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Michael Ballé
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Dear Gemba Coach,

In the webinar, you’ve defined LEAN = KAIZEN + RESPECT. Isn’t it simplistic? Is that all there is to it? What about TPS?

Thank you for asking this question and giving me the opportunity to clarify. Of course, there is more to lean than KAIZEN, you are right. TPS does stand out. Many companies have continuous improvement programs in one shape or form, but few have developed it to Toyota’s extent – or had the results Toyota did from it. So what did Toyota do different?

To a large extent, I see lean as a system to support individual KAIZEN. As John Shook pointed out one should not confuse Toyota’s system of production with the Toyota Production System. One is the sum of Toyota’s actual shop floor practices and the other was originally defined as “a series of related activities aimed at the elimination of waste in order to reduce cost, improve quality, and improve productivity” (in Art Smalley’s translation of Taiichi Ohno’s introduction to the very first TPS leaflet).

Whereas many companies do “open-eye” KAIZEN (look around and if you see something that needs fixing, do so), or savings related KAIZEN (the essence of six-sigma with a clear business benefit per project), KAIZEN in lean is directed by the principles of TPS. The aim is complete customer satisfaction in terms of quality, delivery and cost, and to do so we need to improve (1) our jidoka – spotting a defect, stopping and fixing the problem right there and then, and (2) our just-in-time conditions – essentially getting closer and closer to takt time by leveling, pulling and producing in single piece flow, by (3) getting operators involved in redesigning their own workstations through standardized work and KAIZEN. In essence, TPS specifies which kind of problems to solve through KAIZEN.

Getting People to Think for Themselves

I’ve been collecting Ohno anecdotes over the years and I’ve come to believe that TPS is the codification and enrichment of a few strong intuitions Taiichi Ohno had and strengthened in his time on the shop floor. These intuitions – obsessions, one could probably say – are distinctive and, I believe, sent the whole lean movement through its specific evolutionary path. This is not unlikely, as industry has been grounded in other strong men’s intuitions such as Taylor’s obsession with measuring every single thing (the legend has it that he timed himself to the train station everyday), which created single-handedly the entire science of work measurement, or Ford’s obsession with standardization of parts and processes which led him to revolutionize industry with the black Ford model T.

Whereas Henry Ford was driven by organizing work for people, complaining that every time he hired a pair of hands a brain came attached to them, Taichii Ohno had a radically different obsession, constantly illustrated in his shop floor practice and which is probably at the root of the paradigm change Toyota initiated: he wanted people to think for themselves.

As anyone who has tried will testify, this is not necessarily easy, and Taiichi Ohno did so in an inimitable style that terrified his co-workers and has created his legend. He would basically yell at them to push them beyond the obvious answer, force them to stand in front of a problem until they saw it, and put them under constant pressure to do something quick. He gave problems in the morning and came to check something had happened in the evening. He gave problems in the evening and came to check people had moved in the morning. But he never gave an answer. And when he did give hints, he berated people for not thinking beyond his own advice. He was constantly pushing every one from shop floor workers to managers to think for themselves. Whether he’d learned it from the Toyodas or whether it was a personal quirk, teaching employees to think for themselves is probably what distinguishes lean most clearly from Taylorism.

Reveal your Mistakes

Ohno’s topics for mental torture where not random – he had a few pet subjects, which, in time, morphed into the pillars of TPS. The first huge bee in his bonnet was about not hiding mistakes but revealing them so that you could stop right away, ask why? and fix it. Having struggled all my working life with teaching people to use red bins and use their mistakes to improve, my personal favorite Ohno story (maybe apocryphal) is the one where he asks a colleague to pick up an empty box and follow him for his shop floor visit. After a while, as the terrified and mystified young man follows Ohno around carrying his empty box, Ohno starts berating him for not seeing the bad parts hidden under shelves or lying at the foot of stations. The guy then had to pick up the hidden defectives and carry them in the box. At the end of the tour Ohno asked him something like “why are you following me around and not fixing these problems?”

I was in one my favorite plants yesterday and they’ve been doing lean for years in the right spirit – and getting the results. The production manager has now instigated “one day KAIZEN” for each production cell and was showing me what they’d done in one cell. I pointed out a part lying under a workbench and he said – “Yeah I know about this one. It’s a defective and I asked them to hang on to it so we could examine it together.” I thought about Ohno’s box – don’t hide the bad part. Build an altar to quality and place all your bad parts there, so that everybody can see that it’s okay to reveal mistakes.

Never Overproduce

The other topic that drove Ohno wild was overproduction. There are endless stories of inventing switches to turn off machines if they went faster than takt or giving people a very hard time when they had too many parts standing idle after their process. He saw overproduction as the root of all the main wastes and repeatedly insisted in visualizing and stopping overproduction – as well as restricting space for overflowing ahead of schedule inventory.

As with “reveal your mistakes and react at first defect” this message is as valid today as it was half a century ago. I was in a factory recently where the only way to get machining operators to see overproduction was to forbid them to send parts to the warehouse. The operations manager imposed a “you make it, you keep it” rule which, at first, filled machining with crates of unnecessary parts, until the supervisors learned to only produce what was needed. This, of course had a dramatic effect on WIP (in a good way) and on capacity (in a bad way), and became the basis for a sustained SMED effort.

Reduce Headcount

The fourth obvious Ohno obsession is headcount. The Ohno legends have him forever pushing people to get the same job done with fewer operators – without making them work harder. Finishing a headcount reduction KAIZEN generally only meant being asked to do so again, and again.

It turns out that reducing headcount is one of the best ways to get middle-managers understand the reality of variation in the shop floor as Manpower, Materials, Machine, and Method issues crop up all the time. Furthermore, reducing headcount is also a great lesson in improving again and again. I’m always surprised that the fourth workshop on the same area still yield between 10 to 20 headcount reductions – sometimes forcing you to think radically differently about production.

The Challenge of 100*1% Rather Than 1*100%

It is clear that Ohno was aware of both emotional aspects of change: it is simultaneously exciting and scary in widely different proportions according to the individual. Ohno would on the one hand set apparently impossible challenges for his juniors, as well as have the cool-headedness and resilience to accept the step-by-step reality of KAIZEN.

At one point he explains why he did not instruct some workers to apply correctly some TPS element or other: “I am being patient,” he is quoted saying, “I cannot use my authority to force them to do what I want them to do. It would not lead to good quality products. What we must do is to persistently seek understanding from the shop floor workers by persuading them of the true virtues of the Toyota System. After all, manufacturing is essentially human development that depends heavily on how we teach workers.

Ohno’s fixations are important because lean folk can sometimes miss the trees for the woods, so to speak and get so involved with the ins-and-outs of TPS that they forget what it’s all about. As Hajime Ohba once colorfully put it, it’s easy to create the Buddha image and forget to put the spirit into it. Lean is the finger that points at the moon – individual KAIZEN to develop skill and understanding – and it’s easy to look at the finger rather than the moon. To cultivate the lean spirit, my experience is that mimicking Ohno’s obsessions is good practice.

In the end, I believe that Ohno’s quote sums up it all. As I see it, lean is a system to get every employee to redefine their job as work + KAIZEN, and yes, you’re right, if I was to write the full equation I’d have to say that LEAN = TPS {KAIZEN + RESPECT}

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