Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Kaizen for the Holiday Season

As I enjoyed the warmth of holiday time with my family, several ideas came to mind that could help improve the holiday season from the customer point of view. Although these ideas do not reflect upon the true meaning of the celebration of Christmas, they do provide a kaizen approach to the more commercial side of the holidays. I readily admit that these areas of improvement are purely self-centered in nature and, compared to world peace, are not all together important yet would go a long way to make our holidays just a little bit better. With that said, let me share my number one area of holiday improvement.

Improvement Ideas Number 1: Make all toys easy to open by kids.
Listen up Toy Manufacturers! Please get rid of those pain in the bottom twisted wires that hold many toys in their packages.

My nine year old daughter and soon-to-be five year old son are fiercely independent kids who want to open up their presents without adult assistance. Despite all the potential reasons by the toy manufactures for including these barriers to the true end customer (kids) to quickly get at their toy, the dreaded wires are hated by all.

I am not a toy manufacturing expert so the reasons of security, presentation and protection of these bound up toys may have some merit. But from my lean manufacturing experience and more importantly, my consumer experience, I believe that there must be a better way.

The manufacturing process to apply those twisted ties must be a labor intensive process not to mention extra material cost. Despite the fact that overall labor costs are low with a majority of these toys manufactured in China, the margins are tight in the competitive toy market. In addition, retail pressures from the big box retailers like Walmart, a big player in retail toy sales, will continue to squeeze out every penny in cost. Bottom line, there is an opportunity here to make customers happy and save costs.

While manufactures are looking at kid friendly packaging, lets look at replacing thick wires ties, not sewing Barbie's hair to the cardboard backing, pre-applying the tons of stickers that require adult application, and getting rid of the hard to remove security tapes on DVD cases. Each of these packaging methods are barriers for kids to getting straight to the action of playing with their new toys.

Christmas Holiday Wish

Christmas is a glorious season of renewed hope and joy for all mankind. May this spirit of peace and goodwill continue to burn bright within each of us throughout the New Year.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Keep Footprints Square

Placing footprints on the floor outlines the home of an item. This item could be equipment, tools, benches, boards, etc. Using simple floor tape and adding a name label makes it easy to identify the item belonging in the footprint.

A common mistake is to make a detailed outline the conforms to the item shape where the footprint ends up looking like a jigsaw puzzle piece. Don't spend excessive time and energy with this approach. A simple square or rectangle works best.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Door Arc

At first, it may sound a little silly. However, adding the footprint to a door arc makes perfect 5-S sense. With the aid of the visual door arc, everyone can see the area required for the free swing of the door. The area stays clear of obstructions and reduces the opportunity of accidents. Windows in doors help with visibility too.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Call in the Experts, Ask your Employees

In the middle of a product comparison this morning, our management team quickly came to the conclusion that our product was second. The reaction of management seeing that a competing product was better than ours included disbelief, disappointment, surprise and fear. The fear probably motivated us the most. We did not waste any time arguing if we had a problem or not but unanimously agreed that we needed help. We needed experts so we decided to asked our employees.

The distinguishing feature that made our product lose out was our paint finish. There was some discussion by the team to call our paint supplier (expanding the team) but we did not want to delay a week in order to get them to the plant. Including your suppliers is an excellent idea and we will set that up however we wanted to start improving today.

Employees are the best sources of collective knowledge of your processes. Our painters are the in-house experts best able to improve our paint finish. A few hours later, we called a 1/2 hour meeting of the entire paint department. After seeing for themselves the side by side comparison of the products, a group discussion on the issue led to creating a fish bone diagram on the challenge. A simple statement, "What do you need to improve our paint finish?" focused the painters on improvement ideas.

Within 15 minutes, we had list of 23 outstanding improvements based on their knowledge of our processes. The painters decided which of their ideas are the top 3 that could help them the most to achieve a better paint finish. With management in the room, giving the nod of approval on the improvements, our direction was set.

The coolest part was seeing employees and management working together to solve a problem. The excitement and energy was intense as we openly talked together without reservations or animosity. This is what American business should be like everyday!

Monday, December 12, 2005

SME Article on Visual Work Instructions

I just received my copy of the SME e-Newsletter of Lean Manufacturing called Lean Directions which had an outstanding article on Visual Work Instructions. Most of the time, articles I read on lean are long on fluff and short on substance. This article has some excellent detailed points aimed at the lean practitioner.

Check out Dr. Steven Blackwell's article "Shorter Text for Visual Work Instructions". It follows the same concepts I have written about on making documents shorter, concise and to the point to improve use and understanding (ref posts "Visual Work Instructions Basics" and "When it Comes to Standard Work Instruction Computer Files, Size Matters" and "Make Every Word Count in Quality").

Great guidelines to create better visual work instructions like sentence structure and making it simple!

While at this site, just sign up for a free subscription to SME's Lean Directions. It's a great Lean Resource.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Information Supply Chain Kaizen

Did you ever play this communication game in school or maybe at some training session? The game is where one person whispers a message in another person's ear then that person passes it on to the next person. This message continues to be passed one by one until it reaches the last person. The last person would say out loud the message which turns out to be very different from the original message. Hearing the final version of the message is usually humorous, entertaining and unnerving for the group. It is amazing how a simple message becomes radically altered as it gets passed through the chain.

Even though it is just a game, it does reflects the real challenges that businesses face in their information supply chain. When the term supply chain is used in business, we normally think of material flow. Material is passed on from supplier to supplier in what becomes a linked chain. Information can follow a similar path, from person to person in a linked supply chain. This information supply chain, like any other process in manufacturing, can be and should be an area for kaizen.

Many businesses on their lean journey have started with value stream mapping of their current state and go on to create their future state. In their value stream map, the operational process flow is detailed including inventory levels at each step. Beyond just the material flow, properly created value stream maps will include the flow of information.

Accurate and timely information is critical to the success of all businesses. All our decisions are based on the quality of our information. Ignoring the information supply chain can quickly erode any improvement gains in the physical processes. How many physical processes are improved but end up waiting on the information supply chain to catch up? I wonder if GM or Delphi in their lean activities ever looked at their information supply chain?

The same goes for working in a project environment where information is a primary driver of the activities within team. By improving the flow of information, many wastes can be eliminated and the timeline from project start to finish can be shortened. How many times have you worked on a project where team members or management did not keep pace with current events and valuable time was spent on getting everybody back up to speed?

Bottom line, information flow is critical in business yet not usually considered an area for kaizen. I consider it a hidden area of opportunity that when improved will create dramatic results for your business. Just like in the communication game, information passed through your organization can be radically altered. By applying the principles of Kaizen to your information supply chain, your information will be more accurate and timely.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Do you Read Instructions Carefully Before Assembly?

I have come to the conclusion that there are two types of people in this world, ones that open a box and read the instructions carefully before assembly and the others that assemble first without looking at the instructions unless a major problem occurs. Even though I am a pretty good engineer, I always read the instructions first. My wife happens to fall in with the other crowd.

During this holiday season, many parents will be purchasing gifts that have in small print "some assembly required"on the box. Without exception, many of us will be burning the midnight oil in a frantic attempt to complete the task of assembly before Christmas morning. In those late night sessions, assembly problems can quickly add frustration regardless if you read instructions first or not. Although I really believe that reading the instructions first significantly lowers the chance of an assembly error.

Do you read instructions carefully before assembly? Good manufacturers will recognize that there exists in our world this great divide between the instruction readers and the intuitive assemblers. Great manufacturers will put a system in place to prevent operator errors for both groups.

So what is a manufacturer to do in order to prevent operator errors? An excellent lean tool quickly comes to mind called Poka-Yoke. Poka-Yoke is a system or device that prevents errors before they become problems. It is also known as error proofing or mistake proofing.

I came across an excellent example of a simple poka-yoke recently when I purchased a wireless card for my laptop. Yes, I am just now moving to wireless. Following the Toyota way of only going to proven technology, I have resisted earlier temptations to go wireless.

I purchased a wireless card from Linksys, a division of Cisco Systems. In bold letters, the first instruction on the instruction sheet clearly points out to run the CD first before connecting the device to your PC. The poka-yoke system Cisco Systems used to prevent an operator error in this step is a simple label. Knowing that some people never read the instructions first, they placed this label with the same warning to run the CD first on both the CD and the wireless card. As a result, no matter what I picked up first, I see this important instruction. I bet this simple poka-yoke has dramatically reduced, if not eliminated, the error of not running the CD first. Outstanding job Cisco!

Look at your processes and products. How can operator errors occur? Think how a simple poka-yoke can eliminate the error and make it mistake proof like Cisco Systems.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Eye Plugs Required

Nobody is perfect in this world and that goes for me too. Even in my quest for perfection based on the Toyota way, things sometimes get off track. I was reviewing and updating some quality inspection work instructions recently when I noticed something odd.

In our work instructions, we include safety notes and required PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to perform the job safely. I even found some cool icons to add to give it a visual boost. After the edit was complete, a quick spell check was ran to double check for errors. So far, nothing out of the ordinary.

Then I saw it, plain as day. Under the icon I used for ear plugs, I accidentally typed in eye plugs. So much for spell check. To make matters worse, this work instruction was for the inspection process. (I bet if you asked some of our customers, they would agree that eye plugs were used in the past and on more than one occasion).

We had a good laugh over this mistake and made some fast corrections before it was released. Spell check works great in many cases. However, a second set of eyes would have probably seen the error because I obviously was wearing my eye plugs.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Principle of Lean Genchi Genbutsu Can Go Beyond your Plant Walls

A key principle of lean manufacturing is genchi genbutsu which means to go and see at the actual place. Only by going to the actual place or source can we begin to understand the real facts of any situation. With this clear understanding, real improvement can be implemented.

Sometimes, the actual place is not within the four corners of your plant and you must look beyond your plant walls. I am talking about going to your supplier's location or even going to your supplier's supplier location.

This goes hand in hand with another key principle of lean which is to extend help to your partners and suppliers to improve. This extension of your continuous improvement efforts beyond your plant walls to your supplier helps everybody get better.

We applied both of these principles last week when faced with a quality issue from one of our suppliers. Instead of sending a typically SCAR (Supplier Corrective Action Request) for our supplier to respond with their fix or calling them to the carpet and pounding on them to get it right or else, we decided to extend our helping hand. There were no threats or heavy handed tactics that are common in American business today in our supplier relationships especially when problems hit the fan. Just a road trip to genchi genbutsu.

Most suppliers are apprehensive about a visit under these circumstances because of a basic lack of trust. How can you blame them? They expect the customer to jump all over them and in some case it is not without cause. But does this help solve the problem or follow the Toyota Way?

In our quest to solve the problem, we included visits to both our suppliers site and our supplier's supplier site to drill down to the root cause. With all parties working as one cooperative group, we were able to isolate the potential root cause and set up verification process plans to confirm the cause. In addition, quality procedures were strengthened to improve corrective and preventive actions. This including sharing our best practices, forms and procedures with our suppliers.

It was amazing to see the results. Next time you have a supplier problem, try the genchi genbutsu approach beyond your plant walls. Build trust and extend your helping hand.