NOTES FROM THE GEMBA - We follow the author on a visit to a train maintenance center in France. Through practical examples and pictures from the gemba, she explains how the center is transforming itself.
Words : Catherine Chabiron, lean coach and member of the Institut Lean France
With so many strikes making the headlines, foreigners may have construed a poor image of the French railways over the years. In France, we tend to have mixed feelings about SNCF: we always go between "No, not again" when problems occur and "Wow" as we recognize the company is working hard to improve timeliness and provide better customer support at peak times (as well as the significant investment on high-speed trains they have made).
What most people don't know is that lean thinking is at work behind the scenes at SNCF.
I recently visited one of the country's 39 technical maintenance plants, in Lyon. Boris Evesque has been the director of the plant for four years. Four hundred employees work in three shifts (an important part of the maintenance of trains takes place at night). They are responsible for maintaining, cleaning, and repairing 30 trains, and delivering them back to commercial service.
Before they started going to the gemba and adopted kaizen as their main improvement tool, Boris and his team went through a period of fruitless discussions in meeting rooms and quality audits of their sub-contractors. This is a common example of traditional management: following the audit, you list down what’s wrong (like fingerprints on train windows) and charge the sub-contractor a penalty accordingly, which in practice eats up any margin they may have left on the contract. In the end, because nothing improves, the auditors no longer see the value in their work. In the meantime, the sub-contractor is at a complete loss over what to do and simply pays the penalty. Imagine the monthly contract reviews!
Boris decided to turn to lean about 18 months ago, and secured the help of a sensei. This clearly started a new approach :
Boris told me: “Performance will improve if we manage to develop our people’s capabilities to work on the trains, with all the associated technologies or know-how. This approach yields far better results than trying to force discipline onto people or ‘create a brilliant system’.”
And indeed, as we walked along the vast workshops, Boris showed me a lot of kaizen ideas that have been devised and implemented by the maintenance teams. These focus on trains, specific parts or maintenance jobs, and contribute to improving the overall work environment. Here’s a few examples:
There was no fancy idea management system on the walls – those that tend to focus on numbers and trends, rather than on the actual content – but, as I walked around, improvements that make the work easier and limit delays seemed to pop up all over the plant.
None of the above kaizens saw the involvement of the plant managers, who simply created the conditions for the improvements to happen (by focusing clearly on what needed to improve – schedule, quality, attention to the work environment, ergonomy, and support in terms of allocated time and resources). Boris totally changed his management routines and now spends almost his entire morning on the shop floor (paying particular attention to the daily management brief and to late train deliveries, and visiting one team area each day). This is how he described his new method : “These days I ensure we agree on the problem and then let people work on it without interfering. Instead, I support them and come back to ask for updates.” Boris is also coaching his direct reports and maintains a schedule whereby each of them has to present progress on an A3 and an improvement project they have been working on.
Boris and his team also worked with sub-contractors. With one of them – the cleaning company – they have built a dojo to clarify cleaning standards and provide regular training to cleaning operators. They expect this experiment to gain momentum.
So, is this maintenance center transformed yet? In part it is, but there are still numerous improvements that need to be made. Boris is well aware of what needs to happen next:
There may still ground to cover, but the results are already visible and confirm that the mindset at the center is changing, less than two years after lean was first introduced.
In two years, the number of train breakdowns has been halved (when the center is exclusively responsible for their maintenance), late deliveries have been reduced by 75% and workplace injuries are down by around 65%. Lastly, the work on each train brought in for maintenance has increased by 12% in two years, which means there is one more train fully available for commercial service every year.
Perhaps more importantly, several operators have told their managers that see them as being more “on top of their real problems” – and believe me, in an industry as heavily unionized as the French railways, this is clearly a compliment.
As our gemba walk drew to an end, I found myself reflecting on the work being done at the maintenance center. Two things really struck me, and I believe they are both testament to the growing autonomy of the teams:
It is clear that a lean culture is taking roots at this train maintenance center. And it is beautiful to see!
Catherine Chabiron is a lean coach and member of the Institut Lean France. She previously held the role of Director of IS Governance at Faurecia, a large French industrial group, working for eight years at the heart of the IS department's lean transformation.