The Japanese philosophy of a leaner, more productive workforce introduced at a Richmond manufacturing plant.

Photo by Ward Perrin/PNG

Photo by Ward Perrin/PNG

by Suzanne Ahearne for The Vancouver Sun
September 27, 2008

It's 6:30 in the morning at Teleflex, a Richmond manufacturing plant. The graveyard shift is just ending and instead of punching the clock and heading for home and breakfast, some of the production workers are grabbing coffees and coming to the office boardroom to talk about things that traditionally have been the domain of managers: plans to improve production speed, cycle time and data reporting. They call it the Kaizen Club.
   Some think of Kaizen as a way to exercise more democracy in the workplace. Some look at it as a way to increase production and cut costs. Others think of it as a literacy project. The reality is that Kaizen can be all these things.
   Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy that extols an ideal of continuous improvement. The ideal was first taken up in the manufacturing world by Toyota after the Second World War as a way to improve and increase production. Its goals centre around eliminating waste -- of materials, movement and human potential -- by standardizing procedures and by getting workers and management to think through problems in creative and collaborative ways.
   The creators of the Toyota Production System (TPS) quietly credit the manufacturing model of Henry Ford, whose Model T made him one of the richest men in the world and turned the world economy on its wheels.
The term Kaizen is now used synonymously with TPS but, since the idea took off in North America in the 1980s, the favourite buzzword for it is "lean," playing on an image of the modern ideal: taut and muscular, with no flabby excess.
  Its appeal is obvious to management looking for ways to scale back on workforce and production costs. Since the mid-'80s, the concept has been finding its way into many sectors of the world of work, in places as diverse as hospitals, retail, and social services, with varying success and levels of buy-in.
   For workers, the involvement in workplace decision-making that Kaizen offers can increase morale and prospects for advancement.
   The impetus to go lean at the Teleflex hydraulics manufacturing plant came not from management, but from a production worker, Jay Zhang. He first heard about Kaizen when he worked as a design and process engineer at the Chang Sha Blower Factory, a state-owned mass-production facility employing 2,000 workers in his home province of Hunan, China.
   He says that when a Japanese company began a short-term project at his factory, it implemented the Toyota Production System. Zhang says the new way of thinking brought about such changes in methods and attitude it was like a "cultural revolution."
   Zhang was at Teleflex more than five years -- on the factory floor as a production worker -- before he raised the idea. He says he wanted to share his knowledge of lean "to help the company grow, and empower the people." He went first to Tracy Defoe, a literacy consultant who had worked with the company for almost a decade, teaching ESL and leading various teamwork initiatives. Zhang remembers that Defoe was excited and helped him write out his ideas to present to other workers and to managers.
   Did it meet with resistance? "Yes, of course," he laughed. "This is a cultural shift in the factory." It required a different way of thinking, for managers and workers. "When you do something that has never occurred, you need to invent it, develop it," Zhang said. And that's not easy.
   So, after two years of baby steps on the way to going lean, the workers at this morning's club meeting -- one of three that will happen this day as each shift ends -- start, as usual, by going over the week's study chapter from the textbook of Kaizen for workers, called Lean Production Simplified.
   They are joined by Zhang, Matt Nuss -- the continuous improvement manager -- and Defoe.
   There are 300 or so employees at Teleflex Canada and about 10 per cent participate in the club. Attendance is voluntary, but paid. Their reading spins off into discussions about their work, the company's long-term goals and the world economy.
   Defoe has worked as an adult literacy worker for more than 20 years, mostly in "blue-collar settings." She's in her element here.
   "This is the world of work and the world of work is about some of the biggest, most important ideas," she said. This kind of deep engagement in ideas "is what makes literacy stick" [and it] expands their minds and their worlds."
   They're all improving their reading, writing and math skills, though no one but Tracy mentions that. It's all so embedded in practical application that literacy really just slips in the back door.
   A discussion kicks in about Dave Herring's plan to move a piece of equipment in his machining area, and to initiate changes to a data charting system which a number of workers agree is unnecessarily cumbersome.
Herring himself is pretty quiet. In a few minutes, they're going to take the plan down to the factory floor to run the ideas past Nuss and the day-shift workers.
   As a group -- six come to the morning club from a shift of a few dozen -- they have made a scale drawing of Herring's workspace and have written up an outline of the workflow problem to present to day-shift workers and to management.
   When they get down to the factory floor with their plans in hand, Herring takes charge. On his own turf here, he is articulate and comfortable leading a discussion. He rolls out the paperwork on his workbench and, over the din of grinding metal, heads huddle around micrometers, rulers and charts.
   Herring is aware that without good negotiating skills, this kind of thing can be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. "It's hard to get people to come together and be unified in their thinking," he said afterwards. "But just going through that process is an experience in itself, and that's valuable. You can't get that by going to school. You can only get that on the job and it's knowledge and experience that's entirely transportable to other locations."
   The group walked back and forth from the "de-burring" machine to the measuring table, Herring explaining to Nuss how workflow and productivity will increase if the measuring table is closer to another main piece of equipment. (A bit like a good work triangle in a kitchen.)
   "What we're learning in the Kaizen club," Herring said as an aside, "is that there's no value added in walking around. You'll be able to make more [product] if you're not walking 12 feet every half hour instead of two feet." Increased awareness of how efficiency affects the company's bottom line is one of the results of learning the methods of lean manufacturing.
   Nuss listened to Herring's proposed changes, asked questions and sussed out the buy-in from the day-shift guys. His role is to work as a liaison because he has learned the culture and language of both workers and upper management. He will advocate for changes at the next level and bring ideas back down.
   "If someone has a great idea to improve the workflow, or to save us money or to make a job safer, we need to make sure we listen and we need to make sure we give people the ability to act on that idea and that's a challenge," says Nuss. "The mindset is changing slowly," he admitted, "but we're not fully there yet."
   Lean is a bit of a management fad. Canada abounds with books, blogs and workshops about how to go lean. As with many fads, the idea is sometimes taken up with fervour, dropped if not immediately quantifiable, the superficial concepts applied but the essence lost. Spinoff terms like "doing a Kaizen blitz" miss the element of continuity.
   Some employees and managers approach it skeptically, afraid they'll be Kaizenned out of a job. But lean is not mean, say advocates like Zhang. It's more about reassigning people where they will be used to their potential. "It's a thinking system," he said. "It's about working smart."
   Zhang himself has just recently left his union job to become manufacturing supervisor, his third promotion since the company made a move toward lean.
   When Canada Post began a move toward a lean model, it replaced some of its automatic sorters with teams of human sorters because that was found to improve efficiency. Others question the wisdom of imposing a manufacturing model in areas like health care that deal in people, not cars. But some hospitals have found such a model can improve patient wait times, speed of test results and increase patient satisfaction.
   Defoe does caution that a top-down approach to working lean is often non-productive: workers rarely buy in to something they feel is being "shoved down their throats." All levels of workers and management need to be engaged in the process. Teleflex, she said, was a "grassroots" initiative she helped launch. Its management realized that by supporting employees -- paying them to attend meetings, buying the textbooks, supplies and snacks -- it would encourage them to want to learn more, ask good questions, present better ideas and push the company to be better and more profitable.
   For both workers and managers, living and working in a culture of continuous change is never easy and is sometimes stressful. When changes happen, Herring said, "people not in the club are wary, standoffish. It's not easy for them to accept and they don't understand where it's coming from."
   For the workers who join the club to study Kaizen, "life is easier because they understand why change is happening and play a more active role in it," he said. He rejects what he says is a myth some workers have: "They're not trying to get you to work harder. They're getting you to work smarter."
   Herring said his only reluctance is that sometimes he feels he doesn't have the time for meetings. "I think it would be better if they just told everybody it was part of your job ... so that everyone would understand what it's all about."
   James Ginn, Herring's friend who encouraged him to join the club, knows lean is probably the way of the future, despite the controversy it stirs up in some sectors of work.
   "It's very important now that North American companies become as lean as possible," he said. "I think things are going to change over the next decade where wage increases are going to occur in places like China and eventually get to a point where they will no longer have that wage advantage."
   Ginn feels certain that companies that educate their workers and managers about Kaizen will create an educated workforce that will have a strong advantage.

