Kaizen “Events” – Why and Why Not

To many people, 5 day “kaizen events” are the way to implement lean manufacturing, and the way to improves processes. There is another, larger, group which insists that “events” are only one method, but in actual practice, kaizen events are all they do.

At the risk of being branded a heretic I propose there are two, maybe three, cases where kaizen events are the most appropriate tool. This is based on my personal experience, so your mileage may vary.

  1. Teaching. My contacts with long-time Toyota veterans are consistent – they have week-long events. They call them PKT or Practical Kaizen Training. The purpose is to:
    1. Teach leaders (and potental leaders) how to truly grasp the current situation – to see the actual issues being experienced by the workers as they do the work.
    2. Teach those leaders the cumulative effect of many small improvements, especially focused on the problems that disrupt routine work.
    3. Teach leaders that most of these problems are quick and simple fixes, if only someone did something about them.
    4. Teach leaders to teach others to observe, see problems, and solve them.
  2. Stabilization after a major change. Implementing flow often involves making major changes to the material and work flow. Those changes naturally introduce instability (or more properly, they reveal problems that have always been there, but hidden). It is crucial to have a team ready to intervene and quickly see, fix and then develop countermeasures for those problems. The week would start with the major change, then the team would focus on observing the actual (resulting) work, seeing problems (sources of instability), and devising and implementing countermeasures. The objective is to make the change, and leave it in a stable, sustainable state. All too many kaizen events do the opposite – make the big change at the end of the week after a lot of debate, and leave an unstable process for the Team Members to cope with on their own. This is “drive by kaizen” and leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth.
  3. Gathering a team to solve a specific problem. This is different than implementing a major change above. In #2, you already know what you want to do, you are just doing it and re-stabilizing the process. In this case, you know the problem, or what must be accomplished, but the local team does not have the time or wherewithal to actually solve the problem Some examples:
    • Achieving a dramatic reduction in changeover time.
    • Understanding and solving a nagging quality problem.
    • Setting up a layered maintenance checks on a machine.

All of this implies one important thing: That the kaizen event is planned based on a thorough understanding of the current situation. This can only be gained by careful observation and study. Note that none of the above items describes a scenario of bringing a team together to implement vague or unreachable goals and targets. Enough for now, before I start rambling again.

Training – Critical Questions To Ask

There is lots of “Lean Training” out there, and the quality ranges across the board.

“Lean training” is a megabucks business, and anyone who can assemble a pack of PowerPoint slides and a web site is offering “lean training” out there. It is certainly a case for buyer-beware. So how do you evaluate all of the alternatives, especially if you are just learning and might not be in a position to judge? (Irony: If you are in a position to critically judge these training programs, you probably don’t need them.)

What is being taught and how?
In my experience, most people will readily agree that the tools and artifacts usually associated with the Toyota Production System or Lean Manufacturing are not the system itself. Rather, it is critical for people (and especially leaders at all levels) to understand the thinking behind the tools and artifacts.

The way Toyota teaches the thinking in their new plants is through structured experience. Key leaders are assigned coordinators as mentors. Leaders are taken to established plants to immerse into the system itself. The mentoring continues as the new plant is brought on-line. The process is long, resource intense and expensive. As a result the people who were trained this way are highly sought after in industry. (Another story for the future sometime.) Steven Spear’s article, “Learning to Lead at Toyota” does a great job giving the reader a feel for how this is done. The learning process is entirely experiential.

On the other hand, “talking head lecture” and PowerPoint slides are probably the least effective way to teach this stuff. Even with a couple of simulations with toy trucks or Legos, a classroom-only exercise is only going to get the general concepts across.

If you accept that the real learning comes from guided experience, then it follows to ask if the time spent in the classroom reduces the time required for experiential learning by at least as much. If a week in the classroom (plus the travel time, etc. away from the job) does not return at least two weeks of reduction in the hands-on learning, then it isn’t worth it… no matter how “feel good” it is.

What is the emphasis on direct observation of actual problems? One of the core skills for leaders to learn is how to see problems. If you ask “How much time is spent to watch and understand the work?” the answer you get will tell you a great deal about how well the trainer actually understands the TPS. A high-pressure “kaizen event” especially one which emphasizes just-do-something over first understanding the actual situation – is going to teach exactly the wrong things. Action without understanding results in chaos.

How much of the training involves making actual improvements to actual work? The more the better, but only in the context above.

The classic 5 day kaizen event was originally an educational exercise, and it works very well for this if it is planned and led with learning in mind.

What is the reputation of the teachers? Disregard client testimonials. Ask to speak to some long-term customers. I say long-term because in the initial stages of lean implementation things are pretty easy. A typical medium-sized factory, for example, can get most of the mechanics into place over a few months with aggressive leadership. But if the teachers do not understand (or understand and do not teach) the leadership how to detect, escalate and solve the thousands of problems that will inevitably be flushed to the surface, the implementation cannot sustain for long.

