The Lean Plateau

Many organizations trying to deploy lean get great results for the first couple of years, then things tend to stall or plateau. This is in spite of continued effort from the “lean team.”

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We Still Don’t Have a Lean Culture

This was the comment by the Continuous Improvement director of a pretty large corporation. They had been running improvement events for several years, everyone had pretty much been through one.

Each of the events had made pretty good strides during the week, but the behavior wasn’t changing. Things were eroding behind the events, even though everyone agreed things were better.

It was getting harder and harder to make more progress. They had hit the plateau.

What Causes the Lean Plateau?

While it might not be universal, what I have seen happen is this:

The implementation is led by a small group of dedicated technical experts. They are the ones who are looking for opportunities, organizing the kaizen event teams, leading workshops, and overseeing the implementation of lean techniques.

While this works in the short term, often the last implemented results begin to erode as soon as the lean experts shift their attention elsewhere.

At first, this isn’t noticed because the implementation is proceeding faster than the erosion.

However the more areas that are implemented, the faster the erosion becomes. There is simply more “surface area” of implemented areas.

At some point, the rate of erosion = the rate of implementation, and the lean team’s efforts start to shift from implementing new areas to going back and re-implementing areas that have eroded.

The lean team’s capacity becomes consumed re-implementing, and they spend less and less time going over new ground. They are spending all of their time “spinning the plates” and no time starting new ones.

Key Point: The lean plateau occurs when the level of implementation effort and the rate of erosion reach an equilibrium.

In the worst scenario, sooner or later financial pressures come into play. Management begins to question the expense of maintaining an improvement office if things aren’t getting significantly better on the bottom line. What they don’t see is that the office is keeping things from getting worse, but they aren’t called the “maintain what we have office” for a reason.

Breaking the Lean Plateau

When I was a lean director in a large company, we were confronting this very question. We had a meeting to talk about it, and quickly started blaming “lack of management commitment.”

Leaders Weren’t Stepping Up

In any given area, after education and planning, our last step was always to have a major effort to put flow production into place. Since the performance of the area would be substantially better, we expected the leaders to work hard to continue that performance.

What actually happened in an area was “implemented,” was the line leaders in that area – supervisors, managers, senior managers – weren’t working to look for erosion and correct it.

Instead, when a problem was encountered, they were making some kind of accommodation that compromised flow. The effect of the problem went away, but things had eroded a bit.

What we thought we learned: The weren’t “supporting the changes.”

What we really learned – though it was only realized in hindsight: This is the mechanism of “erosion.”

Flow production is specifically designed to surface small problems quickly. If there is no mechanism to detect those problems, respond, correct, and learn, then the only thing leaders can do is add a little inventory, add a little time, add an extra operation.

As Hirano put it so well decades ago:

All waste is cleverly disguised as useful work.

But Our Current Condition was Incomplete

There were outliers where it was working.

As we talked, we realized that each of us had experience with an outlier – one or two areas that were actually improving pretty steadily. Trying to understand what was different about these bright spots, we looked for what they all had in common. Surprisingly:

  • They were areas with no dedicated improvement teams.
  • They ran few, if any, 5-day kaizen events.
  • They were geographically close to one of us (senior “Directors”).
  • One of us had decent rapport with the area management team.
  • We each had an informal routine with them: We would drop by when we had time, and walk the work area with the area leader. We could discuss the challenges they were facing, how things were operating, go together to the operations concerned, and look at what was happening. We could ask questions designed to “sharpen the vision” of the leader. Sometimes they were leading questions. Most of the time they were from genuine curiosity.
  • By the time we left, there was generally some action or short term goal that the leader had set for himself.

Even though we “lean directors” had never worked together before, our stories were surprisingly consistent.

The Current Condition (Everywhere Else)

aka Dave’s Insight

The next logical question was “If that is what we do, what happens everywhere else? What do the lean staff people do?”

Now we were trying to understand the normal pattern of work, not simply the outcome of “the area erodes because the leaders don’t support the changes.”

Dave confidently stood up and grabbed the marker. He started outlining how he trained and certified his kaizen leaders. He worked through the list of skills he worked to develop:

  • Proficiently deliver the various topical training modules – Waste vs. Value Add; Standard Work; Jidoka; Kanban and Pull;
  • “Scan” an area to find improvement opportunities.
  • Establish the lean tools to be deployed.
  • Organize the workshop team.
  • Facilitate the “Vision”
  • Manage the “Kaizen Newspaper” items
  • etc

and at some point through this detailed explanation he stopped in mid sentence and said something that brought all of us to reality (Please avert your eyes if you are offended by a language you won’t hear on network TV):

“Aw… shit.”

