Thursday, July 25, 2019

My visit to the birthplace of Lean

As I write, I’m sitting on the Shinkansen Bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo, my head full of insight and inspiration from a week spent ticking a big item off my bucket list – a lean study tour of Japan.  It was wonderful to share this experience with my entire leadership team, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone who is or aspires to be a Lean|Agile change agent.  My hope in the following article is to share enough about the experience to inspire you to make the pilgrimage, and just a couple of the many ways in which it has challenged and changed me.

After a great deal of Googling, we elected to join a tour run by Shinka Management, an Australian company who specialises in assisting the exchange of knowledge of Lean and TPS between Japan and the rest of the world both through hosting Japanese visits and delivering consulting and training services abroad. 

Our week began in Tokyo on Sunday afternoon, where we were delighted to discover we were the only Australian members of the tour group of 20 and meet our core hosts Paul, Eri and Dave.  After some introductions, we were taken through a detailed look at the week ahead and treated to an introduction to Japanese business etiquette before heading off to continue the conversation over dinner (the trip includes all meals, travel and accommodation). 

Monday morning began with a series of trains and buses efficiently moving us towards our first destination in Gifu prefecture and accompanied by highlights of the pervasiveness of visual management in Japan demonstrated in the public transport system.  The learning then began in earnest at Shinka’s training centre where we were introduced to Hattori Sensai, a 30-year Toyota Veteran who delivered the bulk of our classroom training for the week. 

Less than 5 minutes into the introduction I had my first new Toyota insight as we came to understand that Hattori Sensai was a “Jishuken” leader, one of a handful of TPS experts that moved from plant to plant within Toyota implementing rapid and concentrated kaizen improvements (humorously translated to us as “Kaizen ninja”).  This was not a term I’d read in any Lean book, and as I came to understand their role I struggled to understand how we’d missed it.  Those who demonstrate early aptitude for Kaizen are enrolled in the Jishuken development program, and then play a key role both as “those sent to solve the hardest problems” and also to act as “kaizen sharing agents” bridging the company boundaries within Toyota (My previous view of “Toyota as one company” was dismantled as I learnt they were actually many companies under one umbrella with distinct differences).  Dave provided superb translation as Hattori Sensai shared numerous insights about the TPS way of thinking and his experience consulting with non-Japanese companies attempting to adopt lean.  I very quickly discovered that the many “Lean books” I had read tended to talk about the author’s insights into “a part of Toyota at a given point in time”, and gaining understanding of cultural and historical context was critical particularly when it came to adaptation.
Hattori Sensai illustrating transport oriented supply chain optimisation
We then proceeded to our first factory visit for the tour – Gifu Auto Body which did final body assembly for the HiAce line and some larger vehicles.  This was the plant where Hattori Sensai had spent the majority of his working life, and his intimate working knowledge enriched the insights immensely as well as providing numerous moments of humour as he “felt the pulse on the gemba” and collared people on the floor who had worked for him to give them a bit of stick over issues he was seeing.  Here I had my second real insight into Toyota.  I had a picture in my head of a factory that felt like a hugely automated laboratory.  I came to understand that Toyota valued ingenuity over infrastructure investment, and the vast majority of their kaizen was about stretching what they had (some advice they offered Elon Musk which he ignored and learnt the hard way).  We then returned for a little more training before concluding the day with more chat over dinner.

Tuesday was again a mix of classroom training and site visits.   We visited Metal One Isuzu, an incredibly impressive steel-processing plant.  They run a model of “Factory as a showroom”.  Salespeople invite prospective clients to the factory, then shut up and allow the factory itself and the operators (all of whom are trained in customer service) to inspire confidence.  At this point, we were starting to understand how much “attention to every detail, no matter how minor” pervaded the way of working.  There was a huge amount of stress on safety, and my favourite moment of the tour involved the “operator-designed and made” safety awareness experiences and the follow-up story from our host Paul.  The factory uses different coloured helmets to indicate role on the floor (as visitors we were in light green).  Each staff helmet has three small safety cross stickers on the side.  As part of Isuzu’s safety culture, if a staff member observed a colleague violating a safety standard or taking an unsafe action they were required to talk to their colleague about it and remove a sticker from their helmet.  The loss of all three stickers would result in the helmet being traded for a pink helmet and safety bib, which was to be worn for a period until the unsafe behaviour had stopped.
Visual Management Boards, the factory floor and the dreaded Pink Helmet at Metal One Isuzu

Tuesday also gave us a session with another of Shinka’s ex-Toyota people, Hyoda Sensai (who had managed the Gifu Auto Body plant and had also served as a Jishuken leader).  The session with him flew by, focusing on leadership and the role of management.  At this point, “a constant sense of danger” at last became crystal clear for me.  Hyoda Sensei stressed how easy it was to allow waste in the good times, which tended to result in crises during bad times.  Balancing a water bottle on the edge of a table, he asked us to imagine that we were the bottle and the drop from the table to the floor was a cliff.  We were then asked how hard we would fight to maintain our balance and find inventive ways to avoid the drop.  After a moment he then moved the bottle back to the middle of the table and repeated the question.  Of course, the urgency had disappeared.  The moral of the story was that a key responsibility of management was to create challenging situations for their teams to maintain that constant sense of danger.

