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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Ringi is a tool to learn to define target conditions and practice meaningful hansei

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Saturday, December 29, 2012 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

There is always a temptation to see TPS tools as operational tools rather than learning tools. Ringi as an operational tool is nothing more than a corporate way to deploy hoshin kanri. So what? On the other hand, ringi as a learning tool is essential to both defining target conditions and practicing hansei – big topics!

I had not thought much about ringi for a while. I first came across the term, what – twenty years ago (it’s scary when you start counting in decades!) as we were all discovering Toyota practices and trying to sort out the Japanese from the TPS stuff – which is sometimes undistinguishable. At the time I remember dismissing it (and nemawashi) as one more weird nippon practice I simply can’t get my head around – and in any case it wouldn’t work here.

Over the years, studying suppliers to Toyota, I’ve come across here and there Ringi A3s (or, to be specific, Ringi excel A3 sheets), and heard people discuss “the” ringi – and how hard it was to achieve. The last case I have in mind was about the tooling investment for a new injection process in Poland. The nemawashi debate had been about the difference between the cost of tools in Japan versus what the European supplier came up with, and the ringi specified, shall we say, challenging cost objectives. The supplier was pretty upset with it, but had signed it off, and was discovering that the practice of agreeing to everything and then starting to negotiate they’d learn from their French OEM clients was not going to work with Toyota. Whether this is cultural difference of good management practice, pick your choice.

However, having now worked with senior execs in depth in their companies I have to say I’m constantly taken aback about one difficulty with hansei – the information about what exactly was the expected ROI on the investment is often simply… not there. Oh, yes there are various presentations, and signed off approval documents, I’m sure, but when you want to have a fixed point to evaluate the success/failure of the investment decision a couple of years later (usually just as you are considering making exactly the same dumb mistakes): nothing can be found.

Truth is, one of the hardest exercises of lean practice I find is defining target conditions. I’m not that worried about the problem solving process to get there – in the lean world at least we’re all working on the topic and problem solving skills are indeed increasing steadily. But what tells you whether you’re solving the right problem. Or how much a solution is the right solution. This, I believe is the hard part.

In my experience your lean day to day efforts really pay at the next investment cycle. When you replace that big expensive machine by a smaller, technical minimal process, you’ve structurally leaned your process. All the day to day kaizen efforts lead to this point. The difficulty is that the investment learning cycle is a long one, and we don’t get such learning opportunities every day. In this sense, ringi (as the formal approval resulting of the nemawashi process) is a key part of hansei. Without this formal stake in the ground, it’s hard to discuss whether the decision led to the expected results or not, see the gap, study the problems and their root causes in our decision process. Because investment decisions are few and far between, we need a rigorous statement of expectactions to be able to learn from them.

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