The Tennis Ball Exercise

I wrote previously about a kaizen event I attended recently at Food Sciences Corp. in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. I wanted to describe a particular exercise we experienced at the event that, in the space of a few minutes, helped teach some key improvement principles.

I’m sure this is not a new technique, but it was one I had never experienced before.

Sal Runfola, director of operations at Food Sciences and the person directing our event, had six members of our group stand around a conference room. He gave a tennis ball to one man, who was instructed to toss it to someone else. The second person had to toss it again, but only to someone who hadn’t touched it before. This went on until the sixth person had the ball.

This created a “process” for tossing the tennis ball. It had to be touched by each person, in the order established by the first set of tosses, and that order could not be changed.

Next, Sal gave three tennis balls to the first man and told him to send each one through the process, one after another. This effort was timed; it took 10 seconds.

Sal then ordered the group to significantly reduce the time it took for three balls to go through the process.

The men rearranged themselves, so that instead of standing on opposite sides of the room, they were in a line, in process order. With this formation, processing three balls took four seconds.

Sal’s response: Not good enough.

Ultimately, the men formed a tight circle, their hands in the center, so that the first man could simply drop the balls, having them roll down the hands, touching each man in order. Cycle time was reduced to one second.

The point Sal made afterward was that he had told the group to improve the process, but had not said anything about how to improve it. The men had to come up with that themselves.

And that’s what lean, in at least one respect, is all about – getting those directly involved with a process to creatively come up with improvement ideas while managers get out of the way.

Want your people to learn lean? Go buy some tennis balls.


Sal Runfola said...

Good job. I have always found it works best to "ask" your people if they can do better. They will think about it and in 90% of cases, come up with some cool improvements.
Just keep asking.

Dan Keldsen said...

Interesting - have done that as a creativity/innovation exercise as well. FWIW - it's possible to run that process even faster, although I suppose it depends on how you're triggering the start/stopwatch.

Great example though - abstract out to something real simple, and then tie it back to "real work." Works like a charm, although keeping that thinking in people's heads every day - well THAT is a major challenge.


Peter Carter said...

Just a thought - what if they 're-engineered' the process so the other 5 people were no longer required. Now that's Lean!

Dwayne said...

I see Peter and I have the same collection of "managers" dedicated to covering their own butts before all else. In their minds, the only person really needed in any process is the one who schedules their non-stop meetings and brings donuts. (They then double as a guard to keep unemployed rioters from coming back in to lynch the "Lean Team".)

Why is it that the people on the floor who can do two 8 hour machine cycle time / shifts of work in 10 hours (by overlapping start/stop times) are stupider than the people who stopped them from doing 16 hours of work in 10 hours and instead implemented TWO 8 hour shifts as being 'more efficient'?

Answer: More employees equals a larger 'empire' & a perceived insulation between the 'Lean Manager' and unemployment. Besides... it's a government contractor & the extra time charged to the government means a larger bonus for managers.

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