A Systematic Approach to Part Shortages – Part 3

The third element of this organization’s successful drive to eliminate part shortages was a systematic approach to problem solving. They made it a process, managed just like any other process, rather than something people did when they had time. Even though this is “Part 3” of this series, in reality they put this into place at the same time, and actually a little ahead, of kanban and leveling.

The Morning Market

The idea of the “morning market” came from a chapter in Imai’s book “Gemba Kaizen.” He describes a process where the previous day’s defects are physically set out on a table and reviewed first thing in the morning – “while they are fresh” hence the analogy to the morning markets.

This organization had been trying to practice the concept of a morning market for a few weeks, and was beginning to get it into an actual process. Because supplier problems constituted a major cause of disruption, they set up a separate morning market for defective purchased parts.

That process branched yet again into a morning market for part shortages. And this evolved into a bit of a mental breakthrough.

They started looking at process defects.

Every shortage, every day, was recorded on the board.

Each morning the previous day’s shortages were reviewed. They were grouped into three categories based on knowledge of the cause – just like outlined in the book.

  • “A” problems – they knew the cause, knew the countermeasure, but had some excuse reason why it could not be implemented right away.
  • “B” problems – they knew the cause, but did not have a good countermeasure yet.
  • “C” problems – knew the symptom (parts weren’t there) but didn’t know why.

The mental breakthrough was systematically investigating the reason each and every shortage occurred. What they found was that in the vast majority of cases it was an internal process breakdown, rather than some problem at the supplier, that caused the shortage. This was a bit of a revelation.

They began systematically fixing their processes, one problem at a time.

Over time things got better. Simultaneously they were implementing the kanban system. Kanban comes with its own set of possible problems, like cards getting lost. Once again, when they found problems they went into the morning market and were systematically addressed.

After a few months into their kanban implementation, for example, they started turning in card audits with far less than 2% irregularities, and then it was not unusual for a card audit to find no problems at all. Why? They had addressed the reasons why cards end up somewhere other than where they should be. Instead of blaming people, they looked for why people acting in good faith would not follow the process.

This was also an attitude shift – assume a flaw in the process itself, or in communication, before looking for “who did it.”

Eventually the warehouse team had their own morning market. As did the receiving team. As did the parts picking team. As did assembly. Each looked at any case where they were not able to deliver exactly what their downstream customer needed.

About 8 months into this, another group in an adjacent building, was trying to work through their own issues. They came over for a tour. One of the supervisors, visibly shaken, came to me and said

“Now I get it. These people work together in a fundamentally different way.”

And they did. They worked as a team, focusing on the problems, not on each other.

And that, readers, is the goal of “lean manufacturing.” If you aren’t working toward that, then you aren’t really implementing anything.

The Seventh Flow

Those of you who are familiar with Shingijutsu’s materials and teaching (or at least familiar with Nakao-san’s version of things) have heard of “The Seven Flows.” As a brief overview for everyone else, the original version, and my interpretations are:

  1. The flow of people.
  2. The flow of information.
  3. The flow of raw materials (incoming materials).
  4. The flow of sub-assemblies (work-in-process).
  5. The flow of finished goods (outgoing materials).
  6. The flow of machines.
  7. The flow of engineering. (The subject of this post.)

A common explanation of “the flow of engineering” is “the footprints of the engineer on the shop floor.” I suppose that is nice-sounding at a philosophical level, but it doesn’t do anything for me because I still didn’t get what it looks like (unless we make engineers walk through wet paint before going to the work area).

Common interpretations are to point to all of the great gadgets, gizmos and devices that it does take an engineer (or at least someone with an engineer’s mindset, if not the formal training) to design and produce.

I think that misses the point.

All of those gizmos and gadgets should be there as countermeasures to real, actual problems that have either been encountered or were anticipated and prevented. But that is not a “flow.” It is a result.

My “put” here is that “The Flow Of Engineering” is better expressed as “The Flow of Problem Solving.”

