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Making People Before Making Products

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I keep hearing about “making people before making products” but I have a hard time visualizing what this means in practice. Would you be able to shed some light on this practice?

I’ve spent the best part of the previous 15 years trying to figure this out and can share what I’ve learned … so far. When I first studied how Toyota engineers implemented TPS at a supplier, they always knew what the next step was, and so I assumed (as did the supplier’s engineers) that had a roadmap of how they wanted to make the cell progress. I kept badgering them to show me this map, thinking that they didn’t want to share this for proprietary reasons. The Toyota guys always refused, explaining that they didn’t have a roadmap. All they were doing was focusing on problems as they appeared and then working hard at solving them. One day, exasperated with my annoying questions, the lead engineer said to me” “WE DON’T HAVE A ROADMAP. But—we do have kind of a golden rule: making people before making parts.” I’ve tried to puzzle this out ever since.

Toyota differs radically from most modern firms in the fundamental assumption that people, not systems, make the best products and deliver the financial performance. The Toyota saying is that “there can be no successful monozukuri (making things) without  hitozukuri (making people).” Indeed, the true function of the Toyota Production System is to develop people first, in order to make better products through better thinking. That’s why some have said TPS can also be termed the “Thinking” Production System.

The terms can be confusing. We often see TPS as a system (as it calls itself) that controls people more narrowly with a pull system, and andon system and so on. Over time I have come to realize that the TPS is not as much of a “schedule and control” system that deals with matters such as IT, workflows, and procedures, than it is a system of on-the-job training whose fundamental aim is “hitozukuri” – developing people.

But how can developing people generate leaner processes? Why would people, on their own accord, be more rigorous, less wasteful, and look for smarter, lower investment solutions? Especially when highly trained experts display a human tendency to focus on their narrow specialist interests rather than the overall flow or the company, and certainly not their customers.

4 Steps

The answer, once more, has to do with the system. Developing people within the lean sphere has in fact four very clear meanings: (1) knowing the detail of one’s own operations; (2) seeing the main waste generated by one’s own activity; (3) deepening one’s fundamental knowledge about the job and (4) developing one’s ability to work with colleagues across functional barriers.

The first step involves developing a thorough, detailed, understanding of one’s own operations. This may sound obvious, but experience shows that this is rarely the case on the Gemba. Very few operators, for example, who perform a repetitive job can make exactly the same gestures from one cycle to the next. When you discuss this with them, you’ll often discover that they have only a vague notion of the desired outcome (make the part) and how to do it (use this machine). This lack of understanding becomes even more pronounced in non-manufacturing jobs. How many people can precisely breakdown the routines of their jobs in repetitive steps? Most employees will argue that they never perform the same task in exactly the same conditions, so they’re bound to do it differently. In fact they can learn standard work regardless of their setting. And so the first part of developing people is to teach them to understand the details of their own operations – in a wide range of circumstances.

The next aspect to developing people is helping them learn to see the main waste in their current way of working. There’s always a problem that produces waste, and that’s okay. No process can ever be perfect. Too often, we consider the waste to be part of the job. For instance, as a writer, I accept that rewrites are a necessary evil to get to a good text (they are) – but I have to also accept that rewrites reflect some of my weaknesses as a writer, and by thinking of some things upfront, I can work to minimize them. Yesterday on the shop floor, the team leaders said that the main waste in their assembly operations of large machines was the amount of unnecessary walking; and so they intended to reduce waste by changing how parts got to the operator. Once people accept that there is inevitably some waste in the way they’ve chosen to work (and that it’s okay – no blame attached), and that this waste can be reduced with a little scratching of heads, then processes will become leaner.

