Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Kaizen and the "Blue Collared Robots"

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you'd better be running.”
-Abe Gubegna

I first heard this story as an African fable when I was probably entering high school.  It impacted me a lot thinking about how we are constantly on the run, trying to get ahead in the race. The race has pushed us to discover new limits we can achieve, both physical and intellectual. Intense competition across industries, products and services has forced decision makers to think and rethink and rethink again on ways they can better their product and convert that effort to measurable dollars.

It is because of this intense race that process improvement techniques such as Six Sigma and Lean have taken center stage. They focus on Kaizen, or continuous improvement, which they hope will directly impact their overall productivity and eventually profits. Toyota Production System, or TPS, which was developed by Toyota in the post World War II era introduced the concepts in process improvement, which we today know as Lean practices.

Flexibility! That is the key ingredient of Lean processes. Can my process produce the right amount of product at the demand levels given at that time? If tomorrow, my competitor goes out of business and the demand level of my products goes up drastically, my process should be able to be meet the demand with by minimizing non-value adding activities. Lean practices have been developed around the idea of minimizing these unnecessary tasks. In 1961, General Motors introduced the concept of using industrial robots to compliment the Lean way of thinking in the automobile industry with the “Unimate” robot. This provided a major leap in further improving process efficiency by reducing long-term costs and providing immense flexibility to the processes driving it to be more lean.

The decision to either use or not to use an industrial robot is a big hurdle that the company has to assess. If the company is looking for short-term profits, it is really not a good idea. But, like GM and Toyota got it right early on, if you are aiming to survive long and strong in the industry and short-term losses are sustainable, industrial robots are the right way to go. So how can we integrate robots into the lean manufacturing process?

The principle of Lean processes as discussed before is to reduce the non-value adding activity. If a customer is not going to get the benefit, don’t do it! For example consider the auto shop where the toolbox of frequently required tools is located about 20 yards from the location the worker is situated. The worker wastes time in going to and from the toolbox every time he needs one. That is 40 yards of wastage, which could be translated into time wastage and eventually lowered productivity. By using robots, this waste is automatically eliminated. Despite the obvious advantages that automation provides, critics have questioned benefits of integrating them into the lean manufacturing process.

So my company installed the industrial robots and I am going to produce a lot and lot and lot of product. They will run 24 hour a day and 7 days a week. Is this lean? Absolutely not! Lean does not mean producing as much as I can, which obviously the robots excel at. If I produce more than what I need to supply, that is a waste which I do not desire. The flexibility of the robots is such that I can ask them to produce what I want, how I want, how much of it I want and when I want. That is the most efficient use of the robots that will lead to reduced overhead costs associated with the process. But what does the future look like if I keep on increasing the robot work force to continuously improve my processes? How far can we stretch the limits with Kaizen?

Professor. Erik Brynjolfsson from the MIT Sloan School of Management has studied this fundamental workforce shift from humans to robots and presented some very troubling facts that we will face in the future. According to Brynjolfsson, automation and technologies such as industrial robots are destroying human jobs with every passing day. Process improvement strategies like lean and six sigma are becoming more prominent with the lion and gazelle race going on. This only means that there will be more companies introducing non-human technologies to improve their processes and reduce the waste. But are we destroying our future jobs in this “Kaizen” race? Are these “Blue collared robots” are all set to take over our blue collared jobs for a leaner and better future? I will leave you with that thought to ponder over.

Exhibit 1: How technology is destroying jobs 


Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System (HBR OnPoint Enhanced Edition)Steven J. Spear; H. Kent Bowen

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