Continuous Improvement, Gemba Management, Problem Solving

How is continuous improvement practiced in real life?

I was watching a Ted Talk video with chef José Andrés where he described how a team of chefs fed Puerto Rico after hurricane María.  I admire him for his work in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010, but now after his work in Puerto Rico with the World Central Kitchen, I am thankful and consider him a hero.  The entire talk is fascinating but there are parts that resonate in me for the simplicity on which he and his support team did problem-solving and continuous improvement in a crisis and beat the huge federal structure on bringing food for the people in need.

Some of his words remind me things that we do while practicing continuous improvement:  “Let’s not plan, let’s not meet, let’s start cooking.”  and  “All of a sudden, big problems become very simple, low-hanging fruit solutions, only by doing, not planning and meeting in a very big building”.

One common situation for managers is to make decisions, is what we do every day.  Some managers still make decisions based on month-end reports discussion during a staff meeting.  Those reports are like a post-mortem analysis, they only say what happened in the past.  Any action taken may or may not work to change the subject targeted on those reports.

The best way to know a situation first hand is going to where the action is, lean practitioners, call that place gemba.  Gemba is whenever the process we want to improve happens, the production floor, office, laboratory, any place where we need to practice continuous improvement.

I am very visual, for me, the best way to understand something is by taking a look at it.  I use charts and other visual methods to communicate status but when I am facing a problem, the only way for me is to go where the problem is and observe.  For me going to the gemba and see what is happening is a natural thing.  Even if does not feel that natural for you, it is possible to do it and it works on every environment.

What José Andrés did in Puerto Rico was just that, he went to the gemba observed the situation and took decisions on the spot.  Their ideas execution was also a check for their effectiveness and the trigger for changes to adapt to the changing situation or priorities.  That is how we practice continuous improvement at its best!

The Beginning, Training Program

Got a new job?

Don’t waste time learning the “tricks of the trade.” Instead, learn the trade. ~James Charlton

Different times in my life, for various reasons; I decided to embark on a new job.  For years,  I worked for the top three competitors of the same food category.  The transition between them was fairly easy because although different companies, being the same business segment they also had a lot of similarities.  But then one day, I decided to shake up things a bit and went out of my comfort accepting a job offer in a new industry.

How you set up yourself to be successful in a new job?  During the interview process, you advertise all your skills and experience and now its time to show it.  As a manager, I recruited many people during my career and my objective is to help them to be successful.  With that in mind, I guide them through a couple of steps, which are the same I followed.

The first thing is to make sure that you fully understand your role.  Get that job description and read it, highlight those items that are not very clear, ask what they mean.  If you did your assignment, during the interview process you ask most of the questions but ensure you know all the expectations; performance appraisal goals, work hours, travel and others.

My second step is to meet the key people.  Start with your own department and continue with all the others.  If you are in a new industry, you will have to learn the process and those things that are different and unique to this new one. A good way to do this is to ask the department managers for an overview of their processes and if it is possible to spend some hours with the people who perform those processes. There is no better way to learn than going to the gemba and see.

This step is very important because can set the tone of how your relationship with all these people will be.  Be respectful of their time. listen carefully, learn from their experiences.  Let them explain to you those things they are proud of, make questions, engage in the conversation and ask for advice.  How can you help them?  What they think should be your top priority? Identify the people who are willing and able to help you, those with more experience who can be like a mentor for you.

How much time you spend to go through those steps depend on you, the company and of course your boss.  I think this process can be anywhere from a month to three months.  Knowing how your department and your role relates to the whole is very helpful to create your work plan.  If everything went as expected, also you build the foundation for a successful work relationship with your peers.  You don’t need any tricks, just work letting your experience be an asset but not a roadblock to your learning process.


Five S, Lean Tools, Visual Management

Making Problems Visible

Recently we have an external audit at our plant and while the results were good, they were not as good as expected.  The audit results did not match the excellent team effort and great preparation work done during the whole year.  The auditor managed to see a good amount of non-conformance, most of them were very simple things.

During the staff meetings right after the audit, we reviewed all the observations, some of us were pretty upset by the results.  At the end of the meeting our general manager pointed out the teamwork done and how hard we worked during all last year and the current to make the plant visible which helped the auditor to determine what was out of standard.  Of all people, I failed to notice that our plant is so visible that basically, we made the auditor job easier!

Lesson learned this story is now part of our Five S and Visual Management training.  These programs work, the audit as proof of that.  Visual standards make easier to understand when situations are out of standard.  The next step after detection is to fix the situation, that is where we need to work more.  Daily follow-up is important, training for new employees and why not? Maybe we need to revise the standards and go back to the drawing table after all the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle never ends!

Gemba Management

Management Golden Rules

Some time ago I visited this food manufacturing plant for the first time and I was amazed by how good the plant looked.  The facility was excellent, the building was almost new, very good machinery and one thing that usually is a problem: a nice layout that follows the process flow making it easy to manage and handle materials.  After a few conversations with most of the managers, I realized that none of them had the habit of going daily to the gemba (workplace).  This was a surprise for me!  If the managers are not going to the gemba, who is taking care of it?

A couple of months later I started to work there and since the beginning, I continue with my routine of visiting the production lines at least twice every day even when “nothing” was going on.  The employees looked weird at me, they were not used at all to see a “white hat” when no problems where happening.  Some people were upset because they thought I was spying on them.  I started to explain to everybody why I visited the workplace every day. I mentioned here and there about Lean Manufacturing, Kaizen and visiting the workplace to see but the more I talked the more funny faces I saw.  Funny as in the face of the deer in front of the headlights.  I knew that they were thinking that everything was right, the plant was operating with a cost below operating budget; why we want to change what we are doing?

The primary functions of a manager are maintenance and improvement.  Maintenance refers to activities directed toward maintaining current technological and operating standards through training and discipline while improvement refers to activities directed towards elevating the current standards.

Take decisions based on data from all kind of reports is just not right.  We need to see to know what is really going on before we decide.  The first golden rule for management within a Lean Manufacturing environment is that when a problem arises, we need to go to gemba first.  Observe the non-conformance situation for a while, the gemba will give you all the answers.  The second rule is to check the object of the abnormality, which could be a down machine or rejected parts for example.  Kaizen starts when we recognize that we have a problem, see the abnormality and recognize the opportunity for improvement is the first step for continuous improvement.  While there, is time to practice the third rule; take temporary countermeasures on the spot.  We need to take in mind though, that temporary repairs address only the symptom, not the root cause.  Find the root cause is precisely the fourth golden rule.  After we identify the root cause is time to solve the problem and create standards that will prevent a recurrence.

The manager itself will not solve the problem, people working at the gemba will find the solution but the manager’s task at the gemba is looking over the quality, cost, and delivery.  All standards need to be cost-effective and be delivered on time, but the number one priority is always quality.

Follow these rules is not easy at the beginning, it takes time to learn to see.  With the huge amount of meetings, visitors and emails that you need to address daily; it is easy to keep yourself at the office and let the supervisors take care of the production floor.  I learn the hard way that nobody will see things the way you do, and a live view of an abnormality worth more than a million reports.

Still, I feel aggravated with a couple of my fellow managers, they don’t get it yet.  Where they see everything good, I saw opportunities.  I knew that we could beat the current cost per case very easily.  My continuous improvement gene poke my head almost every day with the opportunities we had in front of us but some of us still don’t see.  Change of attitudes takes time, but the people on the floor are getting the idea and each day we are more, the system will coach in or coach out those that still manage the facility without going to the gemba first.