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Lean Frontiers

Dave Meier: In Toyota improvement ideas and efforts were expected but voluntary

By Lean Frontiers, - Last updated: Wednesday, April 2, 2014 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

As CEO of my company I have a grasp of lean and have experienced it in my career, but now that I’m CEO, I find it difficult to ask my people to make time for improvement work. They’re already completely busy doing their regular work. Moreover, this company is in the outdoor sports industry, and many people join these companies because they want time to climb, backpack, canoe, etc., and I’m reluctant to ask them to work more hours and sacrifice time for these activities. Any advice?

First off I want to say that when I worked at Toyota it was “expected” that everyone contribute their ideas and efforts toward continuous improvement, BUT it was voluntary. That seems a bit paradoxical, but getting people to be “involved” comes in many ways. Sometimes people had other commitments outside of work that prevented DIRECT participation, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t include them. We solicited their thoughts and ideas DURING work. Improvement is not something done in addition to the work, it IS the work! That is the Toyota philosophy.

You need to understand that at Toyota we did not have extra people to do the work, and all team members were directly on the line. It was impossible to pull someone off the line to do improvements without someone filling their spot (usually a Team Leader), which meant that you were short in another area. So it was just transferring the work load and gap elsewhere…not a good deal. We did not have the “luxury” of free time, and that is by design. I believe that early Toyota leaders had a pretty good understanding of human nature. We tend to waste what we have in abundance. If you are short of time you have to learn to be very intentional with what you do with it. You have to learn to be creative….and that is the point. Where there is a will, there is a way.

I agree with Mark and Sammy. I learned from a mentor many years ago that “you make time in life for the things you want to do”, so what you do with your time is a choice. Not having time is one of the many “excuses” for not doing something (lean, kaizen, continuous improvement, whatever). Using any excuse indicates that the person or people who say it are making a choice to do something else that they prefer. So in a sense they don’t see the value in what is being proposed. It is difficult to see the value on the front end of the situation if people are already working to what they believe is the limit.

We know from our perspective that there are many non-value adding activities that could be eliminated thus “saving” time (if they are converted to value adding), and giving some relief to muri (over-burden).

But here is the main thing that I think is overlooked. There are MANY ways to execute the process of kaizen. Unfortunately the one that caught on and is frequently used is the “kaizen event” model of a one week activity. These events have been popular in companies for 2 decades and what we have learned is that they are largely ineffective as means of implementation. Don’t get me wrong, they have certain value and can be used for specific purpose (quick action, intense focused effort with high visibility, etc.) BUT they are HUGELY labor intensive (40+ hours normally) and there are many shortcomings (little depth of understanding in a short time, people in the area have kaizen “done” to them rather than being active, leading to low long-term sustainability and actually little ongoing improvement which is actually the goal- continuous improvement).

I use event based activities for specific strategic purpose and a smaller scope which allows people to participate. To achieve long-term lasting improvements and actually get people engaged and doing continuous improvement I use a Quality Circle type approach. It is a team problem solving/kaizen model. In this approach each member will spend up to one hour a week in a team meeting. During the meeting they review findings, get direction, assignments etc. The teams can elect to meet during the lunch period and have a “working lunch” (there is a mandatory non work time for lunch in some cases) or on overtime (lunch meeting is paid overtime).

They are also expected to spend UP TO one hour a week on assignments (collecting data, testing ideas, etc.) but are often able to do it WHILE THEY ARE WORKING! Most people think of the activities as something additional to their jobs, but kaizen IS the job! We found bits and pieces of time (seconds here, minutes there) to be able to do activities, and that really is the nature of kaizen. Toyota taught kaizen spirit and kaizen mind. It is not an event. It is a way of being.

A normal activity of this type may extend over a three month period so there is a deeper understanding of the issues and also more time to test and experiment with countermeasures, and to verify the results. More learning occurs. In terms of TIME though, it is much more efficient than the traditional event based activity. Over three months each member spends only 24 hours on the activity (if meetings are conducted during lunch they are not spending EXTRA TIME for 12 of the hours), and much of it is done while doing the normal job.

I find that this type of process is good for more complex issues that need more study and analysis, and when there are variables that are infrequent (and can’t be captured within one week event). It is not for issues requiring immediate correction! I find that because everyone in the work areas has contributed (remember they are NOT all on the team) and the experiments for countermeasures are conducted and everyone has a chance to input, not only do the improvements sustain, people keep improving AFTER the activity! This is true continuous improvement.

This question demonstrates very well the point that a seemingly simple question can actually be quite involved. I find this to be the case quite often where people throw out what appears to be a simple question such as “How can I find time for improvement”, to which we could answer simply “If you want to do it you will find the time.” People seem to want that level of thinking, “just give me the simple fix to my problem”. If you want to find the solution to your problem and you put in the time and effort, you can find a way. If you just want to find a reason to avoid something, that is easy. Just say “No thank you”. At least that is an honest choice!

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