Kaizen, the cluttered desk and upstream workflows

Inspired by a Brendan Greeley’s Business Week article on Monomoy Capital Partners’ approach to shop floor efficiency, Oil IT Journal editor Neil McNaughton wonders if kaizen is really necessary if your window on the world is a computer monitor. Back from the 2010 PNEC data integration conference he decides that yes, cleanup is needed—both on the desktop and on the desk itself!

This editorial was inspired by an article in Business Week by Brendan Greeley titled, ‘My week at private equity boot camp’ and by my attendance earlier this month at Phil Crouse’s PNEC data integration conference more of which in the June issue of Oil IT Journal. Greeley describes a visit to a mid-sized factory in Scottsboro, Alabama making parts for industrial refrigeration units. The unit, HTPG, was acquired by Monomoy Capital Partners in 2010 and recently underwent an in-depth makeover performed by Monomoy’s efficiency gurus. I invite you to read the full piece for a blow by blow description of how Monomoy does its stuff—it’s pretty informative. Monomoy uses the Toyota production system with its ‘kaizen’ (continuous improvement) approach. In the plant this translates into a sometimes ‘alien obsession’ with cleanliness and order.

What caught my fancy here was a kind of triple take I had as I finished the article. Reading about folks cleaning up after themselves to keep the plant shipshape and doing kaizens on this and that, my first reaction was that this is all jolly interesting stuff but that it could hardly apply to a company of the size of Oil IT Journal’s publisher The Data Room.

Then I thought, actually our ‘plant,’ a very small office, is in an incredibly un-kaizen state. There are boxes of old computer leads piled up along the back wall. Ill-advised kit bought years ago on E-Bay sits atop fading Ikea ‘Billy’ bookshelves, sagging under the weight of old computer manuals. Several different sizes and geometries of carry-ons are readied for short notice departure, papers and documents are piled up higgledy-piggledy, two live and one dead computers sit alongside various scanners, printers and a fax. We are, it would seem totally un-obsessed with cleanliness and order.

In fact the problem with ping, power and desktop publishing is that you can more or less happily look forward at your computer screen while the crap piles up around you. Stuff comes in on the wire—it shifted around on the computer and massaged on the screen and eventually it goes out to the website and or email recipient and the job is done. The real world of documents, paraphernalia and dust is somehow orthogonal to the digital world. I wonder is there any benefit to be had from a small office kaizen blitz?

While pondering this, my third take came along. Kaizen, cleanliness and all that is pretty well exactly what data management is about. A labyrinthine folder structure is just like the plant filled with spare inventory. A kaizen expert would have a field day in your average IT shop. Maybe they already do. In case not here are some hints from Greely and Monomoy.

Monomoy sends a team of kaizen experts in to perform a kaizen ‘boot camp’ on its acquisitions. The process starts with ‘cleaning’ which involves sorting, straightening, sweeping, standardizing and ‘sustaining’ the shop floor. Kaizen, which started out as the Toyota production system (TPS) homes in on three kinds of ‘muda’ or waste. Actions that create no value, that overburden people or machines, and lead to inconsistent production. The process involves what used to be called ‘time and motion studies’ to optimize the workspace and defined a precise job for everyone.

So how does all this map across to the upstream? At the highest level you can imagine private equity-backed experts coming in and sorting out the tortuous processes of portfolio management, drilling and producing. Perhaps Tullow should abandon exploration in its own right and turn itself into an E&P private equity cum mergers and acquisitions specialist.

At a level closer to the E&P shop floor, a kaizen blitz ought to be a good idea for the data and interpretation cycle. This would involve quality control—not just of the data itself but of the processes surrounding it—attacking ‘waste that overburdens’ like reformatting and conditioning data for use, copying files, rework—stuff that happens all the time. It is something of a truism that much of the industry lives from constant fiddling around wasteful processes. These issues are well known and addressed at every PNEC. So what exactly is added by kaizen?

Well, it is not a magic bullet and one should not expect it to introduce concepts that are totally foreign to the enterprise—IT does enough of that anyhow! A couple of things are interesting in the Monomoy approach. First it is the external eye that is cast on the work process. I remember being very irritated as a seismic interpreter when the boss came in to review my work. Inevitably he homed in on the blindingly obvious weak point that I had been addressing with … denial. Even a non specialist’s eye can have a positive impact by pointing out what you knew all along.

Greely also argues that the shop floor gets used to the process and begins looking at their own actions through the kaizen lens. The first kaizen is the worst and folks will be irritated by the new interference. But eventually there is a recognition that you need to be constantly re-evaluating processes as the business evolves and to counter ‘entropy,’ as things inevitably backslide into disarray.

Albert Einstein is supposed to have asked, ‘If a cluttered desk signals a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?’ A good question.

But really, I have to do something about the mess in the office. Only this week my digital ‘window to a clean world’ notion failed as I found the PUG program beneath a pile of invoices. While it’s hard to do a kaizen blitz on yourself that is just what we need. I think we’ll start with the physical dust and junk in the office and then move on to the digital jumble spread across our various desktops and the server. Yep, we are definitely going to get down and dirty—just as soon as I get back from the Copenhagen EAGE. See you there?

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