Thursday, September 28, 2006

Lean Manufacturing Epiphany

With my Japan Kaikaku Experience host by Gemba Research ending, I started to reflect upon all that I experienced during my week long lean study mission in Japan. My brain was on lean learning overload by this point, like a small sponge dropped into the Pacific Ocean trying to absorb every drop of water. The idea of soaking in a hot spring bath and enjoying a full 12 course Japanese dinner with a cold Asahi Super-Dry among new friends was certainly a welcome and much needed mental break.

After a fantastic dinner, in taste, artistic presentation and fellowship, I went to bed exhausted from my journey yet unable to sleep with my mind buzzing with lean images, ideas and thoughts. Staring at the traditional Japanese sliding walls made of wood slates and paper with the glow of moonlight shining through, my thoughts continued on their own journey in my head. As I lay on my Japanese mat, I started clarifying my thoughts onto a "new" lean thinking for me.

Although I have been a student of lean manufacturing principles and implemented many successful lean improvements over the past 24 years of my manufacturing career, my lean thinking was a black and white 2-D lean vision. With this trip, I started seeing lean manufacturing principles in techno-color 3-D. Combining my earlier lean lessons with this trip experience, new pieces began to all fit together and take shape. Call it lean insights or even reaching a lean manufacturing epiphany.

My lean manufacturing epiphany is quite simple, LEAN IS HARMONY. Culturally speaking in Japan, harmony is a treasured state of being for a person. With harmony, life is in balance and flowing in concert with its surroundings. The principles of lean are trying to put harmony into the workplace. This means harmony between man and machine, management and associates, company and customer, company and supplier, and even between company and society. The lean principles are helping us develop and promote harmony by removing barriers, rocks, and conflicts that disrupt flow in our business.

Yes, lean is about eliminating waste and using great lean tools to improve our business but that is all we seem to focus on in the US. Lean principles are much more than that. Reflecting on my harmony list, lean principles are really all about harmony among people.

How do we seek harmony in our relationships in business? With respect, development, communication, cooperation and service, we can achieve harmony. By providing training and supporting our employees in their work. By working with people instead of against them. By engaging with others, we promote harmony.

This path towards harmony was evident in the manufacturing companies I visited in Japan. I witnessed active upper management presence on the shop floor, robust training programs for all employees and kaizens coming from the shop floor instead of mandated from management along with constant efforts to make work easier and better on a daily basis.

This brings me to the definition of "continuous" improvement. We are all familiar with this term but how do you define continuous? Is it yearly, quarterly or weekly? Is it project to project? For those lean companies I visited in Japan, continuous improvement is daily by everyone. A simple and powerful dedication to improvement that will find these companies progressing a little further ahead of the rest of us, one day at a time.

Another point really hit me as I continued my lean reflection. We, as management, have not always been successful in applying lean in America. There have been plenty of reasons (more like excuses) for this failure. It has been said that the Japanese cultural difference can not be overcome in America (success by Toyota in America doesn't count, of course). Or that our business is really unique (especially used by non-automotive companies) so lean does not work here. Others just simply say that lean does work period. All these excuses are crap. (Sorry, it's the Asahi talking).

What we need to do is look closely at ourselves (management). Look at our people and our management approach. First, make sure everyone understands and actively embraces the lean approach. This will take upfront training and coaching. However, plan on firing those that don't get on board after ample opportunity to do so. Harsh and ruthless, maybe but they will kill any lean improvement efforts in your company if they don't believe in it. Even if they are star performers in a particular function or skill, it should be embrace lean or out. Note: Great employees really embrace continuous improvement.

On our lean journey, we need to change our management approach. Instead of managing by numbers, we should manage behaviors! Forget asking for reports on the metrics or reviewing the charts. Instead, ask the questions like what countermeasures did we out into action today? Show me! Did we do a complete 5S session today? How did we solve a customer complaint today? Tell me the names of the employees that have added a new skill set or learned a new process task. This approach also promotes the bias for action. By managing the behavior, the numbers will be achieved.

Finally, as I fast approach falling asleep, I come to terms with the fact that achieving harmony is not easy. It takes effort, dedication, wisdom, patience, persistence along with a whole host of other noble attributes that I struggle with maintaining favor over my human shortcomings. I may even fail and never achieve harmony in my lifetime. Despite these realizations, I am not going to let it stop me from trying as I walk down the path towards harmony.


Mark Graban said...

Thank you again for sharing your experiences over there, Mike!!!

Mike Gardner said...

You are right on the mark, Mike. Whenever I begin working with a new company I observe their culture, which is usually the antithesis of harmony. Managers run around with a cell phone glued to each ear, "solving" one "emergency" after another, employees are disconnected and suspicious, staff stay as far away from the shop floor as possible, machines and people don't work well together, and so on. In many companies people have been rewarded for the exact opposite kind of behavior you are talking about, which is one of the main reasons it is so hard to implement lean in those places.

Have a harmonious day...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your insights, Mike. Those of us who haven't found our way to Japan yet have learned from your posts.

Anonymous said...

Mike, wow what a way to end your Japanese lean journey, and begin your new lean journey, renewed and with a promise of harmony. Great post here! If I were a company deciding on going lean or not, after reading this post, I'd probably jump right in and sail away to the lean ocean. Keep at it! Looking forward to more lean stories and lessons from you.