Most of us have experienced a so-called a-ha moment, that magical time of discovery when we feel like our understanding of lean has just gotten a little bit deeper. I would like to share my first a-ha moment, not because I think it is more interesting than others but as a way to reflect on how hard it is for us to learn and change our mindset and basic beliefs.
In 1989 I was part of the MIT International Motor Vehicle Program, which gave me the opportunity to visit several plants here in Brazil, both OEMs and auto parts manufacturers. At the time, they were all very traditional organizations, plagued by very poor performance levels.
Initial research findings, based on data collected all over the world, were showing interesting facts about the performance of the auto industry, which I couldn´t fully understand yet. What was clear was that Toyota and Honda stood out as star organizations, characterized by high performance levels and good working practices.
I was asked to visit the Honda motorcycle plant in Manaus, the big city that lies at the heart of the Amazon Forest. I will be honest - I was partially resisting the idea of going. Why visit a motorcycle plant if the project's focus was the car industry? Not to mention how far and hot Manaus is. Why bother – I wondered. I was also a bit skeptical about Japanese management models at the time, having been deeply influenced by other management approaches that seemed to have brought great results to the organizations that had implemented them.
However, I soon ran out of excuses and the idea of escaping Boston's cold winter actually started to grow on me. I decided to go. Little did I know, visiting that plant would lead to the first lean epiphany of my life.
My intellectual background was greatly influenced by a series of ideas known as "socio-technical systems," a bottom-up approach to work design that focused on the joint optimization of the social and human aspects of work. It criticized repetitive work, considered damaging to employee morale, and advocated for task redesign and enrichment and for job rotation (as opposed to standardization, so common in environments such as assembly lines).
The creation of autonomous or semi-autonomous teams was recommended as a way to allow for higher flexibility in the allocation of tasks and to enable higher performance levels. This and other concepts became widespread in places like Sweden, where certain companies went as far as eliminating assembly lines altogether.
I first learned about the Swedish approach in 1974, just a few years before the Japanese management literature began to become widespread.
While I saw the factories described in that literature as environments in which workers were exploited or replaced by machines, for many years my belief in the Swedish way of managing coexisted with a strong curiosity about the Japanese methods.
I now see what the gemba had been showing me all along: the superiority of those Japanese methods.
The Scandinavian companies I had been reading so much about, it turned out, were characterized by poor performance, lack of enthusiasm for improvement and little people engagement. It is somehow surprising to see how blind I was. Then again, our paradigms and beliefs are hard to change once they take roots in our minds. That's why the Honda factory was such a revelation – not only did it debunk my belief that Japanese organizations exploited workers, but it also showed me that they were actually the models others would take inspiration from.
ONE DAY IN THE PLANT, ENOUGH TO UNDERSTAND
I arrived at the Manaus Honda plant early in the morning on a stifling hot day. While waiting for my host, I met two people from a Honda supplier based out of São Paulo: one was the CEO, the other a shop floor worker.
We started to chat and they told me that some of the parts they were supplying to Honda had quality issues and that the company had requested that he, the CEO, go there in person to try and understand what the problem was. Honda had also asked that he bring along a production guy so he too could see the issue first hand, while looking at the defective part being assembled to the motorcycle on the assembly line.
I found it interesting - and somehow odd - that the two men had been asked to get on a four-and-a-half-hour flight from São Paulo just to look at a single part being assembled. Was it some sort of punishment for having made a mistake? It sounded like a huge waste of time, not to mention money. Couldn´t they discuss the problem over the phone? Couldn´t the engineers fix it themselves? Doesn´t the CEO have more important things to do? And why bother having a worker tag along? I didn't realize that Honda was taking the two men to the gemba.
My host finally arrived, wearing a white apron. He was the Human Resources and PR Director, the only Brazilian on the board, and I must say I was expecting the dress code to be at the very least business casual (despite Manaus' insane humidity).
I was surprised, but not as much as I was when we entered the office. It was a huge room full of people, many of them Japanese Brazilians, working at large tables. It was very noisy and I immediately noticed that everybody was wearing the same white apron my host had on: there was no clear sign of hierarchy and it was hard to guess everybody's roles and prerogatives. The room felt full of energy, a far cry from the stereotypical image of an office.