Recognize Reality: The only way to really lean this stuff is to through experience. And not just any experience. Just being told how to implement kanban, fill out the standard work forms, take cycle times, etc. is not learning the things you must know to sustain your gains and build on the initial momentum.

The critical skill – the one that (so far) is only learned through mentored experience – is how to direct actions through guidance and teaching vs. just telling people what to do or how to do it.

Takt Time and Leveling – What’s The Point?

A few days ago I wrote about asking “What is your takt time?” and the likely responses to that question. But in my list of common responses, I left one out – “What’s the point? We get everything out by the time the truck leaves.”

Here’s a real-life example: In a high-volume consumer goods factory we had a daily transportation cycle. Shipments left once a day. Parts and materials arrived once a day. Although the operation was not without its glitches, the process itself incorporated a lot of automation (another story entirely), and the time through the machinery was pretty quick.

We were trying to implement the production leveling (heijunka) into the enterprise flow between the factory and the distribution system. While the mechanics were very straight forward, leveling the model mix during the course of the day encountered a logical question: What’s the point?

And what is the point? With or without model-mix leveling the same stuff ended up on the truck at the end of the day, and the total amount of inventory in the factory was not going to dramatically change. So why go through the trouble, especially of working changeovers on the packaging equipment, when there was apparent no net effect?

The question is a logical one until we understand that takt time (or pitch in this case) is not a production quota. It is part of a standard.

What’s so important about standards?
Without a standard, you can’t detect a problem.

Daily management is about rapidly detecting, correcting and solving problems. This is much easier to do when dealing with small problems before they grow into big ones.

The “What’s the point?” question even gets asked in the course of many lean manufacturing implementations. The operation reaches a level of performance that is “good enough” – for example, everything makes it onto the truck by the end of the day – and they are satisfied with that level of performance. This is when continuous improvement stops.

Have all of the problems been solved? Has all of the waste been removed? Of course not. But the next level of problems, and therefore the next level of performance, is under the radar.

In the factory I described above they had more demand than they could handle. They were already working 24/7, and were working to add capacity. They wanted to speed up the automation, and possibly even add additional lines. Yet, during the course of a day:

  • They lost many units to defects.
  • The lost production to machine stoppages and slow-downs.
  • They had part shortages and frequently substituted one product for another in the shipments, and made it up tomorrow.
  • Because they were “behind” they relentlessly kept the lines running, only to find defective product in final inspection.

The list goes on. They are all familiar things.

So what is the point of applying leveling product mix and establishing the discipline of a takt time or pitch?

Honestly, there isn’t any point unless they also implement a leadership process to immediately call out and respond to any slippage or deviation from the intended pace and sequence of production.

So – what started out as a question about a common tool or technique in the TPS has come around to what the core issue really is when that “What’s the point?” question is asked: Lean manufacturing is not about the tools and techniques. It is a system to assist a proactive leadership culture that is almost obsessed with finding and fixing the problems that keep them from achieving perfect safety, perfect quality, perfect flow, with zero waste.

A “problem” is any deviation from the standard. (And if you don’t have a standard, that is a problem.)

Two key questions:

Are we meeting the standard? If the answer is “yes” then:

Are we looking at perfection?

One or the other of those questions is going to drive you to address the next level of problems.

Computer Kaizen

We were at a business meeting and my coworker was waiting impatiently for his laptop computer to finish booting up. He and I were sitting next to each other, had identical machines, but I was already working. He made some comment about my machine booting faster for some reason.

But that wasn’t the case.

Here is his laptop startup sequence:

  1. Unzip bag, remove computer from bag, set on table: 7 seconds.
  2. Remove power cord from bag, unwind: 8 seconds.
  3. Crawl under table to plug in power cord: 14 seconds.
  4. Re-emerge, connect power cord, connect network cord: 11 seconds.
  5. Open lid, press start: 3 seconds.
  6. Wait: 61 seconds.

This seems reasonable, doesn’t it? Why was my setup faster?

  1. Unzip bag, remove computer from bag, set on table: 7 seconds.
  2. Open lid, press start: 3 seconds.
  3. Remove power cord from bag, unwind: 8 seconds.
  4. Crawl under table to plug in power cord: 14 seconds.
  5. Re-emerge, connect power cord, connect network cord: 11 seconds.
  6. Wait: 61 – 33 = 28 seconds.

The core question is “Why can’t I turn on the computer sooner?”

It is a laptop. It will start up just fine on the batteries while I fidget with the power cord. And the networking doesn’t come on line until well into the boot cycle, so no time is lost if the network cable isn’t connected right away.

