Do Heijunka with Your Kaizen Efforts

By Jon Miller Published on June 18th, 2006

Last week we performed an assessment at a tier one automobile manufacturer. This company has done some Lean manufacturing activities. Due to a large number of new product launches at the moment, kaizen activity appeared to us to be at a complete stop.
They were not unaware of this, but the lack of kaizen and Lean manufacturing activity in their factory was not their major concern. The new products, new tooling coming in, the relocation of production lines, and the customer’s engineers walking around the factory doing process trials were their main concern.
The engineer at this site in charge of both Lean manufacturing and coordinating these new product launch efforts (quite a large task he was handling admirably well) told us this is a typical 3-year cycle of “launch new products, then kaizen”. When they are in the middle of product launches, kaizen stops. When the launches are over, they can pay attention to kaizen again.
We think this is one of the reasons that we were able to spot some surprising lapses in line balance in work cells, unnecessarily long changeover times, and some wasted motion, transportation and waiting at various processes during our assessment.
Seen over a 3-year period, this batching of kaizen activity is similar to the “hockey stick” phenomena where orders are low at the beginning of the month and high at the very beginning of the month. This can be due to a variety of reasons including incentive structures to sales people or customers, upstream batch & queue processes delaying the flow or orders, or a lack of heijunka in scheduling.
It’s not unusual for organizations to go through cycles of very busy new product launch and start up, followed by several years of production, cost reduction efforts, and kaizen. The same is true for software platform launches in business processes as well as for hospitals building new buildings. There is often little or no kaizen or Lean thinking in the design, build and launch but plenty for the Lean and six sigma specialists to do after launch. To this behavior we say: do heijunka with your kaizen efforts.
What is heijunka? Heijunka is the term for production smoothing. It is averaging both the volume and mix of production to ideally be able to produce every product every interval (day, week, month, etc.). This every product every (EPE) schedule is the essential foundation for a stable pull system, and a prerequisite for implementing kanban. Heijunka enables you to not only create a stable material plan in the face of unstable demand, it also allows you to have a stable plan for labor and equipment capacity staffing.
What does it mean to apply heijunka to your kaizen efforts? This is where the discussion of kaizen becomes fractal. Instead of producing every product every day this means doing kaizen to every product every day (and ideally in every process every day). That is everyone’s job at a truly Lean enterprise.
How can you do kaizen on every product every day? You certainly won’t get far having 5-day kaizen events every week on every product. We’ve seen some firms try things similar to this, to bad effect.
Lean transformation in the midst of new product launches is not a series of 100 meter dashes, or a marathon, but rather something like what I call a “triathlon relay”. In a triathlon, athletes usually compete by swimming, cycling, and running in that order. The triathlon is an individual competition, not team competition. In a relay sport, a team runs (or cycles, or swims) set distances before handing off the race to the next person. A Lean transformation should be a combination of these two.
Applied to the business world, the Lean transformation triathlon relay works like this:
1) Swim. Cross deep waters to new shores. In business this is starting something new, like technology or process trials, new product launches, product or process redesign, building expansion, relocation of processes, etc.
2) Cycle. Once the new product or process is stable, the relay hand off is made to the jishuken teams or kaizen event teams. These teams sprint as fast as they can to cover the most distance in the shortest amount of time, as the cyclists do in a triathlon.
3) Run. This would be the persistent, daily problem solving by supervisors and managers, as well as the suggestion systems by all employees, autonomous maintenance activities, etc. to keep improvements pumping along over the long term.
Of course in the mean time the swimmers (marketing, design, etc.) would already be on their next project, starting the race all over again.
This lack of heijunka in kaizen efforts is unfortunate but not uncommon. Implementing Lean systems and processes only after products are launched into production is too late. It’s the same as waiting for a machine to break before it is fixed.
A common statistics whose source I can’t recall says 85% of product cost is determined in the first 15% of the product’s life cycle (design). If that’s the case then kaizen should not be shut out of the product launch just because you are too busy. Hire more people to do kaizen early and often. It will save you money.
Kaizen efforts should be at the front end of the life cycle and blended across the life cycle. The kaizen issues you could not address in time for launch are smoothed across the life of the product. In other words some of the kaizen events in the “cycle” and “run” stages are things you identified while swimming but didn’t have time to fix. Others will be things you didn’t have the time or wits to think about at the design stage. This is why getting the experts who do the work every day on the front lines involved in kaizen is absolutely essential. The ideas of many trumps the knowledge of the few.
We often hear the objection “We do implement Lean principles in design” when we raise these points. The design engineers may indeed by very knowledgeable about Lean manufacturing principles and conscientious about how they are built in to new products and processes. Even at best, in most cases today they are swimmers competing in their own event. They leave it up to another team to do the cycling and the running.
In small businesses this happens more like a triathlon since it may be one entrepreneur who takes a product from concept to launch to delivery and cash collection (swimming, cycling, running). But as firms grow and people specialize it becomes more like a relay where one group (swimmers, cyclists or runners) all compete in what appear to be unrelated sporting events.
Many organizations tell us they don’t have time for kaizen because they are focusing all of their attention on that new hospital ward being built, or betting the future on the new products being tested in the factory, or waiting for the day when the new ERP or CRM system will make everyone’s life easier. If only.
The triathlon athlete completes all three races in the same day, instead of at different times, and must switch from one to the next even changing clothes and gear in order to compete. It is this type of flexibility that organizations need in order to win the race by combining large improvement projects with rapid improvement kaizen events and persistent daily problem solving by everyone.

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