By Kevin Meyer
It's been a bit over eighteen months since I went on the Gemba Research Japan Kaikaku Experience, where I visited four companies to learn about their lean efforts. Quite a bit of highway driving over the last few days has given me a chance to reflect back on that experience to see what I learned and took away.
A link to all of the original detailed tour reports and some initial discussion on lessons is here. Over the next few days I'm going to reflect on each tour, what I learned, and what I've managed to take away and implement.
Today let's revisit Saishunkan Cosmetics (tour report).
This was an incredible place – a $250M specialty cosmetics company – with just about every one of the 1,000+ employees in one single large room. No cubicle walls, all of the furniture was movable and reconfigurable, a significant portion of the employees were part of a call center – yet it was very quiet. Very high ceilings, a glass wall looking out on a bucolic country setting, calming colors. The president and his staff sat at a large table near the center of the room, with large video monitors above them displaying key metrics in real time. A handful of small conference rooms on the perimeter are available for the rare confidential discussion. The large room was so intriguing that we never got around to diving into their manufacturing operation!
In the center of the room on a raised podium was a "conductor" – someone who kept an eye on what was happening throughout the room which held pretty much the entire company – and could marshal resources when necessary. A product complaint? An team was instantly created from various functions and they went to one of the white boards surrounding the room to come up with a solution. An earthquake in southern Japan? A gong was sounded to alert others that they should let their customers know of potential shipping delays.
The call center processes over 8,000 calls a day, all manually logged as they believe the manual method creates more human interpretation of issues and patterns. Those logs are reviewed daily, with over 400 improvement suggestions created and acted on – daily.
So what were the big takeaways? Along the lines of what Dan Markovitz wrote the other day, co-location and proximity matters. Putting everyone in one room may be a bit of an extreme, but the more functions and people that work together, the better the communication and collaboration. Think about that in the context of global supply chains. That's one reason Saishunkan only sells in Japan and actually tries to limit growth.
The concept stuck with me and a few months later I relocated my entire staff to a large office trailer while our new additional building was being constructed. Previously we had been in three separate buildings and interaction between staff members was sporadic and usually via phone. Now we see each other constantly and have a five minute stand up accountability meeting each morning. That meeting is even videoconferenced to our other facilities around the country. Unfortunately I wasn't able (yes, even as the boss) to get everyone to give up their offices for one large room. Small steps I suppose.
The impact has been dramatic. We've learned, and even decided to dedicate time to, learning how we communicate differently. Decisions happen much faster. Information flows much faster and more effectively – sometimes via unintended channels such as through the thin office walls – but that's not a bad thing. The increased communication has almost eliminated the need for formal staff meetings – or especially waiting for a staff meeting to make decisions. We've even decided to duplicate the same layout in our new building. Taking my staff away from their operational areas also helped their own management teams develop by not having a nearby senior member around to make smaller decisions. That has let my staff focus forward on longer term strategy instead of the day-to-day operations.
Kaizen has always been a struggle for us, and the concept of dealing with 400, or even 10, improvement suggestions a day is unfathomable. However we seem to have a found a new way forward via a Bodek style "quick and easy kaizen" augmented by the job methods (JM) portion of our strong TWI program. The key is that nothing is too small, and the important concept is to simply be aware of looking for improvements.
The "conductor" concept still intrigues me, perhaps for larger visually-driven production floors, perhaps for entire organizations. I believe there's an important distinction to be made between "conductor" and "director" – creating a symbiosis and clarity of action as opposed just telling people what to do. I've been in too many factories where the boss sits in a glass room overlooking the shop floor, keeping a watchful eye instead of looking for ways to improve how brains are being leveraged. It's not the same thing. Respect for people – the oft-forgotten second pillar of lean.
Take some time to read the original Saishunkan tour report – and stretch you imagination a bit. Saishunkan has.
Coming up over the next few days will be a reflection on the other tours: