Tag Archives: toyota production system

Robot Day

I responded recently to a LinkedIn post regarding AI-assisted robotic recycling.  The sorting speed is so fast, we almost miss each sort in the blink of an eye.  Having observed this same activity attempted by humans —  and overlooking the upstream potential to avoid this kind of recycling mess at the source (the wasteful consumer) — I’m all over the potential to pass off these kinds of tasks to machines.  Humans doing this work must operate at a much slower pace, risk injury, and are not so precise as the AI robot.   And of course, humans must also deal with the stench of garbage; these robots, at least, have no sense of smell to distract them from their work. 

Today, smart robots are economically feasible for even small companies, and are increasingly deployed to work in concert with human counterparts.  Referred to as co-bots, collaborative robots, these machine counterparts share the work in factories, restaurants, warehouses, operating rooms and offices. Given the advancement of artificial intelligence, robotics and multi-sensing technologies, it seems that eventually, no job will be beyond the capability of robots; science fiction is becoming science fact.  With the recently apparent shortage of humans to fill jobs this Labor Day, the role of smart robots is on my mind and leading to some whimsical questions; not so much about doing the work, but improving the work:

Will smart machines, for example, become smart enough to solve problems?  Will their designers build into them what Frank and Lillian Gilbreth called “a motion mind,” i.e., will they examine their own motion, or perhaps the motion of other robot team members, to reduce waste?  Robots are subject to the same wastes as humans; e.g., in a poor floor layout a robot must travel the same distance to do the job as its human counterpart.   Will AI be imbued with algorithms to identify  better flow?  Will smart robots analyze and improve their standardized work?  Will they collaborate with humans and with each other to brainstorm (sort of) and test ideas?   Collaborative improvement presumes a harmonization of different perspectives to create a more robust solution than would be available from any single  contributor.  Referring to Masaaki Imai’s definition of Kaizen (my favorite), can it evolve into this?

In the absence of hands-on human experience of the people who do the work, what context will this definition have?  And, what facility can be given to smart robots to create the will to improve, the most basic condition,  according to Shigeo Shingo, for improvement.  So-called human qualities such as “constructive dissatisfaction with the status quo” are not necessary to do the job, but are fundamental to improving the job.  Joseph Weizenbaum, an early AI pioneer, argued that such qualities are not transferrable to machines.  While his AI psychoanalyst simulation, Eliza (Circa, 1966), was designed to mimic a therapist’s response to human discourse, Weizenbaum warned that “no computer, can be made to confront genuine human problems in human terms.”  This warning has been echoed ever since in dystopian science fiction literature and cinema.   How much longer will this be fiction? 

These whimsical questions may not be immediately relevant.  In a world where there is currently  a shortage of humans to fill jobs, robots offer a practical solution.   As I write this post, there are currently twice as many job openings in the U.S. as job applicants.  While much attention has been given to the acute shortage, the rate of U.S. population growth (Fig. 1)  has decreased steadily since 1990 and is nearly flatlined, with many states showing a net decrease in population.  No doubt, the people shortage has been exacerbated by COVID-19, but the issue is chronic.  

In view of this persistent need, what might we expect from the inexorable evolution of science fiction to science fact?  With the current pace of technical advancement and likely long-term labor shortage, what will dissuade employers from replacing most human labor with robots?  Rosie the Robot, after all is an investment, while Rosie the Riveter is a variable expense;  they each hit the bottom line very differently. The allure of a productive resource that is apparently tireless, reliable and requires no benefits may simply be overwhelming – almost too good to be true.  In the words of pioneer systems thinker Russell Ackoff,  

“Managers are incurably susceptible to panacea peddlers. They are rooted in the belief that there are simple, if not simple-minded, solutions to even the most complex of problems. And they do not learn from bad experiences. Managers fail to diagnose the failures of the fads they adopt; they do not understand them.”   

While AI and Robotics are surely not panaceas, applying them as a total solution may just be. I visited a company recently, for example, that utilizes smart robots to move inventory miles between multiple storage locations rather than improving layout to consolidate stockrooms.  An engineer bragged to me “We even programmed it to ride the elevator.” Dr. Shingo called this superficial improvement, automating waste rather than eliminating it. 

For those of us who subscribe to Taiichi Ohno’s idea that “95% of the elapsed time between paying and getting paid” is waste, the current labor shortage presents a huge impetus to develop an army of problem solvers to eliminate it – a workforce with the will and creativity to reap greater benefits from Lean. While the vision of TPS is human development, certainly this includes thoughtful use of IoT, just as it has included mechanization and automation.   But will Lean thinking inform the designers of AI?  Will they go to the Gemba to learn? Will they regard employees as the most valuable resource?  Will they be systemic thinkers?  Or will they, as Shigeo warned, just be table engineers or catalog engineers,  distant from the process and perhaps a little too enamored of the technology?    That story is not yet written.   Will it be as dystopian as the science fiction predicts, or a golden age for productivity and human development?   And how can Lean thinkers influence the latter?

