It was the week before Christmas, and Santa’s workshop was very busy indeed. In Santa’s HQ, footage from SantaCams across the globe was being scrutinized to confirm who’s been Naughty or Nice, spreadsheets prepared and route-planners updated. Out in the stables the reindeer were being groomed, and the sleigh serviced and shone to perfection.
This was peak period for Elves, and the Elves in the Wrapping Department were feeling particularly beleaguered. It was starting to feel like Christmas Cheer was running out for Ann (in charge of Batteries and Checking), Brian (Chief Wrapper) and Clare (Ribbons, Gift Tags and Glitter).
Elf Ann was well known in all of HQ for her nimble fingers and speed. It was her job to check that toys – both shipped in and manufactured in the North Pole – were in full working order, and to insert the required batteries into all battery-operated toys. She had won awards for productivity, and had been Elfployee of the Month for two months running. Once she had finished with a toy Ann would pass it to Elf Brian.
Brian’s job was to wrap the toys, and also the books, which involved cutting the wrapping paper to the required size, wrapping the gift, and taping it securely. Efficient use of wrapping paper was very important, so Brian would take care not to waste any. Before cutting a new sheet of paper to size he would search amongst his stock for an appropriate sized off-cut from a previously wrapped gift. He would sharpen his scissors regularly to improve paper cutting. Taping could often be problematic because the end of the sellotape got lost. When this happened, he’d have to try very hard to find it quickly, which was worrisome and fiddly. He’d noticed a big pile of toys and books building up in front of his workstation. Ann was so fast!
Elf Clare’s role was to fulfil the final step in the process. On receipt of the wrapped gift from Brian she would tie it with a ribbon, fit the gift tag and apply a sprinkling of glitter. She really loved to add these finishing touches and would think happily of the smiles on Nice children’s faces when they saw them on Christmas morning. Lately however, she had started to feel a little stressed and impatient. After finishing off a gift she’d have to wait a while for Brian to pass the next one along. She wished Brian would hurry up. What if they ran out of time before all the presents got wrapped?
That afternoon there came a particularly gnarly and time consuming search for the end of the sellotape. Clare had been waiting several minutes for Brian to pass his wrapped gift, and could see that Ann was still passing toys to Brian at award winning speed. She came to the end of her elfy tether. “Can’t you hurry up?” she demanded, and under her breath (though still loud enough for everyone to hear) she muttered, “Dummy”.
Poor Brian. His cheeks burned pinker than usual, his mouth turned down, and even the tip of pointy little hat seemed to droop. That afternoon seemed to last a lifetime. The heap of toys and books in front of his workstation was growing bigger by the minute, the end of the sellotape seemed ever more elusive and the word “Dummy” was ringing in his ears. When the jingle-bell sounded and it was finally time to go home he breathed a sigh of relief. He resolved to try harder tomorrow.
But just as he was turning to leave, something in the queue of work caught his eye. It was a bright yellow book entitled ‘Lean Six Sigma for Dummies’. “Dummies! I suppose I should read this”. he thought. He hurried home and read it he did.
That night he learned a great deal. He started to understand that the process steps in the Wrapping Department could be likened to a chain – a series of steps dependant on each other. You can’t deliver gifts until they have their ribbons and glitter, and you can’t put the ribbons and glitter on until they’re wrapped, and so on. “How strong is the chain?” asked the Dummies book, “As strong as its weakest link. Find your bottleneck and you find the weakest link in your chain”.
He understood that although this chain had some award winning elements (thanks to Ann the nimble fingered Elfployee of the Month), this was actually resulting in process sub-optimisation, as it was in reality making things worse in other parts of the process – the big pile of work building up in front of Brian’s workspace, and the fact that Clare was being starved of work.
Brian read on agog, and found that there is a name for this way of thinking: The Theory of Constraints. He understood that in the Wrapping Department, he himself was the constraint! Whilst it wasn’t particularly flattering to be described as a constraint, deep down he knew that the problem wasn’t really about hims-elf, it was about his process. And in understanding this he realised that he was no Dummy.
He went on to read more about The Theory of Constraints.
A constraint is a bottleneck. It occurs wherever and whenever capacity cannot meet demand. You can identify constraints where you have a build-up of people (a queue), material (inventory), units to be processed or work in progress (a backlog).
When you find the bottleneck or constraint you can then find ways to improve the processing capability at the bottleneck point in the process flow. For example, if the constraint is a machine, keep it running during the working day. Don’t close it down for servicing: you can service the machine after hours. Anytime lost at the constraint, read Brian, has a big effect on the whole process.
The next thing to do is to subordinate the other steps to the constraint. This means using the constraint to dictate the pace at which the upstream activities (Batteries and Checking) send their output to the constraint.
He read more and learned that the next step in The Theory of Constraints is to elevate the constraint – to improve it to increase its capacity and therefore to improve the results for the entire process. The final step, he read, was to go back to the beginning and repeat all of the steps again, to support the Continuous Improvement of Santa’s HQ.
Wow! He slept well that night and couldn’t wait to get back to work to improve the flow of the Wrapping Department process. He needed to act quickly!
So, he improved processing capability by refraining from sharpening his scissors during his processing time. This could be done before or after work, and less frequent sharpening didn’t make any difference to performance. It felt a bit weird asking Ann to slow down, but after Brian’s impassioned re-telling of his learnings she was keen to do anything to help him. In fact she spent a bit of time helping to reorganise his paper stocks, which made finding appropriate sizes of gift wrap much quicker. The pile of work in front of Brian’s workspace grew smaller, and Christmas Cheer began to return. After lunch, Clare asked Brian if he could spare a moment. Now that this pile of work was smaller, he found that he could! Clare said sorry. She presented Brian with a small, beautifully wrapped gift of his own. It had an extra sprinkling of glitter. Brian opened the paper to find something wonderful – a sellotape dispenser! His cheeks grew pinker again, but this time it was from pride and pleasure.
Five days later, on Christmas Eve, as the Elves broke up for Christmas, Santa himself shook Brian by the hand and thanked him for his efforts. Brian became December’s Elfployee of the Month!
As Ann, Brian and Clare watched Santa depart for the big night ahead they contemplated all they’d learned and all they had achieved. “Bottlenecks” said Brian, “who’d have thought it!”. And as they watched Santa’s wide body squeeze into the sleigh, and gazed upon the slender chimney pots on the horizon they all began to smile. “Are you going to tell him?” asked Clare, “or shall I?”
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