Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Toyota Language

Today I worked with a recently hired team member to troubleshoot a gripper assembly.  He's a very bright individual with very solid electrical troubleshooting experience.  The problem we were trying to fix was that a gripper was not moving forward after it had picked up a part.

When I arrived at the equipment, I saw him disconnecting many wire terminals.  Naturally, I asked him what alarm he was getting from the screen.  He told me he did not check.  Then I asked him at what step was the machine faulting out, he vaguely told me about how it faulted.  When I asked him further about how this machine should operate step by step, he was not able to clearly tell me.  We ended up spending about twice as long as it would normally take to fix a problem of this nature.

As I tried to reflect on this experience to find out how I could help him to reduce his MTTR (mean time to repair) time, I suddenly realized that it is not just his familiarity of the equipment that we need to provide training on.  Fundamentally, it is his fluency of the Toyota language that we really need to focus on.

What do I mean by the "Toyota language"?  You can think of any language as a composite of many different layers of abstractions.  The higher you go up the layer, the more abstract it becomes, but the more efficient it becomes, because it encompasses many meanings.  For example, the word "teacher" is an abstraction composed of two ideas: "people" who "provide lessons".  So, instead of saying "people who provide lessons" all the time, you can simply say "teacher".  It is the same as in object oriented programming, where "objects" are defined as a composite with a set of defined features.  Once defined, the programmer can use it efficiently as one variable, instead of having to write ten lines of codes each time she wants to use it.  In short, a language gives you an efficient way to communicate.

So in my case with my team member, because he hasn't had a thorough understanding and enough experience with the Toyota language, for example, how we follow TBP in troubleshooting, what we mean when we ask for a "point of occurrence", I had to spend a lot of time saying "people who provide lessons" instead of just "teachers"!

A good team communicates well because they have developed their own unique "team language"!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Eiji Toyoda

Eiji Toyoda, Toyota's fifth President, passed away last week.

I was quite shock that many of my colleagues did not know about this.

I've heard little bits of stories about him, but I mostly learned about his legacy from the book, "The Toyota Leader, An Executive Guide", by Masaaki Sato, a veteran news reporter in the Japanese auto industry.

The most vivid impression I have of him is that he knew exactly what his purpose of life was: grow Toyota in the turmoil postwar era.  Nothing wavered him, despite all the problems he had, especially when Toyota failed to launch a global model before finally developed the world renowned Corolla.

It is his deep understanding of himself that really made a lasting impression on me.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Toyota's SECRET weapon...

The Toyota Way has been studied by many people and companies.  The aim has been to find that secret weapon that has given the company its edge.

In fact, Toyota has always been very welcome in inviting other companies, even its competitors, to visit its plants and examine its famous production processes, the TPS (Toyota Production System).

What we see as a result of these investigations is a discovery of many Toyota production management tools, such as kaizen, kanban, hijunka, etc.  These are then being brought back to the visiting companies and are implemented in the hope of achieving positive improvements.  However, often times, for various reasons, either the intended results are not achieved, or the results are only ephemeral.  

Based on my observations, Toyota's real secret weapon is not the production tools that the world is already very knowledgeable of.   Toyota's real secret weapon, is its people management.

What I mean by that is: it has the ability to have all its Team Members commit to doing what is planned to be done.  That is, the company strategy and its execution are able to flow from top to bottom.   This way, it makes the "cause" and "effect" relationship to be seen clearly and, most importantly, predictably, and any necessary fine-tuning can be done swiftly and with the predicted results.  Most other companies, on the other hand, have the difficulty that the flow stops somewhere in the middle, thus not everyone is acting in accordance to the plan.  As a result, there are variabilities.  This creates headache for management to not be able to find the true root causes of problems.

Toyota's people management ability, though, has lost a bit of its edge several years ago when it tried to expand faster than it could train its new team members and managers.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

5 Whys: emotion level

An important step of TBP (Toyota Business Practice) problem solving process is the famous 5 Whys.  This occurs when we've broken down the characteristics of a problem and have identified the point of occurrence of the problem, and is ready to find the root cause of the problem.  By asking "Why" five times or more, we would drill into the nature of the problem deeply, and be able to find the root cause.

This is all fine on an analytical level.  However, in practice, there is a big problem.

When you begin asking the team members involved in the problem solving "Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?", it is very easy to get an annoyed team member.  This is because, to most people, they will get a feeling that, "I've just told you the reason for the problem, why are you asking me 'Why' again and again?!"  I've had this experience happened to me again and again, where, it was impossible to get pass the second "Why", because the angry team member has already tuned out and not want to participate.