What do you think?    Please share some thoughts.

O.L.D.

P.S. Speaking of human development,  I hope you’ll be able to join us on September 28-29 in Springfield, Massachusetts,  for the 18th Annual Northeast L.E.A.N. (Lead, Enable And Nurture) Conference.  Four great keynotes, four tracks of breakout sessions, a Lean Lounge with poster presentations, and a Lean After Dark networking session.  AND – if you can’t make it in person, all sessions will be live-streamed on Whova and recorded for later viewing.  You can check out the agenda here:  Conference Agenda

Everyday Collaboration

With GBMP’s 18th Annual Northeast Lean Conference on the horizon, I’m reflecting on our theme, “Amplifying Lean – The Collaboration Effect.”   The term ‘collaboration’ typically connotes an organized attempt by unrelated, even competitive, parties to work together on a common problem; for example, the NUMMI collaboration between GM and Toyota or the international space station.   In a sense, these types of organized collaboration are analogs to Kaizen events and significant organizational breakthrough improvement.   

Being a longtime proponent of ‘everybody everyday’ type Kaizen, however, I think the greater amplification to our continuous improvement efforts lies in our ability to work together in the moment to solve many small problems.  But, just as intermittent stoppages on a machine may be hidden from consideration, so too these on-the-fly opportunities for collaboration may pass without notice.   An example from my own career as a manufacturing manager sticks with me as I consider the importance of everyday collaboration:

Walking through my factory one morning, I overheard a heated discussion between John M. a product designer and Ann C.  a team lead from our subassembly department.  Both individuals had deep experience in their respective areas – perhaps 25 years each.  John was waving an assembly drawing for a particular part as they argued, and Ann was holding the component parts and an assembly fixture.  All the elements of production were present: man, method, material and machine (4M’s).  What was missing was collaboration. 

“If you’d just follow the assembly drawing, there’d be no problem,” John argued.  

“What?”, Ann shot back. “Do you think I’m stupid?  Why would I call you out here if that were true?” 

This was the general tenor of the discussion, each party defensively talking AT the other.  Specialization, necessary as it is, often creates invisible boundaries we commonly refer to as silos.  When any party ventures beyond those boundaries, it’s viewed as an invasion of turf.  As the argument continued, the resolve of each party only increased. 

I inserted myself into the discussion.  “Why don’t we observe the assembly process and drawing together?  I’d like get a better perspective on the problem.”   John and Ann reluctantly agreed.   What seemed to me like an obvious opportunity to understand was, for each of them, possible exposure that one of them would be wrong and lose face.  Philosopher James P. Carse refers to this interaction as a ‘finite game.’  Somebody wins and somebody loses.   I recall saying something trite like, “Aren’t we on the same team here?”   Truth be told, we weren’t.  At least, however, we were all in the same space observing the 4M’s together.

Ultimately, John and Ann began to attack the problem rather than each other and, in fact, pulled a parts buyer and a tool maker into the investigation.  Working together they uncovered a series of contributing factors involving each of the 4M’s.  No single perspective would have been nearly as effective.  The errant assembly problem was solved.    But more importantly, collaborative relationships were created.   James P. Carse would call that an infinite game; everyone wins. 

O.L.D.

PS This year’s Northeast Lean Conference will examine collaboration from every angle.  Top-down, bottom-up, horizontal, networked, virtual, intercompany, governmental and societal.  The “Collaboration Effect” touches every system and every interpersonal relationship.  I hope you can join us on September 28-29 (face-to-face or live-streamed) as we explore better ways to work together.  It’s just six weeks away – sign up today

Uncommon Sense

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  This advice, attributed to Nicolo Machiavelli, and later cited by Winston Churchill at the conclusion of WWII, resonates once again in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.   Widespread shortages of products, services, raw materials, fuel, equipment, transportation and people have shocked the system in our land of plenty, creating an almost universal burning platform. From manufacturing to healthcare to service and even the public sector, providers can’t deliver – this while costs are rising, unemployment is at record lows and customer demand is through the roof.   Could it be that this tsunami of challenges is driving providers to experiment with ideas that just a few short months ago were light years from top of mind?

One factory manager noted recently for example, “It’s just a no-brainer that when you can’t find workers, you can increase productivity by removing waste from the job.” Funny that this should be considered a no-brainer now, when the supply of employees is limited.  But I’ll take it.   The pandemic, it seems, has elevated the role of the frontline while casting a brighter light on the shortcomings of off-shoring.  In 2011, when the theme of GBMP’s Northeast Lean Conference was “Made Lean in America,”  several supply chain pundits shared with me in no uncertain terms that this was wishful thinking. It would never happen, they said.  Times change. 