What we realized more or less simultaneously was this:

Management wasn’t engaged because our process wasn’t engaging them.

Instead, our experts were essentially pushing them aside and “fixing” things, then turning the newly “leaned” area over to the supervisors and first line managers who, at most, might have participated in the workshop and helped move things around.

Those critical front line leaders were, at best left with a to-do list of ideas (kaizen newspaper items) that hadn’t been implemented during the 5 days.

There was nothing in the structure to challenge them to meet a serious business objective beyond “Look at how much better everything runs now.” The amount of improvement was an after-the-fact measurement (or estimate) rather than a before-we-begin imperative.

So it really should be no surprise that come Monday morning, when the inevitable forces of entropy showed up, that things started to erode. The whole system couldn’t have been better designed for that outcome.

Why the Difference in Approach?

In retrospect, I don’t know. Each of us senior “lean directors” had been taught, or heavily influenced by, Toyota-experienced Japanese mentors, teachers, consultants.

When we engaged the “outlier” areas, we were following a kinder, gentler version of what they had taught us.

On the other hand, what we were teaching our own people was modeled more on what western consultants were doing. Perhaps it is because it is easier to use forms and PowerPoint for structure than to teach the skills of the conversations we were having.

Implement by Experts or Coached by Leaders

That really is your choice. The expert implementation seems a lot easier.

Unfortunately the “rapid improvement event” (or whatever you call them) system has a really poor record of sustaining.

Perhaps our little group figured out why.

There are no guarantees. No approach will work every time. But a difficult approach that works some of the time is probably better than an easy path that almost never works.

Using Takt Time to Compute Labor Cost

How can I use takt time in computing labor cost?

Sometimes the searches that lead here give us interesting questions.

While simple on the surface, this question takes us in all kinds of interesting directions.

Actually the simplest answer is this: You can’t. Not from takt time alone.

Takt Time

Takt time is an expression of your customer’s requirement, leveled over the time you are producing the product or service. It says nothing about your ability to meet that requirement, nor does it say anything about the people, space or equipment required to do it.

Cycle Time

Cycle time comes in many flavors, but ultimately it tells you how much time – people time, equipment time, transportation time – is required for one unit of production.

Takt time and cycle time together can help you determine the required capacity to meet the customer’s demand, however they don’t give you the entire story.

In the simplest scenario, we have a leveled production line with nothing but manual operations (or the machine operations are trivially short compared to the takt time).

If I were to measure the time required for each person on the line to perform their work on one unit of the product or service and add them up, then I have the total work required. This should be close to the time it would take one person to do the job from beginning to end.

Let’s say it takes 360 minutes of work to assemble the product.

If the takt time says I need a unit of output every 36 minutes, then I can do some simple math.

How long do I have to complete the next unit?  36 minutes. (the takt time)

How long does it take to complete one full unit?  360 minutes (the total manual cycle time)

(How long does it take) / (How long do I have) = how many people you need

360 minutes of total cycle time / 36 minutes takt time = 10 people.

But this isn’t your labor cost because that assumes the work can be perfectly balanced, and everything goes perfectly smoothly. Show me a factory like that… anywhere. They don’t exist.

So you need a bit more.

Planned Cycle Time (a.k.a. Operational Takt Time and “Actual Takt”)

How much more? That requires really understanding the sources of variation in your process. The more variation there is, the more extra people (and other stuff) you will need to absorb it.

If we don’t know, we can start (for experimental purposes) by planning to run the line about 15% faster than the takt time. Now we get a new calculation.

85% of the takt time = 0.85 x 36 minutes = ~31 minutes.  (I am rounding)

Now we re-calculate the people required with the new number:

360 minutes required / 31 minutes available = 11.6 people which rounds to 12 people.

Those two extra people are the cost of uncontrolled variation. You need them to ensure you actually complete the required number of units every day.

“But that cost is too high.”

Getting to Cost

12 people is the result of math, simple division that any 3rd grader can do. If you don’t like the answer, there are two possible solutions.

