Some time ago, while speaking at a conference in the land down under, I was taken to task by a participant for suggesting, “5S is usually the first improvement” in lean implementation. I had carelessly adopted this posture because, as a consultant, I had found that workplace organization was usually the most palatable way to demonstrate improvement on the shop floor.
I’m not sure of this, but I think the sixth S–safety—was added at U.S. manufacturers during the 1980s because improved safety was the only thing management and labor adversaries could agree on.
“That may or may not be so,” my friendly heckler responded. “But just because 5S is easy, should that make it first?”
“What do you suggest as a first step to improvement?” I asked.
“Kanban,” he replied. “A pull system is the thread that holds everything else together.”
“Pull systems are a tough place to begin,” I offered. “Maybe it would better for a company to get its feet wet on something less conceptually challenging.”
“No,” he shot back. “The pull system is where my company started, and it’s worked very well, end to end.”
I hesitated, and then gave a consultant’s noncommittal B.S. response. “Where you start may be less critical than just getting started,” I replied. “No two companies are alike.” This non-answer ended the question, but was not satisfying to the questioner or me.
For the next half-hour, I pondered his challenge. I recalled a quote from Hajime Ohba, then general manager of Toyota Supplier Support Center (TSSC), about doing the right thing: “True north is the vision of the ideal,” he said. “Always do what we should do, not what we can do.” This seemed to contradict my “do the easy things first” theory.
The TSSC philosophy had worked with my plant during the mid-1990s to help us better understand “true TPS,” the Toyota Production System. Ohba had said to me after his first visit to our site (I’m paraphrasing), “You have made some nice individual improvements, but you will not receive the full benefit of TPS until you can put them all together.” He asked us to identify a product line where an improvement was needed. I picked a small assembly line that had delivery problems, one where we were not betting the farm, and we went to work. There was no mention of 5S, or kanban, nor any lean “tool” with which we were marginally familiar.
Instead there were many questions:
“Why is that assembly fixture over there?”
“How do you know what to build first?”
“Where do the finished products go next?”
“How long has this machine been down?”
One question frequently led to another. Sometimes the answers were obvious, and other times we had no answer.
“Why don’t you have the answer?” was the next friendly but persistent question.
They wanted us to watch and think. It was hard, and I guess it was what we should do.
Back in the land down under, about a half-hour later, I caught up to my Aussie friend to apologize. “I think I headed in the wrong direction today with my comment about 5S. Consultants like me tend to break TPS into little pieces because it’s easier for us to describe. Implementing TPS isn’t about 5S or kanban, or any other tool. Sometimes we just ask the wrong questions.”
“Well I still hold that kanban is first,” he replied.
“No worries,” I said.