what you WANT to do, you may be exhausted.
I don't want a vacuum cleaner or a groceries list to get in the way of my creativity. Even within the musical activity, I don't want gear preparation, having to find the bloody file with the lyrics , or tuning up software, to get in the way of what I want to express. Those chores will always exist, and the only way to make them nice and interesting is if, at least, you're solving a different problem each time. I have found that, by having a system in place, and giving some of your focus to the system itself and not only the product, your everyday efforts sum up along time. It's like a bucket that collects rain drops. A little at a time, it adds up to a lot. The water would be lost otherwise.
I probably first heard of Theory of Constraints in Mark Graban's podcast. One of his guests spoke with veneration of Dr. Goldratt's visit to their firm, where he delivered one of his last presentations short before passing away in 2011. I watched the presentation, and also watched the film adaptation of his popular business novel 'The Goal', which gives you an overview of what TOC can do for you.
To give a brief overview, TOC sees reality as processes just like Lean, but its efforts are focused on finding the 'bottleneck' or 'funnel mouth' that every process has, as that is the 'weak spot' that will condition the throughput of the whole system.
The funnel image comes here very handy: if you try to increase the capacity of a funnel only by pouring more water into it, all you're going to do is overflowing the funnel. Everything is useless unless you widen the mouth of the funnel.
And that is true of any process; you have to investigate where's that funnel mouth. And once you find it, all your improvement efforts should be focused on that point, as any improvement in its capacity will benefit enormously the whole system. Contrarily, efforts that are not focused on that spot will hardly have any effect on the bottom line.
Once you've located the bottleneck, TOC also provides a recursive 5 steps process you can use to exploit to the maximum that constraint, and finally transcend it by moving it elsewhere.
This was, one day came to me, the way out of my "random access Lean" (I have to say that the insight of how both techniques interact is not an act of invention, but a recognition: it is Dr. Goldratt himself, and other TOC specialists, who affirm that Lean tells you what to do and TOC where.)
My encounters with TOC have been more random and spaced than with the other techniques and, given that in this field there is zero documentation regarding personal productivity, I'm winging my way more than even. My processes are still not even stabilized (in other words, I still haven't flowed a complete song from one extreme of the pipe to the other), so my determination of the constraint has been so far plain basic guesstimation. Perhaps, by now, my TOC implementation ranks only as 'poetic', and only gives me what Deming would have called 'appreciation of a system'; a reminder that says "as you do this stuff, remember that you are within a system, which is made of parts, and one of those parts is a bottleneck".
Doesn't seem like much, but once you realize you are within a system, you can start to act on it and improve it; and that's much more than what my 20 years old me could say. I think he would have enjoyed this stuff :).
After some time applying and tailoring the different Lean tools to the very little applied world of music making, I found myself in a situation that for me was confusing yet familiar.
The confusing part was that, even though I was improving my processes day after day, and feeling the wonders and empowerment of taking more and more waste out of the equation, when you looked to the bottom line, the amount of stuff I put out there, the general swiftness of things, wasn't improving that much.
Why was that? I knew I was in the right path, Lean after all is nothing but "common sense that is not that common", and once you recognize it there's no turning back; the way I see it, you're not choosing between good option and bad option, but between having an option you can now work on, or get back to the chaos you used to live in. And yet, I still wasn't getting the desired results; there was something missing.
The "familiar" part of the situation was that I recognized this kind of state in other people's narration of their Lean journeys. Someone once called this period the "random access lean" or "random access kaizen" stage. It took me some time to recognize the pattern, but eventually I did.
Here is the thing: Lean changes your worldview, it's like the road of Damascus. Simultaneously, it opens your eyes forever to the reality of waste, and gives you the tools to combat it. And you're a newcomer, and combating waste feels good, a brand new field of action opens where you can develop yourself and your creativity (and this is probably even more truth in the personal sphere, where you don't have to juggle corporate factors, other people's resistance to change, etc...) So you get down to it like a trooper.
That exploration period is perhaps necessary, and you learn a lot out of it. However, waste is everywhere, so declaring a generic "war on waste", in the end, is a sure ticket to frustration and exhaustion. You'd be better off trying to boil the ocean. The ocean, after all, would stay boiled once you've finished it, but waste regenerates itself at every moment, so even if you could cope with all of it, there is always more on the way already. Time and energies are finite, so the conclusion is we have to get strategical and decide where we apply the tools, which waste we go for. The best tool I've found to do that selection turned out to be Theory of Constraints, which I'll discuss in further posts.
Note: "Waste" is a negative term and I'd have preferred to address first its opposite, "value", which I intend to focus on for the most in the future; this is one of the necessary concessions you have to make as you use very broad strokes to get quickly to a first whole picture.
What I'm writing so far is an overview of my systems; there is one big chunk missing that will finish the puzzle, but before I get into it, and without going into two much detail, I think a few words about how GTD and Lean play together could be useful. Synthetically, at bird's view:
What I love about this view is that it can make anything interesting and creative, even cleaning toilets. You can always clean a toilet better and faster, don't you think?
I'm pretty sure I remember the first time I got in contact with Lean. As a die hard GTDer, I was investigating other support productivity tools and techniques (one good thing about GTD is that it is defined at a level that allows you a lot customization), when I stumbled upon the term "Kaizen". The definition, the way I remember it was "doing things a little bit better every day". "Duh", I thought, isn't that what we, all the living creatures for that matter, intend to do? Don't we all grow and improve? So what else is new? So I moved on and didn't give it a thought for a couple of years. It was only the second time that charm came, in the form of this video:
I'm convinced that the "productivity itch" some of us get is caused by an underlying intuition, almost a leap of faith in some cases, that there must be a better, more drudgery-less way of doing work. For me, this video materialized that intuition before my own eyes; so I started to learn about Lean.
At first I tried imitating the simplicity of the solutions presented in the video, but failed and fell off the wagon frequently, because I didn't know what the underlying thought was, what was I supposed to look for. The simplicity in those solutions, it turned out, was not so much about what you put in, but about all the stuff you've taken out... (the conductor mentions in the video several Lean terms and techniques, like the 8 wastes, the spaghetti trail, or 3S, that have become habitual for me now, as it is the aforementioned kaizen.)
I found, and still find now, outrageous that these techniques are mostly used only in the world of collective work (manufacturing, healthcare...), when they easily correlate and can be so benefiting in the personal sphere (both personal and professional life). It's as if the world of "big bucks" wanted to keep all the good stuff to itself. Do we really need to have to move 3,000 tons pieces of metal to allow ourselves to do things rationally? This video was like the exception to that rule, and luckily some more have been appearing with the passing of time.