This past week I had the opportunity to walk the gemba of several companies. They ranged from large to small, public to private, across manufacturing and service. Each has been committed to Lean management for more than twenty years. They have all taken different approaches on their learning journeys. One common theme emerged that led me to conclude that there is in fact a single best indicator of success with Lean.
This indicator of successful Lean management is the andon system. Not simply the use of andons (lamps) but the entire suite of processes and behaviors for rapid problem response and resolution. Andon systems are by definition visual, and often have an audial component. People communicate, respond and support each other differently where there are andon systems. There is a certain tempo. There is a different feeling when walking into a company which has an andon system.
When I see well-functioning andon systems, this tells me that the organization is highly commitment to Lean management. It suggests that they have
Established clear standards for normal versus abnormal.
Set reasonable spans of control for Team leaders so that they can respond to andon calls.
Adopted a common problem solving method.
Empowered their people to advocate for the customer, patient and fellow employee by stopping to alert leaders to problems.
Visual indicators with clean lines of sight within the gemba.
Made the investment of time to design, train people in, and install a time- and condition-based escalation system.
Required their leaders to include gemba walks and process audits into their daily accountability routines.
Here are a few quick andon system questions I ask to go beyond the surface when visiting companies
– How many andon pulls are there per shift? (more is better)
– What is the mean time to respond to an andon pull? (faster is better)
– How often can the problem be contained or resolved within takt? (more is better)
– What happens if the problem can’t be contained or resolved within takt?
– How do you practice andon systems in non-visible, knowledge and remote work?
If a business owner, stock analyst or CEO wants to know whether a company will make money long-term, there is no better indicator from a management system point of view than study how the andon system is working across various gembas. A well-functioning andon system is the best evidence of true commitment by management to a lean culture. When a company runs any part of its business without an andon system, this should be alarming.
This is not to say that an organization can’t be Lean without a robust and rigorous andon system. We can get by and even produce good results while identifying problems long past their point of occurrence and responding to them slowly through traditional management structures and behaviors. This is a common strategy for organizations that are profitable and reluctant to face the discomfort of self-examination and leadership reorganization needed to set up their andon system.
Perhaps the best thing about the andon system as an indicator Lean success is that it is easy to check. It is immediately verifiable in practice. The system is testable within minutes. It is easy to audit. It is difficult to fake.