The one with the pit stop

When I worked in FMCG someone gave me a book called “The Machine that Changed the World” written by 3 academics at MIT in the US:  Daniel Roos, James Womack and Daniel Jones (no relation!). Based on a 5 year research programme run from MIT it’s the story of the shift from mass production to lean production that was pioneered in the Japanese automobile industry with Toyota very much the leading light.

It’s a very interesting book (especially as it was very relevant to the business I was working in at that time) but given it’s description of processes pioneered in a) Japan and b) the automotive industry there’s a range of words and acronyms that were very new to me. I am fortunate that I have one of those brains that likes new concepts so chewed through it with enthusiasm. However, when it came to communicating these new ideas to colleagues especially those that would potentially have to change the way they worked based on my new found knowledge the Japanese and the acronyms were my undoing…

Let’s take the example of SMED. The ‘single minute exchange of dies’ – the changing of a car production line in single digit minutes (i.e. less than 10 minutes). Production lines are only truly making money (returning capital) when they are producing things so any time spent changing from one product to another is loss making. The idea of the SMED process was to reduce long change overs to under 10 minutes and in the pilot programme Toyota reduced a 3.5 hour to around 9 minutes.

The concept of SMED is relatively simple (with hindsight) – you define both ‘internal’ (things that can only happen when the line is stopped) and ‘external’ (things that can happen before the line is stopped or once it has started again). You then remove anything from ‘internal’ that you can and make sure that any process still included in ‘internal’ is as efficient as possible. OK hands up who got bored during that paragraph?! The operator group who had completed 10 hours of their shift were bored and half asleep….

The pilot programme we ran on the back of those briefs delivered….. ummmmmm……little measurable improvement. Surprise!

We’ll come back to SMED in a moment but I was recently having lunch with a friend and we were discussing how often inspiration and great ideas come at times when doing something very mundane and routine. Mine are often either the shower or whilst driving a route I know very well. She recounted a story when hanging out with friends discussing one friend’s relationship issue. They were all baffled as to a solution when my friend retired to the loo and on return had a great solution which coined the phrase “the wee of wisdom”. I’m not sure it’s one I’d use in a professional situation but it was in mundane circumstances that I had a flash of wisdom with regard to communicating SMED…

They can only work on the car whilst it’s stopped. They need to minimise the time it is stopped. They need focus on task, clarity of roles, efficiency of operation and only one person looks at the overall performance, everyone else focuses on role. The results following this example were much better!

My big learnings from this were that not everyone likes to play with new concepts as much as I do, the reaffirmation about how scary change is but mostly that if you want to communicate a new idea relate it to something already known that gives people a bridge to the new concept.

I could go on but thank your lucky stars that I am sparing you the 5S methodology and the analogy of my Mum’s kitchen….



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