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What Should I Be Looking For?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I’ve just started working with lean with my team, and we’re doing a value-stream mapping project with a consultant. While this has been challenging, and eye-opening, and a great motivator for going to the “Gemba,” I must confess something. I still don’t seem to see anything—at least anything deeply important. How can I adopt lean glasses?


There’s a beautiful Taiichi Ohno quote about this: “There is a secret to the shop floor, just as there is a secret to a magic trick. Let me tell you what it is. To get rid of waste you have to cultivate the ability to see waste. And you have to think about how to get rid of the waste you’ve seen. You must repeat this--always, everywhere, tirelessly and relentlessly.” The question, of course, is that in order to “see”, you first have to “look” – so where should we look?

Ohno’s approach was the fabled chalk circle. Pick a spot in your workplace, draw a chalk circle on the floor, and stand there—literally for hours if need be—until you see some waste. The idea is that there is waste anywhere you look, so you will identify some just by staring open-eyed. And yet to start right away with the “Ohno circle” can be a bit steep – and not a great help in terms of focusing efforts for improvements. This method is often best for experienced lean practitioners who are already good at seeing the “obvious” waste and need to hone their skills in seeing finer grained waste, such as wasted motion in a machine’s operation or detailed hand movement at a manual assembly workstation.

So what shall we look at? The lean system outlined by the TPS is a very useful guide because it tells you what needs improving right away (and then again, and again, indefinitely):

1.      Customer satisfaction: how can we see customer satisfaction on the shop floor? Is it visualized? Do we know what we need to do to improve it today?

2.      Jidoka: everywhere there’s an operation, can we distinguish a good job from a bad job? Can operators working the process tell the difference between a good part (or file) and a bad one? Do they have a way to stop bad parts moving along in the process? Who do they call for help when they find a bad job or if they have a doubt?

3.      Just-in-time: Is the flow of parts clearly visible? This is where spaghetti charts and VSM help the most. Is the flow of parts smooth? Or do we find accumulations of parts here and there (or worse, in the warehouse!)? Is there anyway to see how the production pace relates to the sales pace?

4.      Standardized Work and Kaizen: are workers following repetitive sequences of steps, or do they move around randomly running after what needs to be done? Can they tell whether they are ahead or late? Can we see their problems? Is there evidence of Kaizen at the workplace

Focus on 6 Areas

In other words, to practice seeing we need to practice looking, and we can start by focusing on five areas: looking at whether safety rules are respected, looking at how we serve customers, looking at how we check quality, looking at how we schedule Work, looking at how we move parts around and looking at how we organize people’s Work. Try asking the following questions:

1. Are the safety rules clear? Are they respected? Is the environment safe? Before even thinking about more “lean” approaches, a straightforward safety audit will open your team’s eyes to your workplace and to the working conditions you impose on your staff. Personally, if I want to have a quick rule-of-thumb estimation of any company, I’ll look at their accident record and their inventory level – these two figures give you a pretty good picture of the company’s health.

2. How do we serve customers? Start by going to the shipping area and ask to see how it is organized to deliver to customers. Usually, people will have a shipping or loading schedule, but very little information about what the customer expects – this falls in the area of sales admin. Compare what the customer has actually asked for (before negotiation) with the loading plan in use. Looking at that is usually enough to keep a Kaizen team busy for months working at fixing on-time-delivery.

3. Are we sure we only ship good parts? This is the next place to investigate how well quality is checked at every process. More specifically, how do operators know whether they’re doing a good job or a bad job? In many cases, this is no idle question as few processes have been defined in such detail. This will prompt operators to explore how they can ensure that no bad parts reach the next process. Looking at that will reveal many correction wastes, and give you the opportunity to schedule many Kaizen workshops.

4. How do we schedule parts? This is typically hard to see, but the easiest place to look is the inventory: how many days of stock on hand do we have for main parts? How long have the low running parts staid in the “parts hotel” in the warehouse? Looking at the inventory will give you a good idea of how precise the scheduling is and what kind of overproduction decisions are taken.

5. How do we move parts around? This is what you’ve probably done with the Value Stream Exercise. Following a part, a customer, or a project from wall-to-wall allows you to see right away the complexity of the process and the barriers to flow.

6. How do we organize people’s Work? Last but not least, we can stop at every workstation and look at how people Work: foot movement, hand movement, eye movement. The way I do it is visualize a frame in front of the operator and take note of every movement that takes his or her hands out of that frame. Then we can wonder about how the operator sees his or her role: What does it mean to succeed at this job during one shift? Then we can look for Work standards: is the difference between a good job and a bad job explicit on the stations? Are operations done in a stable sequence and so on? As a very first step we should be able to spot irritants (or outright dangerous) operations the operator has to deal with, and which could probably be taken out with a little forethought. Good place to start.

Having practiced looking at your workplace for a while, you can get started with doing. Assemble a small Work team at one of the five previous points where you’ve spotted something glaringly obvious, and ask them to improve. To get started, the rules are simple:

1.      No investment (okay to some very limited spending, but no money to buy equipment)

2.      Do the best you can to improve the process

Yes, I realize this sounds vague compared to what I’ve said in other columns regarding planning Kaizen workshops, but this will get you going. You need to help some people start improving autonomously rather than follow the long action plan drawn up in the meeting room after the Value Stream Mapping exercise. These actions are not about improving the process right away, but teaching every one to look and see further than the obvious.

Chances are, they will improve. Chances are, the teams will also reveal: (1) some deep overall problems of your operations (simply by hitting the barrier while trying to improve) and (2) draw out what your operations could look like if these issues were solved across the board. Once you’ve got a clearer idea of what your target conditions could be at the workplace, it’s time to get that A3 piece of paper out again and redraw the VSM – in a way that reflects the problem you’ve seen on the Gemba as you now understand it. And so on.

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