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Mike Thelen

Quality Insider

Changing to Lean, Part 4

Where does process improvement start?

Published: Monday, May 12, 2008 - 22:00

What’s an extremely difficult part of lean? Sustained improvement. Kaizen is best known and most often described as continual, incremental improvement. Kaikaku is perhaps best described as revolutionary improvement. Thus we have two ways to pursue sustained improvement, evolution and revolution. How do we achieve them?

Once the engine is rolling down the lean track, how do we keep it moving? By changing the way we think about the products we make. Before we can implement kaizen or kaikaku, we must understand how we make what we make.

Process management—the traditional approach
In traditional facilities, we track the progress of a product through each department—sales, customer service, scheduling, manufacturing, assembly, coating, packing, then through shipping to the transportation company. Each department has specific goals. Each has different day-to-day objectives than the others. How do we monitor and judge the success of a product when there are so many and varied avenues for the product to travel?

Often we fail. Why? A manufacturing cell has two orders due. One is a long run with short setup. The other, while “hot”, is short-run with an expensive setup. An order due later requires the same work. Often, the first order is run, not due to priority, but due to a desire to perform well (after all, no one likes the supervisor bearing down on them).

Let’s look at traditional management through a manufacturing process diagram:

Inventory (in the form of lots) is everywhere, with no structure (or only a perceived structure that isn’t followed). There’s no clear path as any product can and will run anywhere dependent on machine availability at the time of need. People are so busy trying to find, prioritize, and push work through that they have no opportunity for process evaluation and improvement. This same diagram can just as easily (and often does) represent a sales/customer service or engineering department. If we overlay the information side of the process, the diagram can become so cluttered that individual opportunities become impossible to see.

Product management—an alternative approach
Pure product management is also difficult. Perhaps it’s best described by using an organizational chart:

Here, the value stream is managed entirely. There are no “silos” of departments. Each product has specific personnel throughout the business who are responsible for that product. Structure is very clear and binary, simple, and direct. Support positions often become overstaffed, due to coverage for absenteeism and knowledge sharing. This can also require extensive training, as maintenance and engineering must be “experts” on a broad range of machines/components. Theoretically, everyone is involved heavily in the value stream and teamwork is highly encouraged. Responsibilities are clearly defined for all employees in the process.

Hybrid management—the Toyota approach
Not everyone has worked at Toyota. Through discussions with past employees of Toyota Motor Manufacturing and Toyota supplier support center, and research conducted by many lean practitioners, it would appear that Toyota takes a “hybrid” approach.

Toyota has an engineering department. It has manufacturing, materials, and support departments. However, Toyota also has project managers. These individuals are taken from their previous roles (often they are well-proven engineers) and are given the responsibility of leading projects (to Toyota, Lexus, and the Prius Hybrid were projects.) These leaders are given little or no authority.

This system allows Toyota to share knowledge across vast numbers of employees. It also maximizes support staffing. Utilizing value stream management techniques allows for clear and binary paths, while having departmentalized groups allows for less demand for specific and detailed knowledge of every component. This system allows specialists to be brought in under a project as needed, while still allowing those specialists to perform necessary job functions in other vital areas of the business.

Management structures—a visual summary:

Process management—vertical structure 

Product management—horizontal structure

Raw material

All report to process managers and plant process manager

  • No overlap or concern

  • No follow-through from design to delivery

  • Department-specific goals/ratings

Design – Raw Material – Components – Assembly – Ship

Product provides value to the company, not the process

Components

Assembly

Pack/ship

Toyota management—process management with product management

  • Chief engineer with little authority, but responsible for each product
  • Value-stream management

There's no magic pill for lean initiatives. The lean process requires time, commitment, and determination. Companies that cannot envision the long-term commitment to lean, and only use the tools for short-term gain, will achieve some limited success. However, without the culture supporting those tools, the lean initiative will fail, becoming the flavor of the week that everyone knew would not last.

As Jim Womack once said, “Managers will try anything easy that doesn’t work before they will try anything hard that does work."

Previous articles in this series: Part 1: Roll-out (-through, -by, -over) Part 2: No magic pill Part 3: Lean vs. L.A.M.E.

About the author Mike Thelen is the lean facilitator at Aberdeen, South Dakota-based Hub City Inc., a subsidiary of the Regal-Beloit Corp. in Beloit, Wisconsin. He has led lean initiatives in positions from front-line supervisor to system coordinator in various corporations since 2001.

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About The Author

Mike Thelen’s picture

Mike Thelen

Mike Thelen is the lean facilitator at Aberdeen, South Dakota-based Hub City Inc., a subsidiary of the Regal-Beloit Corp. in Beloit, Wisconsin. He has led lean initiatives in positions from front-line supervisor to system coordinator in various corporations since 2001.