Common Sense

Volume 132, No. 15 - Friday, October 12, 2007

There has been a lot of talk about the “Value Stream” in manufacturing circles as part of what is called “lean manufacturing.”

A fad, certainly, though not without its merits. Like other management fads before it, the tendency has been to dwell on the surface, on its slogans. Somehow, management seems to spare itself the same scrutiny it so generously heaps on its workers.

The words have an appealing macho ring to them, but they are rooted in humanism, a point missed in our attempt to translate them from Japanese. 
Their birth, at Toyota Motors, a company which began serving farmers, understanding the difference between cultivation and coercion.

Simply put, the value stream means the flow of product through the production process, in particular, those steps that add value for the customer to the product, versus those that don’t. In the original thinking, waste means wasted energy: energy not spent adding value. Lean means eliminating waste. 

Common sense, which is so rarely common, applies: the goal should be to eliminate as many steps as you can that don’t add value, so everyone can focus on the steps that do. 

What is management’s value stream? The real answer can only be found by turning things upside down; by standing in your customers shoes, looking in, from the outside. You need to make a disciplined effort to see your products and services through your customers’ eyes. 

Looking inward from the inside, from your point of view, is near-sighted. When I sold cheese, I used to lead those who worked for me by the hand, to the front of the cheese case, in an attempt to get them to see it from the customers’ point of view. 

You see, in an odd way, I always thought of “those who worked for me” as my customers. The capital “C” customer, the overall company’s is, of course, those who buy your cheese. But who is management’s customer? 

Viewing the next person, process or machine after you in the value stream as your customer can be enlightening. The thing missing from most faddish management philosphies, is management. Before re-engineering everyone else, shouldn’t management re-engineer itself? 

An important skill to cultivate in managing is empathy: the ability to stand in another person’s shoes. Aggressive, do it my way or take the highway type managing may give a short term kick, but it doesn’t last.

In my work with clients, the great majority of managers and supervisors are neither lazy nor stupid. In fact, they spend too much time and energy. 
Too much is spent on things that do not add value for their customer. 
Management’s first customer is the worker. They should work in service to their employees; not their wants, but their needs, that is, those needs directly related to a worker’s ability to focus time and energy on steps that add value to your cheese, while minimizing time that has to be spent on steps that add no value. 

Management’s job is “to remove obstacles to pride of workmanship”, create a stable and predictable workplace, and provide a vision.

If this is all true, then what should be management’s focus? Where should the money be spent in management’s budget? 
•Simply Looking: Observing the flow of cheese through the plant to understand where value is added, and where it isn’t.
•Removing Obstacles: working with the workers to eliminate wasted effort. (effort not spent on adding value.)
•Verifying if changes work
•Training: Standardized training for the skills need to follow standardized processes 
•Preventative Maintenance 
•Communicating the Vision
•Developing an outward-in focus throughout the company: a conscious discipline applied to weigh everything first as it relates to the experience of those who buy your cheese.

What percentage of the budget do you spend on training? The old argument doesn’t hold that you don’t have time. Detailed, ongoing skills training lowers costs dramatically over the long term. You don’t have time not to.

How many hours a day is spent simply looking and removing obstacles? 
How much verifying if changes work? How much time and money is budgeted to preventative maintenance? Communicating a vision? Visiting distributors, restaurants and stores, not to sell, but to understand and empathize with the “consumer experience” and find ways to improve it?
Most management, in our industry and others, in the US, and around the world, spends too much time on everything but the value stream: arbitrary cost cutting, putting out fires, and feeding a subtle perception of contempt for those that work for them and buy their products.

Real “Lean” begins with a new “diet” for management. Management needs to stop consuming itself from within. It needs to empathize with all of its customers, without and within. It needs to pony up for training: both standardizing and doing. It needs to get out from behind desks and spreadsheets and spend more time in direct support of the plant floor, and in the venues that sell your cheese. It needs to focus on the value stream and eliminate wasted effort to boost productivity and quality, thereby increasing sales, making more profit, and better products.

Every day, ask yourself this simple question: “Is what I am doing, right now, adding value?” You don’t need a fancy lingo, or an MBA. All you need is to look with compassion, humility, and common sense. 

Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions, a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter. Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at


Other Strongin Articles written for Cheese Reporter
It All Begins in The Mouth
Of Cars...

The Gathering Storm
As Our Industry Evolves, So Should Our Terminology:
Other Cheese Reporter Guest Columnists
Visit John Umhoefer
Visit Neville McNaughton

What do you think about 
Dan Strongin's Comments?*

Please tell us if you are a
Dairy product manufacturer 
Dairy marketer/importer/exporter
Milk producer
Supplier to manufacturers

*Comments will remain anonymous. 
Cheese Reporter retains the right to publish anonymous comments to continue the discussion of this editorial.  Comments do not necessary reflect those of Cheese Reporter Publishing Co. Inc.