Early in my career, I had the great opportunity to work directly with Dr. Shigeo Shingo as we worked to transform the plant I was managing. I had discovered some of his early publications in a small bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., in the mid-1980s, and after reading the few books available I was stunned at the precision and effectiveness of his ideas. As others in my company read these books we collectively came to believe that we had discovered real solutions to the problems with which we were dealing.
Based on Dr. Shingo’s concepts, we put together a small team and crafted our own training program at our manufacturing facility, ultimately leading to a multi-year journey of understanding and implementing the foundations of what is now known as “lean manufacturing” or the Toyota Production System (TPS). After about a year and a half of implementation, we invited Dr. Shingo to the plant to view our progress, and while noting our solid start, he let us know how far we still had to go. He reminded us that one of the core tenets of TPS is that it is a process not a destination; a system inherently contains inefficiencies and waste. The TPS journey involves identifying the waste, then removing the cause.
In these early years of learning and implementing TPS, I was focused on how powerful some of the tools were and how effective they were at solving classic manufacturing problems. Now, after years in the manufacturing trenches and some reflection, I have come to understand that an essential element of these improvement efforts was the collaboration between the line worker, engineer and anyone else involved in the analysis and improvement process. Structured collaboration sessions can lead to both small and sometimes significant innovations that result in increased throughput or reductions in the opportunities for errors, leading ultimately to increased competitive advantage. The foundation of the TPS is management’s facilitation and encouragement of collaboration, tied to the constant search for a better method and a general expectation that you will be doing your job a little differently tomorrow than you did it today. This methodology can be applied to processes other than manufacturing. Many of these processes touch or support the manufacturing system and can be viewed as the “sphere of collaboration” within companies. The degree to which businesses integrate this sphere of activities and the resources management dedicates to this collaborative approach will be a key factor for success in the coming century.
The Logistics of Collaboration
In the 21st century, competitive advantage is created by an organization's ability to develop innovations that solve problems quicker and create new products or services in less time. Such innovations can enable people or organizations to accomplish objectives faster, easier and with fewer resources. Innovations have been the engine for the tremendous advancements in productivity in recent decades. As organizations become more global and more reliant on outsourcing, the ability to collaborate becomes more difficult because employees who touch a process are located in many different time zones and locations. Outsourcing can be a successful business approach in part because companies can take advantage of their suppliers’ core competencies, allowing those who outsource to use their internal resources to strengthen their own core competencies. The risk with this model is that often all competencies internal and outsourced are needed during a collaboration session to solve a new problem or develop a new product. When these skills are spread out around the globe the collaboration process can be cumbersome and anemic. This is one of the reasons that in the early implementation of TPS suppliers were expected to be near the main production facility, delivering small lots and being physically available to consult on problems.