Mel Brooks fans will remember Spaceballs, his jocular jibe at the Star Wars epic. In pursuit of a rebel ship, evil Lord Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) orders his crew to accelerate their craft beyond the speed of light to “ludicrous speed.” While time travel remains science fiction, our ability to process and transmit data has proceeded apace since I was a young lean dude. In college we expressed data transmission speed as a baud rate, a unit of measure roughly equivalent to one alphanumeric character per second. Geeks like me sat at Teletype machines watching our computer programs transmit programs at the blazing speed of 32 baud (i.e. 32 characters per second) to a shared computer at Dartmouth College, which then processed that information at a rate expressed in IPS, instructions per second. Information speed was severely limited by the transmission and processing technology of the day. By the time I graduated college however, speed had progressed to MIPS, millions of instructions per second, then to billions, and more recently FLOPS. The trend continues today, bounded only by theoretical limits, towards ludicrous speed.
Fascination with information speed has been with us since 1953 when the first commercial computer was sold. At that time UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) processing speeds averaged 0.002 MIPS. Only a handful of the world’s largest corporations could afford the million-dollar price tag for the twenty-nine thousand pound device that filled a four hundred square-foot room. UNIVAC was the device that coined the term “real-time” defined as the “actual time during which something takes place” plus a few more MIPS for processing. No doubt, the technological breakthrough was amazing, if only visible to a few persons.
However, compare UNIVAC’s real-time stats to the iPhone 6, weighing in at less than five ounces, and fitting easily in a jacket pocket. In a sixty year span, the speed of real-time has increased by nearly 130 million percent. Ludicrous speed! Moreover, smart phones are ubiquitous. Now everyone can have real-time information, not just a few large corporations. So what’s so ludicrous about that?
From a Lean standpoint, there are a number of challenges:
First, is the barrage of media presented to us every minute of the day. How many emails must I routinely delete each time I handle my smart phone? How many videos do I need to see on, for example, Kanban? YouTube lists 56,600 entries. Which of these is valuable to me? Which represent misinformation? How can I confirm? In reality anybody can post any video today – with ludicrous speed. No doubt, some of these videos will be excellent. But I could sort and sift through the YouTube haystack forever looking for good information.
Second, the promises of automating Lean are alluring but insidious. For example, say some, do away with those pesky cards (kanbans) and replace with them with real-time kanban. This, unfortunately, separates the information from the material, assuring that the two flows will be out of sync. Moreover, the ‘instantaneous’ information becomes invisible. Cyberspace is not a Gemba. We can’t go there to see queues or delays or problems.
There is a paradox in the lack of connectedness that has derived from this ludicrous speed of information flow. An increasing number of persons labor under the delusion, for example, that texting is “talking to someone.” At a time when we are finally acknowledging the importance of social science to real Lean transformation, we are at the same time interposing a tool that isolates people, that creates only the illusion of human interaction.
The ludicrous speed with which we can all whip up professional-looking presentations today has blurred the distinction between looking good and being good. In the immortal words of Dave Lee Roth, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how good you look.” PowerPoint, the original "baffle-them-with-B.S." application has been around for twenty-five years, but it is quickly being supplanted by a plethora of smartphone apps for 5S, standardized work , Kanban, Kamishibai, and..well...you name it! Why do we do this? Because we can. The words of my old-school TPS teacher are ringing in my ears. Responding to my PowerPoint-drawn value stream map, he replied “Don’t make it pretty, make it accurate.”
Finally, as with material flow, when we focus primarily on cycle time, those nanoseconds of computer processing and transmission, we lose sight of the often huge stagnation time of computer queues, the automated over-production of information (produced before it is needed), and the total elapsed time for information flow, which includes the batching of information before input and after output. Those times can be truly ludicrous.
I’m admittedly a participant in the information age and I benefit from its ludicrous speed. I use the Internet, for example, to write my posts and revel in the opportunity to pull in links to humorous video, historical background and scholarly articles. But I worry that the ludicrous speed with which I send and receive information today may not be leading to more wisdom.
Please share your thoughts. Do you agree or disagree with the challenges I’ve posed? Can you think of other challenges?
P.S. GBMP has lined up several Shingo Institute workshops this winter and spring. For those who wish to learn how to create and lead sustainable cultures of excellence based on the Shingo Model and its Guiding Principles, we hope you can join one of our exceptional Certified Facilitators at an event near you soon. Read all about the courses and our faciliatators here.
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