Three Hands

Over the weekend, I try to catch up on home tasks, and often the lessons I learn there carry forward to the workday.   One of my biggest frustrations with home projects is dealing with tasks that require more than two hands.  Something as simple as nailing a board, for example, requires one hand on the board, one to hammer and one to hold the nail.  Depending on your skill level with a hammer, this particular scenario can also lead to injury. “Be careful to hit the right nail,” my father used to tell me.  I refer to these tasks as three-hand-tasks.  They occur all day long, but we tend to ignore them since there is no remedy.

In the workplace, be it an office, a factory, an OR, or even a construction site, the need for a third hand is often accommodated by a tool like a nail gun that functions as two-hands or as a holding fixture to secure the object of our work.  Still there are many occasions each day when one or both hands are used as holding fixtures.  Apart from safety issues, this normal impediment slows work by 50% or more.  We have two hands, but only one is working.  Take for example, the assembler who holds multiple parts in one hand to act as a feeder rather than repeatedly reaching to a container for each assembly cycle.  The function is assembly, but one hand is just a holding fixture.  Workers adopt this method to avoid repeated reaching.  But why not do something about the reaching?   Or, there is the need to steady the piece (or person in healthcare) to whom we are adding value – another spot where a third-hand would come in handy.  Or, for larger work, maybe we’ll call another body part into use: perhaps a stomach, a shoulder or a foot.  Or, we simply wait until another pair of hands is available.  Without another means for remediation, we do whatever is necessary to get the job done.  And, with practice, we get pretty good at it.  I once observed a rather slight employee with small hands, use her left hand to pick-up and hold six golf-balls at one time as a feeder to her right hand that was loading a pad printer to print logos on the balls.  Problem was, she was the only employee in the plant who had this superhuman dexterity. 

I spent 15 years managing a factory where brilliant shopfloor employees devised clever ways to accommodate their three-hand work with simple fixturing, non-slip work surfaces and arrangement of materials within inches of their work.  And good for them!  They recognized the waste of motion and applied simple countermeasures, most of which they could do without technical support.  But then, one day an astute engineer introduced us to DFMA concepts and software created by Geoffrey Boothroyd and Peter Dewhurst that had the production floor in mind as well as the end customer.  One premise of their studies was that products can be designed so as to not require assembly fixturing.  That single design constraint modified our approach to new product development, making assembly and fabrication safer, easier, faster and lower cost.   My key take-away from the experience was that the full benefits of Lean are realized when everyone in the organization applies their creativity to eliminate waste (in this case three-hands waste); Everybody, Everyday, as a we say at GBMP.

Here’s some homework for my readers:  Be mindful today of how repetitive tasks in your job require “three hands.”  Share a few with me and let me know your countermeasure. 


As GBMP’s annual conference21st Century Lean – quickly approaches (it’s next week, on Wednesday October 7 & Thursday October 8), I thought it useful to mention that, in addition to the live programming scheduled for those dates (see the agenda here), bonus content – great prerecorded sessions for passionate Lean practitioners – is already available to watch, and all of that great content plus recordings of the live sessions, will be available to all registered attendees for a year! Which means if you can’t join us for the sessions as they stream live next week, you can view them (as many times as you wish and alongside colleagues) anytime time in the next year. This flexibility for learning when the time is right for you is pretty exciting and while we love and will miss seeing everyone IRL (in real life) this year, these are some pretty compelling reasons to attend a virtual conference (no travel and registration for 1/4 the price are pretty great reasons too). Be well my friends.

This entry was posted in old lean dude, lean manufacturing, kanban, continuous improvement, kaizen on September 28 , 2020.