Continuous Improvement, Gemba Management, Problem Solving

How is continuous improvement practiced in real life?

I was watching a Ted Talk video with chef José Andrés where he described how a team of chefs fed Puerto Rico after hurricane María.  I admire him for his work in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010, but now after his work in Puerto Rico with the World Central Kitchen, I am thankful and consider him a hero.  The entire talk is fascinating but there are parts that resonate in me for the simplicity on which he and his support team did problem-solving and continuous improvement in a crisis and beat the huge federal structure on bringing food for the people in need.

Some of his words remind me things that we do while practicing continuous improvement:  “Let’s not plan, let’s not meet, let’s start cooking.”  and  “All of a sudden, big problems become very simple, low-hanging fruit solutions, only by doing, not planning and meeting in a very big building”.

One common situation for managers is to make decisions, is what we do every day.  Some managers still make decisions based on month-end reports discussion during a staff meeting.  Those reports are like a post-mortem analysis, they only say what happened in the past.  Any action taken may or may not work to change the subject targeted on those reports.

The best way to know a situation first hand is going to where the action is, lean practitioners, call that place gemba.  Gemba is whenever the process we want to improve happens, the production floor, office, laboratory, any place where we need to practice continuous improvement.

I am very visual, for me, the best way to understand something is by taking a look at it.  I use charts and other visual methods to communicate status but when I am facing a problem, the only way for me is to go where the problem is and observe.  For me going to the gemba and see what is happening is a natural thing.  Even if does not feel that natural for you, it is possible to do it and it works on every environment.

What José Andrés did in Puerto Rico was just that, he went to the gemba observed the situation and took decisions on the spot.  Their ideas execution was also a check for their effectiveness and the trigger for changes to adapt to the changing situation or priorities.  That is how we practice continuous improvement at its best!

Gemba Management, The Beginning

Learning Lean

At the beginning; you may see Lean as something abstract, too idealistic to be true; but after you got the basic ideas everything starts to make sense.  Once you understand the power of lean, you started to live according to its philosophy and use its tools.  If you try to do this on your own, people will start to look at you like you fall from the moon.  While you will look weird for some, some others will be curious.  Lean is not a one-person show, lean is about people and its behavior, lean is a way of life.

I learn to go every day to gemba and see what happen around, identify what was wrong was the easy part.  Learning how to spark curiosity from the employees regarding what I was doing without making them feel threaten took a lot of time. I am still practicing how to approach, how to ask and how to engage them in my activity.  I need them to be as curious as I am, remember this is not a one-person show.

I have cats, and they are really curious, when one of them see something that calls her attention, pretty soon the other joins her and both stick their eyes with laser precision into the matter in question.  That is what we need to do, focus on the situation and don’t let it go until we fix it!

Gemba Management

Respect the People

One of the pillars of the Toyota Production System is respect for the people.  When I first read about this something in my brain did click.  I grew up in a traditional family surrounded by my grandparents, lots of aunts and uncles and of course my siblings and cousins.  The one thing that we learned was respect.  It was impossible to ignore the respect daily lessons, the message was constant, loud and clear.  Starting with respect to our parents and another family, following with respect to all grown-ups especially older people.  Soon we learn that respect was something to give, not to demand.  If you don’t respect people, people will not respect you.

Respect is critical for any kind of relationship, without it the communication fails.  Without effective communication, nothing will happen.  Respect for people in an organization is something we will see in different ways and every one of them are important.

Once I hired an incredible engineer with lots of experience working with our types of machines, excellent credentials, and his technical knowledge was right on.  Pretty soon after he started, it was pretty clear what his weak point was.  His people skills were bad, the team immediately build a huge wall the size of the China Wall between them and the engineer.  He yelled instructions around assuming everybody knew how to do things his way.  When he came back to see things were different from what he asked he yelled again demanding reasons that he won’t listen.  A couple of times he openly talked to people referring to his team as the worst mechanics he ever has seen.

Of course, this was a perfect example of what not to do.  The picture below shows some other examples:



Gemba Management, Lean Trainings

Are you a good Lean coach?

On these days I read on the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) page that a helpful coach is a humble coach.  The LEI faculty member and author David Verbie, in one of their most popular videos, explains why with examples of how to use “humble inquiry.”  You can have all the knowledge of the world but if you are not humble when you ask and show with actions respect for the people; the message will not get through.   This reading makes me remember about this anecdote.

We were taking our first baby steps with Lean when this new guy joins the company to work as director of the finance department.  His first week, we did a physical inventory and he was right there with his team observing how the employees performed the inventory.  At first, I thought, good! he went to gemba to see!  Then I  heard comments from the employees regarding how he was asking them a lot of whys and hows on a way that they felt either intimidated or that he was questioning their skills or their desire to do a good job.  I was very upset, don’t ever go to the work area and make questions on a way that could offend the employees.

