Recently a client asked me if Lean was finished in Ireland. By that he meant that he thought people were tired of it as a continuous improvement approach, and that it had pretty much run its course. As a veteran Lean evangelist I hid my surprise (code for horror!) and gently persuaded him that we had barely started the Lean journey! The improvements organisations in Ireland have made so far are, for the most part, at a basic level. There are still huge unexploited opportunities in the enterprise. The extended supply chain is where the real rewards come from.
Nonetheless, his question gave me food for thought and I decided to re-ground myself in Lean philosophy and practices. By re-grounding I don’t mean reading books written by academics and consultants, but as promoted by the founding practitioners at Toyota.
A review of the Toyota.com website provides the following guiding business principles:
“1. Honor the language and spirit of the law of every country and region, and undertake open and fair business activities to be a strong corporate citizen of the world.
2. Respect the culture and customs of every country and region, and contribute to economic and social development through corporate activities in their respective communities.
3. Dedicate our business to providing clean and safe products and to enhancing the quality of life everywhere through all of our activities.
4. Create and develop advanced technologies and provide outstanding products and services that fulfill the needs of customers worldwide.
5. Foster a corporate culture that enhances both individual creativity and the value of teamwork, while honoring mutual trust and respect between labor and management.
6. Pursue growth through harmony with the global community via innovative management.
7. Work with business partners in research and manufacturing to achieve stable, long-term growth and mutual benefits, while remaining open to new partnerships.
Established in 1992, revised in 1997. (Translation from original Japanese)”
So far so good you might say. Any company could have the above principles, but how is that connected to Lean continuous improvement? The answer is that points 3 through 7 in particular emphasis safety, progress, creativity through teamwork, innovation and partnerships. All of these principles provide a framework for an effective Lean programme.
That’s all very well you might say, but that’s too high level for me. How is that put into practice in production? The answer comes from another page on the Toyota website, that explains the practices of jidoka and just-in-time.
“For Toyota, jidoka means that a machine must come to a safe stop whenever an abnormality occurs. Achieving jidoka, therefore, requires building and improving systems by hand until they are reliable and safe. First, human engineers meticulously build each new line component by hand to exacting standards, then, through incremental kaizen (continuous improvement), steadily simplify its operations.
Eventually, the value added by the line’s human operators disappears, meaning any operator can use the line to produce the same result. Only then is the jidoka mechanism incorporated into actual production lines. Through the repetition of this process, machinery becomes simpler and less expensive, while maintenance becomes less time consuming and less costly, enabling the creation of simple, slim, flexible lines that are adaptable to fluctuations in production volume.
The work done by hand in this process is the bedrock of engineering skill. Machines and robots do not think for themselves or evolve on their own. Rather, they evolve as we transfer our skills and craftsmanship to them. In other words, craftsmanship is achieved by learning the basic principles of manufacturing through manual work, then applying them on the factory floor to steadily make improvements. This cycle of improvement in both human skills and technologies is the essence of Toyota’s jidoka. Advancing jidoka in this way helps to reinforce both our manufacturing competitiveness and human resource development.”
Despite many years working in this field I can still count on one hand the number of companies, that I am personally aware of, that have implemented these practices fully. If you are not trained in this way of thinking, it can be very difficult to change. Many companies settle for the easy to understand and see practices, for example 5S, 8-step problem solving, quick changeover and standard work. These are of great value of course, however larger systems changes and ways of thinking are set to one side. Advanced ideas are more challenging to implement and require senior management understanding, commitment and action.
And just in case you are thinking this Lean adventure only applies in manufacturing, with some small adaptions, the above words from Toyota can easily apply to services. Just think the time you waste in the office searching for online files, correcting errors, sending documents back to senders because they are incomplete, and workflows that are designed such that they lead the user into making repeated mistakes. The principle of team-based manual design, followed by gradual automation using software applications, is relevant to processes in all service environments.
So! Is Lean finished in Ireland? I think not, we’re only starting and we have along an exciting journey ahead of us.