Back in China

At the end of the last post I promised to write more when I was over the jet-lag of returning from three weeks in China. Well.. I didn’t, and how I am back over here.

While I was in the USA I took some time off, or at least I did during my “day job.” Since I live near Seattle, it is 5:00 pm there when the people here in China get to work and the Blackberry starts buzzing. Thus I am on and off email until either: Things get quiet long enough for me to just decide to go to sleep or 2:00 am when they end the workday here at 5pm.

For better or worse, my approach here has been to try to establish from the beginning a sense that we don’t wait for an “event” to study a process and look for improvements. Instead, we study and improve every time we do it. I am trying to instill a culture that continuously compares “what is happening” vs. “what should be happening” and acts whenever there is a gap.

Overall, however, I find the main role here is to get the right people equipped with the right skills and tools, and ensure they are working on the right things, then supporting them.

“Working on the right things” means taking responsibility for what is not going to get done right now rather than assigning a dozen “#1 priorities.”

The Essence of Just-In-Time

The Essence of Just-In-Time

This is a working paper by Steven Spear of Harvard Business School. Spear’s PhD work was summarized in a landmark and well-circulated Harvard Business Review article titled “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System.” I will leave it to the reader’s Google savvy to turn up the DNA article for yourself.

This working paper is much more raw than a finely edited HBR article. But it gets to the core research and conclusions without any fluff.

As you read it, compare what is described here with the focus of your own implementation.

Do you find any gaps?

I’ll comment more myself when I am not totally jet-lagged… I just got back from China. 😉

5 Seconds Matter

I was with the factory’s kaizen leader, and we were watching an operation toward the end of the assembly line.The takt time of this particular line was on the order of 400 minutes, about one unit a day. The exact takt really doesn’t matter, it was long compared to most.

One of the Team Members needed to pump some grease into a fitting on the vehicle he was building. But his grease bucket was broken. We watched as he wandered up the line until he found a good grease bucket, retrieved it, went back to his own position and continued his work. The entire delay was much less than a minute. No big deal when you compare it to 400+ minutes, right?

Let’s do some math.

There are six positions on this particular line. Each one has two workers, a few have three, for a total of 14.

What if, every day, each worker finds three improvements that each save about 5 seconds. That is a total of 15 seconds per worker, per day. Getting a working grease bucket would certainly be one (maybe two) of those improvements. (Consider that the worker he took it from now doesn’t have to come and get it back!)

That is 14 workers x 15 seconds = 210 seconds a day.
210 seconds x 200 days / year = 42,000 seconds / year.
42,000 seconds / 60 = 700 minutes
700 minutes / the 400 minute takt time = we are close to having a line that works with 12 instead of 14 workers.

What is that grease bucket really worth?

Of course your mileage may vary.

But how often do you pay attention to 5 second delays?

Of course getting the grease bucket is really just simple 5S — making sure the Team Member has the things he needs, where and when he needs them.

So how would 5S apply in this case?
Mainly a good visual control would alert the Team Leader, or any other alert leader, to the fact that the grease bucket is out of place. A good leader will see that and ask a simple question:

Why?

And from that simple question comes the whole story, and an improvement opportunity.
But in order to ask “Why?” there must first be recognition that something isn’t right. And this is the power of a standard.

The Chalk Circle – Continued

Yesterday I wrote a little about my own experience with Taiichi Ohno’s “chalk circle” as well as some stories I have gathered from others during the years.

Although the insights I got from Iwata-sensei changed my perspective, it was some years later that a few other things got solidified.

My colleagues and I had been hired as a team of “experts” to help a major household-name company implement “lean manufacturing” into their production and logistics processes.

A couple of years into the effort, it was still a struggle.

Although there were a lot of kaizen events happening, it was a continual battle to sustain the results. We were quickly reaching the point where 100% of our effort would be expended simply re-implementing areas where we had already been. That is the danger point when forward progress stops and the program stalls.

Of course we were busy lamenting about the “lack of management commitment” to support and sustain the great work these teams were doing.

The next week we were around the table trying to figure out a countermeasure.

First we had to understand the problem.

As we talked and shared, we discovered that each of us had one area, a single operation, that was showing better results than the others. Operationally, these areas were actually quite diverse. What did they have in common?

Each of them was the area under our respective responsibility that had the weakest or no internal infrastructure for kaizen events. In fact the most successful implementations were happening in the operations that held the least number of week-long kaizen events.

Needless to say, that realization was interesting. So what else did they have in common?

Because we did not have our internally trained people leading kaizen in those areas, we were coordinating and leading the effort personally. One of us, not someone we had trained, was guiding those areas through their implementation.

Why were our results different than the people we trained? What did we do differently?

As we talked, we found that we all would take the line leaders, the managers, the people responsible, to their shop floors, and teach them how to spot problems and what to do about it.

We would stand with them, observe something happening, and ask “What do you see?” We would continue to ask questions until they saw the things that we did. Then we would begin asking about causes. “Why does this happen?” Our objective was to teach the leaders to be intensely curious about what was going on, to compare what they saw against a picture in their mind of an ideal state, and further be curious about why there was a difference.

We paid attention to progress, focused their attention into areas that needed work, and always, constantly, asked questions.

  • “What is supposed to be happening here?”
  • “What is really happening?”
  • “Is that really what you want?”
  • “Why is there a difference? What is in the way?”
  • “Does the Team Member know what to do? How do you know? How does he learn?”
  • “Is this process on track? How can you tell?”
  • “How many are supposed to be here? Why are there extras?”
  • “Why is no one working here? Where did they go?”

Not because we wanted answers, but we were teaching them the questions.

These are the same questions that Iwata-sensei was asking me years earlier.
It was an insightful and team-building moment when we realized that, in spite of our diverse backgrounds (we had not met prior to working here), we all approached things pretty much the same way. The second insight was that, in spite of our diverse backgrounds, we had all learned pretty much from the same teachers, and those teachers had been taught directly by Ohno.

If a line leader “got” what we were trying to get across, they wouldn’t ever see their operation the same way. They would be constantly comparing what they saw (what is actually happening) against some kind of expectation or standard — explicit or implicit — or against an ideal state (what should be happening).

They would see any gap between what should be happening and what was actually happening as a problem to be addressed and at the minimum, corrected.

They would begin to ask different questions of their people, and manage activities toward identifying these gaps and closing them.

Our question to ourselves was: If this worked so well, what did we have everyone else doing?

When we asked this, Dave stands up and starts through his certification program to teach his kaizen leaders how to

  • Present the various training modules
  • Prepare the various forms and reports
  • Organize kaizen events

Then someone, I don’t remember who, asked “Who is teaching the leaders how to manage the new system?”

A long pause followed.

Then Dave said, “oh shit.”

Maybe Dave said it, but we all thought it.

We had started happily blaming the leaders. Then we realized no one was teaching the leaders. THAT was our fault. We weren’t teaching anyone to teach the leaders. Now the question was “What do we do about it?”

Now we understood the current condition and the gap we needed to close.

The Chalk Circle

In “The Toyota Way ” and “The Toyota Way Fieldbook” Jeffry Liker describes “standing in the chalk circle.”

This, of course, is a reference to a legendary exercise where Taiichi Ohno would stand a manager in a chalk circle drawn on the shop floor. His direction would be simple: “Watch.”

Several hours later, Ohno would return and ask “What do you see?”

Usually Ohno had spotted something earlier, and wanted the manager to learn to see it. So if the reply to “What do you see?” was something other than what Ohno had already seen, his response would be “Watch some more.”

This would continue until the manager saw the same problem Ohno had seen.

Over the years I have talked to a number of ex-Toyota managers who worked for Ohno, and they all relate this story from personal experience, sometimes standing in the circle for a complete shift or even longer. I also heard from another Toyota manager, an American who was involved in the start-up in Georgetown, Kentucky. He told me what occurred when he decided, after 90 minutes, he had seen everything, and left the circle. His coordinator was not happy. But I digress.

My own story is a little different.

I was a new kaizen workshop leader and was involved in an event at a major supplier. Late deliveries from this supplier had shut down production several times. We were looking to reduce the changeover times on their (old!) milling machines so we could keep parts moving through the process.

The current state of the changeover was that it could easily take three or four shifts. We were going through the classic SMED sequence, and starting to study exactly what happened during a changeover.

My pager went off. (Yes, this was a long time ago, remember those little things that only displayed a phone number?)

To cut to the point, on Wednesday I would be joined by the Division Vice President; Mr. Iwata, the Chairman of Shingijutsu; and an entourage to “help” with my workshop.

Iwata-sensei was an imposing character. During the next two days he and I would stand and just watch the Team Member going through the changeover. Iwata would constantly fire questions:

  • “Why is he doing that?”
  • “What is that for?”
  • “Where is he going?”
  • “What is he doing now?”
  • “Why?”
  • “What is that tool for?”
  • “What is he waiting on?”

Of course, we would work hard to get him the answers.

And each time he would listen to the answer and, with a dramatic wave of his arm and a hiss through his teeth, we would be dismissed.

Yet the questions continued.

At the end of this week, I never saw a factory the same way. I would get a feeling, almost a gut instinct, of what was happening, where the problems were, what to watch to verify. This skill has proven very useful over the years. Yet it was really not until nearly a year after Iwata’s death that I finally got it and understood what he was teaching.

He didn’t care about the answers. He was teaching me the questions.

I believe I was hearing a stream of consciousness of the questions he was asking himself as he watched. He was giving me a great gift of how to “stand in the chalk circle.” He was passing on some small bit of his decades of experience.

A great teacher continues to teach even after his death.

The Essence of Jidoka

SME: The Essence of Jidoka – dead link

You can download it here.

This link is to an article I wrote for the SME online “Lean Directions” site back in 2002. I am including it on this site for the sake of completeness. I noticed that the Wikipedia article on the same subject is largely derived from this, which I simply consider flattery.

What is “Lean Thinking?”

Welcome to The Lean Thinker.
Rather than put up an “under construction” page, I am just going to start typing.

So what is “lean thinking” anyway?
Of course it is the title of a well-known book.

To most people, the word “lean” when used in this context refers to the principles and practices of the Toyota Production System.

Toyota’s internal slogan is “Good Products, Good Thinking” and I think this reflects just how deeply thinking is embedded in the TPS.

My experience, however, is that most discussions of “lean manufacturing” focus on the tools and artifacts, the things you can see when you take the tour. This is understandable because it is fairly easy to make some quick gains simply by putting a few of the tools in place.

But I also see lots of five point checklists that try to determine “how lean” an operation actually is. Those checklists evaluate the implementation and use of the tools and artifacts. Sometimes, when they get to a level 4 or level 5 they start to address some of the ways people interact with the system.

They are missing the whole point. At “level 1” you will begin encountering problems. You might not even see them. But this is the point where it is necessary to begin introducing a different way of seeing problems, defining problems and dealing with them.

That is the only way true progress will be made up the scale. Start changing the thinking on day one.