Friday, May 28, 2010

What Get’s In the Way of Successful Kaizen?

A dirty little secret is that kaizen efforts often go nowhere, or don’t go very far. In too many cases I have seen very successful kaizen workshops or kaizen blitzes seem to be huge successes, only to have them fade within months or even weeks.
 What do I mean by successful workshops?  A team focuses on a work group or operation.  With the help of a facilitator they identify and figure out how to eliminate waste. The facilitator, who may or may not be an outside consultant, teaches how to look for waste and the strategies to accomplish its elimination. These include moving operations closer together, moving the operations into a U-shaped cell, doing away with batch processing and putting one-piece-flow in its place, and balancing the operation with takt time and cycle time studies, to name a few. The team figures how to accomplish these ideas in this particular case. 
At the end of the workshop, there is a dramatically different situation.  Fewer people are required to produce the same amount. Throughput time is drastically reduced.  Quality is documented to have substantially improved. Everyone agrees; this is better.  This is great stuff.  (Another example might be a SMED workshop that cuts changeover time from over two hours to forty five minutes.)
I would always stress that there was still much work to be undertaken.  The workshop’s creation requires infant care. It exists in an environment where organization’s support systems are organized to support the traditional way of working and no other work group is working in the new way. There are changes that will need to be made in the support systems.  In the meantime, the “island of excellence” will need special care and feeding.
One of the first things to go is often the water-spider.  A water-spider is the name given to a person who has the responsibility of supplying the operation or cell with the necessary material, delivering it frequently, but in relatively small quantities. Eventually, one water-spider may serve several work cells.  This person may also remove finished product to the next place it needs to go.  The water-spider makes it possible for the employees who add value to do nothing else but add value.
Suddenly there is the need to fill a position on another line, where no changes have been made.  The supervisor looks around for someone he can spare and spots the water-spider.  So, for today, the water-spider is going to replace the absent worker.  If the absent worker is missing tomorrow, the water-spider will again be pressed into service to cover for the absence.
The cell developed by the workshop team is designed to have a water-spider. The operations have been moved very close together. The inventories on the line are small and there is no real space for more.  Now the operators on the line must get their own material, and do it a lot more frequently than before the workshop. 
This kaizen stuff sucks! I knew it would never work! The operators are now frustrated, because they are still expected to produce just is much, with fewer people, and the one-piece-flow grinds to a stop, because someone has to go off and get missing material.
Sometimes an experienced facilitator can warn the team ahead of time about problems such as this one.  Sometimes even though the facilitator makes the point forcefully, the water-spider gets drafted to fill another position.
A supervisor called me up the week following our workshop. He had gone from highly skeptical to enthusiastic about the changes during the workshop. Now he said, “Bob, kaizen doesn’t work.”
I asked him why he said that.
“The line is not making its production.”
Again I asked, why?
They were having a quality problem with a purchased component.
I asked, was the quality problem something that had been caused by the kaizen workshop?  The answer was that there had “always” been this quality problem with this component, but before the workshop there was a lot of inventory on the line, and they could open another box.  I pointed out that the process was making a chronic problem visible.  The question now was would we re-hide the problem in a lot of in-process inventory or would we address the problem with the supplier.
Having just-in-case inventory is very common in U.S. manufacturing.  It is so common that it becomes conventional wisdom about how to operate effectively.  In this instance, the supervisor understood the point.  Highly visible, temporary measures were instituted while the problem with the supplier was solved.
So, one obstacle to successful kaizen is the conventional wisdom about the best way to operate.  Have just-in-case inventory. If you need to fill vacancies, draft people who are “just handling material.”
Existing habits and ways of thinking are hard to change.  I have returned to review the progress of a workshop after a month and find that a problem has been solved, not by figuring out how to keep one-piece-flow, but by moving a process off the line and reverting to batch production, because “that’s the way it has to be.”
Getting lean in production is a lot like getting lean physically.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes work and keeping at it.  Sometimes a personal trainer will help, a facilitator who may be an outside consultant or someone in the organization who has that role. Most of us know of cases where, even with a personal trainer, efforts to take of pounds and become healthier get sidetracked.  So it is with organizations trying to become lean.

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