Toyota Kata and the 'We can't do that here'-fallacy

· September 14, 2016

I’m re-reading the Toyota Kata book right now I had forgotten how much it influenced my thinking. If you haven’t read it - go and do that now. Don’t read this post - read the book. I won’t mind.

Toyota Kata is what the author, Mike Rother, calls the mindset and practices that Toyota employs to get continuous improvement to work. Note that Toyota themselves might not recognise the term Toyota Kata, because it’s just how they do.

The book is filled with wonderful stories that shows clearly about how the Toyota mindset influence every aspect about the continuous improvement work there.

In this post I wanted to relate one such story that I meet so often in my daily work and reason a little bit why Toyota (and other lean organisations of course) navigates out of those problems with ease. Whereas I get stuck again and again.

The story

On page 50, Mike Rother relates an episode where he visited a factory of Sensor cables to help one assembly line to improve throughput and get closer to a 1-piece-continuous flow (1x1 flow), that is the nirvana of all lean efforts.

After looking over the assembly line with the line manager and also the plant management team Mike Rother suggests that they batch sizes should be reduce. There’s all kinds of well documented benefits of that; faster feedback, less defects, less inventory and many more. But most importantly - it gets you closer to the 1x1 flow that the plant was striving for.

Reflection 1

Note here that so far nothing is controversial. Everyone in the room (and in most lean literature) are in agreement that this is a good thing to do and strive for.

The story continues

But then it happens.

We can’t do that here. Our cable product is a component of an automobile safety system and because of that each time we change over to assembling a different cable we have to fill out lot-traceability work.

He then goes on telling about other quality checks and documentation that has to be done, by law in some instance. He finally refers to the lean principles themselves saying that; “I thought that the idea was to eliminate waste, but with smaller batch sizes we will have to increase the amount of non-value-adding activities. Surely that cannot be what you want”

The plant manager confirms what the assembly manager said and simply says: “It cannot be done here - it’s true”.

Reflection 2

Again, please notice that these people knows that 1x1 flow is a good thing and that smaller batch sizes is a way to get closer to it. They have brought Mike Rother that is a world-renowned specialist in improvement work like this into their plant having him walking around the floor.

Now he suggests a relative small change to their work and “We can’t do that” is the response he gets.

Story continues again - what would Toyota do

Mike Rother now thinks about what a Toyota plant manager would do. And he does so in the most amusing way. In my mind I think about one of those Ninja movies where a guy gets chopped in half and it’s so fast that he doesn’t know what happened.

Here’s what the author think that a Toyota Plant manager would have responded to that comment, rather than confirming what just was said

You are correct that the extra paperwork and the first-piece inspection requirements are the obstacles for achieving a smaller lot size. Thank you for pointing that out

Beautiful start of a coaching conversation. The problem is noticed and he gets a Thank you for finding it. Love it!

However, the fact that we want to reduce the lot sizes is not optional no open for discussing, because it moves us closer to our vision of a one-by-one flow.

Now this is very interesting. Notice how this made-up-manager, schooled in Toyota thinking refers back to the overarching vision of the company; one-by-one flow. This is the reason we are talking about this problem in the first place. In fact, it’s the only reason we see this problem, since in larger batch sizes we would probably not even notice it.

It’s not an option to walk or work around that vision. It’s why we are here. To reach the vision. The future dream state.

Rather than losing time discussing whether or not we should reduce the lot size, please turn your attention to those two obstacles standing in the way of our progress.

Please go observe the current paperwork and inspection processes and report back what you learn. After that I will ask you to make a proposal for how we can move to one day lot size without increasing our cost.

Again wonderful coaching, although a bit harsh, but we can already sense that the plant manager is willing to do changes to the process as needed to reach the vision of the company.

Yes - I said change the current ways to reach a better future..

Is there anything of you in here, Marcus?

This post is my reflections after reading this great passage in the Toyota Kata book.

I cannot count the number times I’ve heard things like:

  • Well that might work at X, but this is a little bit more complex
  • Our role is defined in this way - we can’t change it
  • This is how we source (brrr…) resources (brrr…. even more) in this company - it’s in the contract
  • This process is like this by law. You cannot change it.
  • If we’re going to resolve prioritisation problems like these we need the chairman of the board in the room

Except for the two “brrr”’s above these are quotes, said by smart people in organisations that want to “become agile” according to their strategic goals.

Don’t get me wrong - they are not at all stupid or against the change. They just viewing the problem and solution from another angle, as I blogged about the other day.

The thing that bugs me is that little thing that we have said that we want this change. We want to move faster, we want smaller things, we want to “become more agile” (if that ever was a goal worth anything).

If we do want that - why are the organisation not ready to handle the problems, opportunities and change requests that occurs? Why is there no readiness to tweak organisations, to change contracts, to move people or to update frameworks? Why is the most common response based of the “but this is how we’ve always done it”?

To get a real concrete example; imagine a team that holds weekly retrospectives. Where do they take problems that goes outside their organisational bounds (we need access to servers)? Are those functions ready to change those conditions? If they don’t get that support - why are they doing retrospectives in the first place?

What good is continuous improvement within a small cell or team? Sure they might become a little bit better, but the system they operate in will never change for the better. Not affecting other teams conditions for example.

Reason to change

In my opinon it’s because the urge to change is not strong enough. Because many of the questions that will be asked as we start to try to flow faster will challenge our current ways. That will cause organisational pain - if we are not ready to do something about that the pain will stay. If we do something about it - the pain goes away.

Sometimes those changes can be very challenging for an organisation. You never know what it can be; one instance that comes to mind is that we couldn’t have a person from one team sit next to other team. By contract. We’d get sued if we did.

But if we are already doing pretty good, make money and everyone is generally happy - I don’t think that organisations have the will power to change this. At least not fast enough to make a difference.

One time I’ve lean implemented fast and smooth was in RS Bungsu, the Indonesian hospital I’m writing a book about. When we started to do this they:

  • were virtually bankrupt
  • a collapsed roof over 60% of the hospital area
  • not valid permit
  • no support from mother organisation, that wanted to sell the hospital

They were ready to challenge everything they did and do something different. We turned that hospital around in about 1,5 year into becoming profitable, renovated, certified and using a hypothesis driven business model.

The Toyota sensei above pointed firmly to the goal of the company; 1x1 flow and simple states:

is not optional no open for discussing

Everyone in the organisation knows that. And works together to achieve the vision. I’d love to hear that sometimes in organisations that want be more lean or agile.

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