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Lean Japan Tour - a short story about work culture and people

Updated: Oct 7, 2021

I am now looking back to the Japan trip that I was lucky enough to be part of back in 2018. I must say that it was that kind of experience that changes you: the people, the culture, the personal development, the understanding of lean and the being able to see first hand the applied TPS… Wow! It might have been the fact that I was a lean novice with no relevant experience, it might have been the fact that the approach in Japan is different or a mix of the two. Nevertheless, there are so many things that I found interesting and so little time to present them, so I will do my best to summarize them in this short article.

The first thing that really strikes you is that even they have the same type of tools, that I was familiarized with, somehow they were applied in a different and a more efficient way. Lean culture was not something on top, or something needed to be done, it was part of their DNA. After some thinking, I decided to present you now my take-aways regarding training, technology and corporate culture.

During the visit, we were in 4 different Toyota or Toyota supplier plants and for each one of them, even if they had the same type of tools used in the shop floor, they had a different point of focus or a different company mantra. For all 4 of them, from the moment you entered the lobby, through the visual management was clear what was their main focus and it was clearly communicated to all employees. I think that even the gate officer was aware of it. The company focus was not an ambiguous motto or an phrase that was hard to translate it into results, was a word: for example "cleaning" and everything was around it.

An additional point, worth to mention is the throughput time – in most of the company the total throughput time was of approx.. 1 day (from the moment the raw material enters the plant, until they are delivered to the customer) and everything was build around this and everybody was aware of this. There were still buffer in the system, for example: for the trucks delivering the material the buffer was inventory of 5 min! 😊

Regarding training, it was not as much a classic training as a more integration in the company “family”. Before working for example in sales and selling the future products, it was mandatory to spend a defined period of time in the shop floor, in order to see and understand what you are selling. A very simple and smart philosophy! And this was applicable for all the administrative (supporting functions). The point is that everybody should understand the big picture and as well their part in it. At the end of the day, the only value-adding employee is the shop floor colleague, we are there to offer him support - this was something that was common as well in all the companies that we have been. There are additional things, related to the administrative functions, for which I will choose not to focus right now.

Getting back to the induction process... Every employee has a clear skill roadmap that needed to be followed.. For shop floor employees, from the moment they start they have assigned a mentor, who is responsible for the skills development. In all companies there was a training center, where the new employee had to learn the skill for producing the pieces, or where existing employee can go to refine their skills.

Basically everybody can go and in 10 min can practice a different skill, in order to learn a new skill or to remember a certain skill. By this, the quality was insured. The work instructions, where not visible at every workstation, they where in the training center and it was the job of the team leader, to make sure that his team members are trained in performing their job. Nobody was going on the shop floor before his/her team leader was not making sure that the work instructions are known by heart.

Technology and its application also played a big part in the shock that we had during the tour. The purpose of technology was to create value added – in the shop floor, to make the work easier. Most of the communication was made via hand-written boards, so that everyone can see in real time the status of production, which will create more responsibility. In one of company, that takt time was 17 minutes and (in order to respect) for each of the employees was created a digital guide through production, so this is respected. The automation was made only after the improvements were finished and it was made as an extension of the system (not as an add-on). Most of the solution where simple solution, in house made and customized to the operator needs. Technology was used on “Gemba needs”, the computer is a tool to help people to their work, instead of Computer is a tool to create Management data.

Corporate culture – as mentioned before they all had a motto that was clear and this most was related to people and how to keep those people, how to develop those people (not only in their job skills), how to enable those people to create more value. I really like on the saying that “Sales is a result of your actions, not the purpose!”. We are spending more time at work, that you are spending it with our families, so the corporate culture it is for sure important. Culture was oriented for suggestions and this was one of the metrics that were followed.

I hope I managed to give you a short glance into the amazing experience that I had and for sure that are many other things worth mentioning, for the moment, I stopped at this. If your feedback will encourege this, I will consider continue writing on this experience.


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