Net result is my wait time was half of my co-workers even though we both did the same thing. We just did them in a different sequence.

In the terms of a changeover, this is identifying internal tasks that could be external and moving them there.

This is the kind of improvement opportunity your Team Leaders should leaders should learn to spot. In most cases, though, they should not implement a change. Instead they should use the opportunity to teach the Team Member who does the work how to see this opportunity, and teach the Team Member how to make the improvements.

What kind of performance would you have if everyone in your operation thought this way for a year?

What Is Your Takt Time?

If you are the “lean manufacturing expert” you probably know. But what answer do you get if you ask the question in the work area?

Here is a quick diagnostic for you: Go to the shop floor and ask a supervisor, “What is your takt time?”

A reply of “Huh?” is pretty self-explanatory. Either the entire concept hasn’t reached this area yet, or if it has, the day to day variation and disruption renders the concept moot. A couple of follow-up questions can quickly discriminate.

A common reply is the daily output number (e.g. “14 units a day”). Although this shows understanding of a daily production requirement, “14 units a day” does not necessarily translate to “7 units before lunch” much less “a unit every 30 minutes.” This Team Member is still thinking in terms of total output, even if every unit has to be reworked in the last hour of the day. Obviously this is better than reworking every unit in the last week of the month though.

I have also had Team Members do the calculation in their head. They know how to calculate takt time, but don’t use it. This is pretty common when takt time is something that is only a factor during formal kaizen “events” that are run by someone other than the supervisor. I would imagine that standard work is also something that is a “kaizen event thing” rather than daily management as well.

Ideally though, anyone on your shop floor has the takt time embedded in their thinking. If the immediate reply is “28 minutes” then the follow-up question is “how are you doing?” At this point, you can begin exploring how well they use the takt time to manage variation and problems.

What is your takt time?

Getting A Plant Tour

A couple of days ago I wrote about how to host a tour. Here are some thoughts on how to get one. As always, I’d love to hear your comments and experiences.

Don’t expect your hosts to change your “cement heads.” I have had requests from groups who wanted to send their “resistant managers” to our factory so we can show them things that will change their minds. Doesn’t work. Sorry, that is your job. My experience is that people who don’t want to see the benefits will always find all of the things that are “unique” about their circumstance, and special case reasons why the other place is doing so much better.

Go to learn, not to look. In my last post I made reference to “industrial tourists.” Those are groups that are more interested in the layout and clever gizmos than in the thinking behind them. They are, at best, looking for ideas and technical solutions to their problems. Copying others’ solutions is not thinking.

Going to learn is a different attitude. When you look at a layout, or other technical solution, ask yourself this: “What problem does that solve?” How does it save time? How does it remove variation from the process? What did the operation look like before they did that? Force yourself to think in four dimensions. Not just what you see now, but what it would have looked like in the past. WHY did they do this?

Although many people think lean manufacturing is counter-intuitive, I think that with this line of thinking you will find it actually is just common-sense solutions to the problems that everyone has, every day.

Nobody is perfect. Even a Toyota plant has obvious issues. If you end up fault-finding, you will miss the good stuff. I was touring a Toyota plant with a group a couple of years ago and it had obviously slipped. This is old news, and one of the reasons for their internal back-to-basics approach. But two things came to light: The rich visual controls made it easy for total strangers on the 1 hour tour to SEE the difference between “what should be” and “what is.” Wow. Try that in YOUR factory. And, reading the news stories, it was a problem they were taking very seriously and doing something about it vs. not noticing the deterioration and just letting things go.

Every plant has issues. Some have great material flow and pull systems, but only average problem solving. Others have a great technical base for home-grown tools, fixtures and machines. A few have great problem solving (They seem to be doing better than others.) Take in what is working, and what is holding them back. What would be the next problem they are working on?

Pay attention to the people. People are the system. How do they interact with the physical artifacts (layout, machines, etc.) An operation that has their stuff together will have people who are obviously comfortable with the pace of work. It will be obvious they get support when there are problems.

Don’t ask too many questions. What? Aren’t you there to learn? Yes. But try to learn with your eyes first. Even if you are moving, “stand in the chalk circle” and see the problems and the solutions. Sharpen your observation skills before you take the tour. Practice in your own plant. When I am hosting visitors and we have the time, my response to a question is to show them where to look for their answer, then ask them what they saw.

If allowed, make sketches. Most operations will have a prohibition against photographs. Even if they allow photos, however, you will capture much more if you stand and sketch what you see. You don’t have to produce a work of art. The purpose is to force your eye to pay attention to the small details. You will see much more through the eyes of the artist than you will through a camera.

Remember they are in the business of production, not consulting.
“Be a good guest” and remember that everybody there has a real job.

