Poka Yoke, Fishbone Diagrams and 5S: How Lean Manufacturing Principles Guide Rackspace Data Center Operations

Lean manufacturing is generally thought of as a systematic method of waste minimization.

Many embark on a path of “lean” to drive out unnecessary costs. However, often missed is the core idea of lean, which is to maximize customer value while minimizing the effort and costs that don’t add value for customers.

Lean manufacturing principles started in the manufacturing industry and have been effectively leveraged by companies for decades to improve quality and reduce costs. Today, leveraging lean principles in industries such as healthcare, to reduce patient wait times, and software programming, to reduce development times, is common and yielding great results.

Lean manufacturing applied to data center operations

At Rackspace, we leverage lean manufacturing concepts to maximize the customer experience through the reduction of disruptions and downtime. We call this operational discipline.

[Rackspace also uses Lean Six Sigma for data center migrations]

In today’s environment, where nearly all applications are hosted in the cloud, connectivity disruptions can quickly cripple the reputation of enterprises. To create a powerful and reliable data center hosting service, Rackspace leverages Lean Six Sigma principles, including 5S, visual controls, mistake proofing, standardized work procedures, root cause analysis and others. Doing so has allowed us to become world-class in the multi-cloud industry and has enabled Rackspace to deliver five 9s uptime — that’s 99.999 percent uptime — year after year for our customers.

Building the muscle to sustain 5S

For me, it all starts with 5S.  I learned it as Sort, Set, Shine, Standardize and Sustain.  Over the course of the fifteen years I’ve been a Lean Six Sigma practitioner, I still believe it all starts with this simple principle. There is a powerful discipline that develops as an organization builds the muscles required to sustain 5S. Across Rackspace data centers globally, there are areas clearly marked for ladders, step stools, tools, crash carts, IT equipment, etc. As crash carts and tools are returned to their specified area every time, the organization develops the discipline to cable meticulously. Then, the adherence to procedures and policies gains momentum such that important instructions and the order of work is followed with exactness — providing an experience for customers both flawless and consistent.

Applying poka-yoke to reduce human error

Nearly a quarter of all data center outages are caused by human error: entering incorrect configurations/commands, bumping cables or maintenance failures. Rackspace leverages a number of poka-yoke methodologies (A poka-yoke is any mechanism in a lean manufacturing process that helps an equipment operator avoid (yokeru) mistakes (poka).

One simple example is the use of locking power cords to eliminate the mistake of bumping a cord causing it to unplug. Another is automation built to validate network connectivity across multiple providers before allowing an engineer to proceed with filtering a network provider.  These mistake proofing methods systematically reduce the number of potential failures, thus enhancing customer value.

Fishbone diagrams and root cause analyses

Taaichi Ohno, the Japanese industrial engineer considered the father of the Toyota Production System, which became lean manufacturing here in the U.S., described his use of “Five Whys” (“Ask why five times about every matter”) as a “scientific method.” Initially I questioned this; Five Whys seemed to me anything but scientific.

However, the Five Why approach, when preceded by a fishbone diagram — a visualization tool for categorizing the potential causes of a problem in order to identify its root causes — has proven to be a powerful methodology for uncovering the root causes for unexpected or unwanted outcomes.

At Rackspace, we’ve completed hundreds of root cause analyses and implemented thousands of actions to mitigate and eliminate the recurrence of issues. A recent example came in response to a failed network maintenance where a handful of VLANs were inadvertently pruned.  New code was developed to validate the status of the VLANs disabling the ability to prune VLANs in use. This adjustment eliminates the recurrence of the mistake.

While Lean Six Sigma may have been born in the manufacturing trade, its simple yet powerful principles are applicable to every company seeking to maximize customer value. Rackspace has leveraged these principles for nearly 10 years to develop a rock solid and world-class foundation for its customers to leverage as they move their businesses into the cloud.

Jim Hawkins is the vice president of global data center operations and engineering at Rackspace, where he oversees the company’s worldwide network of data centers and other critical infrastructure and operations. Jim joined Rackspace in 2008, initially serving as director of operational excellence. Since then, he has held several positions, including director of U.S. data centers and senior director of global data center operations. Jim has brought a number of strengths to these roles, including a specialized knowledge of Lean Six Sigma methodology and operational discipline. While serving in each of his roles at Rackspace, he incorporated his knowledge of these principles into the design and daily operation of Rackspace’s critical infrastructure and teams transforming their performance. As Jim approaches his 10th year at Rackspace, he continues to make a significant impact on the performance of the company. Recently, he enhanced the operational rigor of Rackspace network operations through fleet management principles. When he’s not busy working towards his professional goals, he enjoys daily exercise, working on his landscaping projects, spending time with his wife and coaching his three sons on the soccer field. Before he joined Rackspace, Jim was a plant manager and North American fiberglass fabrics manager at Owens Corning, where he turned a struggling $40 million division into a very profitable business by leveraging his knowledge of Lean Six Sigma methodology. He earned his BS in marketing at Westminster College, graduating Summa Cum Laude, and received his MBA, with high honors, at Purdue University.

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