About a week after the inventory, this person was ready to propose changes to the inventory procedure.  He was talking about having a meeting with the employees but before it happens the accounting manager gave us a heads up and we ask for a meeting with the managers first.  We could not afford the risk to have this guy yelling and demeaning our employees anymore, we need to check on him.  I went to the meeting positive, thinking that probably everything was just a misunderstanding.

The meeting started and after the introduction, the new director spend thirty minutes talking about himself!  I thought that it was ok, he just wanted us to know about him.  Once again, I was wrong!  When the inventory stock supervisor started to present the results of the inventory he was interrupting all the time to talk about his observations.  Every time he did it, he questioned our procedures, supervisory methods, and performance indicators.  The problem was the way he questioned everything, I felt he was attacking us.  After all the hard work to create an improvement culture, all the training hours and everything we have done to gain our employees’ trust and this guy comes with this attitude!  He started to ask me about our kaizen events and if I knew some concepts like OEE, kanban, and others.  He was arrogant, believing he was a sensei but he was wrong!  No doubt he knew, but none of us never listened to one word of what he said from the minute he started his attacks.

During my Lean journey, this is the only person that I found with that attitude so far.  As managers and lean practitioners, we need to coach or mentor our people.  We need to ask why every day but we shall use the humble inquiry.  I believed so much on this philosophy that I made it part of my life; when I read the book Lean Production Simplified by Pascal Dennis I learned why.  Towards the end of the book, the author wrote: “When a set of methods or techniques connects to a person’s whole being, it becomes a door path.  Therefore, we must approach it with the proper spirit: humility, life long learning and respect for people“.

Gemba Management

Management Golden Rules

Some time ago I visited this food manufacturing plant for the first time and I was amazed by how good the plant looked.  The facility was excellent, the building was almost new, very good machinery and one thing that usually is a problem: a nice layout that follows the process flow making it easy to manage and handle materials.  After a few conversations with most of the managers, I realized that none of them had the habit of going daily to the gemba (workplace).  This was a surprise for me!  If the managers are not going to the gemba, who is taking care of it?

A couple of months later I started to work there and since the beginning, I continue with my routine of visiting the production lines at least twice every day even when “nothing” was going on.  The employees looked weird at me, they were not used at all to see a “white hat” when no problems where happening.  Some people were upset because they thought I was spying on them.  I started to explain to everybody why I visited the workplace every day. I mentioned here and there about Lean Manufacturing, Kaizen and visiting the workplace to see but the more I talked the more funny faces I saw.  Funny as in the face of the deer in front of the headlights.  I knew that they were thinking that everything was right, the plant was operating with a cost below operating budget; why we want to change what we are doing?

The primary functions of a manager are maintenance and improvement.  Maintenance refers to activities directed toward maintaining current technological and operating standards through training and discipline while improvement refers to activities directed towards elevating the current standards.

Take decisions based on data from all kind of reports is just not right.  We need to see to know what is really going on before we decide.  The first golden rule for management within a Lean Manufacturing environment is that when a problem arises, we need to go to gemba first.  Observe the non-conformance situation for a while, the gemba will give you all the answers.  The second rule is to check the object of the abnormality, which could be a down machine or rejected parts for example.  Kaizen starts when we recognize that we have a problem, see the abnormality and recognize the opportunity for improvement is the first step for continuous improvement.  While there, is time to practice the third rule; take temporary countermeasures on the spot.  We need to take in mind though, that temporary repairs address only the symptom, not the root cause.  Find the root cause is precisely the fourth golden rule.  After we identify the root cause is time to solve the problem and create standards that will prevent a recurrence.

The manager itself will not solve the problem, people working at the gemba will find the solution but the manager’s task at the gemba is looking over the quality, cost, and delivery.  All standards need to be cost-effective and be delivered on time, but the number one priority is always quality.

Follow these rules is not easy at the beginning, it takes time to learn to see.  With the huge amount of meetings, visitors and emails that you need to address daily; it is easy to keep yourself at the office and let the supervisors take care of the production floor.  I learn the hard way that nobody will see things the way you do, and a live view of an abnormality worth more than a million reports.

Still, I feel aggravated with a couple of my fellow managers, they don’t get it yet.  Where they see everything good, I saw opportunities.  I knew that we could beat the current cost per case very easily.  My continuous improvement gene poke my head almost every day with the opportunities we had in front of us but some of us still don’t see.  Change of attitudes takes time, but the people on the floor are getting the idea and each day we are more, the system will coach in or coach out those that still manage the facility without going to the gemba first.