Third, we want to develop people’s deep knowledge about the underlying principles of their work. Social science studies show that the main difference between experts and novices is their understanding of underlying structures. Novices for instance, will tend to project the curved trajectory of a ball as a curve, where experts will rely on the fundamental laws of motion to project a straight line and so on. Engineers need to know more about the physics of the processes they design, marketers need to know more about the real-life usages of the segments they work with, but operators also need to know more about the fundamentals of their job – be it placing bolts, screwing them or dedicated equipment. Deep knowledge is largely undervalued in non-lean companies (follow the procedure and you’ll be fine) and this generates huge wastes in the form of poor judgment. Deep knowledge is what leads you to do the right things before worrying about doing them right – and is probably the greatest driver to the competitive gap between lean companies and the rest.

Fourth: teamwork. Teamwork in the lean sense means cooperating across functions (generally by solving problems together). Teamwork is an essential component of lean processes for three main reasons: (1) treating internal customers as, well, customers and not enemies; (2) finding smart compromises with support functions – which can avoid disasters and untold exceptional expenses and (3) adult learning mostly occurs through confronting perspectives with others. Without teamwork, both the learning process and the quality of outcomes are likely to remain poor. Yet, teamwork rarely comes naturally to anyone – we prefer getting on with solving our problems on our own and then try to impose our preferred solution to our colleagues. This bias is natural and due to both the way we think and to our deep-seated control instincts (and the guilty pleasures of seeing others bend to our will). Teamwork needs to be constantly taught for people to start seeing the fundamental value of it.

In practice, most lean tools are designed to develop one or several of the preceding aspects of competence. Typically:

  • Knowing the detail of one’s operations comes through the systematic use of operations standards (step by step, highlighting the important points, explaining why) and standardized work.
  • Visualizing the main muda in one’s own process occurs through kaizen. It’s tricky to tell people “you’re creating waste, look!” Employees work in their given processes all day long and hearing their management or outside experts claiming their work is waste is not likely to go down well. However, getting the same employees to run several kaizen workshop by looking for waste and then picking a theme will develop their problem awareness and their ability to see typical solutions
  • Deep knowledge grows out of the more structured A3 problem solving process. Not all problems need be treated with the big guns, but at any given time, the manager may pick one topic to be explored more fully according to the A3 practices (as described in John Shook’s Managing To Learn) in order to develop the deep knowledge of their junior on a specific point.>
  • Teamwork can be developed by using a technique that constantly crops up in descriptions of how Toyota works, but that is less well known than other lean tools: nemawashi. Originally, this is a gardening term meaning carefully preparing the ground and weeding before transplanting a sapling. Organizationally, this practice means going to see all stakeholders while trying to solve a problem to take into accounts various points of view. It occurs when the team leader helps an operator develop a suggestion by helping the operator present his or her idea to their colleagues in the team and the other shift. Or when an engineer in charge goes round the various stakeholders to develop his or her problem-solving A3.

Leaner and Smarter

Within TPS, developing people is all about managing. Toyota engineering managers spend their days working their engineers through technical problems rather than managing the engineering process. The Toyota supervisors’ job is to maintain stability by developing standardized work constantly. Processes are leaner because smarter people who realize there is some waste in their area and understand how to kaizen it away will, inevitably, come up with smarter processes. On the other hand, set-in-stone processes devised by the organizational expert or IT specialists can only run down: there is no way up. Lean thinking is about fighting “big company disease” by encouraging entrepreneurship and the artisan’s pride in doing a good job whilst keeping the productivity and scale results of industrial operations.

“Making people before making products” expresses the radical paradigm shift pioneered by Toyota. As one CEO I know once put it: “I don’t want people who will do the job right. I can find those any time. I want people determined that the next time they’ll do the same job, they’ll do it better. Those are the people I need.” Lean thinking’s paradigm shift is about organizing the individual on-the-job learning rather than organizing work for employees.

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Michael Gow July 29, 2010
Dear Gemba Coach,

Most lean literature and case studies to date focus on assembly type manufacturing which utilises very people-intensive operations.  This is not the case in the machine-intensive process industries and therefore has major implications on the format of standardised work. Can you shed some light on what standardised work should look like in the process industries?

Best regards,
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