Captain Jack’s Cannonball Polish – Buy One, Get Two Free!


Mark's note: Today's post is by Paul Critchley and he raises important questions that I've seen in both factories and hospitals. Here's his post:

critchleyAs I've moved through my career and Lean journey, I've been blessed to have met and worked with some really fantastic people (read about one of my biggest influencers here). These folks all took extra time out to coach and mentor me in the ways of operations and manufacturing, and, for that, I can never thank them enough.

One of these people was the Quality Manager at an industrial manufacturer where I used to work. He was a former Navy Master Chief and had spent 30 years working on, in, and around submarines during the Cold War. He was a no-nonsense type of guy, and had a knack for cutting through a nebulous issue and getting to its root quickly. I found this to be refreshing; in my 20 year career in manufacturing, I've found that quality folks tend to be very conservative. Many times they see themselves as gatekeepers, and although their hearts are in the right place, the execution sometimes works against the ultimate goal of delivering a conforming product to a customer when they want it.

The company we worked for made industrial-grade products. Some were customer-specific items that had explicit drawing requirements we had to meet, but most were COTS (Commercial off the Shelf) items that wound up on industrial distributors' shelves. They were “workhorse” parts in that their purpose was purely functional. Once they were sold to the end user, they would spend their lives buried inside a piece of material handling equipment or agriculture vehicle, never to see the light of day again until it was time to be replaced. They were non-sexy, plug-and-play items.

Every so often, we'd have a product held up on the floor due to a “visual” concern. A favorite of one inspector was invoking the “No nicks or dents allowed” callout that many of our blueprints had. In some cases, the concern was valid as the parts were so damaged that they would not be functional. In most cases, however, the issues were minor – simple scratches or scuffs that didn't affect fit, form or function. Visual standards are always some of the hardest to quantify and enforce, since it often comes down to a matter of opinion, so these issues came up semi-frequently.

When they did, our Quality Manager would come get me, and we'd go look at the parts. Based upon our review, we'd make the call as to whether to accept, rework, or reject. If the parts met the blueprint requirements but just “looked bad,” the QM would go grab the inspector and explain to that person that we weren't in the business of “polishing cannonballs.” This comment was met with the quizzical look that you'd expect, so he would explain.

“The purpose of a cannonball is to get shot out of a cannon and put a big hole in whatever it is you shot at,” he'd say matter-of-factly. “So do you think that the operator, the cannon, the cannonball, or the target care how shiny the cannonball is?” He always got the answer he wanted (“No”), to which he'd then ask the follow-up question: “So why are you trying to get us to polish cannonballs?”

His point, of course, was that we should not be overprocessing our parts. Overprocessing is one of the “7 Wastes” that Lean helps us get rid of (read more about them here), and is defined as “processing beyond customer requirements.” Doing so increases cycle time and adds cost to the product. Although the parts may look or feel “better” (which is a matter of opinion), it is truly a non-value added function since customers aren't willing to pay for it.

Do you suspect that your organization may be polishing cannonballs? Are you (or your team) over processing products needlessly, adding time and cost to things that don't require that level of refinement? If you're like many manufacturers, the answer is yes. In today's competitive market, getting paid for making a product prettier when the application doesn't care usually means that that work will go to someone else.

One word of caution before you remove this waste, however. If the product has been made that way consistently for a long time, do your homework before you remove it. Sometimes, the process was built that way on purpose (to fix a quality issue, perhaps) and maybe wasn't captured in an op sheet, so removing it will revive the problem in front of the customer. Don't trade one problem for another, potentially bigger, one. Likewise, if a customer is used to receiving the product looking or feeling a certain way and that suddenly changes, make sure you've got good substantiation so you can answer the inevitable questions. If the change involved adding or subtracting a process, you could be in trouble if you didn't get customer approval first, depending upon the quality system requirements. If everything checks out, though, then taking this waste away will remove unnecessary cost from the product, speed manufacture, and ultimately make you more competitive in the marketplace and help you earn more business, which is what Lean is really all about!

About Paul Critchley:

Paul W. Critchley can be reached at He lives in Connecticut with his wife and 2 beautiful daughters. Paul and his firm can also be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. See his bio below…

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Paul Critchley
Paul W. Critchley founded New England Lean Consulting after enjoying a successful career implementing Lean Principles throughout the Automotive, Medical Device and Aerospace industries. He is co-author of “The Whole Professional, A Collection of Essays to Help You Achieve a Full and Satisfying Life”. He can be reached at


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