One of the driving factors of a Lean process is the concept of “flow”. The improvement of flow will lead to reduced waste throughout your process.
One easy way to visualize the gains that are possible with a flow improvement is to observe a simple process that isn’t set up with flow in mind. One exercise I like to do is to walk people through something that is applicable to all of us: eating.
I was recently on the road for some LSS training and found myself at the Hampton Inn in Roanoke, Virginia. Nice place with great service. But a lousy layout of their breakfast buffet. I’ll walk you through some pictures so you can get an idea of what I’m talking about.
In this photo, the customer approaches the cereal station from the right. This is the only reasonable direction of entry because that is where the bowls are stored (at a different station). So bringing the bowl over, the customer then fills the bowl with cereal, followed by a slide to the right to get some milk, and finally a return to the right in order to return to the seating section. He/she might even remember to hike around and look for a spoon before sitting down.
What’s wrong with this? Everything! First, the bowls should be right there at their point of use. (spoons too). A better flow would be right-to-left: Bowl, cereal, milk, spoon. That is the order that the items are used, and it results in customers flowing quickly back to their tables (without bumping into one another). This gets customers in and out more quickly, which results in more open tables for new customers.
Ok, pet peeve time. Coffee stations are so easy, but so often botched. This one is tragically bad. Approaching from the left the customer grabs a cup, then moves directly to the coffee. Ouch, that’s hot! Better backtrack and get a cup condom. Where’s the creamer? Oh, pardon me while I walk around anyone making tea or hot cocoa. I’ll just get a couple shots of creamer and some sugar. Now I have to go find another spoon because there are no stir sticks. By the time I’m headed back to my seat, I need something stronger than coffee.
A better approach? Try this: cup > creamer/sweetener > coffee > condom. No stir sticks or spoons are needed, because adding creamer and sweetener first negates the need for wasteful stir sticks. Add a coffee cup condom at the end if you need it (you may or may not). Flow is maintained and customers flow quickly. Don’t forget to add a poster with plenty of visuals to help customers understand the point of adding sweetener/creamer before adding coffee (who here has tried to improve a process without both involving and training those who use the process?).
Now, this is almost ok. Approach from the right and get a plate from the back corner. Oh, there are the bowls I’ll need for my cereal too. I’ll come back later to grab one (when there’s already plenty of traffic in this crowded corner). Open the warmer, grab some eggs, then slide back to the right (into the grumpy non-morning person standing too close behind me) and grab a form. Yummy powdered eggs are in my future!
Wouldn’t it be better if the line of people could just flow in one direction? Put the forks on the other side. But don’t make us backtrack. We don’t want to get the fork up front because we need all our hands to hold our plate, open the warmer’s lid, and scoop out some food.
This must be how “spaghetti maps” got their name. Next station over is my favorite: waffles! So I walk up, and immediately lament the fact that I don’t have a plate. No worries, I’ll just step over to the other table to grab one. Then I come back and fiddle with the waffle maker, realizing that there are no instructions (and what should I do with the “apply once per day” waffle-lubricant spray?) Oh, I think I remember this from the last place: grab a cup and fill it, then put it in the waffle maker, then close it and turn it over. An alarm should sound eventually, but I don’t know when (it must have been on the instruction sheet that isn’t there). Ok, now Its ready. Slide to the left, and try to avoid the people coming from the other direction who are buttering their toast in the middle of the table. Excuse me, sorry I knocked your bagel over. Oops, gotta slide back to the right to grab some syrup. Ok, now back to the table.
Do I really have to describe what is wrong with this?
Ok, lunchtime at Subway now. I went there because I knew that their adherence to corporate standards is excellent. That means that at every Subway I go to I can count on a janky experience at the soda fountain. Walk all the way past the end of the line, then get some ice in the middle of the machine (this is an effective way to ensure that only one customer can use the machine at a time). So now I slide either left or right to get my sugar water, and now it’s time to slide back into oncoming traffic to get my lid and cup. Then on to my seat.
Finally, the person behind me can get started. Single piece flow with no parallel processing. This is how sandwiches get soggy and customers get dissatisfied. And just in case I wasn’t taking long enough, I have the opportunity to open my straw and take a sip (thanks to the little trash bin in the counter). Oops, sipped too much. Gotta refill and start over.
Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below.