By Kevin Meyer
This week I'm taking a little time to look back on the factories I toured in Japan nearly two years ago as part of the Gemba Research Japan Kaikaku Experience, thinking about what I learned and took away, and comparing that to what I've done with the new knowledge.
Today we'll look back on the tour of Toyota's Kyushu facility which makes various Lexus and Toyota models. The original tour report is here, and a listing of all the factory tour reports and discussions on the lessons learned is here. Yesterday's reflection on the Saishunkan Cosmetics tour is here.
Toyota's Kyushu facility was running at about a 1,200 vehicle per day clip when I visited. What was really astounding was this same assembly operation doesn't just make a vehicle with different
colors, or even a vehicle with different options, or even a vehicle with
radically different technology (like conventional versus hybrid
models), it makes completely different vehicles. Continually,
constantly changing, units of one. Thousands of permutations, many as
radical as completely different vehicle chassis. Every sixty seconds. A
car to an SUV to a hybrid version of that SUV back to a car… think
about the material flows, line balancing, standard work required to keep
such a line humming along. That should give pause to anyone believing
that Toyota doesn't do mixed model production, or that quick changeover
is a pipe dream.
Sounds complex, and it is. And there's not a computer in sight. Manual kanbans drive all parts availability to the right places at the right time. Still think you need that overly complex computerized shop floor scheduling system? I'm sure your product is more complex than mixing a Lexus car with a Toyota Highlander, and all the permutations within each vehicle, randomly and every 60 seconds. Yeah, right. Keep believing that.
The second major takeaway was that this (at least at the time) is Toyota's most profitable plant from a dollar/vehicle standpoint. It is not the
best in terms of labor productivity. That simple fact should
immediately throw some cold water on the "hours per unit" type metrics
commonly used in multiple industries. More time not applied to work can
lead to improvements in plant productivity that increase
profitability. They understand that labor is a value, not a cost. So about all those robots… especially the ones GM disrespects? Hmmm…! And Japan isn't exactly a low labor cost country.
That human value is present everywhere. Changes and innovations are evident at every work
station. The employees use PVC pipe to create their own ways of
presenting parts in the exact location needed for efficiency. These
contraptions follow them as they move with the car to do their
operation. Every movement is choreographed and improved. You
have to stand and watch each person for several cycles to see just how
choreographed. Each movement has a purpose and is designed to minimize
movement for the current and next operation. A manufacturing ballet.
If the operator has a problem, he pulls a cord that sounds a chime.
Another person in white gloves comes running. The problem escalation
method is something many of us struggle with, and the Toyota solution is
to create very simple decisions and multiple decision points. The
operator begins with "is there a problem, yes/no". If "yes" he pulls
the cord. The guy in white gloves comes running and has another simple
decision "is it really a problem, yes/no". The two of them have
literally under a minute, one takt, to make that call. If "yes" then
the line stops and the supervisor comes running. He has a simple
decision of "can the problem be fixed within two takts (about two
minutes), yes/no". If "no" then the decision goes one more level to
"shut the factory down". Within three minutes a problem has been
identified, attacked, almost always resolved, but potentially a decision
has been made to shut down an entire factory. How often does the
chime sound? About once a minute throughout the factory.
So what were my takeaways and what have I done?
First, always keep in mind the value of the human brain, not just the cost of the hands. Automation, although necessary in some cases, sacrifices the value of the brain – and may just speed up an inherently wasteful process. Respect for people – the oft-forgotten second pillar of lean. Have I said that before? Yep, just yesterday. Can we assume it's a core component of real lean organizations? I bet so. If you jump to the knee-jerk reaction of cutting the cost of the pair of hands during a business downturn, what are you also cutting in terms of brainpower? One part is on a P&L and balance sheet, one part isn't. Is it any less real? It takes real guts to stand up to a P&L!
Second, identify problems very concisely, escalate quickly, and find the root cause of every problem so it doesn't haunt you further. That's a toughie. We have implemented a very defined escalation procedure, all the way up to the President within a few hours, but we struggle with killing the root cause every time. It takes time which is hard for all of us – even when we know repairing the problem over and over will take far more time in the future. We have become much better at using defined methods to find the root cause, and it is slowly becoming part of the culture. Where does it work best? Investigating safety issues – and seeing the results of those investigations helps propel the methods into the culture.