Experience Kaikaku, Day 1: The Airport

This week I will be blogging from Japan. Internet access providing, I hope to be sharing bits of wisdom we gain each day with you on what is now our 17th Japan Kaikaku Experience trip. So far I have mostly spent time between the airport and hotel meeting and greeting clients who are joining us this week on our Lean manufacturing experience trip.
Even though it’s been mostly airport and hotel, I have noted a few kaizen examples at Narita airport. The NAA (Narita Airport Authority) was privatized not too long ago. This means there is a profit motive now, instead of it being a government function (not necessarily profit-driven and waste-aware). The kaizen examples are minor things, but noticeable to a frequent traveler.
As you arrive and enter the queue for the immigration check, there are bright signs that say “45 minutes”, “30 minutes” and “15 minutes” along the winding queue. This lets you know about how long you will wait. Psychologically, seeing a huge line at immigration after a 9 hour flight can be demoralizing so knowing that the wait is 30 or 45 minutes is a good customer-focused kaizen. They also hand random people cards and ask them to give them back when they leave the queue, in effect checking to see how quickly the line is moving.
They have a “puller” at the end of the queue who tells you “26”, “31” etc. and points you towards the available waiting spot for the next immigration inspector. You stand at the end of the queue for barely a few seconds before being told to go wait in the “next up” position. My first thought was that this was an unnecessary task, and just another example of Japan’s attempt at full employment.
This person acts as a takt time mechanism as well as a pull mechanism. As a queue with a single exit point, but multiple service points (immigration inspectors) if you left it up to each person to find the open spot, you introduce variability since I may be reading a book as I wait, instead of paying attention to the next open spot.
For what it’s worth, I also saw a suggestion box soliciting improvement ideas from travelers, which wasn’t there before.
I took the shuttle bus on the way from the hotel to the airport to pick up a group arriving on a later flight. There is a check point where you need to show ID before you enter the airport grounds. Here two security officers enter the bus and everyone must show their passport or ID before the bus can move on. Previously, it was one security officer per bus. Why two security officers? One of them goes straight to the back of the bus and starts checking there, and the other officer checks the front half of the bus. As a result, the time that the bus is stopped is cut by half. This cuts the lead-time through the checkpoint in half and keeps traffic moving. This is very helpful in heavy traffic or if you’re running late for your international flight. This same idea is often used in set up reduction.
There is growing and wide recognition in Japan now that TPS is a superior business management method, and is to be copied. This is true in both the public and private sectors. For example, the new Nagoya airport was designed and built under the guidance of a Toyota executive and this public-private joint venture was completed under budget, and on time.
I don’t know for a fact whether the people at Narita Airport Authority study TPS and do kaizen. I do know that JAL Air Cargo has begun implementing TPS, so perhaps. Small signs of kaizen are evident even in my first minutes after arrival in Japan. The week is off to an encouraging start.