  1. Decide that 360 / 30 = something other than 11.6 (12). (or don’t do the math at all and just “decide” how many people are “appropriate” – perhaps based on some kind of load factor. This, in fact, is a pretty common approach. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well for some reason.
  2. Work to improve your process and reduce the cycle time or the variation.

Some people suggest slowing down the process, but this doesn’t change your labor cost per unit. It only alters your output. It still requires 360 minutes of work to do one unit of assembly (plus the variation). Actually, unless you slow down by an increment of the cycle time, it will increase your labor cost per unit because you have to round up to get the people you actually need, and/or work overtime to make up the production shortfall that the variation is causing.

So, realistically, we have to look at option #2 above.

This becomes a challenge – a reason to work on improving the process.

Really Getting to Cost

Challenge: We need to get this output with 10 people.

Now we have something we can work with. We can do some more simple math and determine a couple of levers we can pull.

We can reverse the equation and solve for the target cycle time:

10 people x 30 minute planned cycle time-per-unit = 300 minutes total cycle time.

Thus, if we can get the total cycle time down to 300 minutes from 360, then the math suggests we can do this with 10 people:

300 minutes required / 30 minutes planned cycle time = 10 people.

But maybe we can work on the variation as well. Remember, we added a 15% pad by reducing the customer takt time of 36 minutes to a planned cycle time (or operational takt time, same thing, different words) of 30 minutes. Question: What sources of instability can we reduce so we can use a planned cycle time of 33 minutes rather than 30?

Then (after we reduce the variation) we can slow down the process a bit, and we could get by with a smaller reduction in the total cycle time:

330 minutes required / 33 minutes planned cycle time = 10 people.

(See how this is different than just slowing it down? If you don’t do anything about the variation first, all you are doing is kicking in overtime or shorting production.)

So which way to go?

We don’t know.

First we need to really study the current process and understand why it takes 360 minutes, and where the variation is coming from. Likely some other alternatives will show themselves when we do that.

Then we can take that information, and establish an initial target condition, and get to work.

Summarizing:

  • You can’t use takt time alone to determine your labor cost. Your labor cost per unit is driven by the total manual cycle time and the process variation.
  • With that information, you can determine the total labor you need on the line with the takt time.
  • None of this should be considered an unalterable given. Rather, it should be a starting point for meeting the challenge.

And finally, if you just use this to reduce your total headcount in your operation, you will, at best, only see a fraction of the “savings” show up on your bottom line. You need to take a holistic approach and use these tools to grow your business rather than cut your costs. That is, in reality, the only way they actually reach anywhere near their potential.

 

 

 

Another Homework Question

Another interesting homework question has shown up in the search terms. Let’s break it down:

23. if the slowest effective machine cycle time in a cell is 55 seconds and the total work content is 180 seconds, how many operator(s) should operate the cell so that labor utilization is at 100%?

I find this interesting on a couple of levels.

At a social level, the idea of cutting and pasting a homework question into Google hoping to find the answer is… interesting. Where is the thinking?

What are we teaching?

The question is asking “How many people do we need to run as fast as we can?” (as fast as the slowest machine). But how fast do they need to run? Maybe they only need a part every 95 seconds. If that is true, then I need fewer people, but I am going to run the slowest machine even slower.

In other words, “What is the takt time?” What does the customer need? How often must we provide it?

Then there is the “labor utilization” metric, with a target of 100%. Assuming the planned cycle time is actually 55 seconds (which it shouldn’t be!), we need 3.3 people in this work cell. (180 seconds of labor cycle time / 55 seconds planned cycle time: “How long does it take?” / “How long do you have?” = Minimum Required Capacity)

How about improvement? What do we need to do to get from 3.3 people to 3 people? We can solve for the labor cycle time.  55 seconds of planned cycle time * 3(people) = 165 seconds of total labor. So we need to get that 180 seconds down to a little less than 165 seconds.

Now we have a challenge. We need to save a bit over 15 seconds of cycle time. That might seem daunting. But we don’t have enough information (the current condition) to know where to begin. Then we can establish the next target condition and get started making things better.

These types of questions bother me because they imply all of these things are fixed, and they imply we run “as fast as we can” rather than “as fast as we must.”

Edit: Today I saw two more searches for:

total work content divided by slowest machine cycle time

so it looks like at least two others are working on the same assignment.  🙂

Thoughts?

Output vs. Takt Time

The team’s challenge is to reach steady output of 180 units per hour.

