Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Human Element in Going Lean

This week we read two news articles about two very different industries taking lessons from the Toyota Production System (TPS) to create lean processes. We heard from a nurse that felt operation management techniques used in the hospital were hindering nurses’ ability to make case-by-case decisions.[1] In response to lean process improvement methods at Starbucks in 2009, a barista complained of “being turned into a robot.”[2] Critical to the success of implementing processes based on the Toyota system, where anything that can’t be identified as adding value to external or internal customers is eliminated, is the involvement of the human beings who actually perform functions that are critiqued and reworked. Ideally, the two employee critics of the new processes would have been involved in system improvement decisions.
In “The Evolution of the Toyota Production System” I was surprised to learn that Toyota executives and managers developed their esteemed lean manufacturing system after touring US plants in the 1950s. A couple decades later in 1984, Toyota was teaching American manufacturers and workers how to improve their systems. A “This American Life” podcast from 2010 told the story of NUMMI, a car manufacturing plant in California that was to be shared by GM and Toyota. Toyota, threatened by US protectionist policies, wanted to establish a foothold in the US but was nervous about their ability to bring the Toyota system and labor practices to the American commercial space. GM was legally required to produce small cars, and also was dealing with difficult labor relations. Toyota promised to show them a new way.
To prepare for opening the plant, GM workers were sent to Japan to train. They learned lean processes, and were instructed in appropriate task completion times. But above all else, the most noteworthy aspect of the TPS for American unionized laborers was the agency that their Japanese counterparts had over their work. In Japan, instead of performing the same monotonous job to push products through, individuals were organized into teams that would alter tasks to break up monotony. In addition, workers on the line were expected to voice their concerns and offer solutions. One of the American workers who traveled to Japan reflected in the podcast, “I can't remember anytime in my working life where anybody asked for my ideas to solve the problem. And they literally want to know, and when I tell them, they listen, and then suddenly, they disappear and somebody comes back with the tool that I just described-- it's built-- and they say, "Try this."”[3] When workers made a suggestion under kaizen, or continuous improvement system, they were rewarded with bonuses, even when those suggestions were things that they wanted like cushions to stand on to relieve pressure of standing all day. Japanese workers were also given power to stop the line when something went wrong. Stopping the line was considered a “sin” in the American plants. Management expected workers to use work stoppages as an excuse for extra brakes. When Japanese workers stopped the line, the work began—a team leader would come to the problem area, and work with the worker to see if there was an immediate fix, before permanently stopping the line to call in more assistance.
Because of labor relations and management missteps, the lessons from Toyota weren’t taken back to GM—check out the podcast for more details.  (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/403/nummi) But the story of the unionized GM workers at the Toyota plant highlights the importance of human capital in lean manufacturing. Because lean manufacturing is based on pull—delivering product to the customer when they need it, not producing a bunch for stock or after demand has subsided—and on creating value—the theory of the process begins with human need. The power to create a leaner supply chain to push products and services through—whether they are cups of coffee, medical care, or automobiles—primarily rests with the people in those systems making choices and being conscious of their actions, even when those actions are monotonous and repeated.

[1] Factory Efficiency Comes to the Hospital (NY Times, July 9, 2010)
[2] Latest Starbucks Buzzword: “Lean” Japanese Techniques (Wall
Street Journal, August 4, 2009)
[3] Episode 403: NUMMI transcript. Originally aired 3/26/2010. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/403/transcript

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