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Kaizen in Action


Doing the Event

Day 1 - Focus the Kaizen Event

The event was set to begin at 8 AM, Monday. I arrived early with my co-leader to be sure that our meeting area was still set up correctly and to meet each team member personally as he or she arrived. I had spoken with each team member previously but had not met each person face to face.

Once all the team members arrived, I asked for their attention. I began by reintroducing myself and my co-leader and stating the purpose of the team's getting together. This I shared in a simple summary way: "We are here today to significantly improve the blending of nonflammable gases work process for our business, its customers, and all its stakeholders by applying the Kaizen tool."

Once I confirmed that the team members knew each other, I reviewed administrative issues (e.g., bathrooms, refreshments, etc.) and safety procedures. Next, I told the team that we would begin by doing a warm-up exercise in which we would think about and share with each other what seemed to work well in the target work process and what was problematic. This exercise would give us an opportunity to start thinking about the work process and to uncover the team's concerns and those the team had heard from other employees. We built a list of pluses and minuses with respect to how the work process currently operates; we posted this and used it as a reference during the event. Right away, however, we made a discovery that had a big impact on the event. One team member noted as a minus how long it took to get the filling done. In exploring this, he indicated that it typically took a whole day to finish just six cylinders (three orders). That is two hours longer than we had heard during all previous conversations. In discussing it further, it became clear that the job included a great deal of waiting for empty cylinders; alternatively, fill operators could prepare cylinders themselves. "Nathan and the other maintenance workers just can't get all the cylinders prepared when we need them, so we either wait or help out by getting and prepping the cylinders as part of the blending process," Reggie said. The other fill operators agreed. Nathan added: "You see, we don't just prep cylinders. That's a small amount of our time. We are responsible for unloading cylinders from the trucks and repairing cylinders, among other jobs." So, while management was correct in detecting that blending was taking too long, it was off by not recognizing that a major portion of the time being spent was either waiting for or doing another work process.

It seemed clear that cutting down the blending cycle time required us to extract this preparation work from it. That probably would not completely achieve our mission but would make a significant contribution to it. Tackling two processes—cylinder preparation and blending—as we were about to do, violates our standard approach, which specifies one work process per event. On the other hand, the two processes together involved no more than four hours of actual work once machine time was discounted. Thus, the total time required for both work processes was within the allowable limit of four hours for one event. Also, we had within the team expertise to address both work processes, along with an experienced Kaizen event leader and co-leader. I therefore decided that we could successfully address the two processes. In compliance with our do's and don'ts, I spoke with Mike T., maintenance supervisor, to get his okay about the team's looking into ways to improve the cylinder preparation work process. I had already communicated with Mike prior to the event, so he was both aware of it and on board with its purpose. He said he was happy that we would look into the cylinder preparation process: "It's a bottleneck, no doubt about it. If the guys can help fix that, it's fine with me. You know, the cost of that operation is also booked against the blending work process so it's really all one bundle of money anyway." Mike also said that he was comfortable having Nathan as our contact person for changes and would stand behind any decisions Nathan approved. "He knows the process and our situation in maintenance. He's not going to go for anything stupid."

After we explored the team's sense of the target work process, I reviewed with the team a simple set of communication skills team members had previously learned. These are Working With Others (WWO) skills that enable people to get and give information from and to each other effectively. (WWO skills are delineated by J.S. Byron and P.A. Bierley in Working With Others, Hope, ME: Lowrey Press, 2003). We applied these skills throughout the event to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of our teamwork.

Next, team members built a set of ground rules for how they would work together. These ground rules included items like "say what you think," "what is said in the team stays in the team," and "use your WWO skills." With these details satisfied, I provided a 20-minute presentation about Kaizen and the process we would complete together during the week. I then asked my co-leader to review the strawperson direction for the event and brief the team on how we would accomplish it. He then reviewed the day's agenda with the team. Our Day 1 agenda specified that the team would get through Task D1. Focus the Kaizen Event (Exhibit 5).

After a short break, the team reassembled to begin the work of Kaizen. Task D1. Focus the Kaizen Event specifies that the team's first job is to build a direction for the event based on the facts in the workplace. We build our "fact base" by describing the target work process and doing a walk through of the process. With the information we gather, we redefine the mission, goals, and do's and don'ts of the event, reconciling the new direction with that we inherited from the scope document. This process of focusing the event based on the facts in the workplace offers many rich benefits.

  • It enables the team to form a common understanding of what is going on in the work process and ensures that the team works toward the same end. (Remember, the strawperson direction is based only on the ideas of the key stakeholders.)
  • It ensures that the end the team aims toward addresses the real problems in the work process.
  • It finalizes the team's accountability so that the team can judge its success.
  • In the focusing process, the team learns about the concept of waste and how to detect waste in the workplace. Being able to detect waste is essential to applying Kaizen. Learning this skill enables team members to not only uncover improvement opportunities during the event but also prepares them to detect new opportunities as they continue to pursue business improvement efforts after the event.

There are even more benefits from this focusing effort. For example, it provides the team leaders with a reference point for judging whether the demonstration of the work process they observe later in the week properly represents how that process is supposed to be performed. The focusing task is thus a very rich and important activity.


Build a Description of the Target Work Process

We now began to describe the target work process. Our description had two components: an overview that captures the purpose of the work process and certain essentials about it (e.g., inputs, outputs, departments with which it coordinates); and a work process map that shows the sequence of operations that execute it. Given the information I developed prior to the event, I was able to draft both the overview (Exhibit 6) and the work process map (Exhibit 7, page 32) and show them to the team for approval or correction. As to the map, based on what Reggie said, I felt that we needed to map activities occurring in the cylinder preparation work process as well as the blending work process since fill operators were doing both under the name of the blending process. The team agreed and worked swiftly to confirm the overview for the blending process and then the work process map.

In confirming the work process map, we reached several points where team members disagreed about operations. For example, to what level of vacuum did the cylinders need to be brought? Here, we were guided by the official work standard which I, as the Kaizen leader, had acquired in preparation for the event. Using the standard to resolve the questions that arose had an added value. When the team got into the standard, we found that it specified a range of acceptable vacuum levels rather than a single level. Thus, both our operators were correct. What was not correct was each person's notion that his or her way was the exact right and only way. We discovered that many activities that may have been perceived as "required" might well be optional or at least modifiable without violating the current work standard.

The cycle time estimate for the work process varied. When we added together the cycle times for each blending operation we mapped, the total was 1 hour and 20 minutes if cylinders were ready and 1 hour, 46 minutes, and 40 seconds if the fill operator prepared his or her own cylinders. These cycle times are for a batch of two cylinders. The cylinder preparation work process actually produces a batch of 12 cylinders, so we determined its cycle time contribution to producing one batch of cylinders filled with a nonflammable blend by taking one-sixth of it. We used the cycle times for the backbone operations of the blending work process only to compute our time estimates. These cycle times are for a unit of output done on its own. Actual times for per unit production are different because, as Sandra said, orders are not processed on a single piece basis. For example, as one is being filled, another is being readied to fill.

We could begin to see waste in the work process as we mapped its operations. There was much paperwork to complete, several wait periods (even with interweaving the production of different orders), and repeated inspections—all of which might offer opportunities for improvement.

Kaizen Desk Reference Standard Excerpt: Kaizen In Action  
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