“Going to the Gemba” and “Going to the Customer” | Philip Marris

In the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn, Philip Marris started a discussion on this topic three weeks ago with the following statement:

"I believe that going to the customer is nearly as important as going to the Gemba.

I won’t comment on “Going to the Gemba” in this LinkedIn discussion group because normally we are all already totally convinced that it is vital and I would bet that most of us enjoy nothing more than those moments on the shop floor seeing, smelling, listening, touching, thinking, learning and coaching.

What I wanted to do with this post is: ask if there is a Japanese (or even better a Toyota Motor Company) term for “Going to the customer” and ask members what their experience is on this subject. I think it is both different and similar to “Gemba walks” and very important.

Personally, after over 25 years in industry in many countries and cultures, I am continually disappointed by the "go to the customer" practices. Some small to medium sized firms are good at it but large organizations seem to lose it. This is especially true of B2B (Business To Business) operations but also in B2C (Business to Customer or Consumer goods manufacturers) where even the best tend to completely delegate this crucial element to the Sales and Marketing people.

I think going to the customer is important for all employees: workers on the shop floor, those that purchase the packaging, those that print the bill, those that take the customer orders, the top management ... I would add that for some B2B companies they should of course go further down the Supply Chain and get to the final customer (the one that uses the product). "

There have been 21 comments so far, many of them theoretical or off-topic, with a few accounts of personal experience. I picked out the following:

  • Todd McCann: "While working with Boeing of Winnepeg (composite parts Mfg) we led a 3Gen road trip to Everett and Renton WA where the Winn gemba workers learned more in 1 hour how the customer viewed their parts and the Par traveling paper work that accompanied the part, than they wanted.  Eye opening to say the least. I recall, Heads kept moving back and forth side to side, eyes closed and open palms slapped the forehead."
  • José Ignacio Erausquin Arruabarrena. About 20 year ago, when I was managing a plant being Tier 1 supplier of the automotive sector, I remember as one of the practices that was really appreciated by the workforce, the one to have always one or two operators of the assembly line in the visits to the customer, when developing new products or even when answering to customer claims. Operators observing how their customer utilizes their product is one of the best sources of improvement that you can imagine.

My own experience is consistent with Todd's and José Ignacio's. When I was consulting for Boeing Portland, a machine shop making structural components, one of their best practices was sending a small group to the assembly plant that used their products once a quarter, to meet with the assemblers and collect their feedback. They recorded the interaction on video, and played it back to the entire production team back home. Different people went every quarter, and I went along on one of of these visits.

It is relatively easy to organize such things for an in-house supplier, to a plant that is not too far away. It is more complicated when you are dealing with actual customers, especially when the customers are not end-users but dealers or distributors. If you are selling to dealers, you can, for example, place technicians for a few months at dealerships when you launch a new product, to gain first-hand knowledge of any problems end-user may report to the dealership about the product.

When GM created the dealership system to sell cars in the 1920s, the primary purpose was to shield the production plants from the fluctuations in the market. Dealer inventories acted as a buffer to allow production plants to proceed at a constant pace. As they quickly discovered, however, this system also shielded GM from information about market trends, and they didn't realize the market had a downturn until the lots of their dealers were all full.

To keep a finger on the pulse of the market, Toyota in its early days sold cars door-to-door. Chatting with housewives, the sales rep learned that Mr. Yamada had been promoted, and paid him a visit in the evening to sell him a car to fit his new position. While it provided better market intelligence than dealerships, it was too expensive an approach and was abandoned.

Much later, about 2000, Toyota launched an internet portal in Japanese called gazoo.com, dedicated to "car life," with information like used car values, games for kids during long rides, recommendations for pleasant road trips, etc. It is different from the brochureware websites of other car makers. They didn't explain why they did this, but my guess is that it was to recover the direct contact with customers that door-to-door sales used to provide. Through their clicks, page views, and comments, gazoo visitors are telling Toyota about the market.

Human Resources at Toyota

With Respect for Humanity, bowdlerized as "Respect for People," made into a pillar of The Toyota Way, you might expect Toyota's Human Resources (HR) policies to be studied, scrutinized, discusses extensively in the Lean literature, and argued over in numerous forums. But it's not the case.

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Toyota's car factory of the future | Autocar Professional

"Toyota says it has has completely re-thought the way its future car factories will operate. Its plans for the new-generation factories – nicknamed ‘simple and slim’ – are well advanced. Toyota claims they will be 25 percent smaller than existing plants, require 40% less investment and emit up to 55% less CO2. Toyota also plans to re-engineer the production lines so they can be shortened or lengthened in less than 80 minutes. It’s claimed that a standard line can be shrunk from a 100,000 car-per-year capacity to just 50,000 cars, or vice versa. This would allow capacity to be easily reduced or increased depending on demand"

Source: www.autocarpro.in

Michel Baudin's comments:

Thanks to Rob van Stekelenborg, a.k.a. Dumontis, for this scoop, which, again provides more specifics on Toyota's plans, including surface-mounted conveyors, smaller paint shops, laser screw welding, what sounds like induction heating of sheet metal for stamping, and a variety of energy saving techniques.

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Toyota's Shared-Parts Strategy | IndustryWeek

"Toyota said the move, aimed at cutting development costs by 20%, would start with mid-sized, front-wheel-drive vehicles this year. It wants half of vehicles it sells globally by 2020 to fall under the new platform strategy."

