Category: Environment

Unplugged – Earth Hour – 2012

The Earth – Unplugged

EARTH HOUR is now an annual event that is embraced around the globe.  For at least one hour, we will have the opportunity to “unplug” ourselves from the world to ponder and increase our awareness of how our “activities of daily living” can make a difference to the environment we live in.

Measuring Change

While the benefits of turning off the world for an hour are difficult to measure in the immediate sense, the longer term affect or impact will be determined and governed by our thinking first and actions second.

We have all learned to embrace the three (3) R’s – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – as evidenced by the blue bins that regularly grace our streets on “recycling” day. We all make a personal effort to painstakingly separate items into various categories of “waste” to better serve the recycling process.

Companies have also taken a greater sense of responsibility for providing “green” or “earth friendly” products although, in many cases, the effort has more to do with the packaging than that of the product itself. Here in Ontario, Canada, our provincial government has imposed “environmental fees” on various products – such as electronics – to further support recycling programs. Locally, in and around the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), plastic bags are subject to a fee of $0.05 each to curb consumers from using them.

From an energy perspective, we have been introduced to fully electric and hybrid cars. Nuclear energy and new sources of electricity such as wind mills and solar panels have replaced coal fired plants. Even my Logitech K750 keyboard is solar powered!

Behavior Changes

Sporadic record breaking high temperatures have marked this past winter as anything but Canadian. For some, climate change is cause enough to be an Earth Hour participant. I, however, believe that managing our finite resources in a more efficient and effective manner is something to think about and worthy of an hour of my time.

Behaviors must change, however, to do so requires us to first change our thinking. From a lean perspective, Earth Hour serves as a reminder to pursue perfection and pure value through the relentless elimination of waste. We can do so much more and all we need to do is take at least one hour to think about it – starting now.  There is always and better way and more than one solution.

Earth Hour will commence from 8:30 pm to 9:30 pm EST on Saturday, March 31, 2012.

Until Next Time – STAY lean!


Lean, OEE, and How to beat the “Law of Diminishing Returns”

Are your lean initiatives falling prey to the Law of Diminishing Returns?  Waning returns may soon be followed by apathy as the “new” initiative gets old.  For those who have not studied economics or are not familiar with the term, it is defined by Wikepedia as follows:

The law states “that we will get less and less extra output when we add additional doses of an input while holding other inputs fixed. In other words, the marginal product of each unit of input will decline as the amount of that input increases holding all other inputs constant.

In simple terms, continued application of time and effort to improve a process will eventually yield reduced or smaller returns.  The low hanging fruit that once was easy to see and resolve has all but disappeared.  Some companies would claim that they have finally “arrived”.  We contend that these same companies have simply hit their first plateau.

Methods and Objectives

Is it inevitable that a process has been refined to the point where additional investment can no longer be justified financially?  The short answer is “Yes and No”.  As the Olympics are well under way, we are quick to observe the fractions of seconds that may be shaved from current world records.  If you’re going for Olympic Gold, you will need every advancement or enhancement that technology has to offer to gain the competitive edge.  These advances in technology are refinements for existing processes that are governed by strict rules.  Clearly, there are much faster ways to get from point A to point B.  However, the objective of the Olympics is to demonstrate how these feats can be accomplished through the physical skills and abilities of the athletes.

In business our objectives are defined differently.  We want to provide (and our customers expect) the highest quality products at the lowest cost delivered in the shortest amount of time.  How we do that is up to us.  Lean initiatives and tools such as overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) can help us to refine current processes but are they enough to stimulate the development of new products and processes?  Or, are they limited to simply help us to recognize when optimum levels have been achieved?

Radical change versus refinement

Objectives are used to determine and align the methods that are used to achieve a successful outcome.  This is certainly the case in the automotive industry as environmental concerns and availability of non-renewable resources, specifically oil and gas, continue to gain global attention and focus.  The objectives of our “transportation” systems are being redefined almost dynamically as new technologies are beginning to emerge.  At some point, the automotive industry leaders must have realized that continuing to refine existing technologies simply will not satisfy future expectations.  With this realization it is now inevitable that a radical powertrain technology change is required.  Hybrid vehicles continue to evolve and electric cars are not too far behind.

