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Kaizen in Action

This section describes an actual Kaizen event conducted according to the Kaizen Desk Reference Standard.


This unit describes a Kaizen event from request through completion. It is based on an actual event; the names of the company, locations, and participants have been changed to honor our confidentiality responsibilities. This example applies Kaizen to a manufacturing business and improves both human and machine performance. (We have also applied Kaizen to office and service-oriented work processes with equal success.) Use this description to help you form a personal experience of Kaizen—what it does and how it does it. If you have already studied the Overview of Kaizen unit, look for how the concepts and procedures described there are applied in a real event. If you are beginning here before you have read the Overview of Kaizen unit, use this virtual experience of a Kaizen event to formulate your own mental image of this method for improving business performance.

Be forewarned. A Kaizen event requires a great deal of hard work to complete. It may seem overwhelming as you imagine yourself leading such an event. Remember, however, that there is detailed guidance in the Kaizen Desk Reference Standard to support you in performing each task described in the following example. There are also tools (e.g., paper and electronic forms, handouts) to make the tasks easier. Finally, be aware that we have trained both shop floor and office workers to lead Kaizen events successfully, many of whom have had no more than a high school education.

Understanding What Is Requested

ABC Gases produces commercial gases for use in the electronics, home healthcare/ MRI, metals finishing, export, and chemical process industries. The company has 109 plants engaged in filling and distributing cylinders, liquid dewars, tube trailers, and other containers of industrial gases and non-electronic specialty gases. These facilities are distributed across the United Sates and Canada. The three largest sites are in Newark, Delaware; Madison, Wisconsin; and Oakland, California. ABC Gases's revenue was $240 million in FY 2001; it employs 1,200 people and has an operating budget of approximately $200 million. The company produces over 100 different flammable and nonflammable gas products including argon, carbon dioxide, helium, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and neon, and many combinations of these products. ABC customers care most about quality products, on-time deliveries, and price.

Mike Fellows, head of ABC Gases, has requested a Kaizen event for the blending area in the Oakland plant (1234 Industrial Boulevard). The process is done in four ABC plants, but Oakland is the largest site.. Mike hopes that improvement there will have the biggest initial impact and then be rolled into the other plants (i.e., Canton, Ohio; Jackson, Florida; and New Orleans, Louisiana) for even greater benefit. In the blending area, workers create custom mixes of gases (e.g., methane-argon mixes, hydrocarbon mixes). Mike is concerned because products are not getting done on time and unit cost is rising. He reports that customers are getting angry about delayed receipt of orders and that profit margins are shrinking. He further reports that the company has this year set reducing cost as its major improvement target. The company's key business driver is to increase profit margins while not increasing prices.

The blending process is done in the flammable and nonflammable fill areas. Mike wants the Kaizen event to focus on the nonflammable area, where approximately 50 different mixes are blended. Mike agreed to have the event focus on the backbone of the work process, meaning those operations that every mix goes through. Forty-three people work in the Oakland plant: 21 fill blended gas orders, and 12 are assigned specifically to the nonflammable blending process. These are full-time employees. The plant operates seven lines that fill blended gases (three nonflammable, four flammable), three shifts a day, five days a week. Mike directed us to contact Sandra Shore, manager of the Oakland plant, to get more information and set up the event.

I, as the Kaizen leader, contacted Sandra the day after talking with Mike. Sandra provided additional details about the blending process. She said that the work is done almost always in a batch of two cylinders, meaning multiple cylinders are produced as one unit of output. "These are highly customized mixes of gases, and multiple orders for exactly the same mix are uncommon." For efficiency's sake, the fill operator interweaves blending and filling different orders so that at any one time there may be eight cylinders hooked up to the manifold and being processed. "It can look like the operator is working on a batch of eight cylinders, but actually he is filling four different orders each of which is at a different point in processing. While one is being purged, for example, another is being filled with its blend of gases."

In talking with Sandra to get a definition of the scope of the proposed event, she shared some details about the blending process. The process uses three pieces of equipment: a manifold, scale, and a rolling machine. The blend booth manifold is a four-sided device with eight filling lines (two per side) to which cylinders can be connected (see Exhibit 1). The manifold executes the vacuum, purge, and fill. It is connected to large liquid gas tanks stationed outside the building from which it draws the gases to be placed in the cylinders. At the base of the manifold, there is a scale on which the cylinders stand. The weight of the cylinder is monitored to ensure that the proper amount of each gas component is filled. The rolling machine (Exhibit 2, next page) is a table-like device which literally rolls the cylinders to mix their contents. The manifold and rolling machines account for the majority of the work process's cycle time (90%) but not much of the product's unit cost (10%).