Their starting condition was about 150 per hour. Their equipment and process is theoretically capable of making the 180 per hour with no problem.

They calculated their takt time (20 seconds) and established a planned cycle time of 17 seconds.

Some time later, they are stuck. Their output has improved to the high 160s, but those last 10-12 units per hour are proving elusive.

This is the point when I saw their coaching cycle.

Looking at their history, they had set a series of target conditions based on output per hour. Their experiments and countermeasures had been focused on reducing stoppages, usually on the order of several minutes.

“Does anybody have a calculator?”

“Divide 3600 seconds by 180, what do you get?”

“20 seconds.”

“Do you agree that if your line could reliably produce one module every 20 seconds that you would have no trouble reaching 180 modules per hour?”

Yes, they agreed.

“So what is stopping you from doing that?”

They showed me the average cycle times for each piece step in the process, and most were at or under 15 seconds. But averages only tell a small part of the story. They don’t show the cumulative effect of short stoppages and delays that can cascade through the entire line.

The team had done a lot of very good work eliminating the longer delays. But now their target condition had to shift to stability around their planned cycle time.

Performance vs Process Metrics

This little exercise shows the difference between a process metric and the performance metric.

Units-per-hour is a performance metric. It is measured after the fact, and tells the cumulative effect of everything going on in the process. In this case, they were able to make a lot of progress just looking at major stoppages..

Stability around the planned cycle time or takt time (you may use different words, that’s OK) is a process metric.

It shows you what is happening right now. THIS unit was just held up for 7 seconds. The next three were OK, then a 10 second delay. It’s those small issues that add up to missing the targeted output.

The team’s next target condition is now to stabilize around their planned cycle time.

Since they averaged their measurements, their next step is to (1) take the base data they used to calculate the averages and pull the individual points back out into a run chart and (2) to get out their stopwatches and go down and actually observe and time what is really going on.

I expect that information to help them clarify their target condition, pick off a source of intermittent delay, and start closing the remaining gap.

Toyota Kata, Kaizen Events and A3

I’ve been asked to explain the relationship between “Toyota Kata” and Kaizen Events, and I am guessing that the person asking the question isn’t the only one who has the question, so I thought I’d take a crack at it here.

To answer this question, I need to define what I mean when I say “kaizen event.”

Kaizen Events

In a typical western company, a kaizen event is geared toward implementing lean tools. There are exceptions, but I think they are different enough to warrant addressing them separately. (If you don’t read this, I changed my mind as I was writing it.)

At this point, I am going to borrow from an earlier post How Does Kaizen Differ From a Kaizen Event:

The kaizen event leader is usually a specialist whose job is to plan and lead these things, identifies an improvement opportunity. He might be tasked by shop floor management to tackle a chronic or painful problem, or might be executing the “lean plan” that calls for a series of implementation events.

It is his job to plan and execute the event and to bring the expertise of “how to make improvements” to the work force and their leaders.

Here’s the Problem

The full-time kaizen event leaders typically get really good at seeing improvement opportunities, organizing groups for improvement, and quickly getting things done. They get good at it because they do it all of the time.

The area supervisors might be involved in a kaizen event in their area a few times a year if that. Some companies target having each employee in one kaizen event a year.

That’s 40 hours of improvement. All at once. The question is: What do they do (and learn) the other 1900 hours that year?

What do they do when something unexpected happens that disrupts the flow of work? Usually kaizen events don’t deal with how to manage on a day-to-day basis other than leaving an expectation for “standard work” in their wake.

But “standard work” is how you want the work to go when there aren’t any problems. When (not if) there are problems, what’s supposed to happen?

This is why many shop floor leaders think “kaizen” is disconnected from reality. Reality is that parts are late, machines break, things don’t fit, Sally calls in sick, and the assembler has to tap out threads now and then. In the hospital, the meds are late, supply drawers have run out, and there is a safari mounted to find linens.

These things are in the way of running to the standard work. They are obstacles that weren’t discovered (or were glossed over as “resistance to change”) during the workshop.

The supervisor has to get the job done, has to get the stuff out the door, has to make sure the patients’ rooms are turned over, whatever the work is. And nobody is carving out time, or providing technical and organizational support (coaching) to build his skills at using these problems as opportunities for developing his improvement skills, and smoothing out the work.

