Friday, December 12, 2008

Journey to Greatness

My personal lean journey began in July 1985 when a former Toyota Industrial Engineer from Japan visited my plant to teach us how to improve. At the time, the term lean manufacturing had yet to exist and we only talked in Industrial Engineering terms of methods improvements. I was just a 25 year-old Junior Industrial Engineer at a Hospital Bed Manufacturing company named Hill-Rom, just three years out of college and not much experience in the manufacturing world. Little did I know that this chance encounter with my first Japanese Sensei would forever change my thinking and alter my professional career before it really started.

I listened intently on the words of this Japanese Industrial Engineer through the help of an interpreter. He talked about strange words like muda, muri and mura. In the middle of his lesson, he showed us a banana and talked about the necessary evil of the banana skin. Why must we buy a banana based on weight with the skin still attached, he asked? We can’t eat the skin, it has no value. What strange thoughts on things I never thought twice about before.

After our brief lesson, he picked three of us to work with him on a special project to show our management what is possible. Our team consisted of our new Japanese Sensei, a tool technician, a setup operator and myself. Our mission if we choose to accept it, perform a complete die changeover in under 10 minutes.

Is he kidding? Our die change took every bit of 1 hour to complete. This is crazy and unsafe.

Without flinching, our firm but patient Sensei told us it could be done. He has done it many, many times before and he would show us. We just had to open our minds and try it.

So with a team not all sure if it was really possible, we began the first steps in our lean journey. Our Japanese Sensei quickly took his pen and made several drawings to help show us what he had in mind. We took measurements, modified the dies, simplified and standardized the attachments and eliminated adjustments. After several attempts, his pen came out and additional drawings were created. Before long we made major improvements in our changeover time.

Our Japanese Sensei seemed satisfied with new quick changeover time but told us to do it again, please. He continued saying we must always practice. So all we heard after that was, “do it again, please”, “do it again, please” and “do it again, please”. By now, we were certainly sick and tired of changing the dies but quickly saw that we were making greater improvements.

Now we were ready to show our management the results. Our die change process went from 1 hour to just over 4 minutes. It was amazing! We didn’t think it was possible yet here it is. We did it. WE actually did it.

In this experience, our Japanese Sensei made us feel that we did it ourselves and he just pointed the way. It was the greatest feeling in the world to me that day to accomplish what was thought to be the impossible. My world of possibility and improvement became endless.

As you may have guessed by now, my Japanese Lean Sensei was Shigeo Shingo. After the successful die change demonstration that day, he handed me his personal pen that he used to sketch out his drawings. It was a simple blue ball point pen with S. SHINGO stamped on it. He told me I was a good engineer and to teach others what I learned. To this day, I still have his pen and try to teach others as a Lean Sensei myself. To Shigeo Shingo, I am forever grateful. He opened my mind to the impossible which makes all the difference to go from good to great.


Anonymous said...

Mike, you're lucky to have a good sensei. I always believe that a person's achievement is a result in part of their mentors. In return, your sensei must be very proud of you. Keep at it! ;)

Jason Yip said...

Great story!

Anonymous said...

This is an incredible story! Did you continue to receive instructions from your sensei?