Recognize Improvement Opportunities

Process Improvement

Lao Tzu said that “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
Kanban’s fundamental principles make working towards an improved way of doing business that little bit more organised, easier to comprehend.

If a Kanban system you implement is not leading you to improvements, a better quality of products, business and life in general, then it should be abandoned. Let’s take a closer look at the principle of Recognizing Process and Improvement Opportunities.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

When David Anderson considered what principles to integrate to IT Kanban, he looked straight at industry leaders and change makers throughout past years. One of those people was Eliyahu M Goldratt, the father of the Theory of Constraints.
Change and improvement can be daunting, but one of Kanban’s strengths is that you don’t need to change right away, you start exactly where you were. The first step in the Kanban model calls us to change nothing, but to simply observe.

The Five Focusing Steps

You may associate the 5 Focusing Steps phrase with old martial art movies, where techniques such as Snake in Eagle Shadow, teach about village boys learning a martial arts system that transforms them from village weaklings to brilliant heros. In many ways, the Five Focusing Steps of the Theory of Constraints can indeed do the same for your organisation!

The first step - identifying the constraint - is the one requiring you to make no changes to your process, but to observe it. Walk the floor, be that the office or production floor, and recognize the biggest constraint. If it helps, swap the word constraint for bottleneck. It is at the neck of a bottle, where the flow of liquid gets slowed down dramatically. Bottlenecks are very useful, when you are looking at drinking bottles, without them you will simply wind up with a wet face every time you attempt to take a drink. However, bottlenecks are not good for the flow of work, given that their main function is to slow down the flow. Hence, the first step of bringing about improvement, is to identify where work gets slowed down.

Step two would be exploiting the constraint. Bottlenecks are identified by the point of a process slow down, and they rarely match other process steps capacity. Remember, that the speed at which the bottleneck can complete work is the speed that the whole system can complete work. As a leader, you need to decide how to best supply the bottleneck with materials at a rate that they don’t feel rushed, so as they don’t later need to redo work. At the same time, to-do items should be there for them in case they finish early, to make best use of their time.

Step three is subordinating everything, both the flow and the policies, to help the bottleneck. Team members will change the way and speed they work at, to help out the bottleneck.

Step four focuses on elevating the constraint / bottleneck. After the workflow has been subordinated to the correctly identified constraint, your workflow should improve. If it doesn’t improve at all, it may mean you have adjusted the process to a wrong bottleneck - and need to try again. But if you subordinate everything to the right constraint, and things do not really improve then it could be time to invest in a better solution. This can mean investing in better machinery to improve the flow through the constraint, or hiring more people to work at the level where the constraint presents.

Step five is then monitoring the process and observing where another constraint occurs, as that typically will be the case, and then repeat steps 2 to 5 all over again. Through the model of these 5 focusing steps you will improve throughput of the system with each iteration.

Eliminating waste

After you’ve completed the five focusing steps, it’s useful to look at the next model for improvement in Kanban - namely the elimination of waste, or “Muda” in Japanese. While Kanban works on the basis of visualization of your value stream, this model looks at the current activities of your value stream and identifies those that do not add direct value to the process.

This can be a very challenging activity, as in some companies, especially the larger and more established ones, there are process steps that have been around for so long, that no one has any idea of their origin or purpose. If we look at our theoretical chair production facility, let’s say there is an employee clocking in and clocking out activity, as a process step. For the company, this may be crucial for tracking costs and paying employees, but customers don’t really care how the workers do this. The customer is only interested in that they get their beautifully made chairs. So the customer sees this as an unnecessary activity.

In Lean such activities are seen as waste, so as a leader, you need to distinguish between necessary waste and unnecessary waste. You may need to record when employees start work and when they leave, or maybe you don’t - maybe it should just be a culture of trust, or perhaps this is something that can be done automatically by electronic door locks. Regardless, any way you can reduce activities that are not directly related to producing a quality product, will bring about improvements. The process of analysing this will also let you identify activities that are directly related to a value product, i.e. physical painting of chairs. You may come to decide to invest in a spray painting device, that would improve the quality of the paint and the process throughput at the same time.

Reducing variation and the Deming Cycle

It’s quite possible that you think that Kanban is all about improving speed and throughput, and that it will do anything to achieve this, but you would be wrong.
The next two models draw from work of W. Edwards Deming, a management consultant and American engineer in the 1950s. Deming was so successful that he was flown to Japan where local industries incorporated a lot of his thinking into their practices.

The first principle is understanding variation. While it may sound great to improve speed throughout the process flow, creating too much variation will not be good either. Predictability and a measured and sustained approach should be sought more so than the speed of the process. Deming argued that customers build trust when your service is reliable and predictable. Therefore, as a leader, you should use statistical process control for studying variation, and act on the data it provides.

What this could mean for our theoretical chair company, is separating a mix of working on 2 big chairs and 4 small chairs in a week. The floor manager may need to set the WIP limit in a way that: when the team has 2 big chairs to work on, they don’t start working on another big chair even though small chairs might not have been started yet. Reason being - if they start working on another big chair and the small chairs start being processed, they then would need to stop - their predictability would change and decrease. As this example shows, variation decreases productivity. Aligned with this thinking is Deming’s second model: the Plan Do Check Act cycle. It also fits in perfectly with Kanban’s continuous improvement.

The Deming Cycle

  • Plan: that’s where leadership decides what needs to be done to bring about improvement and then communicates it to the employees. Deming stresses that everyone should be involved in the improvement process.
  • Do: is the action of executing the plan. Perfectly in line with implementing explicit policies and procedures, advised by Kanban practitioners. Take the tangible steps that were discussed in the planning stage, and execute them as part of this stage.
  • Check: this is where actions are evaluated and leadership decides if they cause them to move closer to their goals. It ties into Kanban’s managing and measuring. Data gathered here will drive the following stage.
  • Act: Not to be confused with “execute”, as that is under the Do stage. Acting refers to evaluating whether the changes made are proving fruitful, and if not - it means they can be dropped, changed or enhanced. In that case it means starting the planning stage again.

The Deming Cycle has had great influence on the practice of Process Improvement Kata at Toyota, where leadership trains employees to understand and resolve their challenges, and then move towards their next target.

All of these models: TCO, Lean and Eliminating Waste and the Deming Cycle show that achieving continuous improvement is all about the small steps. This final fundamental Kanban principle should help you achieve the meaning in words of Masaaki Imai, known as the Father of Kaizen: “Everyday improvement, everybody improvement and everywhere improvement”.