Kaizen in a Petri Dish

By Jon Miller Published on April 18th, 2006

Last summer while teaching VSM and demonstrating one-piece flow at one of our client’s factories in southern China I was introduced to the General Manager. He shook my hand. He wasted no time. He had one urgent question for me:
“How do we sustain kaizen?”
It seemed like an easy enough question at the time. There are many reasons why kaizen does not sustain, and I like to think I’ve heard most of them and that I have ready answers to many of them. I gave him several of my ready answers, but none of them satisfied him. Listening more carefully, I discovered his problem.
In this particular case this General Manager’s concern was about the instability of the workforce. Most of the workforce is young, and turnover at all levels is as high as 20%. This is simply due to the fact that the area is booming and there is always a slightly more well-paying job down the street.
For those of you who fear Chinese manufacturing, pay attention, as this is one of the major weaknesses of Chinese manufacturing long-term. For those of you who have manufacturing sites in China this is something you should pay attention to as well.
Specific remedies to this factory’s problems included stabilizing the turnover through control of factors that were within their control. These had mostly to do with their current hiring practices and policies on how shifts were set. In the mid-term, implement work cells with longer cycle times instead of the maddeningly high speed high volume lines improved productivity, requiring less hiring and training, since fewer people were needed to do the same work. Cold, but in this case necessary to stabilize the situation for the majority.
Finally, in the long term we had to emphasize the value of worker morale and job enrichment on reducing turnover. Although by far the number one motivator for these workers is money, by hiring a demographic with slightly different values and building a work environment that is attractive to these workers, this company will address rampant turnover.
But this particular General Manager’s question has been dogging me for months. I’ve seen variations of it come up several times since then and I’m detecting a pattern. It’s more than how to make kaizen sustain in a high turnover environment, it’s about how to make sure everyone who you hire is fully versed in the fact that kaizen is part of their job from day one.
A few months ago I visited a friend who is a Lean Manager at a local vehicle assembly factory. They are facing a similar problem. This company is more Lean than most companies in the Puget Sound. They are competing successfully internationally by designing processes and products using Lean principles. They spend time at the end of each day having team meetings within each value stream work on kaizen action items. They have a genuine kaizen culture starting to bloom in this Petri dish of a factory.
But every time they bring in new hires (and this is almost weekly as a growing company) this is like adding distilled water to the Petri dish, diluting the solution and threatening to kill the culture. The new people are selected for their mechanical skills rather than their demonstrated willingness to learn and be a part of a highly performing team. There is no process within the human resource function to screen for or inject the necessary kaizen mindset to these new workers.
The questions my friend asked me were “How do we get them to see it?” as in “them” = the new workers, and “it” = kaizen. Also “How to get supervisors to coach?” and “How do we get them to take the thinking with them when they leave?”
My friend’s frustration led him to comment “If they don’t learn it then we might as well just give them orders and have them leave their brain at the door, since we are not increasing the net amount of Lean thinking in the world anyway.”
Today one of our consultants came back from visiting a customer and they were facing the identical challenge. This client’s solution was to hire two people with curriculum development expertise to work alongside the Lean experts to develop training and orientation materials that would be used as the hiring process to ensure that new team members would very quickly be highly functional in a dynamic environment doing kaizen. I am eager to see how well this works.
In the last week or so I have come across several articles on the how Toyota places high value on people and training. Expanding overseas forced Toyota to learn how to communicate, teach their values and methods. By all accounts they have been extremely successful, though challenges remain as the labor troubles in India show. Toyota has also been wise in selecting locations for their factories in a way that has by and large supported the training and culture development goals. The Chronicle Herald article talks about their wise use of Texas state funds for training and how this may be raising awareness at the state level for the need to support this type of training in order to attract business.
The article Toyota Training Key to Consistency praises the hands-on learning approach and the teaching that Toyota does at the Global Production Center. This article ran in the London Free Press (London, Ontario, not far from Detroit). It is a shortened version of the original article that hit the AP.
Read the full article at Centre Daily. The tone of some of the comments by the Japanese quoted in the latter half of the article (cut out by the London Free Press) are very direct, bordering on arrogant.
The following quote may be an example of Toyota executives buying a bit too much into their own mystique:
Explicit training wouldn’t have been needed if Toyota cars were being produced only in Japan because workers would have picked it up naturally “like air,” said Executive Vice President Mitsuo Kinoshita.
The following comment, and final note in the article is a variation on what I’ve head stated at Toyota as “We don’t write it [TPS thinking] down because we want people to learn it by experience.”
“This may also apply to a U.S. company’s methods, but it’s impossible to state everything in a pamphlet. That’s your know-how – something that can’t be expressed in words,” he said. “If all it took was a manual, anyone could manage a company.”
For those of us concerned with making kaizen culture a reality in our organizations, this is worth thinking deeply about.

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