OK – that is my paradigm for kaizen events. And even if they work really well, the only people who actually get good at breaking down problems, running PDCA cycles, etc. are the professional facilitators or workshop leaders. Many of these practitioners become the “go-to” people for just about everything, and improvement becomes something that management delegates.

What are they good for? Obviously it isn’t all negative, because we keep doing them.

A kaizen event is a good mechanism for bringing together a cross functional team to take on a difficult problem. When “improvement” is regarded as an exception rather than “part of the daily work,” sometimes we have to stake out a week simply to get calendars aligned and make the right people available at the same time.

BUT… consider if you would an organization that put in a formal daily structure to address these things, and talked about what was (or was not) getting done on a daily basis with the boss.

No, it wasn’t “Toyota Kata” like it is described in the book, but if that book had been available at the time, it would have been. But they had a mechanism that drove learning, and shifted their conversations into the language of learning and problem solving, and that is the objective of ALL of this.

Instead of forcing themselves to carve out a week or two a year, they instead focused on making improvement and problem-solving a daily habit. And because it is a daily habit, it is now (as of my last contact with them a couple of months ago), deeply embedded into “the way we do things” and I doubt they’re that conscious of it anymore.

This organization still ran “event” like activities, especially in new product introduction.

In another company, a dedicated team ran the layout and machinery concepts of a new product line through countless PDCA cycles by using mockups. These type of events have been kind of branded “3P” but because changes and experiments can be run very rapidly, the improvement kata just naturally flows with it.

Kaizen Events as Toyota Kata Kickstarts

If you take a deeper look into the structure of a kaizen event, they generally follow the improvement kata. The team gets a goal (the challenge), they spend a day or so grasping the current condition – process mapping, taking cycle times, etc; they develop some kind of target end state, often called a vision, sometimes called the target and mapped on a “target sheet.” Then they start applying “ideas” to get to the goal.

At the end of the week, they report-out on what they have accomplished, and what they have left to do.

If we were to take that fundamental structure, and be more rigorous about application of Toyota Kata, and engage the area’s leader as the “learner” who is ensuring all of the “ideas” are structured as experiments, and applied the coaching kata on top of it all… we would have a pretty decent way to kickstart Toyota Kata into an area of the organization.

Now, on Monday morning, it isn’t what is left to do. It is the next target condition or the next obstacle or the next PDCA cycle.

Toyota Kata

If we are applying Toyota Kata the correct way, we are building the improvement skills of line leadership, and hopefully they are making a shift and taking on improvement is a core part of their daily job, versus something they ensure others are doing.

One thing to keep in mind: The improvement kata is a practice routine for developing a pattern of thinking. It is not intended to be a new “improvement technique,” because it uses the same improvement techniques we have been using for decades.

The coaching kata is a practice routine to learn how to verify the line-of-reasoning of someone working on improvements, and keep them on a thinking pattern that works.

By practicing these things on a daily basis, these thought patterns can become habits and the idea of needing a special event with a professional facilitator becomes redundant. We need the special event and professional facilitator today because a lot of very competent people don’t know how to do it. When everybody does it habitually, you end up hearing regular meetings being conducted with this language.

We can be more clear about what skills we are trying to develop, and more easily assess whether we are following sound thinking to arrive at a solution. (Luck is another way that can look the same unless the line of reasoning is explained.)

What About A3?

When used as originally intended, the A3 is also a mechanism for coaching someone through the improvement pattern. There are likely variations from the formal improvement kata the way that Mike Rother defines it.

However, if you check out John Shook’s book Managing to Learn, you will see the coaching process as primary in how the A3 is used. Managing to Learn doesn’t describe a practice routine for beginners. Rather, it showcases a mature organization practicing what they use the Improvement Kata and the Coaching Kata to learn how to do.

The A3 itself is just a portable version of an improvement board. It facilitates a sit-down conversation across a table for a problem that is perhaps slightly more complex.

An added afterthought – the A3 is a sophisticated tool. It is powerful, flexible, but requires a skilled coach to bring out the best from it. It can function as a solo thing, but that misses the entire point.

For a coach that is just learning, who is coaching an improver who is just learning, all of the flexibility means the coach must spend extra time creating structure and imposing it. I’ve seen attempts at that – creating standard A3 “templates” and handing them out as if filling out the blocks will cause the process to execute.

The improvement kata is a routine for beginners to practice.

The coaching kata is a routine for beginners to practice.