Edit 5 Sept: And Jon Miller correctly pointed out something I missed:

Give Back. You will bring “fresh eyes” to their environment and see things they do not. Everyone suffers from a degree of blindness to the familiar. If you are really going to see and learn, you will gain insights that can help your hosts in their own improvements. Ask them the questions that will help them see what you see.

Giving A Plant Tour

When one of my operations at “a previous company” started to really show some results, they began to get a lot of requests for tours from other groups. Obviously they are not in the business of giving tours, and these requests were beginning to impact on their time. Here are some guidelines I gave them based on my experience at the previous, previous company. 😉

Separate the groups who are really interested in learning from the “industrial tourists.” This is easy to do. At the first email or phone contact simply ask them “What do you want to learn about?” People who are serious about learning will have something specific. If they say “Everything” you probably have industrial tourists – a group that wants to see, but not study.

Develop a standard 1 hour tour with a script and teach all of your supervisors to give it. When industrial tourists show up, give them the 1 hour tour send them on their way, and they will leave happy and excited.

What about the others? The ones who aren’t industrial tourists?

Turn them over to your very best kaizen leader. Spend as much time with them as you possibly can. Customize the time to meet their learning objectives. Confirm what you plan to do with them, and verify that is likely to work for them. While they are there, check continuously. Make sure all of their questions are answered, even the ones you had wished they didn’t ask. Better yet, show them what chalk circle to stand in so they can see the answers for themselves.

Why do all of this? Because these are people who are trying to learn, just like you. Your leaders have everything to gain through interacting with a truly curious group. They will ask questions you haven’t thought of. They will see things that, due to your daily familiarity, you have overlooked. And most importantly, you will work to build the community and extend the spirit of learning to one more organization.

Hopefully they will remember the experience and do the same thing when someone asks to come and study them.

Do Your People Solve the Problem or Work The System?

This article by Anita Tucker and Amy Edmondson at Harvard highlights a problem that is as common on the manufacturing floor as it is in the hospitals they studied:

When people encounter a problem that stops their work, they work the system, get what they need, and continue their work.

A lot of people call this initiative, and most organizations reward this behavior. Many of those organizations have actual or implied negative consequences for bringing up an issue that “you could have solved yourself.” Unfortunately this behavior only accomplishes one thing: It guarantees that the problem will occur again.

What is the big deal? Simple. Small problems accumulate. They do not go away, and more come into play every day. Eventually the Team Members are overwhelmed by “too much to do.” Supervisors press for “more people,” the organization grows in size, and the cycle continues. In health care all you have to do is spend an hour talking to harried nurse to know all of the things that keep them from providing patient care.

Go stand in the chalk circle on your own shop floor. What things keep your Team Members from doing their jobs?

Standards Protect the Team Members

One of my kaizen-specialists-in-training just came to me asking for help. The Team Members he is working with are not seeing the need to understand sources of work variation.

I hear that a lot, both in companies I have worked in and in the online forums. Everyone seems to think it is a problem in their company, their culture – that they are unique with this problem.

The idea of a unique problem is variation on the “our process / environment / product is different so ____ won’t work here.” Someday I will make a list of the standard management “reasons why not” but that isn’t the topic of this post.

I told him:

  1. This is not unique to China, or to this facility. The same resistance a always comes up, and nearly always comes up the same way once the Team Members begin to realize we are serious.
  2. There is no way to just change people’s minds all at once.

Here is something to explain to the concerned Team Members: The standard process is there to protect the team member. If there is a problem, and the standard process was followed, then the only focus for investigation can be where the process itself broke down. Countermeasures are focused on improving the strength of the process.

If, on the other hand, the process was not followed (or if there is no process), then the team member is vulnerable. Instead of the “Five Why’s” the investigation usually starts with the “Five Who’s” – who did it? Countermeasures focus on the individual who happened to be doing the work when the process failure occurred.

As you introduce the concept of standard work into an area that is not used to it, it is probably futile to try to tighten down everything at once. The good news is that you really don’t have to.

Start with the key things that must be done a certain way to preserve safety and quality. If they are explained well and mistake-proofed well, there is usually little disagreement that these things are important.

The next step is to make it clear that the above are totally mandatory. If anything gets in the way of doing those operations exactly as specified, then STOP. Do not just work around the problem, because doing so makes you (the Team Member) vulnerable to the Five Who’s inquisition.

If you focus here for a while, you will start to get more consistent execution leading to more consistent output, which is what you want anyway.

Then start looking at consistent delivery and all of a sudden the concept of variation in time comes into play. Why was this late? The welder ran out of wire, I had to go get some more, I couldn’t find the guy with the key to the locker…… Go work on that. At each step you must establish that the point of all of this is to build a system that responds to the needs of the people doing the work.