My career in the field of lean thinking got started twenty-four years ago while helping Japanese consultants communicate with their American clients. There were occasions when it was as much an education in cultural differences and communication as in the workings of the Toyota Production System.
One week there were three lean sensei from Japan and three interpreters working together at an aerospace factory on the East coast of the U.S. The factory was huge. We barely saw each other during the day. One day we had planned to meet over lunch. Four of us arrived on time but Mr. O and his interpreter did not show up. This being the days before mobile phones, we set off on foot to locate them.
We found Mr. O and his Japanese female assistant on the shop floor, surrounded by a small but raucous group of managers, engineers, quality staff and operators. Some were red in the face, others arms crossed, taking turns talking over and past each other. The interpreter looked overwhelmed. I took her place so she could catch her breath. “Can you make him understand…” pleaded Bob the American business unit manager. “No matter how much I explain, they don’t understand…” said Mr. O.
The consultant was there to help solve a quality problem. It turned out there was one sentence that had turned a business discussion had into debate into a disagreement. It was a simple one; we have the highest quality standards. The quality assurance manager, the manufacturing engineers, and eventually Bob the BU manager had been summoned and called out by Mr. O for the poor quality of their operation. Bob and his team presented evidence in the form of customer audits, gold stars, FAA certifications etc. that their quality standards were of the highest quality.
“Look, we have the highest quality standards.”
“No, clearly the quality of your standards is very bad.”
Each side was incredulous at the claims of the other side. Mr. O could not understand why the client was so deluded to think that their inspection procedures and quality assurance requirements were doing any good, when the evidence on the shop floor told otherwise. Everyone on Bob’s team knew that the quality standards they followed were very strict, the requirement very high.
It was a very confusing conversation.
Mr. O was talking the quality of their standards.
Bob and his team were talking about their standard of quality.
These are two different things. The quality of the standards affects the process and how reliable its outputs are. A standard of quality sets the requirement for that output, but does not necessarily set requirements for the process itself.
The communication problem came from the two parties trying to work together to solve a problem of poor quality in manufacturing by looking at the process, but seeing the same reality in different ways. Mr. O approached it from the process side, how quality was built in at each step. Bob and his team were used to inspecting quality into the process. Due to batch work at this company the feedback loops for quality were longer, runs of non-conforming parts were larger, and the cost of disruption higher. Product quality standards may have been high but their processes were built to poor standards of performance.
Batch-and-queue processing and silo thinking led to the use of quality standards as a shield against responsibility for a poorly run operation. What Mr. O was able to teach them was that following good standards does not result in poor outcomes. If poor quality does result, either something has changed or the standards were never good. In either case, the standard must be elevated. Today’s standard is the foundation for tomorrow’s improvement. There is no highest quality standard. Only when we view standards as the best we can do today, but also that we can do better tomorrow, do we make progress.