Canam has several facilities in various locations in Canada and the U.S. that process large steel parts for buildings, bridges, and other infrastructure. They wanted to tour companies in Japan because of its reputation as the place where the Lean movement really got started. They requested that we create an industry study tour to take them to companies that face similar challenges to theirs. We began with a few facilities in the Kawada family of companies
The first place we visited was a bridge construction site in the Tokyo area where we toured the site and asked questions of various leaders and managers on the project. Kawada is the leading bridge builder in Japan and fabricates and/or erects about 60 bridge projects each year. Because several of the Canam attendees work in facilities that fabricate very similar projects, they were very interested in what was being done on the bridge and how Lean was being implemented in various aspects of the project. We were able to view their visual management tools as well as their huddle board to help us understand.
The “wow” factor at Kawada Robotics came mainly from their demonstration of their robotics technology—both in the form of humanoid robots and robots for manufacturing. This division of the Kawada family of companies was created in response to shrinking bridge construction within Japan. Although bridge construction business remains strong for them abroad, the company wanted a new division to serve a growing market. In Japan, the population of people in their later years is growing. There is demand for assistance for those people and in the labor jobs they are leaving as they retire. Robots are and will be used increasingly to fill both those roles.
Kawada Industries Tochigi Plant (Steel)
This part of the tour was of interest to the plant managers of the Canam group because the activities performed at this site are similar to what they do at their respective plants in Canada and the U.S. This particular Kawada plant employed 230 workers and is looking to expand its operations. It has been in continuous operation since 1958 and the average tenure of its employees is about 20 years. Kawada’s Tochigi plant fabricates steel components for buildings, bridges, and other infrastructure.
Yokosuka U.S. Naval Base
Commander U.S. Fleet Activities Yokosuka (CFAY) is where most U.S. warships in the Asia Pacific area come for dry dock repair and maintenance. It is a busy facility that uses many non-military local workers to staff its operations. We met with the base commander and one of the points he made was that Lean principles tend to come easily in his workforce because of the local culture. The base commander himself led us on a tour through repair and operations buildings where they strive to practice Lean. One example of Lean in their safety practices we noted was that they count a frayed sling as a near miss. They have posted photos of what a worn sling looks like so it’s clear to all associates when it’s time to replace a sling. The decision to undertake this practice was made by associates and is an example of how they try to push all such decisions down to the worker level whenever possible.
This was a fine example of a company that supplies parts for Toyota and, as such, practices the Toyota Production System (TPS). Toyota, of course, requires it of all its suppliers. AVEX specializes in small metal parts that require cutting and grinding. One of the things we noticed here is their well-organized idea system where an entire team gets a small bonus for the improvement idea of one of its members when the idea gets used. Other things we noticed were their great visual management tools, standard work posted for anyone to see, and their roving team of cleaners whose job was to keep the machine oil under control. Nearly every machine in the facility used a lot of machine oil and, as anyone who’s used it knows, it can spread quickly to areas where it shouldn’t be. The cleaning crew kept on top of it not just to keep things orderly but also for the sake of safety.
Toyota Motors Tsutsumi and Toyota Nagoya Headquarters
This is a popular tour. So much so that Toyota employs full-time tour guides to conduct them all. Most tours go up on the catwalk to watch operations and then end at the facilities museum. However, while our tour began with those elements (and they were pretty great), we were also able to go to Toyota’s Nagoya headquarters and meet with company leaders there for a presentation and Q and A session. It was a rewarding part of our tour because of the insight they shared with us there. Here are just a few of the many topics we discussed:
- A good system is one that gives you the ability to see abnormalities immediately.
- If associates are busy yet not producing what’s needed, find which of the seven muda may be present.
- Where there is no standard there can be no improvement.
- Understand the flow of goods and information in your organization.
Denso is another supplier for Toyota and, like AVEX and all other Toyota suppliers, practices TPS. Denso does it particularly well and it was an impressive and very informative tour for everyone. The company philosophy was posted in multiple locations around the facility. We spent so much time out on the plant floor asking questions and examining their operations that we didn’t have much time for additional questions once we got back to the classroom. However, they did tell us that each employee has a kaizen plan sheet that tracks and records their development, including the improvement suggestions that each employee makes. It was a terrific visit with heavy engagement and impressive access to their operations and knowledge.
The tour began and ended with sessions of classroom training. The opening session covered basics of the Shingo Model™. It prepared participants with a context they would be able to reference as they observed the operations of each work site. It also included a short session on Japanese culture and history. The classroom session at the end of the tour went back to the Shingo Model and also focused on what they would do when they got home in order to draw maximum value from the study tour.
The final day of the tour was spent sightseeing in Kyoto, where we were able to visit several cultural sites. This was a terrific example of a private study tour customized for an organization that is serious about finding ways to improve. The Canam group included people from multiple facilities as well as the CEO. The tour was meant as a reward for the great work of the attendees but also as inspiration for future great work. Besides the site visits and classroom training, another benefit they were able to realize was time spent comparing challenges, building relations, and rubbing shoulders with the CEO. It was an impressive group.
The Shingo Institute organizes industry study tours all over the world, both public and private. For more information, click here.