Sandra said that the process begins with getting an order and then completing a pre-fill inspection of the manifold and scale. "The operator wants to make sure the manifold lines have no leaks and the scale is properly zeroed out. The pre-fill inspection requires hooking up a cylinder so that the lines and scale can be tested. This is called a 'scale check cylinder.' Then the operator removes the scale check cylinder and loads the line with cylinders to be filled. This means placing the cylinders on the scale that sits on each side of the manifold and hooking them up to the fill lines.

"The blend booth itself is an enclosed structure in which the filling process is completed. The upper half of each wall of the blending booth has shatter-proof glass panels which allow viewing into the booth. Its purpose is to protect the workers and work area from hazards. The worker directs the process from a control panel located outside the blend booth. The panel allows the worker to control the fill to each cylinder separately. Once the cylinder is loaded onto the manifold, the worker inspects it, touching up bare spots with paint when needed and making sure damaged labels are replaced. Next, the operator allocates a cylinder to its customer by scanning the bar code on the cylinder (called 'shooting the cylinder') and associating it with the order number it will satisfy. Once the cylinder is allocated, the operator vacuums and purges the cylinder and figures out the weights for each gas that will be blended to satisfy the customer's order (termed 'fixing grams'). Then the operator fills the cylinder with the prescribed mix and, when finished, checks for leaks.

"Next, the operator moves the cylinders from the blend booth to the rolling machine which rolls the order to ensure that the gases are fully mixed. Finally, the operator labels the cylinders, places a protective net over each cylinder to prevent the labels and paint from being rubbed off as cylinders bang against each other in transit, and moves the filled cylinders to the lab for testing. The point of variation occurs before prepping a cylinder. If a cylinder is being filled with a medical mix, then special paperwork must be done before prepping it."

In doing this work, the blending area must relate to a number of other work processes in the total value chain that ultimately delivers a filled cylinder to a customer. The other groups involved are the Maintenance Department, which prepares cylinders for filling; the Mix Identification Group, which approves the mix as safe and assigns an identifying number for each mix so that it may be tracked; the Bulk Product Group, which ensures that the liquid gas tanks are full; and the Lab, which tests the filled cylinders for purity and correctness of mix.

I asked Sandra whether the plant was using takt time to regulate the flow of work through the work process. Takt time is the pace at which customers require a product. It is an essential piece of information in establishing a just-in-time work process. "We don't use takt time. We did set up kanbans though." Kanban is a Japanese word which means signal or card. One use of kanbans is to tell an upstream—meaning one that occurs earlier—work process that an output is needed downstream. Sandra did say that the current cycle time of the work process was about an hour and a half for one order, "assuming nothing unusual happens." She continued, "Now remember, we rarely do one order at a time. Our operators work on multiple orders at a time, which gives us a better average cycle time to fill an order. I can't say exactly what that is."

With respect to work process measures, Sandra said that she watches unit cost and on-time delivery. "If we can get the cost down and on-time delivery up, we should be able to meet both our profit and customer satisfaction goals. Right now, our on-time delivery rate is 84%. That leaves too many customers unhappy. Also, if we can free people up as a result of shortening the cycle time, I can redeploy them to the flammable side, where we expect demand to grow. As to when to do the event, we can pretty much accommodate the dates you select."

Sandra indicated that she expected at least a two-to-one return on the cost of the event in hard benefits. Hard benefits are cost reductions or revenue gains that begin to flow as soon as the event ends. She also said that safety is a priority of the company, so improvement in safety is also a desired outcome. "By the way," she added, "you will need some safety equipment while in the workplace. You must wear earplugs, safety glasses, safety shoes (steel toes and metatarsal plates), and gloves." As to the team's authority, she said that it could make decisions about improvements in the blending process as long as there were no negative effects on the other organizations with which blending interacts. If an idea required an adjustment by another department, that department would have to be consulted and agree to it prior to its execution. She also said the event should stay within regular working hours and require no overtime. She offered the names of people to be on the Kaizen team. Three proposed team members were fill operators: two filled blended gases (Reggie B. and Thomas C.), and one filled straight gases (James L.). One team member was a supervisor (Vincent L.), another a maintenance worker (Nathan H.), and the last member was a lab technician (Clarice T.). I also obtained from her a list of stakeholders (Exhibit 3) other than the work process employees. Stakeholder is the term we use to identify any person or group who may either affect the success of an event or be affected by its occurrence.

Exhibit 3. Stakeholders





Designated event coordinator Sandra Shore 123-456-7890
Maintenance supervisor Mike T. 123-456-7891
Manager of target work process Sandra Shore 123-456-7890
Manager of the target work process's manager/sponsor Mike Fellows 123-456-7878
Person with whom to coordinate logistics and travel Sam W. 123-456-7892
Safety supervisor Rufus W. 123-456-7893
Work standards supervisor (or contact person) Sandra Shore 123-456-7890
Kaizen Desk Reference Standard Excerpt: Kaizen In Action  
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