What does world-class lean operations look like? What’s in the “secret sauce”?
Late last year, I joined about fifty members of the Lean Community on a Lean Leadership Learning Tour. People who work in manufacturing, service, and healthcare organizations. Executives, line managers, and support staff personnel. They lead, support, and enable work for top performance and continuous improvement. Questions like these were on our minds.
The Tour was jointly organized by the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) and the Toyota Production System Support Center (TSSC), a non-profit entity within Toyota North America that shares TPS outside of the company. Over two consecutive days, we visited two sites. One in the zip code that is Appliance Park, near Louisville, KY, where GE Appliances (GEA), a Haier Company, manufactures laundry machines, dishwashers, and refrigerators. The other in Princeton, IN, where Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana (TMMI) rolls Highlanders and Siennas off the line.
GEA and TMMI have similarities. Both are manufacturing gemba, containing fabrication, assembly, material handling, maintenance, and other operations involved in making physical goods. But it’s their differences that stood out. By contrasting the two sites, back-to-back, tour participants could better recognize that which may also be different in their own gemba.
For example, when it comes to lean transformation, GEA is a “brownfield” site while TMMI is a “greenfield.” In the 1950s, Appliance Park was built for big-batch production. Since the mid-2000s, GEA has been radically retooling itself for lean production. On the other hand, TMMI was built for TPS from the ground up in the 1990s. So, not only is TMMI more than a decade further along with lean, it has also benefited from enablers and constraints that were intentionally built in. Take its ceilings, for instance, which are much lower than GEA’s. People and materials can only move horizontally, which helps minimize waste.
Our generous hosts were Rich Calvaruso, who leads GEA’s lean group, and Jamie Bonini, TSSC’s president. First, they explained the history and context of their gemba’s ongoing lean transformation. Then, they led us to go and see the current conditions firsthand. Finally, and best of all, they helped us think through how our takeaways could benefit our own organizations. After all, Jim Womack kicked off the activity by challenging us to avoid the trap of industrial tourism. “If nothing changes for you after the tour,” he said, “this activity will have been ‘muda,’ or waste.”
Our tour members were fascinated to learn about the structure of line management in the Toyota Production System (TPS). Particularly, the role of the team leader. A bit to my surprise, the centrality of the team leader in TPS was a new insight for some of the folks on the tour. The fact that TPS’s enabling power is focused on team leaders was a genuine “aha.” After seeing it in action, they got to follow-up with questions for Rich and Jamie to deepen their understanding. This process helped them really appreciate the role as a key ingredient for operational stability, adaptability, and of course, improvability. In other words, as an essential role for lean production.
To understand the team leader role in TPS, it helps to first understand the role of the team member. In the context of production, “team member” refers to a frontline worker who creates value for customers, external or internal. External customers, perhaps end users, knowingly pay for team members’ labor. Even the most callous of businesspeople must accept the cost of team members.
Ideally, team members perform their work in accordance with clear safety and quality standards, using timing requirements (e.g. takt time), working equipment, tools fit to purpose, sufficient parts, and clear, timely instructions about making or moving things. In other words, they follow agreed upon standardized work within a system that provides them with the inputs required to successfully produce the needed output given customer demand.
However, even with the best intentions, team members run into problems. What’s great about TPS, then, and the comprehensiveness with which the essential inputs are identified, developed, and provided to team members, is that it’s easy to detect abnormalities in safety and quality. Plus, it’s easy to recognize when someone is falling behind in their work.
These indicators of “good” or “bad” conditions allow for various triggers to be established for the purpose of activating team leader support when needed. Team leaders, then, constantly monitor these conditions, or the status of the work that they helped set up. And when signaled by an andon system, they jump onto the line to provide prompt, capable support.
Jamie Bonini says the team leader has the following responsibilities:
- Maintain output in terms of volume and quality (first and foremost, in accordance with the ‘customer first’ principle). This includes backfilling team members on the line when needed.
- Confirm, coach, and kaizen standardized work
- Train their team members, especially new members needing fundamental skills
- Solve problems in the work, preventing reoccurrence, for about two hours every day
While on the tram tour through TMMI, we saw flip charts everywhere. There was at least one for every team leader. Simple in-use tools like these proved that the team leader role Jamie had described is alive and well at TMMI, demonstrating a “culture of highly engaged people” as per Toyota’s definition of TPS. It’s not just a job description that’s been written down and stored away, probably to be ignored.
The discussion about these specific responsibilities caused several folks to reflect on the relationship between team leaders and lean/continuous improvement/OpEx staff members. In their companies, they acknowledged, it’s lean staff members who often provide training and solve problems. Whereas at TMMI and GEA, we saw frontline managers, i.e. team leaders, carrying out these responsibilities. It’s only when problems are beyond the capability and scope of control of local team leaders that support personnel such as lean staff members are enlisted to help.
Which begs the question: how do team leaders have enough capacity, or time in their day, to do the work that these responsibilities require?
Jamie pointed out the ratio of team members to team leaders at TMMI – four, five, or six to one. When Toyota determines the ratio that will allow team leaders to successfully carry out these responsibilities, he says it considers the following criteria:
- Layout and geography
- Number, frequency, and complexity of problems
- Team member skill level
- Team leader skill level
At GEA, we saw eight to twelve team members for every team leader. Rich acknowledged that the relatively higher ratio can make it hard for team leaders to be successful on a consistent basis. It’s a current reflection point for the company. Consequently, the method for determining GEA’s ratio is under review. Experiments with smaller ratios are under consideration.
“How can Toyota afford this many frontline managers?” someone asked. “At my company, it would be seen as cost prohibitive.”
Jamie responded (paraphrasing), “Make no mistake. Toyota doesn’t do this because it’s the so-called right ‘lean’ thing to do. Toyota experimented with this for many, many years, determining this ratio was optimal for quality and productivity, and the enrichment of its employees. Simply put, we believe it’s good for the business.”
Then he dropped the mic, got into a new Lexus TX (also manufactured at TMMI), and sped away, kicking up a cloud of dirt from the surrounding cornfields. That, or he simply asked if there were any additional questions about the team leader role. I can’t remember exactly 😉
Anyway, it’s worth considering your own situation: Do the conditions at your gemba clearly indicate in real-time when team members are experiencing abnormalities or falling behind? And then, do team leaders have sufficient capacity, capability, system enablement, and upper-leader encouragement to respond in a timely and helpful manner? If not, and if improvement is more of a bucket-list activity than a continuous one, perhaps it’s time to experiment with team leaders as seen at gemba like TMMI’s and GEA’s.
P.S. If you’d like to see the team leader role for yourself, consider joining me at the next Lean Leadership Learning Tour in April 2024. I’ll be there, deepening my grasp and appreciation for what it takes to achieve world-class operations. Perhaps you will too.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this post inaccurately described the team member-to-leader ratio at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana (TMMI) as “the ratio of team leaders to team members – four, five, or six to one.” We have corrected this to accurately state “the ratio of team members to team leaders – four, five, or six to one.”
Lean Leadership Learning Tour
Go, see, ask why, and show respect to revolutionize your company's future.