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Are You Pulling?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

We’ve made a substantial effort in training all our operators to standardized work (SW) by deploying Training Within Industry (TWI) principles across all our sites. While we’ve had some good results, the level of discipline on SW is disappointing, and many cells are producing well below target cycle time. Do you have any pointers for us?

Are you pulling? Sorry to be so blunt, but that’s the first question that comes to mind. I believe it could be the true source of your problems.

Your situation calls to mind a plant that I visited several years ago. They were making a similar effort with standardized work. They had hired a standardized work expert from the automotive industry. He was good, and could really see the work. He had developed a basic course for supervisors, who were asked to train all their operators and so forth. When we visited the Gemba, you could see immediately that it wasn’t working properly. There were cells standing idle without operators—there were many processes in which one operator would handle one or two operations with semi-automatic machines, package the part, and ready it for shipping to customers. On other cells, the gap between the objective and the operator’s cycle was so obvious that even I could see it. The plant manager launched into an embarrassed explanation about them not taking temps into account well enough in their SW training system, but they had a deeper problem.My gut reaction to your question is: are you pulling? Without a regular, frequent pull on the workstation, you’re not giving operators any reason to follow standardized work.

The key to this problem was knowing what to look for. One thing I’ve learned the hard way by visiting Toyota plants – by being caught wrong-footed again and again – is to look at the situation from the operator’s perspective. So I asked the ops director to stand in one of the stopped cells and tell me what he saw. From inside the cell, he immediately described a number of ergonomic problems: poor lighting, tools were hard to access, components that were not at hand, and so on. They also had a big debate because the standardized worksheet was nowhere to be seen. But they were missing the main thing.

“When you’ve finished the part,” I asked the ops director. “What do you do with it?” He shrugged and mimed finishing the part and placing it at the proper place in a half-full tray of other similar parts, stacked chest-high on a pallet on the side of the cell. “As you do this,” I continued, “Are you ahead or are you late?” Late, they answered: the production analysis board on the side of the cell showed that the operator was systematically behind on the objectives, with (as usual) no comments written. “Are you sure?” I insisted, “maybe the objective is too high?”

Not possible, they answered. Objectives had been calculated as part of the standardized work initiative, and target cycle time was achievable if the operator just followed the standardized work. The 20% to 30% lag on the objective was explained by a failure to follow the standardized work cycle.

The Customer Connection

People only see what they’re looking for, so I kept trying. “What happens to this pallet when it’s complete?” I asked. They looked at me as if I was stupid (I often get that “you don’t know anything about how a real factory works” look), and told me that the operator called for a forklift to pick up the pallet and take it to the supermarket at the end of a row of cells.

The interesting thing in this case is that they’d done their homework: they thought they were pulling. Their lean specialist had done a value-stream map (VSM) analysis of their process, and, at the end of a block of five or six cells, they’d created a “supermarket” where pallets of different products were ordered by product type in FIFO lanes and where another forklift came every hour or so to pull one and bring it to the shipping area. They’d centralized the pallets in the supermarket so that quality could handle the statistical control of the parts, and they’d been clever about it: the pallet would be blocked only if a bad part was found.

But for the operator, this “pull” never materialized. If they had gone into enough detail on the VSM visualizing the transport between the cells and the “supermarket” they might have realized the problem. The operator did not feel any tension to follow a steady rhythm since he or she dug a pit in the sand, threw the sand into a wheelbarrow, which would be taken away when full – eventually. The key principle here was that operators had no connection with their customers.

“Imagine,” I suggested. “That rather than a supermarket, you create a shop stock here in the cell, from which you come to pull a tray every hour or half-hour.” The operator would then have a good reason to follow standardized work. Every hour someone would show up (in all likelihood a “train”) and ask for a set of parts. If the operator was late, he or she would have to explain why and call a team leader or a supervisor, and write it on the production analysis board. In doing this, the operator shares the problem of delivering on time in full with management.

Pushed to Pull

As the operator shares the problem, he or she will also be pushed to find a solution. The obvious solution is to follow the standardized work, or, if there is a practical problem with the SW (works for right handed but I’m left handed, etc.), to question it and improve it with the supervisor. The point is that a regular pull on the cell provides a reason for operators to be interested in standardized work and to apply themselves to follow them. SW delivers a real, immediate, practical benefit to them: it keeps them from showing up late at the appointment. Coupled with real pull, it prompts them to recognize and deal with problems the moment they occur.

Lean is a system. Standardized work cannot be considered in isolation from customer satisfaction, JIT, jidoka, and kaizen. In fact, when you look at how people often go about designing standardized work, they tend to jump in with the stopwatches to define the optimal sequence of work, skipping the very first box to fill on the form: takt time.

takt time, we’ll agree, is one of the core concepts of just-in-time, another pillar of lean. Yet, takt time is essential to standardized work. At the Gemba, takt time will be something like “the number of normal work hours per day/necessary quantity to build per day.” (This is not quite “demand” because production planning will have leveled the demand.) takt time is an essential measure to give the right amount of work to the cell. takt time is the basis for calculating target cycle time, and hence the content of work in the cell (should we add an operation; add an operator?). Without pull to represent takt physically, standardized work is nothing more than yet another paper exercise.

Similarly, can we maintain standardized work without jidoka? Not likely. The argument that once operators have been trained in standardized work they should know it from then on is like saying that you’ve opened the person’s head, slotted in a new “knowledge” card, shut the head and they will now perform accordingly. We know that people are not like that. Operators will master standardized work through continuous on-the-job training. For instance, imagine that every time the operator is late for her delivery when the hourly pick-up shows and that she calls her team leader at that stage. The team leader will then go through the standardized work motion once again with her until they find where she’s getting a step wrong (NOT GUILTY – learning is a process), and this is how she’ll learn over time. Eventually, she’ll think of a smarter way of doing this or that, and have an improvement suggestion for the team leader. The supervisor can then help her formulate her suggestion, try it out, convince other shift operators and implement it.

Real or Random?

Standardized work is (1) takt time, (2) work sequence and (3) standard inventory (as in: 0 or 1) parts at each step of the process. But, without a link to customer satisfaction (don’t be late on the pulls!), without pulling at a regular pitch, without jidoka to react quickly to any problems holding up the delivery rhythm, operators are unlikely to take it on board. After all, they’ve been doing this job forever, they’re the ones stuck on their own in the cell, and they’re going to do the work the way they feel more comfortable to do so – who’s going to tell them differently? If they haven’t agreed on the problem of timely, regular deliveries, why should they buy into your solution for their work, whether you call it standardized work, job instructions, or that’s-how-things-are-done here?

Finally, and probably more disturbing in the end, the moment the operations director stepped into the cell, he spotted a number of obvious ergonomics problems. Did they do anything about it after the visit? I doubt it. Standardized work and kaizen are the two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, there can be no kaizen without standards (Where do we start from? Is it a real improvement or a random change?), but on the other, how can you convince operators to follow standardized work if it’s not their standardized work. By starting with kaizen, you can (1) show goodwill by solving, with the operators, obvious ergonomic issues and (2) convince operators that the standardized work is the best current way to do the job by challenging them to come up with better. Just as with crosswords puzzles, if they’ve tried but can’t think of anything better than what you suggest, they’ll have persuaded themselves that it is the correct answer. Do not separate standardized work from kaizen and expect it to work – it’s like taking two legs off a table and expecting it to stand.

I’d have to know more about the specifics of your company to give you a more relevant answer, but my gut reaction to your question is: are you pulling? Without a regular, frequent pull on the workstation, you’re not giving operators any reason to follow standardized work. Sure you can convince them that it’s the best way to work – and they might nod and agree – but why should they bother? Real pull means that you are (1) delivering to the customer on time in full, (2) at takt time. Pull creates the conditions for standardized work. Without pull, you’ll have to go back and persuade people to follow SW all over again, again and again.

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