For organizations that have traditionally responded to growth by acquiring more equipment,  telescoping purchase times for equipment have turned our attention also to making the best use of the machines we already have.   Practices like preventative maintenance and quick changeover address the scarcity of equipment and equipment operators. 

And, then there are the omnipresent material shortages.  At the start of the pandemic, many providers took the commonsense step to actually reduce supply, even as consumers horded whatever was available.  The resulting deficits have now placed keen attention on what’s made and when.  “Certain alloys are super scarce right now,” a manager of a machine shop related to me, “so we can ill-afford to produce any material that we cannot ship.”  

Referring to the window analysis in figure 1, in times of plenty, Lean improvement efforts fell more into the “known-but-not-practiced” category.  Let’s call it the mediocrity zone.   As a VP of Operations confessed recently, “Yes, we attended the Lean 101 workshops in the past, and dabbled with some experiments; but in reality, these methods are not a part of what we do.”  I hear the same message in every industry.  The props may change, but the half-hearted practice is the same.  

My teacher, Hajime Oba, used the word “commitment” to describe the difference between Lean dabblers and organizations that seize the opportunity to gain significant benefit from TPS.   With cautious optimism, I believe that commitment potential may never be greater than today. I have observed in the last six months the greatest resurgence of my career in interest to learn and practice problem solving and continuous improvement methods. This crosses every industry, but shares a similar burning platform, one that no one would have predicted before 2020.   Writing in 1988 about the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno stated “The oil crisis opened our eyes . . . “   Or as Shigeo Shingo noted around the same time, “the biggest obstacle to improvement is the will to improve.”   Here we are more than three decades later.  Let’s not let a good crisis go to waste. 

O.L.D. 

P.S. Speaking of… GBMP’s 18th Annual Northeast Lean Conference is coming up in less than two months. Have you checked out the agenda yet? We are so excited about our theme – “Amplifying Lean: The Collaboration Effect” and sincerely hope you will join us for the 2-day event which will feature four terrific keynote presentations plus more than 30 breakout sessions, a dozen benchmarking organizations in The Community of Lean Lounge and the chance to network with hundreds of Lean practitioners just like you! Read all about it.

By the way – if you can’t make it to Massachusetts, don’t worry. All of the sessions will be streamed – LIVE – so you and your team members can attend from anywhere in the world! Register Today.

The Natural

In 1985, about the time I was discovering there was a better way to produce products, The Natural, a film about an aging baseball player with extraordinary talent, was garnering multiple Academy Awards.   The archetype concerning natural ‘God-given’ abilities is common in western culture – in sports and the arts and even in business.  Early in my journey as a student of TPS,  I observed the very same archetype on the factory floor, this time applied to specific Lean tools.  In a very natural way, certain employees revealed uncanny focused abilities to reduce waste.  While there was broad interest in continuous improvement, leaders self-selected themselves to excel in specific Lean tools. 

Bob C, for example, a twenty-plus year veteran took a leadership role with pull systems.  He realized before the rest of us that reducing production order quantities for his component parts (leadwire assemblies) and placing them on kanban enabled him to provide on-time delivery for hundreds of configurations.  He set up racks, set container quantities, created a triggering system and trained his internal customers to “go shopping” when they needed parts.    In the process he mothballed a superfast but noisy and finicky wire stripper, opting instead for an older, slow but steady wire stripper that kept up quite nicely once production quantities were reduced to actual customer need.  Bob’s kanban rack, the first in the factory, stood in stark contrast to the previous stores: a full bay of ASRS storage.  Bob C’s  effort was a bold proof of concept that caught on quickly in other assembly departments.  Why launch manufacturing orders for subassemblies months before they are needed, and waste capacity that could be used for parts we actually needed?  Why not put every item on a pull system?  

The answer to these questions was that what Bob C had made look easy, was actually not easy. The concepts came easy to him, but not to others.  Other departments struggled to make the pull system work.  They did the obvious things, like setting up racks, containers, locations and cards; but creating a level flow eluded them.   Many less obvious changes made by Bob C made his pull system work:  floor layout, equipment reliability, tool and material locations, machine changeover improvement, visual clarity, mistake-proofing and good communication with his internal customers.    He integrated these practices so effortlessly, that their importance to the pull system was transparent.   Bob C had what Shigeo Shingo called a motion mind.   Every step he took, every reach and bend, even the smallest motions, he analyzed in search of the one best way to produce leadwire assemblies.  While Bob C was reducing his Kanban quantities from days to hours on hand, other departments worked overtime to keep their over-sized Kanban stores full. 