By Tracy Defoe, president, The Learning Factor
You have done lean training for your workforce, or you want to get started. You think investing in foundation skills will help you retain good workers and grow your business. What would it take to get your people studying and making improvements together in your own 'Kaizen Club?'
- Look to the future. How does developing people on the front lines fit with your business plan? Will you be able to promote, redeploy or offer more interesting work to people who ask for it? Have a people plan and a way to measure if it is working. Talk to leaders, keeners and your most frustrated workers to see if there is interest in learning about process improvement together. Make sure that you are going to be able to support the changes that will come with learning -- in people and in processes.
- Offer an invitation, not an assignment. Kaizen Club is for volunteers, and that should include the sponsor and all the participants.
- Be prepared for some costs before you see improvements. Because they are at work and making improvements, Kaizen Club members are paid for their time. There are also costs for books, resources, outside teaching support and for lean practitioner certification.
- Be prepared to be challenged. Workers often start with improvements in the things that bug them about their jobs. Sometimes what bugs them is an inconsistency between what should be and what is, and that might be a management issue.
- Stay in touch and share your goals. Team members can only make improvements that are closely aligned with business priorities if they understand what the priorities are.
- Celebrate and encourage learning in everyone, including you. Kaizen Club may pull you along as a learner, and put pressure on your supervisors and others to get up to speed on lean, or to improve their own foundational skills.
If you think you would like to start a Kaizen Club or another kind of learning group at your workplace, consider these tips.
- Start by talking to your co-workers about the idea to gauge their level of interest.
- Put some ideas on paper. It is easier to communicate what you are thinking about with a vision, some objectives and draft rules written down. Get some help with this. Two heads are better than one, and if one is a friendly shop steward or manager, great. They might know what will be well-received in your workplace.
- Make the case of the benefit for individuals, for groups or shifts and for the company when you meet with the HR or operations manager to present your idea. Don't be surprised if they suggest changes, need time to decide or have even more ideas about how it could work.
- Listen and try to align the learning and improvements with the things the company is trying to improve.
- Be inclusive. Will some people need support in doing the reading, understanding the calculations or taking part in discussions? Do you need a workplace educator to support the club, can you build in individual learning plans, buddy support or other ways to make Kaizen Club work for everyone?
- Think long term and plan for a credential or credit. Kaizen Club follows the reading list and portfolio requirements for lean practitioner certification from the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. This gives a structure and an international credential as a goal.
- Communicate and invite people to join. Teleflex Canada's Kaizen Club has information boards, presents at monthly employee meetings, and most important, asks members to invite people to come and try it out.
- Be patient. Learning takes time.
By Tracy Defoe, president, The Learning Factor