Typically, when we talk about Lean, we often look at the programs or processes manufacturers put in place. But Lean is about more than a program—most often, the success of a Lean initiative really rests on people.
Manufacturing AUTOMATION sat down with Paul Hager, vice president of Lean Productivity Systems Inc., to discuss the important role human capital plays in a successful Lean strategy and what manufacturers can do to make sure they’re getting the most out of their people.
Manufacturing AUTOMATION: Lean has often been referred to as a “human system” rather than a “process system.” What does this mean?
Paul Hager: Lean has evolved from the Toyota Production System (TPS) and somewhere in that evolution a few things have been lost in translation. Lean has become more about the tools—value stream mapping, kanban, kaizen events, etc. —and less about the development of people, which is the focus of the Toyota Production System.
Toyota uses human capital as the main engine behind TPS, rather than technology. It believes in using the ideas from its workforce to improve its overall processes. It creates a culture where people are identifying problems on a daily basis. When Toyota hires people, the company isn’t necessarily hiring people with previous automotive experience, it’s hiring people that can solve problems. When you hire like that up front, you help develop that human capacity.
MA: Why is human capital such an important component of Lean? How does this particularly pertain to a manufacturing setting?
PH: Even when Toyota installs a new assembly, they make sure the people doing the work are part of the process. This is different from other automotive companies who typically hire experts that tell the employees how things will be done, and then assume the employees are the problem when the new processes don’t work.
A lot of times, these companies think they’ve involved the front-line employees because they’ve asked for input, but it’s usually the engineers and designers that make the final decisions. Toyota involves the front-line people in setting up the line in the first place. That doesn’t mean the company doesn’t use engineers and designers too, it just puts more of an emphasis on the input of the employees.
MA: How can companies ensure they’re harnessing this human potential most efficiently?
PH: The secret is to develop a problem-solving culture. We believe the best way to do that is by implementing a human development program, designed to develop and standardize the problem-solving processes of your people.
Toyota uses the Deming Cycle, which focuses on encouraging a workforce to think in a standard way (Plan, Do, Check, Act). What they’re saying to their people is, “We don’t want you to just do the work, we want you to think about improving the work. And we want you to do that through Plan, Do, Check Act.”
It sounds a bit like brainwashing, but it’s not. It’s about getting everyone in your company to think about how they can improve their jobs, and getting them to think about that every single day. It’s more than just implementing a suggestion system—it’s not about getting people to suggest having better food in the cafeteria. It’s about how people can improve their work on a daily basis.
MA: What are some easy, initial first steps companies can take to implement Lean by means of their employees?
PH: One of the most important first steps is to identify what a problem is. Management needs to understand which problems they want people to identify—Toyota uses the eight wastes (see sidebar). You want to make sure the organization is communicating what types of problems take priority over others (safety, waiting time, costs, etc.).
We suggest doing a survey of your people first, and helping the supervisors or group leaders teach the employees how to identify problems. If our primary goal is to cut costs, for example, we want the employees to learn how to identify problems that are associated with excess costs. One of the trickiest things is to help people identify relevant problems with their work—not organizational problems, or world problems, but rather problems in that worker’s area of control.
It’s also important to teach them how to turn those problems into opportunities. Sometimes all it takes is just asking a few reflective questions. That can be done by simply asking the supervisors to talk to their people.
After that, it’s also important to implement a Just in Time (JIT) approach to problem solving. When a solution is identified, it’s important that people aren’t waiting months and months to see results. The solutions need to be implemented quickly. This creates excitement in the organization, because employees are able to witness change happening. They feel like they’re making a difference, and it sends the message that management deals with problems as they happen.
MA: How can harnessing this human capital and employee knowledge help you innovate faster, improve productivity and even improve automation and control systems on the shop floor?
PH: When we talk about innovation, we’re not talking about organizational or technological innovation, we’re talking about improvements to the work. Sometimes that leads to technological innovation, but not always.
When somebody comes up with a problem that needs to be solved, sometimes the solution is simple—like moving a spool closer to a workstation. In other cases, it might be more complex. Engineers and management can see that a particular problem is impacting the work—if it can somehow be fixed, the cycle time could potentially drop from 25 seconds per part to 10 seconds per part. Sometimes the solution is a technological one; something new has to be created to see a result.
Problems create urgency for solutions, whether the problems involve technology, training, hiring, administration or even new markets. Everyday problems create urgency to improve everywhere in an organization. Sometimes the solutions are much bigger or far reaching than the little problems identified by the front line worker or supervisor on the floor, but everyday problem solving creates dissatisfaction with the status quo, and this is why Lean/TPS companies are always innovating.
Vanessa Chris is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.