Luckily, Bob C shared his motion mind with other employees.   He became our internal consultant factory-wide and even extending to external suppliers and customers.  Over time, while the entire factory became pretty capable with the Kanban game; Bob C was the Natural.   He brought out the best in everyone else.

The lesson here for me is that we can all become better through practice, but the archetype “The Natural” is a real thing.  I discovered over time employees who excelled similarly, but with other best practices.  One employee had an eye for mistake-proofing,  another for visual control and still another for quick changeover.  These Naturals collaborated, each relying on the other for depth of understanding that had an amplifying effect on our continuous improvement efforts. 

Who are the Naturals in in your organization?   Can you spot them?  Are you enabling them to develop and share?  Share a story.

O.L.D.

Speaking of sharing, don’t miss the 2nd Annual Spring Lean Showcase – this Friday, April 1, 2022.  Eight teams of employees from eight different organizations will share best practice examples virtually via video –  all in one day.  “Go see” from the comfort of your home or office. You can join from anywhere. Ask the team questions. And it’ll be recorded, so if you miss a presentation you can view it later. Register today here

Too Happy Too Soon

[Editor’s Note: This post is part 2 of a post from March 1, Do Your Job. If you haven’t already read it, reading it will help to provide context.]

The level of excitement was high in our machine shop as we approached closer to our goal of less than nine-minute changeovers on the BNC lathe.   Set-up improvements had so far reduced changeover time to 20 minutes, cutting the economic order quantity from weeks to days of stock on hand. Our pull system now more closely resembled a supermarket with several containers  on hand for each of the 66 parts in our pilot.  After decades of viewing set-ups as a problem and inventory as a protection from stockouts, this new process was still confounding for many persons.  But, it was working,  which was most apparent to the operators on the BNC and to their internal customers in assembly:   

  • No more expedites and angry demands.  
  • No more breaking down a set-up in mid-run to run a hot part.  
  • No more juggling jobs between machines.
  • No more fiddling with tools and programs to get a good part. 

The BNC improvement team had, as my friend and mentor Steve Spear likes to say, “proven theory through practice”.  The concepts from Shigeo Shingo’s books actually worked.  All that was required was a little coaching from our TSSC consultant and a whole lot of brilliant ideas from the operators. 

Funny thing about good ideas: they tend to spread.  Operators were champing at the bit to take some of what we’d learned from the BNC and spread it to other machines.  I don’t recall how it started or if I  may have selectively forgotten part of  the charter Mr. Oba had given to us for our setup project:

“All of the parts for your model line assembly will be made on this machine and changeover between any two parts must be less than 9 minutes. Work only on this machine.  That is your target”

We were making so much progress with the BNC that I probably rationalized Mr. Oba would be pleased to see us sharing the ideas across other machines.  This turned out not to be the case.

On Mr. Oba’s next visit to the plant, I enthusiastically greeted him with the news, “changeovers on the BNC are already down to 20 minutes and we’re now working on improvement at the LE22 . . . “ (the machine next to it.)   Before I could finish this sentence, Mr. Oba stopped in his tracks and turned for the door.   Incredulous, I followed him outside to the parking lot apologizing, but for what I was not sure.   I recall asking in desperation,  “What did we do?   Oba stopped walking, turned to me and, with a shrug of disappointment, replied “You’ll never be better than 20 minutes.”  I think he was most disappointed that I hadn’t figured this out for myself.   I apologized again, now with understanding. “We’ll work only on the BNC until we hit our target.”   As the two of us re-entered the plant,  I reflected: “Don’t spread mediocre results.  The target was single minutes, not double-digits.”   Six months later we hit 9 minutes on the BNC, and began to spread best practices to other CNC’s. 

My lessons: 1) Don’t be too happy too soon, and 2) Focus your scarce resources to build capability before branching out. 

O.L.D.

Speaking of building capability, here are a couple of upcoming events I hope you’ll be able to join:

My monthly webinar, Teatime with the Toast Dude, on March 15 will respond to the current labor shortage by sharing ideas for maximizing the productivity of the folks you already have. It’s free.  Sign up here: Teatime

Our 2nd Annual Virtual Lean Showcase on April 1st will highlight best practices from seven great organizations in one day!   Here’s the lineup:

  • Bausch + Lomb’s Journey to Increase Daily Throughput
  • Comtran Lean Strategy Deployment & Alignment
  • Nuvera Fuel Cells: Using Lean to Transition from Development to Production
  • Abiomed: TWI Creates an Exceptional Training Experience
  • Axcelis Technologies: Improving Every Day for its Customers
  • UMass Memorial Health: 100,000 Ideas Implemented… & Counting
  • SnapCab: A Lean Recruitment System

You can get more info and register here:  Spring Showcase