Written by Patricia E. Moody, Manufacturing Management Consultant, Author, Publisher of Blue Heron Journal and named as one of FORTUNE Magazine’s “Ten Pioneering Women in Manufacturing”
Why does Kaizen (Japanese for “make better”) maintain its hold on manufacturing over three decades after its first introduction to American production floors? Were the simple tools - 5S, visual systems, the 5 whys, pull, kanban, poke-yoke, takt time, spaghetti diagrams, one-piece flow, cells and quick changeover – that kaizen pioneers introduced so very powerful that well into the current generation tasked with securing the future of manufacturing, these basics remain the undisputed tools for getting production ready and moving?
Kaizen has no shelf life and producers eager to see fast results have carried kaizen’s tools and methodology into new previously untouched areas such as new product development, supplier management, even marketing and legal functions. And with each iteration, kaizen teams become more skilled at observation, diagnosis and problem-solving. In fact it is in this regard, as an observation and learning tool, that kaizen revolutionised the way workers are included in manufacturing processes.
Japanese pioneers such as Maasaki Imai and the Shingijutsu Consulting Group, coupled with Americans such as Art Byrne, of the Wiremold Company, George Koenigsaecker, who now owns Lean Investment LLC, and the Association for Manufacturing Excellence, were the first to exercise the early concepts of kaizen.
Coming up against hardcore assembly line set-ups loaded with out-of-control inventories, their combined results were stunning and, it turns out, historic. Art Byrne, former-CEO of Connecticut-based Wiremold which began their kaizen programs in 1991, cited improved productivity by 20 percent year-on-year and throughput time cut from four to six weeks down to two days or less. Defect rates were reduced by 42 percent in year one and 50 percent in year two, and inventories were shrank by 80 percent. Equipment changeovers which previously took 10 hours now take less than 10 minutes, and the average time spent on new product development was dramatically lowered from almost three years to less than six months.
But kaizen as practiced in Japan had to be modified to fit the American landscape, with rumours of Japanese consultants slapping American workers into obedience highlighting the extreme contrast between the two cultures. However the time and effort taken by the North American industry to adopt and make kaizen its own was clearly worth it, as the improvements at Wiremold demonstrate. Now the industry is looking ahead to the next generation of kaizen ‘blitzers’ who will lead and inhabit what many are referring to as ‘The Third Industrial Revolution’, brought about by the increasing digitilisation of businesses and manufacturers.
So what kaizen tools are still the most useful and powerful for use in industry today? Quality will continue to be measured, although manufacturers have advanced enough to rely on software for on-going operations, beyond histograms and other manual observation tools previously used for initial tests. Teams still focus on waste reduction – inventory, movement, scrap – although too many supply networks have fallen to what author Dick Morley dubs “corporate anorexia,” an extreme dedication to inventory reduction that places producers’ profit margins at risk when faced with the type of supply disruption Toyota experienced during the recent floods and tsunami. Here, risk management and network mapping software take over where simple kaizen manual tools cannot go.
Our culture still demands improvement teams, but the tools that the teams use have expanded to include Lego, videos and tablets. The three days previously needed to conduct a "Kaizen Blitz" event changed as team members developed new and more focused continuous improvement projects. Automotive supplier engineers for Honda and other majors, for example, plan on spending weeks working with suppliers to kaizen their production operations. In critical problem areas, they may stretch their visit to months of hands-on work followed up by weekly check-ins.
Tools that became basic starting points still include visual systems such as A3 problem-solving, which was first utilised by Honda, an approach to structuring the workplace that will still be essential even after most of our factories have become Advanced Manufacturing Centers; as will 5S, the Three A’s (the actual place, the actual part, the actual situation, in the lean philosophy of ‘Gemba’), Deming’s Plan/Do/Check/Act cycle, and Dorian Shainin’s famous “Let the data lead you.”
The challenge for manufacturers wanting to take kaizen to the next level will be how they manage and integrate a global supply network with IT tools that rest on a clarified kaizen foundation.
(In 2000 the French industrial group, Legrand, acquired Wiremold and controversially choose to disregard the then CEO’s advice to continue with the company’s embedded culture of continuous improvement. A decision that proved to have severe ramifications. Byrne, and two other executives, left the company and Wiremold went from a beacon of efficiency to one of plummeting sales and a greatly reduced workforce in three short years. Wiremold serves as a prime example of how Kaizen, if correctly implemented throughout an organisation and instilled in every employee, can totally transform a company for the better, but also, sadly, how reverting back to previous practices can seriously jeopardise any chance of future growth and survival. Jonny Williamson –Ed.)