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Monday, November 9, 2015

Japan Lean Tour Fall 2015 - Day 4 Report

- Written by tour participant - John Young, Marvin Engineering 

To say that an organization, any organization of any size, can embrace and practice lean and continuous improvement is, what I have come to recognize through observation, a true understatement. The fact is, the organization can be as small as a corner convenient store to a whole country.

I started the Japan Executive Benchmarking Tour with the expectation of observing lean best practices at major manufacturing companies, but did not realize that I also observed that every day life in Japan has some elements of lean being practiced.

A great example is something as normal as meal service. Japanese Set Meals follow a very standardized process of how the courses were brought out, and every server knows what is coming up next and what needs to be cleared away. And the dishes were served on standardized plates or containers that are just the right size for the amount of food being presented. To itself, this can be implemented quite easily, but to serve a group of 30 plus people a ten course meal in under one hour without having to rush your customer through the meal is very difficult to successfully pull off without discipline in executing to a standardized process, using previously optimized sets of tools.

This brings me back to the visit to Nissan, where I discovered that it was mandatory for all 5th graders to go on field trips associated with some type of industrial base. They are trained early in their learning development to see what the best of lean practice looks like. In fact, it seems silly that we took the same route as the kids, stopped at the same information panel boards, played with the same hands-on displays, and most likely are being introduced to the same lean concepts and seeing them in action.

The biggest difference is that we are engaged in lean to enhance our businesses, whereas they are learning them so they can hopefully continue to apply these concepts through out their daily lives. I would venture to say that, by the time grade school is over, many Japanese youths have similar level of  understanding of lean concepts as white/green belts we work so hard to attain.

A very typical misconception for companies considering or starting lean and continuous improvement journey is that the best practices cannot be fully realized because our business is, for example, high mix and low volume, and lean is most beneficial for high volume production. 

While it may be easier to implement lean when product configuration is stagnant and change-overs are minimal, it is absolutely possible to apply lean to a high mix low volume industry. This was observed at Daiwa House, where the products are custom build homes constructed from pre-fabricated modules. While it is true that the basically elements of the modules are practically  the same, the overall final product delivered to the customer differ quite significantly But these customization did not translate to a significant increase to physical infrastructure or personnel. They are achieved through carefully thought out product design and manufacturing planning, focusing on the needs of the customer at all stages of the business process, continuously maximizing the potential of existing physical and talent resources, all critical keys for success in this product type and environment. And over time, a standardized set of processes and discipline can be set up to flow in any type of changes the customers are looking for at anytime, regardless of the products being produced.

The days of one-size-fits-all is rapidly disappearing as our day-to-day lives become increasingly and highly individualized. Industries are being pressured internally and externally to fulfill ever-changing demands at an accelerated rate in order to survive. While well-thought out and well practiced standardized process can help a company survive, lean practices and continuous improvement will help an entity thrive, whether you are the corner convenient store or a mega corporation.

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