Friday, June 20, 2003

Rigid Flexibility

We ran a kaizen event earlier this week (though we use the term “blitz” rather than kaizen, it seems to be a less distracting name to our folks) and I saw something really fascinating, so much so it is worth telling you about.

My colleague Dave led the event, the first time he had done this. I sat in as an observer and facilitator. Dave is a respected leader in our company and was well suited for the goal of the kaizen; finalizing a set of specifications for a new product development. But, what he did with a tough situation showed me even more, both about him and the kaizen process.

About an hour into the event, a problem cropped up. As we poked around it, the problem grew. Dave asked some very perceptive questions and realized that if we did not solve this problem, right then and there, the rest of the kaizen was doomed.

I watched Dave assess the situation and then calmly made a clear proposal. Four of the eight participants in the kaizen were essential to solving the problem at hand. The other four, however, had no way to contribute until the thorny issue was solved. Dave therefore proposed that the other four go back to their regular jobs until such a time that we could fix the tough problem. The other four would remain and attack the critical problem, head on.

Amazingly (though really not all that amazing), the four problem solvers buckled down and, in two hours, worked through a problem that had vexed us for several months. They made the necessary drawings, phoned and FAXed suppliers, and dealt with all contingencies. Two hours later, Dave reconvened the larger group to carry on.

Dave injected some good humor as he restarted the larger group. He took a large marker and put a big “X” through our previously well-planned schedule. By so doing, he said, in effect, “Yeah, our schedule is blown but we can still achieve our goal.” And the group rallied. The remaining tasks all got done, accelerated by the key breakthrough of the smaller group. The event concluded almost on time and the management presentation went on as originally scheduled.

Spear and Bowen observed the following in their 1999 Harvard Business Review article on the Toyota Production System:

To understand Toyota’s success, you have to unravel the paradox – you have to see that the rigid specification is the very thing that makes the flexibility and creativity possible.
They went on to describe how it was the rigid process of standard work that allows such rapid change to happen in a Lean system.

Later, Dave remarked that having a very clear map for how to do the kaizen event gave him rails to run on. From that, he knew he was OK to shift gears and change the plan to fix the key problem, before moving on.

We have a very, very long way to go. But this was a glimpse of what it could be. And it was an exciting vision.

I hope this story is helpful.

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