How to Beat the Law of Diminishing Returns

Overcoming the law of diminishing returns requires another look at the vision, goals, and objectives of the company and to develop a new, different, or fresh perspective on what it is you are trying to achieve.  The lean initiatives introduced by Toyota, Walmart, Southwest and many others were driven by the need to find a competitive edge.  They recognized that they couldn’t simply be a “me too” company to gain the recognition and successes they now enjoy.

The question you may want to ask yourself and your team is, “If we started from scratch today, is this the result we would be looking for?”  The answer should be a unanimous and resounding “NO”.  Get out your whiteboard, pens, paper, and start writing down what you would be doing differently.  In other words, it’s time to re-energize the team and refocus your goals and objectives.  Vision and mission statements are not tombstones for the living.  5S these documents and take the time to re-invigorate your team.

Turning a company around may require some new radical changes and we need to be mindful of the new upstarts with the latest and greatest technology.  They may have an edge that we have may just haven’t taken the time to consider.  We are not suggesting that you need to replace all the equipment in your plant in order to compete.  Proven technologies have their place in industry and the competitive pricing isn’t always about speed.  The question you may need to consider is, “Can our technology be used to produce different products that have been traditionally manufactured using other methods?”

While many companies pursue a growth strategy based on their current product offerings and derivatives, we would strongly suggest that manufacturers consider a growth strategy based on their process technology offerings.  What else can we make with process or machine XYZ?  We anticipate that manufacturing sectors will soon start to blend as manufacturers pursue products beyond the scope of their current industry applications.

Be the Leader

Leading companies create and define the environment where their products and services will thrive.  Apple’s “iProducts” have redefined how electronics are used in everyday life.  As these tools are developed and evolve, so too can the systems and processes used throughout manufacturing.  The collective human mind is forever considering the possibilities of the next generation of products or services.

There was a time when manned space flight and walking on the moon were considered unlikely probabilities.  Today we find ourselves discovering and considering galaxies beyond our own and we don’t give it a second thought.  How far can we go and how do we get there?  The answer to that question is …

Until Next Time – STAY lean!

22 Seconds to Burn – Excel VBA Teaches Lean Execution

Cover of "Excel 2003 Power Programming wi...
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VBA for Excel has once again provided the opportunity to demonstrate some basic lean tenets.  The methods used to produce the required product or solution can yield significant savings in time and ultimately money.  The current practice is not necessarily the best practice in your industry.  In manufacturing, trivial or minute differences in methods deployed become more apparent during mass production or as volume and demand increases.  The same is true for software solutions and both are subject to continual improvement and the relentless pursuit to eliminate waste.

Using Excel to demonstrate certain aspects of Lean is ideal.  Numbers are the raw materials and formulas represent the processes or methods to produce the final solution (or product).  Secondly, most businesses are using Excel to manage many of their daily tasks.  Any extended learning can only help users to better understand the Excel environment.

The Model:

We recently created a perpetual Holiday calendar for one of our applications and needed an algorithm or procedure to calculate the date for Easter Sunday and Good Friday.  We adopted an algorithm found on Wikipedia at that produces the correct date for Easter Sunday.

In our search for the Easter Algorithm, we found another algorithm that uses a different method of calculation and provides the correct results too.  Pleased to have two working solutions, we initially did not spend too much time thinking about the differences between them.  If both routines produce the same results then we should choose the one with the faster execution time.  We performed a simple time study to determine the most efficient formula.  For a single calculation, or iteration, the time differences are virtually negligible; however, when subjected to 5,000,000 iterations the time differences were significant.

This number of cycles may seem grossly overstated, however, when we consider how many automobiles and components are produced each year then 5,000,000 approaches only a fraction of the total volume.  Taken further, Excel performs thousands of calculations a day and perhaps even as many more times this rate as numbers or data are entered on a spreadsheet.  When we consider the number “calculations” performed at any given moment, the number quickly grows beyond comprehension.


As a relatively new student to John Walkenbach’s book, “Excel 2003 Power Programming with VBA“, speed of execution, efficiency, and “Declaring your Variables” have entered into our world of Lean.  We originally created two (2) routines called EasterDay and EasterDate.  We then created a simple procedure to run each function through 5,000,000 cycles.  Again, this may sound like a lot of iterations but computers work at remarkable speeds and we wanted enough resolution to discern any time differences between the routines.