Although you might want to end up flying one of these (notice this aircraft is a flight trainer by the way):

T-38

They usually start you off in something like this:

image

The high-performance aircraft requires a much higher level of instructor skill to teach an experienced pilot to fly it.

And finally, though others may differ, I have not seen much good come from throwing them up on a big screen and using them as a briefing format. That is still “seeking approval” behavior vs. “being coaching on the thinking process.” As I said, your mileage may vary here. It really depends on the intent of the boss – is he there to develop people, or there to grant approval or pick apart proposals?

So How Do They All Relate?

The improvement kata is (or absolutely should be) the underlying structure of any improvement activity, be it daily improvement, a staff meeting discussing changes in policy, a conversation about desired outcomes for customers (or patients!).

The open “think out loud” conversation flushes out the thinking behind the proposal, the action item, the adjustment to the process. It slows people down a bit so they aren’t jumping to a solution before being able to articulate the problem.

Using the improvement kata on a daily basis, across the gamut of conversations about problems, changes, adjustments and improvements strengthens the analytical thinking skills of a much wider swath of the organization than participating in one or two kaizen events a year. There is also no possible way to successfully just “attend” an improvement activity if you are the learner being coached.

Lean Thinking in 10 Words

Pascal Dennis, in his book Getting the Right Things Done sums up lean thinking in 10 words:

“What should be happening?”

“What is actually happening?”

“Please explain.”

I would contend that everything else we do is digging out answers to those questions. (yes, there is a bit of hyperbole here, but I want to get you to think about how true this is vs. how false it might be.)

I think “lean thinking” is really a structured curiosity. Let’s take a look at how these questions push us toward improvement.

“What should be happening?” is another form of Toyota Kata’s “What is your target condition?” In our conversations, we often jump straight to “We need to…” language, a solution, without being clear what the problem is.

I’ll set that back by asking questions like “What would be happening if the problem is solved?” “Can you describe that?”

When Toyota trained people ask “What is the standard?” this is what they want to know, because, to them, a “problem” = “a deviation from the standard.”

“What is actually happening?” or “What is the actual condition now?”– Once we are clear where we are trying to go, it is important to grasp where we are now in the same terms as the target.

Something I see quite a bit is a target condition expressed with different terms, measures, and variables than the current condition. You must be able to relate between the two in a way that defines and quantifies the gap that must be closed.

“Please Explain” cuts across the current condition and the obstacles (in kata terms). What do you understand about the gap between what should be happening and what is actually happening?

If the process has deteriorated, what has changed? Why is it that we cannot hit the standard today when, last week, we could? When did it change? What do we know about that? Why did it change?

If you tried to run to the new level, what would keep you from doing it that way? (what obstacles do you think are now preventing you from reaching your target?)

Depending on which of these conditions we are dealing with will fundamentally change the path toward a solution, so it is critical we understand “What should be happening?” or “What is the target condition?” as a first step, then look at the history of the actual condition.

If the process has eroded, what do we know about what has changed in the environment?

All of this is the foundational baseline… the minimum understanding I want to hear before we entertain any discussion about what actions to take, what to change, what to do.

How Does Kaizen Differ From A Kaizen Event?

The title of this post is a search term that hit the site today. It’s an interesting question – and interesting that it gets asked.

“Kaizen” is now an English word (it’s in the OED) and defined as such:

Definition of kaizen in English:

NOUN

A Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices, personal efficiency, etc.

Origin

Japanese, literally ‘improvement’.

 

Let’s talk a bit about that “Japanese, literally ‘improvement” bit.

Jon Miller of the Kaizen Institute was raised in Japan and offers up this nice breakdown of the meaning behind the meaning:

image

Jon explains:

•Kai = Change is made from two characters “self” and the picture “to whip”. You can see the stripes across the poor fellow’s back.So Change is something you do to yourself.

•Zen = Good. In this case a sacrificial lamb which means “righteous” is offered between two characters for “word”. In this case word = clear and precise speech. So good sacrifice with precise speech all around it is “Good”. The Zen character we are using today is a simplified version. Also, Zen in this case is not the same character as Zen Buddhism.

•Kaizen = Change for the better. Or in our case whip yourself so that you can make a nice sacrifice and always have clear speech / thoughts surrounding you. Smile

As I understand it, in vernacular Japanese, “kaizen” is regarded as a business term. The word is not used in day-to-day context.

