Am I really needed at the factory hall?

Am I really needed at the factory hall?

Some time ago, in one of the groups at LinkedIn I came across a discussion on the downfall of Lean initiatives. According to the entry, approx. 95% of companies are not able to implement, maintain, but first of all profit from this system, based on the Toyota Production System. These figures have been recently confirmed by Art Byrne in an interesting conversation with Paul Akres. He claimed that according to his personal calculations approx. 4% of Lean transformations are successful.

I will not go into details, since everyone certainly had their ups and downs while attempting to implement this concept, so simple in its assumptions. I’ve experienced more of them than all the people I know (perhaps I just know too few people). Today I have chosen one of the crucial reasons why it can go wrong, namely: the presence of the manager in Gemba (the place where things happen).

Am I really needed at the factory hall?

There is a lot of talk about empowering employees. We have even written about it recently: Listen to the Experts of the Process: your operators and Free Competency Matrix: Motivating Workers.

Even more often, I hear that the worker should suggest a better method of their work, or be able to handle problems on their own. I do not wholly agree with that. More appealing to me is what can be read below:

„These are the actions (i.e. improving – ed. author) we perform every day. We (managers – ed. Author) consider them our duty, to use our clients’ money for their benefit, constantly insisting on creating of better and cheaper products.”

Henry Ford Today and Tomorrow, 1926(!)

In order to understand these actions well and to use our clients’ money better, we must have thorough knowledge of the process. And that doesn’t mean the technological process from the books of ISO, HACCP, etc. We need to know what is happening in our production at the particular moment, so that we are not surprised in the least expected moment. Thus, a visit in GEMBA should help us manage the business and understand occurring problems better.

I’m already in the hall, what do I do?

  • Prepare yourself for finding problems and not just confirming that everything is all right. If you want to confirm that it is okay, do it immediately. You don’t even have to get up from your comfortable chair.
  • Say hello to the operator. It is great if you already do this; if not, just start. The idea is that the employee should not stand there paralyzed or begin behaving strange in stress (yes, it happened very often that during work observations employees performed things that they had never done before. Some workers get shaking hands if they see someone looking at their work for the first time.) Perform your actions standing up and take your hands out of your pockets (I apologize in advance if someone feels offended by this).
  • Inform the employee that you are there to understand the process and the problems that arise in it.
  • Stand in one place. Do not go from one place to another. It is good for visitation of the plant, especially on promotional films, and preferably with some important personage. You are not doing this to check if everyone is working, but to better understand the process and the problems that occur. There is a known story about Taiichi Ohno, the creator of the Toyota Production System, who told the new engineers to stand in a circle drawn on the floor and not move until they find a few dozen things that are problematic in the current process. No, you don’t have to stand there for 8 hours.
  • At first, don’t note down what you see. Employees usually feel worried when someone is recording information. Start noting things down in the following phases, but show it to the worker and discuss it together. They will surely tell you a few things that you haven’t noticed.

The worker has usually already reported their problems and usually they remained unsolved. You have to keep that in mind.

How much time should you spend on it?

At the beginning do it for 20 minutes a day / every 2 days / every week. More important is consistency. You determine the frequency and time. Perhaps some of you will need an hour, however it should not be less than 20 minutes. Why is that? Well, during this time workers will manage to familiarize themselves with you, convey their problems, and inform you about the possibilities for improvement. A shorter visit will be treated as a visitation, and you do not want that. Additionally, you need a while to let your brain reprogram itself.

How to react?

This is very difficult. You are not in Gemba (at least initially) in order to react to everything you see. If you do this, the worker will do this too, but only when you’re close (or, what’s worse – when you are watching camera feeds). At the beginning you should not react. It is necessary to understand the situation and the factors affecting it. Conversation with the employee is very important: why he do they work in a particular way, were they trained by someone, do other employees perform tasks similarly or differently; are there other ways to perform a specific activity?

What if I write down 50 problems?

It is important to solve the problems one by one. You cannot take 30 matters to arrange at once, and that’s because:

  • First of all, you will have to check in person (in GEMBA) whether it works and whether your actions have solved the problem or just moved it to another location, or worse: the problem has grown.
  • Second, you will have to follow progress in 30 scattered places.
  • Third, if we take care of 30 problems at once, it will not be clear for the employees what is important.
  • Morever, the employee also should have the opportunity to verify whether this solution has helped. In the case of changing 30 things it may not be better, just different.

Paul Akers presents a very good example (only one change during one attempt):

Problems and building trust

Additionally, experimentation and work with the operator are crucial in terms of employee participation in solving problems and building mutual trust. No solution brings as much joy and is as durable as the one invented by the person who will be later performing the task. This does not mean that you should leave the workers alone to solve problems. It means you should cooperate.

As Jeff Liker writes in The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership: „Some companies actually try to delegate authority, however they do it wrong. They set goals for teams and „get out of their way.”

At one of our clients we had a problem with a white gasket getting dirty. Everyone knew that it was the fault of an inexperienced operator. However, after a more profound analysis, we found out that also the more experienced operators had problems with this. Additionally, everyone claimed that they knew how it should be done. Yet, when describing how it should be done, a problem occurred, since everyone performed the task differently. And everyone had „the best” solution. It took over three hours to determine which method would be the best (by the manager and operators). It took over a week to describe and test it (following attempts). Small corrections took another two weeks. Thus, we can see how important is the participation of the superior and not leaving employees alone with problems.

„The burden of such actions (ie. improving – ed. author) and decisions rests on the shoulders of management. For the employees working in the workshop it does matter whether they use the best methods or they make optimal use of materials and time. For them it’s just work. And the difference in question lies in the value of daily production and  increasing it is a task for the management”.

These were the words by Henry Ford from his book „Today and Tomorrow”

Do not lay the responsibility for the improvement of processes, problem solving and company management on theemployees.  Go to Gemba, do it regularly (and preferably carry out your activities in a visible spot.)

Lean routine

And most importantly: solve the problems of the employees and they will want to help you, because it will be important for them.

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