The difference in the time required to execute 5,000,000 cycles by each of the routines was surprising.  We recorded the test times (measured in seconds) for three separate studies as follows:

  • Original EasterDay:  31.34,  32.69,  30.94
  • Original EasterDate:  22.17,  22.28,  22.25

The differences between the two methods ranged from 9.17 seconds to 8.69 seconds.  Expressed in different terms, the duration of the EasterDay routine is 1.39 to 1.46 times longer than EasterDate.  Clearly the original EasterDate function has the better execution speed.  What we perceive as virtually identical systems or processes at low volumes can yield significant differences that are often only revealed or discovered by increased volume or the passage of time.

In the Canadian automotive industry there are at least 5 major OEM manufacturers (Toyota, Honda, Ford, GM, and Chrysler), each producing millions of vehicles a year.  All appear to produce similar products and perform similar tasks; however, the performance ratios for each of these companies are starkly different.  We recognize Toyota as the high velocity, lean, front running company.  We contend that Toyota’s success is partly driven by the inherent attention to detail of processes and product lines at all levels of the company.


We decided to revisit the Easter Day calculations or procedures to see what could be done to improve the execution speed.  We created a new procedure called “EasterSunday” using the original EasterDay procedure as our base line.  Note that the original Wikipedia code was only slightly modified to work in VBA for Excel.  To adapt the original Wikipedia procedure to Excel, we replaced the FLOOR function with the INT function in VBA.  Otherwise, the procedure is presented without further revision.

To create the final EasterSunday procedure, we made two revisions to the original code without changing the algorithm structure or the essence of the formulas themselves.  The changes resulted in significant performance improvements as summarized as follows:

  1. For integer division, we replaced the INT (n / d) statements with a less commonly used (or known) “\” integer division operator.  In other words, we used “n \ d” in place of “INT( n / d)” wherever an integer result is required.  This change alone resulted in a gain of 11 seconds.  One word of caution if you plan to use the “\” division operator:  The “n” and “d”  are converted to integers before doing the division.
  2. We declared each of the variables used in the subsequent formulas and gained yet another remarkable 11 seconds.  Although John Walkenbach and certainly many other authors stress declaring variables, it is surprising to see very few published VBA procedures that actually put this to practice.


The results of our Time Tests appear in the table below.  Note that we ran several timed iterations for each change knowing that some variations in process time can occur.

EasterDay = 31.34375 Original Code uses INT( n / d ) to convert Division Results
EasterSunday = 20.828125 1.  Replaced INT ( n / d) with (n \ d)
EasterDate = 22.28125 Original Code – Alternate Calculation Method
Re-Test to Confirm Timing
EasterDay = 30.9375 Original Code uses INT( n / d ) to convert Division Results
EasterSunday = 20.921875 1.  Replaced INT ( n / d) with (n \ d)
EasterDate = 22.25 Original Code – Alternate Calculation Method
Re-Test to Confirm Timing
EasterDay = 30.90625 Original Code uses INT( n / d ) to convert Division Results
EasterSunday = 21.265625 1.  Replaced INT ( n / d) with (n \ d)
EasterDate = 22.25 Original Code – Alternate Calculation Method
Re-Test to Confirm Timing
EasterDay = 31.078125 Original Code uses INT( n / d ) to convert Division Results
EasterSunday = 9.171875 2.  Variables DECLARED!
EasterDate = 22.1875 Original Code – Alternate Calculation Method
Re-Test to Confirm Timing
EasterDay = 31.109375 Original Code uses INT( n / d ) to convert Division Results
EasterSunday = 9.171875 2.  Variables DECLARED!
EasterDate = 22.171875 Original Code – Alternate Calculation Method

The EasterSunday procedure contains the changes described above.  We achieved a total savings of approximately 22 seconds.  The integer division methods used both yield the same result, however, one is clearly faster than the other.

The gains made by declaring variables were just as significant.  In VBA, undeclared variables default to a “variant” type.  Although variant types are more flexible by definition, performance diminishes significantly. We saved at least an additional 11 seconds simply by declaring variables.  Variable declarations are to VBA as policies are to your company, they define the “size and scope” of the working environment.  Undefined policies or vague specifications create ambiguity and generate waste.

