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 take decisions, is what we do every day.  Some managers still take decisions based on month end reports discussion during a staff meeting.  Those reports are like a post-mortem analysis, they only say what happened on 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

Authority or knowledge?

Some people is very passionate about lean manufacturing, so passionate that people recognize them for that.  The lean journey is so tough that even for that people is close to impossible to be successful on their lean journey if they are the only driven factor.

For a successful journey we need more than one person with lean knowledge.  I found a couple of plant managers that believe that having one person with the words lean manufacturing on his/her title is the first step for the lean transformation.  This person would be dedicated to work with the lean manufacturing implementation, through trainings and kaizen events facilitation.  It is also expected that this person will do everything on its own and that is the first mistake.  Change attitudes and thinking ways is not easy, there are so many things that needs to be take care of, so much coaching, follow-up, training, facilitation, learning and preparation. Without the resources or the authority to make it happen, the lean transformation is not feasible.

Every lean transformation effort needs a strong leader with the authority to make things happen, someone who can take bold decisions, somebody that the people will follow and respect.  This person does not need to be lean expert, just someone who believes in lean and has the power to change things.  Of course he or she will need resources that will introduce the lean concepts to the whole organization beginning with the managers.  Authority without knowledge or knowledge without authority, either one of them will not work.

I have seen people in the position where he or she is the person with the knowledge but no authority to make or force changes.  That is an awful position, never hire or pointed someone to implement lean if you do not intend to give he or she the authority to take decisions and change things or you if do not plan to be there 100% of the time supporting the transformation, taking those decisions and changing things yourself.  People will think the change is optional when is not and even when this person is very passionate, know a lot about lean and has the skills to coach and facilitate changes; pretty soon the plant will go back to its old ways.  Without support it is impossible to make this journey.



The Three M’s

One year right after the end of the first semester we received the visit of the CEO of our plant.  He  came to discuss with the plant management how we were doing against budget.  A huge part of the discussion was around the fact that our daily throughput was less than expected and for that reason the cost per case was higher than our goal.  The whole cost system was built around total number of cases produced regardless we need them or not.

The warehouse was full, there was no space for more finished goods.  Sales were slow so the total number of daily shipments to our customer was under average; but we were working overtime to produce enough cases to meet the cost per case target.  Instead of working to produce what our customers need or move ahead with new products or try to conquest new markets, we continue producing as per forecast because that is what “we need” to do to keep our cost per case in budget.

Being a lean manufacturing student who work on a company where the concept lean manufacturing only have meaning at plant level is not easy.  During that meeting, my heart was beating so fast that I thought that everybody could listen it.  My boss was looking at me, he knew that I was about to say something.  I take every chance I have to talk about lean with the hope that at least one person will learn something and he knows it.

Our production schedule is not even, we work overtime for months just to have a one week shutdown and then after a couple of weeks of regular production, we go back to overtime.  Unevenness in production that is not related to the customers needs is Mura.  Mura is another type of waste, just as Muri and Muda (the most common type – remember the seven wastes?).  Together they are known as the Three M’s.

Mura is the waste of unevenness or inconsistency and most of the time is the cause of many of the seven muda wastes.  When we are inconsistent in our schedule with a lot of peaks (overtime) and some valleys (shutdowns), we create so many problems using materials and creating goods that we don’t need that defeats the whole purpose of lean, attack muda.

The third type of waste, Muri is the waste of overburden.  Overburden means to give unnecessary stress to employees and processes.  When we decide to work overtime for months and months while the warehouse remains full we are causing stress to our employees who can see the warehouse full and can’t understand why we continue producing more.  We also stress the process, people and machines work too many hours; people get tired and machines don’t get the appropriate maintenance.  Both things leads to downtime and errors that create rejects and poor quality products and increase absenteeism rates.

While I was talking about this, the CEO was looking at me with genuine interest, he asked some questions and promised that we will talk more about this in the future.  To be honest, talking is not necessarily what I was looking for, but at least he listened and we all start to talk about using different types of indicators to measure the plant performance.

That day, we all realize that Mura and Muri are our real enemies, they are the cause of muda.  That day, we also accept the idea that traditional financial KPI maybe is not the best way to measure the plant performance.

Lean Trainings, The Beginning

Intimidated by the Lean Jargon?

One thing about Lean Manufacturing that scares many people is the slang.  Some people is curious about what those words means, others are sarcastic about why we need to use japanese words and others are just scared.  I have to admit that the first time I read a book about Lean was confused. I was intimidated for a few seconds: gemba, gembutsu, kaizen, kanban, jidoka, heijunka and others.

Regardless that first shock, I decided to embrace the words and although I am still confused sometimes with those that I barely used, there are a lot more that I used very often.  One of those that I used every day is gemba.  Before the times on which the management team decided to learn more and practice lean; I was the only one who used that word.  I remember one time on which our IT manager come to help me with some technical problems with my email and he was the word gemba on my calendar and was so curious about the meaning that he had to ask.

Lean does not use only japanese words, there are a lot more of english terms and acronyms that sometimes are not easy to follow or the meaning is different to what we know:  TPM, value added, JIT, PDCA, pull system,visual management, 5S, A3, waste.

In 2012, the Oregon Department of Administrative Services (DAS) started to work towards maximizing its value to customer agencies and the people of Oregon.  They implemented an entrepreneurial management business model and using tools that contribute to continuous improvement. Those tools included the use of lean manufacturing principles.  DAS employees started to systematically eliminate waste, improve quality, and increase customer satisfaction.  They publish their transformation glossary, which I found very useful.

Get over the words, with the time you will get used to them and more than that, you will start using them without problems.  The people around you will get used to them as well, although I have to tell you, not without give you weird looks first.