Automating the Coaching Questions

Hopefully that title got some attention.

In Toyota Kata, Mike Rother frames a PDCA coaching process around five questions.

The first three questions are:

  1. What is the target condition?
  2. What is the current condition?
  3. What problems or obstacles are preventing you from reaching the target?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could build a machine that asked and answered those questions for us?

Of course automated processes do not improve themselves (yet). But they can be made to compare current operation against a standard.

When Sakichi Toyoda was working on automated weaving looms, he was actually striving to reduce the need to have an operator overseeing each and every machine. That was the point of automating the equipment. One of the problems he encountered was that threads break. When that happened, the machine would continue to run, producing defective material.

So in order to reach his goal, he needed to replace the need for a human operator to be asking these questions and give that ability to the process itself.

What is the target condition?

The loom continues to run and produces defect free material. For this to occur, the threads must remain intact.

What is the current condition?

The threads are either intact, or they are broken.

But if the machine cannot continuously ask, and answer, that second question then a human must do it. Otherwise, nobody gets to the third question, “What is stopping us?” unless they happen to notice the machine is smoothly producing defective material.

Since his goal was to reduce the need for human oversight, he had to solve this problem.

Toyoda’s (now classic, and still used) response was to put thin metal floaters on each thread. If a thread broke, the floater dropped, triggering an automatic machine shutdown.

The machine was now asking the second coaching question with each and every cycle, comparing the actual situation with the target situation.

The event of the machine shutting down triggered the attention of a human operator with the answer to the third question.

What problem or obstacle is preventing you from reaching the target?

Right now, there is a broken thread. I cannot produce defect-free material until this situation is corrected. Please assist me.

The process was named jidoka and in that moment, the foundation for what grew into the Toyota Production System was set.

Without reliable and consistent production, one-by-one flow and just-in-time are impossible. The options are to either work on the problem, or stop improving.

It is the leader’s responsibility to ensure that there are processes in place to do these things. Sitting still is not an option, there is nothing in these techniques that is a secret. Your competitors are doing it. It is only a matter of who can solve problems faster and better.

 

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