Streets ahead of the west

The west needs to try harder if its going to erode Japan's lead in lean manufacturing.

Is it last orders for much of Britain's manufacturing industry? Having been on another fact-finding visit to Japanese companies recently, I received a wake-up call on how to do lean manufacturing the effective way – something that too many UK firms are failing to do, as my previous research has indicated.

I revisited Japan on a two-week best-practice tour of 13 firms, including Honda, Nissan and Toyota. The visit was organised by the UK Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders Industry Forum on behalf of the new National Skills Academy for Manufacturing.

What was evident from the trip was that motor manufacturers in Japan have significantly moved on, even in the 12 months since I last visited the country. The principle concerns for Japanese manufacturing are the same as in the UK, which can be summarised as an ageing workforce, high labour costs, skills shortages, and environmental concerns.

The skills shortage is more of a problem in Japan, as it has a falling population, while large-scale immigration is not politically acceptable. For historical reasons there are a number of Brazilians allowed into the country, and in some manufacturers they can make up to 50 per cent of line operators.

Each company that we visited presented its strategy and achievements measured against national themes. The firms considered both national and local problems as their own; at the same time, no reference was made to central government providing help for items such as training.

No matter what task a person is given in Japan, they appear
to adhere to the standard operation, carry out work with pride, and try to improve the standard operation. This is possibly the biggest difference between Japan and the West and may explain why change programmes may fail in Western firms.

The attention to detail in the Japanese workplace is notable, regardless of who the customer is. Shop assistants, laundry services, train line operators, Starbucks vendors and train ticket inspectors all work to a code of practice. People are respected for the role they play in society and each person is seen as a cog in a very big wheel.

Waste removal

A point emphasised in Japanese companies was the need to make all waste visible. Waste in any form must be highlighted so that it can be challenged. A key policy applied is that of 'hoshin kanri' (HK). This refers to the breaking down of manufacturing strategies into targets and activities with clear milestones and responsibilities for actions.

This process has been adopted by Nissan in the UK and is being introduced into 15 companies within the North East of England as part of the North East Productivity Alliance programme.

The visibility and detail that goes into HK is staggering. Whole factory walls are covered with charts showing strategy, milestones, targets, current status and evidence of activities. The level of consensus between the management team was an eye-opener – they all knew what was required, who is doing it and by when.

As part of my work with the North East Development Agency we have worked with over 200 companies and I have personally visited more than 70 companies. I found widespread misapplication of lean tools.

The research also investigated the time period in which companies' improvement initiatives failed. We found that in companies not using the Japanese approach of hoshin kanri (policy deployment), 74 per cent of failure in applying lean happened within the first 12 months; while in companies using  hoshin kanri, this figure was only 4 per cent.

Visits to Japan have taken place for at least 20 years with numerous delegations going over to see for themselves what the answer is. But not only have a lot of UK companies not applied these techniques, some still admit no understanding of them.

When it comes to lean improvement, there is no silver bullet – it is continuous hard graft and attention to detail. With the emergence of India, I believe the UK is, in footballing terms, on a yellow card. The UK must get its house in order and stop considering continuous improvement as just an option. It is not an option; it must drive waste out of all of its processes by training staff in the basic tools and techniques of lean. Training is essential but by itself not enough. The UK must take direct action.

At the last company we visited in Japan I asked what was next, as all line feeders had been removed, there was no line side stock, staff participation in improvement activities was 100 per cent, and so on. To the delegates it was lean nirvana but the robust response was: "Back to basics and more kaizen." Which is how it should always be.

Dr Colin Herron is a visiting professor at Newcastle University and works for One Northeast Development Agency

Japanese way to lean success

This model has been developed using the knowledge gained initially with Nissan, but reinforced with four benchmarking visits to Japan covering 38 companies. The last visit was in December 2007.

Norms of behaviour within society: Many companies in Japan use evenings, weekends and holidays to carry out improvement activities even without pay. The Japanese will endure hardships to achieve productivity improvements which the West would find difficult to accept. Management tend to work as one, with a collective understanding of what they are doing and why. Failure never seems to be contemplated.

Mono zukuri: This topic encapsul-ates Japan. The definition by Toshiro Iwatake of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association is: "The process of making or creating things with spirit, zest and pride to produce excellent products and the ability to improve the production system and process continuously."

Developed production system: The most famous example is the Toyota Production system (TPS). There are many books and articles on this, notably 'The Toyota Way' by J Liker. The production system controls the operation of the plant. It is an all-embracing control system from which departments or individuals cannot opt out.

Genba kanri: This is the basic set of management tools which will produce consistency. Whatever the task, a person knows why he/she is doing it, how to do it repeatedly, is trained correctly, is operating in a controlled environment and is able to suggest change. The person is also the eyes and ears for waste.

Specific tools and techniques: These generic tools can be applied to solve a problem and are very familiar to the West. Examples are: smed, takt and poka yoke. Each tool is underpinned by genba kanri.

Q, C, D, S, M, E: These refer to the kaizen (continuous improvement) principles of quality, cost, delivery, safety, management and environ-ment. Measure all that is required and nothing more. In Japan, Q and D are not optional. Cost is a priority but not at the expense of Q and D. Safety has a larger role than obser-ved previously and has definitely taken an equal part of the equation. An interesting observation was the use of bio-rhythms to predict when an individual operator might have an accident. Management performance was highlighted through hoshin kanri.

Hoshin kanri: This is 'policy deployment', when companies' manufacturing strategies are broken down into targets and activities with clear milestones and responsib-ilities. In one company, the hoshin kanri board took up the factory wall.

Mieruka: A point emphasised was the need to make all waste visible. All waste must be highlighted so that it can be challenged. Mieruka is a key element of hoshin kanri.

Karakuri: 'Devices without energy use gravity' – a Nissan interpretation. The steps of lean are manifesting themselves as: kaizen the operator to remove basis waste; kaizen the operator environment to remove surrounding waste; low-cost automation; synchronise parts supply to remove stock controlled by supplier; AGV transport to remove labour; AGV synchronous part supply to remove remaining stock; karakuri simple devices to carry out tasks without additional energy.

Customer: The customer is the raison d'être of Japanese business, from corporations to the Metro user.

Finally: Leave the books about Kan ban; JIT etc on the bookshelf, until your supervisors or line managers can hand on heart state that:

  • Each operator is working in an ordered environment, with what they need to carry out the task safely and to the standard operation;
  • Each operator is working to the design specification;
  • The operators have been trained to the correct level of skill;
  • All shifts/operators operate the same way;
  • All obvious non-value added operations have been eliminated or reduced to the best condition.

To move on to implement the strategy management must develop and deploy (hoshin kanri). This process should realise double-digit productivity improvement (if not more). The UK has an ongoing obsession with headcount. Believe us when we say: "A person trained in the application of the basic lean tools and techniques, will save his/her salary several times over when employed correctly."

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them