From Jon’s explanation, there is also a very personal aspect to it. Change is something you impose on yourself.

With all of that, “kaizen” is simply a word that generally refers to any systematic disciplined activity of improvement.

Kaizen Events

Now things get tricky, because here in the West, we have often regarded “kaizen events” and “kaizen” as the same thing. They aren’t. While you can certainly make improvements with kaizen events, that isn’t the only way to improve things, and I’ll add it isn’t necessarily even the best way.

A typical Western kaizen event (and there are lots of variations, though most companies that use them tend to impose fairly rigorous attempts to standardize them) is a 5 day focused effort with a 100% dedicated team.

The kaizen event leader is usually a specialist whose job is to plan and lead these things, identifies an improvement opportunity. He might be tasked by shop floor management to tackle a chronic or painful problem, or might be executing the “lean plan” that calls for a series of implementation events.

It is his job to plan and execute the event and to bring the expertise of “how to make improvements” to the work force and their leaders.

Here’s the Problem

The full-time kaizen event leaders typically get really good at seeing improvement opportunities, organizing groups for improvement, and quickly getting things done. They get good at it because they do it all of the time.

The area supervisors might be involved in a kaizen event in their area a few times a year if that. Some companies target having each employee in one kaizen event a year.

That’s 40 hours of improvement. All at once. The question is: What do they do (and learn) the other 1900 hours that year?

What do they do when something unexpected happens that disrupts the flow of work? Usually kaizen events don’t deal with how to manage on a day-to-day basis other than leaving an expectation for “standard work” in their wake.

But “standard work” is how you want the work to go when there aren’t any problems. When (not if) there are problems, what’s supposed to happen?

This is why many shop floor leaders think “kaizen” is disconnected from reality. Reality is that parts are late, machines break, things don’t fit, Sally calls in sick, and the assembler has to tap out threads now and then. In the hospital, the meds are late, supply drawers have run out, and there is a safari mounted to find linens.

These things are in the way of running to the standard work. They are obstacles that weren’t discovered (or were glossed over as “resistance to change”) during the workshop.

The supervisor has to get the job done, has to get the stuff out the door, has to make sure the patients’ rooms are turned over, whatever the work is. And nobody is carving out time, or providing technical and organizational support (coaching) to build his skills at using these problems as opportunities for developing his improvement skills, and smoothing out the work.

So… sometimes, “kaizen events” implement changes, but don’t necessarily do much for that personal drive for improvement.

The Shift

We’re starting to see a shift, as we realize those front line leaders are actually the ones who need to be the experts. That’s where Toyota Kata comes in – as a tool to learn to coach those leaders so they learn to keep the improvement going rather than just fighting erosion and working around problems.

OK – it’s late, and this was actually a diversion from something else I’m working.

Coaching: Getting Specific, Finding the Knowledge Threshold

When coaching, I often find improvers / learners who tend to be superficial or vague about target conditions, current conditions, the experiments they intend to run, the results they expect, what they learned.  Huh… I guess I should have said “vague about everything.”

As several of my clients would tell you, one of my themes is “drive out ambiguity.”

Recently I’ve been trying a simple follow-up question that seems to be working to help people dig a little deeper without pushing them back as much as other questions might.

“Could you be more specific?”

I will plead completely guilty to stealing this from an unlikely source.

In his book “The Cuckoo’s Egg“, Clifford Stoll describes a line of questioning during his oral defense of his PhD thesis in astronomy:

I remember it vividly. Across a table, five profs. I’m frightened, trying to look casual as sweat drips down my face. But I’m keeping afloat; I’ve managed to babble superficially, giving the illusion that I know something. Just a few more questions, I think, and they’ll set me free. Then the examiner over at the end of the table – the guy with the twisted little smile – starts sharpening his pencil with a penknife.

“I’ve got just one question, Cliff,” he says, carving his way through the Eberhard-Faber. “Why is the sky blue?

My mind is absolutely, profoundly blank. I have no idea. I look out the window at the sky with the primitive, uncomprehending wonder of a Neanderthal contemplating fire. I force myself to say something—anything. “Scattered light,” I reply. “Uh, yeah, scattered sunlight.”

“Could you be more specific?”

Well, words came from somewhere, out of some deep instinct of self-preservation. I babbled about the spectrum of sunlight, the upper atmosphere, and how light interacts with molecules of air.

“Could you be more specific?”

