Many years ago, I remember W. Edwards Deming questioning the obsession businesses had with speed. I thought it was strange coming from the man who worked so closely with Toyota – the company that invented lean. Wasn’t one of the main objectives of the Toyota Production System to reduce cycle times and make processes run faster?
I’ve thought about Deming’s question for many years and, after working with a variety of production and improvement systems, I finally came to the conclusion that Deming may have been referring to the idea that rhythm between processes is more critical than the speed of individual processes.
Rhythm vs. Speed
Companies put a lot of effort and focus on the speed and efficiency of processes. People are measured and rewarded on their ability to speed up the processes with which they work. As a result of this focus, we often end up with a completely unsynchronized production or service system, thereby increasing inventory and costs, and in most cases, slowing down the company, as a whole.
I have seen many instances where people pushed as much output as possible to the next step in the process in order to meet goals – even when the next step was not ready or able to handle the extra work. As a result, teamwork breaks down, finger-pointing increases, WIP inventory increases, and quality decreases. A common response to the buildup of WIP in the system includes measures to attack the symptoms (e.g., the increased inventory), rather than the causes (lack of synchronization and poorly focused goals).
There is an optimal speed at which a process should operate in order to meet objectives (i.e., its takt time). Achieving and sustaining takt time requires that every step in the process operate in rhythm with each other. Any individual step in the process that produces in excess of takt time has a negative effect on the overall system, which is often as destructive as producing too slowly. Whether the operation provides a product or service, the key is synchronization at the optimal pace. Even ignoring the internal cost and cultural problems associated with a lack of synchronization, one has to question the practice of producing faster than customers want.
Although I’ll never know, it could be that Deming was referring to the idea that synchronization of processes – and meeting takt time – is far better than increasing the speed of any individual process. He may have been trying to teach the concept that, without a focus on rhythm, speed means nothing.