Virtual JKE Part Two

Kent Bradley
VP, North America
Day 2, the first real day of our Gemba Research Japan Kaikaku Experience tour.
“Going to the gemba” is the whole point of this tour – to be the best requires going to see the best. Today that would be the Omron plant an hour north of Kyoto. Omron is the world market leader in the manufacture of sophisticated electronic sensors.
Prior to setting out, our group met and reviewed background information with Brad and Kent regarding Omron’s lean journey as well as insights on particularly successful aspects of their lean progress to date. Since this was our first formal meeting together as a group, we also took the opportunity to make individual introductions and for each person to discuss his or her key learning objectives.
We reviewed the week’s schedule, followed by Brad’s excellent (and humorous) tutorial on how to avoid violating harmony as an insensitive foreigner–including the ins and outs of card exchange and bowing. Then it was on to Omron!
Both exhilarating and daunting to see continuous improvement played at Omron’s level. Exhilarating for those who are in the trenches implementing every day – one comes away with a kind of “re-affirmation of faith” when you see the core lean principles executed consistently, broadly and thoroughly and the powerful competitive and operational advantages that result.
Daunting because even the best and most successful lean companies don’t escape from the struggle to practice dynamic improvement. Even a powerhouse like Omron admitted to inconsistent support at the very top of the company.
Consensus from the group? “Wow.” Everyone had good insights to share and among the specifics mentioned were Dale and Brett, owners and founders of Western Idaho Cabinet, pointing out the Digital Kitchen concept to standardize and make repeatable those one-off and rarely repeated products that frequently seem to rely on folklore in a non-lean system.
Omron builds a wide variety of electronic sensors, some small, some downright microscopic. The Digital Kitchen, a semi-circular work station whose parts shelves remind one of a Wurlitzer organ keyboard, is the place where seldom ordered products are created. And like the mighty Wurlitzer, once it’s fired up the Digital Kitchen is a site to behold.
Like all electronic assembly stations, the worker stands on a standard Electo Static Dissipation (ESD) floor mat. In front is a flat panel computer display, on the bench another ESD mat for assembly. Tools are laid out with surgical precision.
The computer display begins by touching the screen. The worker is directed to get the first part in the assembly, a 78135 mounting plate. The worker looks around and sees a small light glowing beneath a parts bin, high to the left. As the worker reaches in to the 78135 parts bin, a sensor beam is broken and the light goes out.
The display, confident that the worker has the first part, moves on – a 79165 oscillator is required. Another parts bin light goes on.
And so on, until the product is completely assembled.
The Digital Kitchen was just one feature of an incredibly lean enterprise. Back on the bus, Christine, from Entek in Oregon, highlighted Omron’s strong use of visual management tools–a topic Kirk and Larry, also from Entek, had discussed as it related to a penchant many companies have for seeming to post data for the sake of posting data instead of as a call to specific action.
A nearly universal comment revolved around amazement that Omron has achieved this high level of operational excellence while employing approximately 35-40% temporary labor, of which there is nearly a 50% annual turnover!
– Kent Bradley