12.17.2007

Lean Jargon – Part IV, Kaizen, Muda & Gemba

I asked the question in the first post of this four part series: "Is lean jargon helpful?" What I wondered is the jargon helpful in understanding lean? For me, yes, the jargon is helpful. The previous three posts described the literal translations of the following words, kaizen, muda, mura, muri, genba, genbutsu and genjitsu. Now, I'll try to bring this together and explain why it is sometimes helpful to understand, what exactly do these words mean? Let's give this some context:
In summary of the three previous posts, kaizen means literally, “virtuous reform”. Within an organization, which involves every person, we want people to make small changes that benefit the group. How do we get people to make changes? We ask them to consider muda (wastefulness, or the seven wastes), mura (heavy burdens) and muri (unevenness). Genba is the “actual place”, genbutsu is the “actual thing” and genjitsu is “the actual condition or situation”.
Kaizen is done by looking for the 3Ms in the place where the work is done and by dealing with the reality of the situation, the 3Gs. None of this is done in the conference room. Anything done in the conference room is generally not done for the workers’ sake. By going to the genba, we are seeking out ways to make the workers’ job easier and more fulfilling, by focusing on the actual process and engaging the mind of the person doing the job. This is the premise behind Toyota’s “Respect for People” and has roots in classic work simplification programs created in the U.S.

The flaw, or blind spot if you will, in American lean systems is that we try to kaizen in the conference room. A term that was lost in Japanese translation, early on in America’s Lean journey was “teian.” Kaizen Teian is actually the way Toyota and other Japanese companies engage their employees. Americans do not have very good experience with Kaizen Teian, or the formal suggestion system. Many American managers have a bad taste in their mouths with suggestion boxes. But Kaizen Teian doesn’t even use a suggestion box. The way proposals are created and implemented is by having shop floor leaders teach others the 3Ms, the 3Gs and then seek out small improvements that they can make in order to learn by doing.

Incidentally, this model was proven, ironically, in an American WWII production plant in New Jersey. Picatinny Arsenal employees, where 18,000 people manufactured munitions, saved the plant over $8 million per year for three years during the years of 1942-45. This was done through the TWI Service’s Job Methods program, the precursor to Japanese work simplification programs, or Kaizen. Adjust that $8 million for inflation in 2007 dollars, just make sure you are sitting down first. With this in mind, we can begin to understand how Toyota can claim and achieve, billions in cost savings per year.

Kaizen Teian activities involve evaluating the standard work, getting people to see the 3Ms in their work, and then soliciting and coaching people through the process of making those improvements. This requires the skills of methods instruction (how to lock in standards), the skill of methods improvement (how to kaizen) and the skill of maintaining good relations (how to lead people). These are the three skills taught TWI and have been taught in Toyota since the postwar period, and continue to this day.

This is why TWI is so important…you can’t see this level of activity which is hidden in the relationships between people on the shop floor and their immediate leaders. It’s the blind spot in American Lean Theory. It is much easier to see the results of JIT, SMED and Poke-Yoke rather than develop our soft skills so that we can develop our people. We want fast results and the specialized lean tools give us that. Don’t get me wrong, the flashy JIT and SMED tools are necessary, the trick is in how to get them to stick; TWI is one part of that answer.

The other part is this: 30 years elapsed before we caught onto JIT in the 1980s. Now in 2007, another 30 years have slipped by before we really began to understand how Toyota conducts Kaizen. When we go to the shop floor (3Gs) to see and evaluate the reality of the problems (3Ms), it requires patience and persistence. Patience is not a strong characteristic of Americans. How will we overcome this problem? If it took us nearly 60 years to notice the secrets to Toyota’s success then I’d bet that it will be more than half a century for the next Toyota to emerge from American roots. We are just beginning to see, now we have a lifetime to learn!

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