Hyoda Sensai illustrates the "constant sense of danger"
Wednesday brought a visit to Suzaki Industries in the morning.   As well as other clients, Suzaki is a tier 2/3 supplier to Toyota.  Our connection to supply-chain thinking began with a view of a truckload of steel from Isuzu being unloaded, and proceeded to be led by Chairman Suzaki.  His introductory speech contrasted the joy of working with Toyota as a pull-based customer to the challenges of his push-based customers before proceeding with a fascinating walk through the plant and incredible insights into their use of Kanban and endless kaizen-based ingenuity.  We concluded the tour with an hour in a team-room where Mr Suzaki explained how when the bubble burst in Japan in the late 80’s his company was on the brink of disaster.  Until then, the view in Japan had been that manufacturing demand would continue to grow endlessly and many companies had allowed themselves to “grow fat” and let waste creep in.   He had massively overinvested in automation to support production expansion, and when demand shrank overnight due to a massive exchange rate shift he had a factory full of machinery that would never pay for itself.  He described his “Rescue” by Toyota – not in the form of a financial bail-out, but through mentoring.  They informed him they relied on him as a quality supplier and wanted to ensure he succeeded and proceeded to invite him for intensive mentoring at Gifu Auto Body (one of those mentors being Hyoda Sensai).  Yet again the resounding message was “ingenuity over automation” as he described how much less automation was present in his factory today then 30 years ago.

Chairman Suzaki explains production scheduling (left), kanban tickets (centre) and standard work definitions (right)
The afternoon provided an incredible simulation humorously led by Hattori Sensai to help us put the notion of standard work and kaizen problem-solving into practice, in particular highlighting the risk of attempting to improve before you understand the outcome you’re trying to achieve.  By this stage, I’d come to another of my paradigm shifts in understanding.  After years of believing that Kaizen was “about the 1%”, both of our sensai had stressed the belief among the Jishuken leaders that “you could always get at least 30% improvement in a kaizen initiative” (notwithstanding that this is usually achieved by adding up many 1%’ers).

The Coactivation team experiences a rather different type of Kaizen
Thursday commenced with a phenomenal simulation illustrating the operation of Kanban across the supply-chain before we boarded a bus for some welcome downtime on the 3 hour journey to Kyoto for what I personally found to be the most inspiring visit of the tour to Omron Taiyo, a joint venture between Omron corporation and Japan Sun Industries aimed at integrating people with disabilities into the workforce. 120 of 134 staff had some form of disability (physical, intellectual or emotional) – sustainably and profitably producing healthcare equipment, power supplies, switches and other components.  By this stage, the metaphor of “the cliff edge” was front-of-mind on every visit and Omron Taiyo exemplified it as the relentless ingenuity required to support paraplegics, people with one arm, and those with other less visible disabilities in the workplace.  The endless hunt for any edge of improvement was tangible walking the floor, right down to spreading panoramic pictures on the back of binders in filing cabinets to encourage them being placed back in the right position and save 3-4 seconds for people looking for a binder. 

Briefing at Omron Taiyo

After a “night off” in Kyoto, Friday began with a visit to Takatsuki General Hospital to explore Lean in healthcare.   The hospital proudly informed us of the 3000+ improvement initiatives they had implemented under TQM and their use of Quality Circles to build the improvement mindset along with explaining some of the challenges of adapting from the manufacturing to healthcare context.  Their cliff-edge, a rapidly growing percentage of elderly population (65+) living longer and longer stressing the healthcare system.  As we toured behind-the-scenes in the most startling hospital environment I have ever seen, I found myself wishing my wife (who is a nurse) was with me and looking forward to sharing what I had seen with her and enriching my layman’s view of the differentiation.

Kaizen outcomes, therapy innovation, & the masked Coactivation team (plus honorary teammate from Belgium)
Friday afternoon brought a final debrief followed by a celebratory closing dinner and some late-night Kyoto bar-hopping.  I have a number of blog posts I’d been holding off on until after Japan, and look forward to delving more deeply into some of the insights of the trip in those.  If there was one thing that was reinforced every day as a contrast between the Agile world and TPS it was an obsession with data.  We tend to be far too “fluffy and fuzzy”, and the usefulness of hard data whether it be for optimising workflow based on effective demand forecasting, optimising the deployment of your workforce, scheduling work, identifying waste, or steering improvement was amazing to see in action.