I’m describing how air molecules have dipole moments, the wave-particle duality of light, scribbling equations on the blackboard, and . . .

“Could you be more specific?”

An hour later, I’m sweating hard. His simple question—a five-year-old’s question—has drawn together oscillator theory, electricity and magnetism, thermodynamics, even quantum mechanics. Even in my miserable writhing, I admired the guy…

[Emphasis added]

As you can see from Stoll’s experience, his professor was seeking to find his knowledge threshold – something a kata coach should be doing as well.

Now, I’m not going to push the “5 Whys” quite as deep as quantum effects (except, perhaps, at one client who DOES deal with things at that level…), but I find this is a far more effective question than “Why?” or asking leading questions. It, obviously isn’t universal, but it has been working reasonably well with a client whose corporate culture drives indirect assertions and vague predictions.

Try it… leave a comment if it works for you (or bombs). But please… be specific.  🙂

P.S. – In this video, Cliff Stoll tells the same story, likely more accurately, and makes another valuable point:  “It’s obvious” is a statement which often hides limited understanding of what is being discussed. It might be “obvious,” but… let’s go see.

What Is “Lean?”

I did a Google search on the terms [ lean manufacturing definition ]   . Here is a smattering of what I found on the first page of results. (I did not go on to the second page.)

On the lean.org site we get a page with about 10 paragraphs describing the general outcome, philosophy, and what it isn’t.

On a consultant’s web page we get a list of principles and terminology definitions.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says “Lean manufacturing is a business model and collection of tactical methods that emphasize eliminating non-value added activities (waste) while delivering quality products on time at least cost with greater efficiency.”

Tooling U defines “lean manufacturing” like this: “An approach to manufacturing that seeks to reduce the cycle time of processes, increase flexibility, and improve quality. Lean approaches help to eliminate waste in all its forms.”

Another consultancy has a PDF of “Lean Sigma Definitions” that includes Lean Manufacturing or Lean Production: “the philosophy of continually reducing waste in all areas and in all forms; an English phrase coined to summarize Japanese manufacturing techniques (specifically, the Toyota Production
System).”

Let’s Rewind a Bit

What all of these definitions have in common is they are attempting to describe some kind of end state.

Over the last 10 years or so we (meaning those of us who are doing top drawer research) have put together a pretty comprehensive picture of how Toyota’s management systems are intended to work. (I say “intended to” because we are always dealing with an idealized Toyota. They have issues as well, just like everyone.)

What we seem to try to do is try to create a generic context-free definition of what Toyota is doing today.

But they didn’t start out that way. Everything they are, and do, evolved out of necessity as they struggled to figure out how to take the next step.

Toyota didn’t engineer it, so I don’t think it is something we can reverse engineer. Toyota evolved it organically. They applied a common mindset (a dedication to figuring things out) to a specific goal (ideal flow to the customer) in a specific set of conditions.

So What is “Lean?”

Mike Rother makes a really interesting attempt at resetting the definition of “lean” as being about the drive and the mindset that resulted in Toyota’s management system.

Give it a read, then let’s discuss below. (Since you are going to see it – when he sent it around for input, I passed along a thought which he has added verbatim in the last slide. Maybe that will spark a little more discussion.)

 

OK, are you back?

I like this because I think anyone who adopts the mindset that they (and I mean “they” as a true plural here) must take it upon themselves to figure out what they do not know, figure out how to learn it, figure out how to apply it, all in a relentless pursuit of perfect flow will end up with a nimble, empowering, relentlessly improving, formidably competitive team of people.

Focus on the process of learning, focus on the people, and keep them focused on the customer, and you’ll get there.

In my experience, the differentiator between organizations that “get there” and those who don’t comes down to the willingness to work hard to learn it themselves vs. wait for someone to tell them the answers.

Thoughts? Maybe we can take the “most comments” record away from the “Takt Time Cycle Time” post.  *smile*

Takt Time: Let’s Do Somebody’s Homework

On the back end of this site, I see the search terms that landed people here. This one showed up yesterday:

"a packaging process works two, 8 hour shifts per day. there are two 15 minutes breaks per shift. daily production requirements are 240 packed units, with a planned machine down time of 30 mins per shift, team has to work 60 mins overtime per shift, it is a 4 member team – calculate takt time"

OK, readers, let’s help him out. What’s the answer?

Why is this phrasing ambiguous if the author of the question is looking for a “right” answer?