Source: www.industryweek.com

Michel Baudin's comments:

Specifics are trickling out about Toyota's plans. It seems that they want to make more different products from fewer components and have plants that are competitive even at low volume.

Readers' comments on the idea of having fewer platforms and more common parts are focused on the risk of extensive recalls, and the way such recalls can wipe out any savings achieved by the strategy.

It really is a matter of degree and of execution. Having fewer dashboard options might reduce the attractiveness of your products, but using fewer types of proportioning valves will not. Also, it is easier to ensure not only availability but quality as well for fewer components, making recalls less likely.

With regards to volume in a given plant, Toyota's strategy seems a continuation of their work on the Global Body Line, in which the same infrastructure and fixtures could be used for robotic welding at high volume and manual welding at low volume.

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Toyota Unveils Revamped Manufacturing Process | Yoko Kubota | Wall Street Journal

"Toyota broke a two-year silence on a revamped manufacturing process—built on sharing components among vehicles—that it says will produce half its vehicles by 2020 and slash costs. But its unveiling follows a path blazed in recent years by German rival Volkswagen AG—a reversal for the Japanese pioneer, whose production system was for decades seen as the gold standard, giving the world such manufacturing concepts as 'just-in-time inventory' and 'continuous improvement.'"

Source: www.wsj.com

Michel Baudin's comments:

Other than that Toyota has a plan, the article does not directly reveal specifics. As several readers pointed out in their comments, sharing components across models is not a new idea and is not risk-free, even if executed perfectly, as it reduces the differences between your standard and luxury models in ways that customers may notice.

The most revealing parts of the article, to me, are (1) the reference to VW, and (2) the keyword "modular assembly." I don't believe that Toyota has borrowed much from VW since the look of the 1947 Toyota SA, a dead-ringer for the already dated but yet to be successful beetle.

Modular assembly sounds self-explanatory but it isn't. It is a specific approach to assembling cars brought to VW by former GM purchasing executive Jose Ignacio Lopez in the 1990s, in which up to 90% of the work traditionally done in a car assembly plant is done by suppliers and all that remains is the final assembly of large subsystems.

The Porsche plant in Leipzig, for example, does not stamp, weld, or paint car bodies. It receives them ready to assemble, in a spotlessly clean facility that customers are encouraged to visit.

Porsche-Leipzig

The Porsche plant in Leipzig

The whole site is in fact dominated by its visitor center, complete with a fine-dining restaurant overlooking the plant and where new buyers can receive an hour's worth of training on their new cars on the test track. In the same spirit, VW has set up an assembly plant in downtown Dresden, with glass walls to enable passers by to watch cars being assembled.

Modular assembly was used by GM in Lordstown, OH, in 1999, and then by VW in Spain, and by DaimlerBenz for the Smart in Hambach, France . At the time, Toyota evaluated the concept and passed on it. Apparently, Toyota's production leaders changed their minds.

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Buy More Robots? | Adams Nager | IndustryWeek

"More robots means lower unemployment and better trade performance. [...] The United States does not lose jobs because there is not enough work to be done but rather because U.S. industry is not competitive with foreign producers. More robots will help fix this."

Source: www.industryweek.com

Michel Baudin's comments:Really? If you are not competitive, just buy more robots! But wait... Haven't we heard this before? Isn't it what GM did in the 1980s? Under Roger Smith's leadership, from 1980 to 1989, GM spent about $40B on robots, and this investment didn't make it competitive.

It doesn't mean robots are bad, only that they are not a panacea. Toyota's Global Body Line is designed to use welding robots where they are justified, and manual welding where not, using the same fixtures.

In an auto parts plant in Japan, I remember seeing a machining cell with old machines served by robots. A few yards away were new, automated lines that didn't use robots.

It looked very much as if the old cell with new robots was the result of incremental automation, and that the lessons learned had been applied in the design of the new lines.

Robots are tools. If you know how to use them, they will help you; if you don't, buying more is just a waste of money.

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1934-Model-A

Origin of One-Piece Flow at Toyota | Chip Chapados | LinkedIn

According to Chip Chapados, the concept of one-piece flow emerged from the need to rapidly detect defects in engine castings when Kiichiro Toyoda was reverse-engineering a Chevrolet engine in 1934, and it was originally called "one-by-one confirmation."

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Does Historical Accuracy Matter?

Cuckoo clock from the Black Forest

The most famous line in The Third Man is Orson Welles's addition to the script:

"In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

65 years later, Paul Krugman opened his editorial in today's New York Times with:

"Ah, Switzerland, famed for cuckoo clocks..."

With all due respect to Paul Krugman, I believe this fame came from the movie, because cuckoo clocks are not from Switzerland but from the Black Forest region of Germany.

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When Finance Runs the Factory | William Levinson | Industry Week

"Henry Ford achieved world-class results with three key performance indicators (KPIs), none of which were financial. His successors' changeover to financial metrics, on the other hand, caused the company to forget what we now call the Toyota production system."

Source: www.industryweek.com

Michel Baudin's comments:

Yes, giving power over manufacturing companies to accountants, as American industry massively did in the 1950s yielded disastrous results. The summary given in this article's lead paragraph, however, does not match the historical record from other sources.
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