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Friday, June 11, 2010

Go to Gemba

I was facilitating a workshop in a large automobile assembly plant in Great Britain. The factory was a part of a large, western, multinational auto manufacturer. In my group, one of three or four, there were participants from several other parts of Europe and the United States.  This was to be a big learning experience for the entire corporation.
Everyone had gone through a day of lecture and discussion about the principles, concepts and some of the methodologies used in kaizen. Finally, on day two, all of the participants were sent out to the factory to find ways to improve parts of the assembly line. 
Each of the workshop groups was facilitatied by a consultant.  My group was to focus on the installation of the headliners in cars that came down the line.
Every group was given a meeting room.  Our group had about ten people. We gathered in our assigned meeting room and sat around a round table on which were piled a number of drawings of the shop floor and the section in which we would be working, as well as several stacks of printouts with data on throughput time, defect rates, line down-time, and probably several other trends which I do not remember.
Getting these managers out of the meeting room proved to be difficult.  They wanted to “study the data.”  I had to become more and more insistent that we go out to the section of the line we had been assigned to us. We needed to go to gemba (gemba means the “real place,” used in kaizen to refer to the place where value is added) to  Identify waste, which we had learned about the day before. I told the team that after that, we could get away from the noise for a bit, back in the conference room and discuss possible improvements.
I finally convinced a pissed group of managers to go out to look at the line and identify waste.  We immediately saw that the installers had to travel significant distances to get the headliner that went with the next car coming down the line and get it installed.  One cause of all the walking was that headliners were stored in large trays in a horizontal position, and as there were eight or ten different headliners, they almost always had to retrieve one from a tray that was far away.  We designed a rack that could hold a small number of each model in a vertical position, and got the first version of it fabricated in a few hours.  During the week it went through several design changes.
The workers also had to walk quite a distant to replace batteries on their electric screwdrivers.  There was one charging station.  We installed several charging stations at strategic locations.  We increased the number of batteries so that they would have time to get a full charge and not need to be replaced as often. Working with the operators, we developed a visual system to identify the battery that had been in the charger the longest.
We actually spent relatively little time in the meeting room, once we got started.  We used some tools such as spaghetti diagrams to document the amount of walking that operators had to do before and after the changes. We documented the percentage of each cycle during which they actually added value, as opposed to walking, transporting, over-processing, or waiting. The workers, who had been skeptical of these managers putting them under a magnifying glass, liked all the ways in which their jobs were being made easier. They did not have to hustle to catch up between one headliner and another.
Western manufacturing has a tendency to go into the conference room and brainstorm when there is a problem to be solved.  The kaizen approach at Toyota and other Japanese companies is to go to gemba.  I had the opportunity to apprentice under a talented and highly experience Japanese kaizen consultant, Chihiro Nakao.  He had been an engineer and project manager under Taiichi Ohno, at Toyota. Mr. Nakao insisted that, the moment we arrived at the plant we go to gemba, the place where value-adding work was going on, and see how everything was going, particularly if there had been changes made the day before or overnight.
Nakaosan described Mr. Ohno’s daily practice of looking in at the engineering offices, during the day.  If he found anyone there he would go and stand behind the individual.  When the engineer asked how he could help the company president, Mr. Ohno would ask what he was doing that required taking him away from gemba.  Most of the time, Mr. Ohno found the engineering offices empty.
A participant in the workshop asked, “When did you get your paperwork done?’” Mr. Nakao replied, with a smile, that they would have to wait until Mr. Nakao had gone home.
Going to gemba with Nakaosan was always educational.  He would point out waste that the rest of us did not see.  He would take us up to a mezzanine and have us look out over the floor, asking us, “Where is the flow?”  In a lean plant the flow is obvious.  You can see it without question.
I now want to see the gemba first, with any potential client, and I ask them to show me the flow.  I ask to do it from the shipping dock backwards. Simply following the flow backwards often makes my guides see things that they had not been aware of before. I find that fewer steps get skipped, because I can ask how things got to be the way they are, as we work our way upstream.
Masaaki Imai describes in great detail the importance of going to gemba in Gemba Kaizen.   Gemba is where the problem occurred or is occurring. It is the logical first place to go to understand the nature of the problem.

1 comment:

  1. As a summer engineering intern at Boeing, I've just had my first experience of working with Sensei Nakao. Extremely eye opening and humbling experience.