Lessons Learned:

In manufacturing, a 70% improvement is significant; worthy of awards, accolades, and public recognition.  The lessons learned from this example are eight-fold:

  1. For manufacturing, do not assume the current working process is the “best practice”.  There is always room for improvement.  Make time to understand and learn from your existing processes.  Look for solutions outside of your current business or industry.
  2. Benchmarking a current practice against another existing practice is just the incentive required to make changes.  Why is one method better than another?  What can we do to improve?
  3. Policy statements can influence the work environment and execution of procedures or methods.  Ambiguity and lack of clarity create waste by expending resources that are not required.
  4. Improvements to an existing process are possible with results that out perform the nearest known competitor.  We anticipated at least being able to have the two routines run at the similar speeds.  We did not anticipate the final EasterSunday routine to run more than 50% faster than our simulated competitive benchmark (EasterDate).
  5. The greatest opportunities are found where you least expect them.  Learning to see problems is one of the greatest challenges that most companies face.  The example presented in this simple analogy completely shatters the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
  6. Current practices are not necessarily best practices and best practices can always be improved.  Focusing on the weaknesses of your current systems or processes can result in a significant competitive edge.
  7. Accelerated modeling can highlight opportunities for improvement that would otherwise not be revealed until full high volume production occurs.  Many companies are already using process simulation software to emulate accelerated production to identify opportunities for improvement.
  8. The most important lesson of all is this:

Speed of Execution is Important >> Thoughtful Speed of Execution is CRITICAL.

We wish you all the best of this holiday season!

Until Next Time – STAY Lean!

Vergence Analytics

At the onset of the Holiday project, the task seemed relatively simple until we discovered that the rules for Easter Sunday did not follow the simple rules that applied to other holidays throughout the year.  As a result we learned more about history, astronomy, and the tracking of time than we ever would have thought possible.

We also learned that Excel’s spreadsheet MOD formula is subject to precision errors and the VBA version of MOD can yield a different result than the spreadsheet version.

We also rediscovered Excel’s Leap Year bug (29-Feb-1900).   1900 was not a leap year.  The leap year bug resides in the spreadsheet version of the date functions.  The VBA date function recognizes that 29-Feb-1900 is not a valid date.

LEAN Environment: Waste Management and OEE

In recent years much emphasis has been placed on the state of our environment and LEAN can help our cause.  If we consider just how much energy and resources are consumed due to inefficiency and waste.  OEE is a measure of how effectively time is used as a resource; however, it does not necessarily reflect the waste that is created in other areas.

To understand the real implications of waste, we need to extend the impact outside of the manufacturing environment, beyond the factory walls.

Consider the cost of non-quality.  Scrap and rework costs are readily calculated since we know how much we pay for labour and materials.  However, we rarely consider the outside costs and potential impact to our environment.  This raises more questions than answers as these costs are beyond our realm of expertise and control.

What is the real cost of a scrap part?  How many trucks are on the road today carrying material to replace products that should have been made right the first time?  How much extra labour is incurred through the value stream to replace this material? 

What are the disposal costs associated with scrap material?  Can it be recycled?  What are the costs of recycling and what is the impact to the environment?  It is one thing to recycle products after they have served their useful purpose, but what about the costs incurred to recycle products that were simply defective and never made it to market?

How much energy and resources are wasted simply because capacity is burdened by inefficiencies in our manufacturing operations?  The costs of working overtime to manufacture parts due to “lost time” during the regular work week or to recover quality losses due to rework and scrap all have an impact on the environment.

How many employees are driving their cars to work overtime that could have been avoided or prevented?  What is the cost to work a shift of overtime at your company?  What is the cost to the environment?  How many cars made the trip to the plant burning fuel unnecessarily because of our inherent manufacturing inefficiencies and waste?

How much money is spent paying for trips to customers to replace defective material or to justify the reasons for failure?  How much expedited freight is incurred due to quality, process inefficiency, or capacity mismanagement?

We have identified many questions that should have some bearing on our social responsibilities as manufacturers or providers of goods and services.  The value stream of your products and services has an impact on the environment beyond your factory walls and affect the environments of communities around the globe.

The next time you scrap a part that was originally made offshore; consider the effort required to deliver it to your factory floor.  The implications of transporting products around the globe can’t help but stress the need to use them wisely.

Where does OEE fit into all of this?  If 100% OEE is the Ideal, then anything less is the opportunity to eliminate waste.  When we look at our operations and the problems we encounter on a daily basis we are reminded to: See, Solve, Share, and Start again.

Until Next Time – STAY Lean!