Kaizen: Start with Production or “The Office”?

Most Lean transformations and kaizen programs start at the Gemba (workplace, actual place where value is created) which for manufacturers is the factory. A question Lean Champions often come across is “Why are we starting kaizen with the workers and not with the office?”
In many cases the kaizen team members who ask this single out the President, Marketing, Sales, Design, Engineering, Scheduling, Corporate, and others. We will lump into a category called “The Office” for the sake of this discussion.
This is a tough question for a kaizen consultant, Lean Champion or facilitator to address because the kaizen team members have a very good point. They are onto something. We know they are right. In fact, we might be thinking exactly the same thing.
Certainly no serious Lean or kaizen effort should be started without a strong commitment from the top, and a clear understanding that kaizen and Lean will be applied everywhere in the enterprise sooner or later. So how do you make a case for starting in the factory and not The Office?
The more you know about Lean, are able to see the 7 Wastes, and have used kaizen to rapidly make your job better, the more you see the problems in the organization. You may have always known about problems in design, sales, planning, etc. but after several successful kaizens it becomes almost unbearable for people who are thinking and seeing Lean to tolerate waste that comes from non-factory areas.
It’s true that the vast majority (80% to 90% by some studies) of cost, lead-time, quality, and safety of both processes and products are determined not by what happens at the Gemba (value added workplace) but in the marketing, sales, engineering, and scheduling stages. So why focus on the 20% of the cost and not the 80%?
The following are a few reasons for starting at the factory / Gemba / worker level rather than at “The Office” level. Use them in whatever combination you feel is true and appropriate for your situation:
1. It is harder to do kaizen on a job that only person does (the President, CEO, Sales, etc.). This is true whether it’s welding or business development. It is probably less routine than factory work and less standardized. More of the process tends to be undocumented. It may be well worth doing, bet there is probably lower-hanging fruit to pick.
2. It is easier to make kaizen take root if you can show results. Typically quicker results can be achieved in production than in marketing, sales, etc. It is easier to “see” what happens in production environment than in work done in “The Office”. Since half of the purpose of kaizen is results and the other half is education & awareness, it’s important to have visible impact early to begin to gain enthusiasm and change the culture. It can be harder to do this in areas such as R&D, etc.
3. It is easier to put together a cross-functional team to watch production than to watch the President do his or her work. It may be difficult to get buy-in from the outside sales person in having kaizen team following them out to their Gemba looking for waste. This is not to say it’s always easy to get buy in at the factor level, or that The Office folks should get a free pass. It’s a question of what’s higher impact, higher ease.
4. We start at the end of the process and work our way back so we can systematically eliminate root causes by seeing their impact downstream. It makes sense to start close to the customer, closest to where you deliver value to your customer as a finished product (the production floor) and work your way back upstream. This is because you are starting with the ‘effects’ (late delivery to customer due to problems in assembly) and looking for the ’causes’ (poor design due to lack of DFM procedures).
5. By starting at the end of the process we create a “pull”. One of the fundamental principles of Lean is downstream pull of material (e.g. kanban). If we begin in the middle of the process and make that more productive, we risk pushing more product downstream. If you begin downstream and attack the bottleneck to create a stronger pull, you will have better results.
If none of the above are true for your situation, or if it just doesn’t make sense, you may need to start again with a Business Assessment, look at where the costs are in the Value Stream, what the Customers’ Voice is telling you, and refocus your Lean efforts.
Be open to the possibility that the kaizen team is right and you might be starting at the wrong place. We have in more than one case started not in the factory but in both the factory and in The Office in order to show the commitment level to the workforce. There’s nothing like the President and his taff red tagging the office and being a shining example of 5S to motivate the troops.
If you’ve found others ways to address this question, or if you completely disagree, we’d like to hear from you.