Endless Meetings Speed Up the Pace of Change on the Gemba

An article in the May 1, 2008 issue of Nikkei Business titled Endless Meetings Speed Up the Pace of Change on the Gemba (ダラダラ会議が現場のスピードアップを生む) interviewed the chairman and profiled a Japanese company called Ulvac that makes semiconductor equipment, display manufacturing equipment and other high tech equipment.
This article is part of a series that has featured Japan’s 現場力, literally the “gemba power” or “shop floor vitality” or “manufacturing strength” and has included interviews with former and current executives from Nissan, Sony and others. What I found interesting about this article was the contrariness of the tone of Chairman Nakamura, and his statement that “the Toyota way was not for us.” Nevertheless, several key management principles highlighted in the article are very much part of lean management.
Chairman Nakamura claims that the secret to success at Ulvac and what made them number one in the world as the manufacturer of flat-panel television manufacturing equipment, holding over 90% of market share, was the way they ran their meetings. You would think, “They must run very short and efficient meetings, on the shop floor, or perhaps no meetings at all.” But in fact the meetings “drag on and on” or are “endless” as implied by the Japanese phrase dara dara (ダラダラ). Try saying “dara dara” at your next endless meeting.
The interviewer asks, “What makes these “endless meetings” in which you bring together a large number of employees and discuss things for many hours, so effective?” The following is my translation of the answers and comments of Ulvac’s Chairman Nakamura, from the original Japanese:
By involving all participants and thoroughly debating the issues by giving our frank opinions, we reform our excessive individualism and formulate agreement. Although this lengthens the meeting time, we make decisions on the spot and do not leave unfinished business. We learned that this is much more efficient from an overall perspective.
When decisions are not made during the meeting but left for later, we find people who say “I was never informed” or the even issues like “That makes me lose face” are debated and the decision is delayed another month until the next board meeting.
We raise all issues during the meeting and make decisions after thoroughly debating them. This straightforward way of making decisions speeds up decision making for the overall company

This is quite counterintuitive. We may think that many shorter ad hoc meetings to make smaller decisions quickly so we can take action, would be the lean decision making approach. Yet in the experience of Ulvac it seems that spending time to gain overall understanding and acceptance on issues by involving many people gets them from decision to action quicker. On the one hand it looks like they are batching their meetings into larger meetings, but on the other hand it may be that instead of handing off from meeting to meeting they are doing “continuous flow meeting” and stopping only when they have a finished product: decisions that result in overall company alignment.
One of the Japanese words we have introduced in relation to the way decisions are made at many Japanese companies, including Toyota is nemawashi. It is a gardening term meaning “to prepare the roots for transplant” and in business means to get the ideas out and reviewed ahead of time so that the meeting itself goes smoother. In the case of Ulvac, nemawashi is just an extra preparation step that they have cut out. Chairman Nakamura says:
When we say “Let’s just debate it” and begin our meeting, we can make our adjustments and decisions on the spot. The employees present can also clearly see the true nature of the problem. It is our thinking that it is quicker if the people involved directly debated the issues.
Their meetings can involve 50 or 60 people, from executives and board members to brand new employees from the factory floor. They have a very flat organization and see value in sharing information widely in order to communicate the will of top management with everyone. Although it is not mentioned directly, most likely this style of meeting not only speeds up the initial discussion but results in near complete understand and support from all levels. In addition to decision, they have achieve an even more critical alignment with the decisions make.
But aren’t long meetings fundamentally counter to the idea of genchi genbutsu or spending as much time as possible on the scene (gemba) where value is added? The interviewer asks such a question, and Chairman Nakamura responds that while other Asian countries are catching up quickly to Japanese manufacturing, there are still advantages that Japan has in terms of population and the domestic market, education level and number of engineers, and so forth. He believes that dialog based on direct debate is the key to revitalizing Japanese manufacturing. Furthermore he states:
The weakness in Japanese manufacturers is their leadership. The most important thing for leadership is to make decisions based on a true understanding of what is happening on the gemba, but too often this does not happen.
There were two other pieces of the personal philosophy of this manufacturing leader which were interesting. The first was the idea of “the morning’s orders are rescinded in the afternoon” (朝令暮改) which is also introduced in Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management. The original intent of that phrase meant a leader who was not steady in the directions they gave, but Ohno used it to say “if you are wrong, admit it” and find a better way. You should take back bad orders as soon as you learn they are bad, and try something else rather than stubbornly holding to them. Chairman Nakamura also uses it in this way.
The second was his view on what constituted true manufacturing. He made a point to say that making money was not the true purpose of manufacturing, but only the consequence of contributing to society by advancing technology. He says:
The true essence of a manufacturing business is to create something new, something good. If this is not the source of joy, this is not manufacturing. When the driving principle is to grow the company and make money by selling the stock, or profit by selling their technology, this is not manufacturing.
Although it may not be the same path as Toyota, Chairman Nakamura is also leading his company down the king’s road of manufacturing.

1 Comment

  1. Mike Gardner

    May 1, 2008 - 5:32 am

    Very interesting. My grandma used to say there was more than one way to “skin a cat.”
    Chairman Nakamura’s philosophy of manufacturing is practically the same as Henry Ford’s. Ninety years later and it still resonates.