Robots, Rabbits and Kaizen

There’s an interesting article in eWeek titled Little Things Mean a Lot. Kaizen has gone mainstream when an IT magazine uses it to make the connection between the robotic vehicle winning the DARPA Grand Challenge 2005 desert race, bugs in enterprise software, and 5S.
This year 5 out of 23 vehicles finished the 142 mile desert race. This is a lot better than it sounds, considering that no vehicles completed the race in 2004 and no vehicle made it further than 7.4 miles. The author argues that paying attention to little things is what made the difference, not making these vehicles 20 times faster. A sampling of reasons why vehicles did not finish the 2004 race:
– Brushed wall out of chute
– Flipped at mile 0.2
– Caught in wire at mile 0.45
– Lost route at mile 0.75
– Could not proceed, mile 1.2
– Went off course, mile 1.3
– Stopped on hill, mile 5.2
– Hung up on a rock, mile 6.0
– Stuck on embankment, mile 6.7
– Caught on berm, mile 7.4
See the Android World website for more details and photos of the 2004 race.
Fixing small things can be better than looking for the breakthrough improvement when it comes to complex high performance systems like software or robotic vehicles. The same is true for factories, hospitals or governments offices.
Whether it’s software developers or engineers creating a new product or production line, creative energy tends to be spent on new things rather than making sure what you already have runs as smoothly as possible. While this is human nature, this does not help you win desert races or help you produce bug-free product.
Working slow-and-steady and stopping to fix what’s broken so you get the most out of what you have before you invest in a new technlogy is one of the key tenets of TPS and a kaizen mindset. In Lean manufacturing terms this is making sure your factory runs like a tortoise and not like a hare.
If I could have a dollar for every machine I’ve seen purchased with no consideration of the OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness) of the existing assets, I’d have enough to buy more than a few licenses of the OEE Toolkit.
People tend to buy emotionally and then rationalize the purchase later. Too often the facts (OEE measurement) do not support this rationalization. What’s embarrassing is to find that the combined OEE or actual productive uptime is often less than 40% and that you could have avoided the purchase by doubling your OEE to 80% through kaizen focused on eliminating the losses such as breakdowns, changeover time, minor stops, and yield.
Breakthroughs are still important to achieve a higher level of performance. The relentless process of kaizen every day makes it possible to sustain this new level of performance. You can use kaizen to achieve breakthroughs but kaizen is most powerful when you have everyone focused everyday on working out the bugs and making your process or product stable.