At first, I thought the place was a mess. To be creative, not to mention productive, don´t people need to work and think in a quiet environment? Of course I had read about teamwork, but something didn't seem to add up.
The factory floor was also full of surprises. After spending a night in Manaus - not the cleanest of places, even for Brazilian cities standards - I was almost shocked to step into an immaculate factory with the whitest floors one could imagine. Of course I had heard of 5S, but I had never actually seen it. I was wowed, and felt my preconceptions about Japanese organizations crumble to pieces one after the other.
The tour went on. I saw wonderfully visual standard work sheets by each work station, I witnessed quality checks as well as assembly line workers and their leaders sitting together and discussing using Ishikawa charts. I saw an aluminum foundry cleaner than most surgical theaters.
Workers were also cleaning their own machines. I had never seen that before: in most factories they had teams of cleaners. I assumed that Honda was perhaps trying to save costs, as I could not think of any other reason for giving workers the responsibility to clean their machines. There was so much I was yet to learn!
As we walked around the plant, I heard a message from the internal radio station reminding workers of the importance of washing their hands before eating. Didn´t they know that already? It seemed a bit patronizing.
As we entered the cafeteria for lunch, my host told me about one of their recent kaizens. I knew that word, which is not to say that I knew what it really meant.
He explained to me that they had a problem in the cafeteria. Once people were done eating, food was left all over the place. They had tried to fix the problem by telling people what to do via the radio messages, but it hadn´t worked. Then, they started to observe how people ate, finding out that most of them didn´t use knives and forks: most dishes in the region are based on rice, beans and fish in a stew, and are eaten using just a spoon and - more often than not - bare hands.
They then started a campaign to teach workers how to eat with knives and forks. It helped a bit but the cafeteria was still dirty.
They continued their efforts to understand the problem. They went into the homes of some of the workers, often located in shantytowns, and found that when they ate there, the dirty floor was used as an easy way to feed the small animals (dogs, cats, chickens, and so on) sharing the same living space.
After seeing that, the company came up with a number of new initiatives to teach workers different ways of eating and started to pay more attention to the menu they served.
As I mentioned, back then I did not know what going to the gemba meant: I had heard about problem solving and root-cause analysis, but I had hardly ever used it or seen it used outside training rooms and university classrooms. It was incredible to see how far Honda went to understand a problem that was apparently as trivial as a dirty cafeteria floor.
I did not know how efficient that motorcycle factory was, or how happy the workers were there, but the practices to fix the cafeteria problem I heard about captured my imagination.
Back on the floor, I couldn´t help but notice there were very few motorcycles being checked at the end of the line (in lean, problems are flagged up as soon as they happen, when fixing them is easier and cheaper, rather than at the end of the process). I could see there was a very low level of in-process inventory and that Honda had an extraordinary logistics system in place, considering that most of the parts came either from São Paulo, thousands of kilometers away with no railway or highway links, or from Japan (transported across the Pacific Ocean, then down the Amazon River or via local airports).
More than anything, there was a lot of energy and a strong sense of engagement pervading the factory, despite a lack of educational background across the workforce. There was something different there, something I couldn't fully get my head around at the time. Yet, I now know that was the time I understood the power of lean thinking. It was my a-ha moment.
A FINAL THOUGHT
Looking back at my evolution as a lean thinker and the wrong assumptions and beliefs I nurtured for so long tells me to be more patient with people who seem not to "get it." We all have our own evolution and personal experiences. Sometimes these make us blind to certain ideas; sometimes they help us to embrace them.
It is necessary that the global lean movement start to provide more opportunities for people to have "a-ha moments" and open their minds. For some, it might be a slow process (as it was for me); for others, it might never even happen. What is sure is that we can´t stop trying.
This article is also available in Portuguese - click here
José R. Ferro was part of the international research team formed in the 1980s to support the International Motor Vehicle Program (IMVP) at MIT - coordinated by Jim Womack, Dan Jones and Dan Roos - where the term lean was coined. Today he is the President of the Brazilian affiliate of the Lean Global Network, Lean Institute Brasil.