In close to 100 percent of all business improvement books, the topic of communication is always considered a key factor to success. I am sure that many of us would agree on the importance of communication, and may even consider it a universal truth. Most companies spend countless hours and substantial money to make sure communication channels are open and flowing. As a result, we have seen some pretty impressive technology over the years, all at our fingertips like cell phones, PDAs, e-mail, laptops, voicemail, etc.

We focus not only on the quality and quantity of information but the speed of communication from the shop floor to management and back. We look of opportunities to improve communication, including making sure we have solid two-way communication to battle the common complaint of only having one-way communication channels.

In our lean world, we understand the importance of information flow and communication. In fact, our value stream maps are constructed to focus on both material and information flow, making opportunities visible in both areas.

But if we examine our value stream map process, we may find that is not always true. How many of us focus more on the material flow while constructing our value stream maps and give little attention to the information flow? Why? Is information flow harder to see? Is it that material flow has easy dollar savings tied to improvements in this area over information flow?

One of the most important, yet overlooked, areas of improvement in communication in our value stream is the direction of the flow of information. Just look at your value stream map. Are there more information flow arrows moving up and down (vertical) than information flow across the value stream (horizontal)? It is critical to look at improving communication across the value stream, or this horizontal direction. This can reduce errors, remove non-value-added gates and speed up the flow where it is needed most.

If you take a look at all of our technology advances and communication improvements over the past few years, in which direction are we focusing? Is it more the vertical direction (bottom-top-back down) or is it horizontal (side-to-side)?

This is not to say that top-down communication is not important – just that we tend to ignore the very important horizontal communication path. Improving our horizontal communication is probably the most critical missing link we have today on our lean journey.

As an example of the power of horizontal communication, I can recall one event that occurred several years ago at another company. As with most typical manufacturing operations, our process was set up in a traditional manner – assembly followed by 100 percent inspection. The inspector looked over and tested the products, passed on good products and pulled non-conforming products off the line. The inspector, following procedures, marked the products and recorded that data. This information was passed on to the quality manager and then on to the plant manager. The data was reviewed in the next day’s staff meeting with the supervisors with the action item to deal with it. And certainly, throughout the day, this information could be seen directly only if the quality manger, plant manager or supervisor walked over to the inspection station.

What do you think about this information flow? How would you improve it?

Seeing that we lose valuable time between error detection and error countermeasures, we keep the information flow the same except for one major change. We directed the inspector to stop the line and notify the supervisor immediately with each problem. We also added that the inspector could stop the line and walk over to the most probable source of the problem and directly inform the employee of that process about the problem. At first, the plant manager was not happy about all the line shutdowns. But over time, we saw an amazing reduction of errors, which ultimately improved productivity. Isn’t that what we are really after?

Take a quick walk to your gemba and look at the communication flow. Look for any ways to improve horizontal flow. How far apart are the associates in the value stream from each other? Can we change the flow to move them closer together? Can all associates see the proper information boards? Ask each associate what information they need and how fast is it getting to them. Ask each associate how we can improve the flow of information to them and get their ideas. With focus and creativity, improvements in the horizontal flow of information will greatly improve your value stream.

About the author:
Mike Wroblewski started his lean journey with instruction in quick die change from Shigeo Shingo. Mike is currently the lean sensei at Batesville Casket Company in Batesville, Ind. He also writes a blog called “Got Boondoggle?” featuring lean and Six Sigma topics. Check it out at http://gotboondoggle.blogspot.com/. Mike will be a featured lean track speaker at Noria Corporation’s “Lean, Reliable and Lubed” conference, May 20-22, 2008, in Nashville, Tenn. Learn more about this event by visiting www.driveyourplant.com.