On reflection, I think this kind of behaviour is expected, because all people have a sense of pride.  By asking "Why" so many times, you sound like you don't trust the person.  This is a classic problem of "it looks good on paper, but fails at execution"!

What I've learned to deal with this situation is: it is very important to explain WHY you are asking so many WHYs.  This way, the person knows it's not about not trusting them, but about going deeper into the problem.  Of course, it would also help if the "Whys" are asked in a constructive and passionate way, rather than in a terse and interrogative tone.

To expand on this idea further, it is very important that all new Team Members have a TBP training.  This way, it will bring them onboard on the Toyota Way, i.e. make them understand and embrace this new culture of problem solving.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Continuous Improvement vs. Disruptive Innovation

One of the key pillars of the Toyota Way is Continuous Improvement.  The idea is that we are always relentlessly looking for ways to either eliminate problems, or to challenge the current standards.  In practice, the process of Continuous Improvement most often involves small, practical changes that are easy to implement with minimal costs.  In fact, improvements of this nature are often what senior management encourage.  I believe this is a very good strategy, since it lowers the barrier so that everyone in the company are involved to improve, regardless of the amount of improvement.

I recently have the opportunity to re-examine the patent process.  It strikes me that it is quite different than the Continuous Improvement nature of the Toyota Way.  Even though it is also a process developed to foster improvements to human lives, but the way the patent process encourages is novelty.  In other words, the concept has to be unique, and big.  This is very different than the practical, small incremental improvements encouraged by the Toyota Way.

Would it be useful for the Toyota Way to incorporate the "Patent Way"?  What kind of results would it spark?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Manufacturing vs. Social Media

Manufacturing and the social media are two of the greatest innovations in our human history.

In general, manufacturing and the social media are very different.  Manufacturing truly took off with the Industrial Revolution, while the social media is a recent phenomenon catalyzed by the advent of the Internet.  Manufacturing is hardware; social media is software.  Manufacturing is capital intensive, social media is not.

However, one interesting common feature about manufacturing and the social media is that they both heavily depend on scale, but for different reasons.  Manufacturing needs scale to reduce its overhead costs, while the social media needs scale to make its main function -- social -- work.  For manufacturing, without scale, individual manufactured goods would still work, but would be too expensive to make manufacturing sustainable.  For the social media, without scale, the services it provides would simply not work at all, since they all require social interactions.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

TBP vs Systems Thinking

Toyota's famous problem solving technique is called the TBP, or Toyota Business Practice.  It encompasses several very practical and exhaustive steps to solve problems.  The principles behind it are very similar to the McKinsey's method (MECE).  One thing to note is: You can tell from the name that ultimately, the goal is to improve the business.

The key to TBP is step2 of the process: breaking down the problem.  Without clearly understanding the characteristics of your problem, the process will lead you to the wrong path.  After the nature of the problem and its Point of Occurrence have been identified, step4, the Root Cause Analysis (the "Whys?") will help determine the real reason causing your problem, and then step5 of Developing the countermeasures will help eliminate the root cause.

As you can see, the principle of TBP is to try to discover the real cause-and-effect relationship between the problem (effect) and root cause (cause).  In TBP, there is the belief that there is always a cause inducing an effect. 

I have to admit I am a fond admirer of this problem solving technique.  Since I've started applying it daily at work and at home, I've found that it has really provided me a very clean framework to deal with problems I encounter.  The key I found is that it forces me to not jump to fixing a problem before really understand the nature of the problem.  In addition, it has provided a very structured, concise, and easy-to-follow way of explaining my ideas to people.  

My admiration to TBP grows as I continue to be an Advisor to various QC Circle groups in the company.

However, recently, I've had several instances when I started to feel some uneasiness of the results I get from using TBP.  For example, we were troubleshooting a problem related to an oven, and found that the wear and tear from normal usage of a very long chain is the root cause of the jamming problem we were seeing.  The countermeasure developed was to replaced this chain on a regular interval.  This has eliminated the problem since.  However, 2 months later, when the department budget was reviewed, we were stunned at how much we were over-budgeted.  

Two things I've observed from this case: 1) although chain wear (cause) has been addressed to fix the jamming problem (effect),  however, the countermeasure of replacing the chain has become ANOTHER cause that has created ANOTHER effect: over-budget! 2) we did not see this actual effect immediately, i.e. there is a DELAY in the effect!

This prompted me to consider whether there is actually some limitations to TBP.  And immediately, the 2 observations above triggered me think whether Systems Thinking is a better problem solving technique than TBP, when the problem is more complex.  At least, should we be using Systems Thinking at the end of a TBP process, so that we do not get too detailed into one specific aspect of the whole problem, without zooming out to examine how a countermeasure could have an effect on the overall bigger picture of the problem?  I need to think about this more deeply!