When a problem is encountered in the work flow, what is the process to:

  • Detect that there even is a problem. (“A deviation from the standard”)
  • Stop trying to continue to blindly execute the same process as though there was no problem.
  • Fix or correct the problem to restore (at a minimum) safety and protect downstream from any quality issues.
  • Determine why it happened in the first place, and apply an effective countermeasure against the root cause.

If you do not see plain, clear, and convincing evidence that this is happening as you walk through or observe your work areas, then frankly, it probably isn’t happening.

Other evidence that it isn’t happening:

At the cultural and human-interaction level:

  • Leaders saying things like “Don’t just bring me the problem, bring a solution!” or belittling people for bring up “small problems” instead of just handling them.
  • People who bring up problems being branded as “complainers.”
  • A system where any line stop results in overtime.
  • No simple, on/off signal to call for assistance. No immediate response.
    • If initially getting help requires knowing who to phone, and making a long explanation before anyone else shows up, that ain’t it.
  • “Escalation” as something the customer (or customer process) does when the supplying organization doesn’t respond. Escalation must be automatic and based on elapsed-time-without-resolution.

Go look. How is your “Flow of Problem Solving?

“Packaging” is spelled M-U-D-A

In Mike Wroblewski’s blog “Got Boondoggle?” he comments on just how much packaging and dunnage is not visible in Toyota’s Industrial Equipment plant. Of course that is remarkable because of just how common it is to find the opposite condition. Factories (and offices) have lots of packaging around, and spend lots of time dealing with it.

Toyota has been working on this a long time. They have the added advantage of being an 800 pound gorilla with most of their suppliers. They can specify packaging and insist on things being done a certain way. In a lot of cases it is the supplier that is the 800 pound gorilla, and a lot of small companies have a hard time being heard. But you can still make a lot of difference if you apply the principle that packaging is muda.

A frequently invoked (and overworked analogy) is the assembler or operator as a surgeon. Everything must be ready for the value-add operation to be performed waste free. If there is waste in the process, keep it away from this point. Surgical instruments come in packages. But I can assure you the surgeon is not unwrapping the scalpel. So who is?

The instruments are prepared and made ready for use by the staff.

Now take this to your factory floor. The first step is to keep dunnage and packaging out of the production area. There are actually a lot of advantages to doing this. The chief one is obviously optimizing your value-add time. But all of that packaging also takes up space. EVERYTHING that enters the production area MUST have a process (meaning a person!) to get it OUT of the production area. Since you have to unpackage that stuff anyway, do it before it gets to production. This means that someone else picks the part and prepares it for use just like the staff in the operating room.

Do this and you have applied one of the principles Liker and Meier point out in The Toyota Way Fieldbook – if you can’t eliminate sources of variation, then isolate them. In other words, set up a barrier that contains the waste so that your value-adding operation sees the result of a perfect supplier.

You can then take the next step: Do this at receiving. If the parts do not arrive from the supplier packed the way that your internal material conveyance system needs them, then put the resources into receiving to convert what you get from your suppliers into what you wish you got from them.

This is applying the principle of systematically pushing waste upstream, closer to the point where it originates. The other thing you have done is force yourself to dedicate resources to deal with this waste instead of spreading it so thin the cost is hidden. You will know what it costs you in terms of people, time, space, etc. to deal with the fact that your suppliers don’t ship what you need. By highlighting the problem instead of burying it, you have the opportunity to address it.

One more thing – it might seem easier to take these little wastes and spread them thin. After all, if everybody just does one or two trivial tasks, it doesn’t seem so bad, does it? It is those trivial wastes, those 5 second, 30 second, 1 minute little things that accumulate to half your productivity. It takes work to see them and eliminate them. Don’t add more to the process on purpose.

Invert the Problem

One very good idea-creation tool is “inverting the problem” – developing ideas on how to cause the effect you are trying to prevent. This is a common approach for developing mistake-proofing, but I just saw a great use of the idea for general teaching.

Ask “How could we make this operation take as long as possible?” Then collect ideas from the team. Everything on the flip chart will be some form of waste that you are trying to avoid. In many cases, I think, even the most resistant minds would concede that nothing on this list is something we would do on purpose.

It follows, then, that if we see we are doing it that we ought to try to stop doing it. And that is what kaizen is all about.

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?