Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Just in Time for Kaizen

You read stuff from books and assume that you understand a subject, and then comes along a lively, interactive video conference that exposes the limits of what books can teach you.

Over the last two weeks Prof. Seiichi Fujita of Waseda University has transformed my perspective on the Japanese concepts of KAIZEN, 5S and JIT.

Literally, “Kaizen” is a combination of two pictograms representing “Change” and “Better” respectively. But it is more of a feedback mechanism that brings about some improvement in a process. You could implement Kaizen to make your worktable more efficient and the same concept, in an industrial setting, could lead to substantial cost-savings in a production process.

A case in point is the “Single Minute Exchange of Die (SMED)” implemented by Toyota for revolutionizing car production. Stamping machines are critical elements of a car production line. SMED has enabled the company to change the dies in stamping machines (about 13 tons apiece!), within just 5 minutes!

A competitive advantage of this scale could not be implemented overnight. It takes a work ethic and culture that starts from the basics. This is where “5S” comes in - it is a reflective attitude towards work, which summarizes five Japanese words –

1. Sei-ri : “Organising” – Eliminating unnecessary things and getting rid of what you don’t need. (Tools – classification management, ‘Red-tag Movement’)
2. Sei-ton: “Neatness” – Eliminating search through an efficient & functional layout of a workplace – “A place for everything and everything in its place!”
3. Sei-so: “Cleaning” – Eliminating thrash and filth for a cleaner workplace. (Tools – close supervision and regular inspection)
4. Sei-ke-tsu: “Standardization” – Recognizing a ‘problem’ (a gap between the ideal state and the present condition) and standardizing the solution (Tool – “Tiger-bands” to highlight hazardous areas)
5. Shi-tsu-ke: “Self-discipline” – Inculcating habits that create a disciplined workplace.

The last one is not quite popular because it suggests that workers need to be disciplined like schoolchildren – compulsory physical exercises, protocol for wishing superiors, etc. It may be effective in some situations but companies like Toyota prefer a more mature approach and stop at the fourth ‘S’ and call it the “4S Concept”.

Another popular improvement mechanism is Just in Time (JIT), also known as Toyota Production System (TPS).

A conscious and unrelenting drive to make their production system more efficient led Toyota to identify “Seven Wastes” – over-production, waiting time, transportation waste, processing waste, inventory waste, waste of motion and waste from product defects.

Among the seven wastes, inventory waste was identified as the biggest waste. For something that just occupies space it seemed a rather unlikely villain but analysis showed that a buffer stock of inventory eases people into the dangerous zone of complaisance.

If you have stocks at hand, defective products are easily replaced and then forgotten; equipment downtime is easily solved without getting to more durable solutions; deficiencies in planning, operation and control remain hidden. But the moment you reduce the buffer from the system, the problem areas stand out like rocks in a shallow pond.

Once you have the problems exposed, you need to come up with fool-proof solutions for each small, niggling problem. This is where an interesting concept – “Poka-yoke” - comes in. Literally it means ‘elimination of carelessness’. Again it looks simplistic until you are informed that nearly 50% of all wastage comes from negligence or forgetfulness or just plain carelessness.

How do you eliminate carelessness? – By introducing thoughtful changes in design and devices. A pokayoke can take many forms – it could be just a rope you tie to a brush used for cleaning tanks; a button that activates a toilet door only after you wash your hands (hygiene in a bakery); a notch on a screws that prevents screwdrivers from slipping away; placing essential stuff (keys, cards) in shoes so you don’t forget them on your way out…

The concepts are so simple that they look trivial and unimportant. But then, we’ve always known that looks are deceptive…

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