I encountered a familiar paradox a couple of times this month. You can think of it as a twist on Art Smalley’s Four Types of Problems model. Or you can think of it as a never ending search for balance.
At an old-line manufacturing operation in the US Midwest: “We need to break through our constant firefighting and aim for major innovation.” Meanwhile, just one huddle board over, “We’re not ready for improvement, we can’t even maintain the standards we have today.”
At a large American hospital: “We have so many problems and, worse, we don’t even have clear standards. We need basic stability before we can think of improvement.” Meanwhile, just one huddle board over, “We need to solve some very big problems at the system level before we even bother with the little things.”
Where do these different views come from? Partly, it’s a matter of starting point – what you see tends to depend on where you sit. But, don’t forget to add a healthy dose of personal predilection. Many lean folks LOVE to quote over and over (and over) the Taiichi Ohno observation (Henry Ford said it, too, and no doubt many others) that “there is no kaizen without standards.”
It is less noted but equally true that “there is no maintenance of standards without kaizen.” (There is no steady state. Anywhere, ever. You are either progressing or declining. Get used to it. For more on this, click here to see my 2009 series of posts about standardized work.)
The fact is that you want both, and you can’t have much of one without a roughly equal dose of the other. But, the timing of emphasizing one (maintaining standards) versus the other (improvement or kaizen) typically varies greatly over time. And, over time, while you’d like to see them appearing in equal dosages, most of the time one will be outweighing the other. It’s like a teeter-totter. With a kid on each side, bouncing each other up and down. Then they get the idea to try to balance each other. They can do it if they’re roughly the same size. If not, they can adjust by scooting themselves up or down their side of the teeter totter. But, it takes some finagling. And before long, one of them will break formation and they’ll teeter again.
This is true even at Toyota. When Toyota brought its production and management systems to North America, the emphasis of kaizen versus standardized work varied substantially between NUMMI, which came first, and the plants in Kentucky and Ontario. It varied with the problem that needed solving. At NUMMI, the workforce was a grizzled assemblage of ex-GM or Ford UAW members. These folks had habits, formed from many years of working in the old Detroit Three system. Engineers would design the work, workers would try to do the work as designed, whether the design was good or not. When it wasn’t designed well the workers would come up with workarounds of one sort or other. Sometimes the workaround was a good improvement (kaizen, even), other times it was just a patch. A way to get through the day without hurting yourself, or without the discrepancy from the process design intent (if there really was one) being discovered by a supervisor or quality inspector. As a result, the steps being performed out on the plant floor were a cacophony – far from the ideal harmonious symphony – of work procedures that resulted in the poor quality (and poor productivity) that US automakers were famous for at the time. Workers weren’t asked for their ideas or contributions and workers didn’t offer them. Just do your job. Make it look like it’s the job as designed by engineering. And do it over and over, all day every day, year after year.
So, entering into that environment at the former GM Fremont plant, Toyota stressed the importance of kaizen, both the term and the fact of it. If you see a problem or opportunity, take action (NOW!) to make a change. Don’t sweat too much over the change, don’t chase tons of data and get stuck in analysis paralysis (no overwrought ROI calculation, please), just try and adjust.
“So, what is your starting place? Are you stuck in stability, the effort of striving for a stable condition that never comes? Or are you making random change for the sake of change that leads to problems repeating over and over?”I recall, very early on, a fierce argument breaking out between some workers and engineers. “It’s all about kaizen and continuous improvement,” said one. “No, don’t fix it if it ain’t broke!” argued the other. To the surprise (at that time, early 1984, none of us knew what to expect as TPS was introduced on a large scale for the first time to an American workforce) of a Japanese Toyota manager I was close to, the stances taken by the protagonists was the opposite of what he expected. It was the worker who was all for “continuous improvement” and the engineer who didn’t want to “fix it if it ain’t broke.”
In that environment, overall, the experienced UAW workers knew how to perform a job to the engineering specs as provided them. What was needed, and had been missing when GM ran the place, was a kaizen mindset amongst everyone – workers, supervisors, and engineers alike. That was the problem we had chosen to solve.
In Kentucky, on the other hand, the workforce was a diverse assemblage of individuals from a wild variety of work environments. From school teachers to grocery store cashiers, most had never worked in the auto industry. So the first order of business was to get everyone up to speed learning the fundamentals of performing a factory job. With these conditions, simply performing the work to a basic standard was already a stretch goal, and an absolutely critical one.
That’s why, to this day, if you encounter an ex-NUMMI employee and then an ex-Kentucky or Ontario employee, you’ll likely hear a different nuance in their language, and you may notice an associated mindset, regarding standardized work and kaizen. The gap is one that is easily bridged on the surface, usually by invoking the aforementioned adage of Mr. Ohno’s – “without standards, there is no kaizen” – an invocation that usually works well enough.
But, in fact, the difference in nuance derives from a different starting place which does indeed matter. The difference in spirit of “don’t overanalyze, just try” versus “first gather baseline data and develop your hypothesis to test against” is easy to ignore or trivialize. So, what is your starting place? Are you stuck in stability, the effort of striving for a stable condition that never comes? Or are you making random change for the sake of change that leads to problems repeating over and over? Back to the teeter totter. Don’t expect perfect balance. Even as that balance is precisely what you strive for. I hope that doesn’t sounds too “zen,” but I think that is indeed the spirit that helps keep us on the road to continuous improvement without end. Specific steps and approaches depend on your starting place versus your desired end goals (back to the Lean Transformation Framework and Art Smalley’s Four Types of Problems). Balance: don’t expect to achieve it, but don’t stop striving for it.