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How Small Steps Turn into Lean Manufacturing Game Changers

How Small Steps Turn into Lean Manufacturing Game Changers

The most common problem we have observed in companies adopting lean practices is scatter-shot efforts that do not produce the game changing improvements we read about in lean success stories.  Like the arcade game Whack-A-Mole, we see people with their new “eyes for waste” frantically chasing wastes which seem to proliferate faster then they can be eliminated.  Why does this happen, and what can be done about it?  This is the start of a series of posts about a new approach to improving, coaching and developing, with a clear purpose, by Mike Rother in his book Toyota Kata.   “Kata” is often used in the martial arts and refers to patterns or routines, like learning a dance step by breaking it into pieces and practicing each piece until it is mastered.

The most common management system that remains is command and control.  When we meet with executives interested in learning more about lean, they inevitably ask how we measure progress and how we can ensure, through audits and controls, sustainable progress.  According to Taiichi Ohno, the grandfather of the Toyota Production System, these are the wrong questions:

"You talk about setting numerical targets and using them to determine whether something is acceptable or unacceptable, but that's not really what management is all about.  That's what you'd call 'monitoring,' said Ohno. “True management is about organizing things so that everyone works toward their targets."

Mike Rother expands on Ohno’s view in today’s environment:

“There was a time when a manager’s job was to organize the work, assign the right people to the necessary tasks, monitor the results and ensure the job got done as ordered.  A main focus was task efficiency,” Rother points out.  “Today’s more complex and dynamic environment means managers have to work with their people to develop and apply skills for achieving new goals and meeting challenges along unpredictable paths.”

Now, companies that adopt lean practices generally have a true desire to improve things and be more adaptable to change, but they can get mired in attempts to find and eliminate waste.  In fact, when I worked with the U.S. Navy, they defined lean as a “war on waste.”   While it is true that we want to eliminate waste to make added value flow to our customer without interruption, focusing on waste elimination in itself is futile.  In figure 1, we illustrate the folly of wars on waste.

Figure 1: Is Lean Goal to Eliminate Waste?

What is the alternative to finding and eliminating waste?  Developing people so they learn the patterns of thinking and acting to strive for specific targets and work patterns that will lead to higher levels of competitiveness.  Looking forward to what we need as a business to provide more value to our customers than our competitors are providing, we then need to activate the dormant genius of our workforce to collectively achieve these capabilities.  We want the improvement process to look more like figure 2, in which we have a clear focus for our improvements and intentionally put on blinders to waste that has little effect on what we are trying to achieve right now.

Figure 2: A Goal of "Eliminate Waste" Is Not Enough

What this looks like in practice is summarized at a very high level in Figure 3.  Senior leaders set the direction.  They need a deep understanding of the business, its strengths and weaknesses, and environmental trends.  They need a distant vision for the business, like Toyota’s ten year global vision. Then, they need a strategic direction that translates to a big challenge about 1-3 years out.

Figure 3: The Role of a Challenge

One kitchen cabinet company, Merillat, builds a huge variety of cabinets for custom designed kitchens. In the current state at the time, they built batches of different types of cabinets and often sent parts of orders out at various times where they then collected at the customer site.  Their challenge was “a kitchen at a time,” so all the cabinets would arrive just-in-time as a set ready for installation.  This led to very focused, but broad and deep changes, in every part of their value stream.

In the meantime, managers of the operations need to be working toward their part of the challenge, but systematically, scientifically, and step by step. They need to set target conditions.  For example, if they are to send out a kitchen at a time, they need to be able to assemble any cabinet in any sequence with a batch size of one.  This drives step-by-step exploration, trying by experimenting, from the current state, through a grey zone mired in obstacles that we today do not know how to solve.  The improvement kata breaks down the improvement process into pieces, the student practices, and a coach provides feedback, so the student gets better at systematic improvement.  Imagine a clear guide for how to learn to improve and how to coach others to improve.  Well, the guidebook exists! Stay tuned to learn more.

Dr. Jeffrey Liker is professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan and author of The Toyota Way.  He leads Liker Lean Advisors, LLC and his latest book (with Gary Convis) is The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership.