Derk de Vries, één van de deelnemers van de Lean Excursie Japan in 2017 liet zich inspireren door één van de meest fascinerende culturen op aarde. Lees hier zijn ervaringen.
Day one and I’m all set to begin my intensive week in Japan to learn about Lean , Lean Management, Lean Manufacturing, Lean Production, and Six Sigma. After saying goodbye to the family and meeting with the group, we set about checking in our luggage. It’s quite busy at check in and I can’t help but notice the luggage check in machine.
There are four machines, and one person to help travellers check in their luggage. Out of the four machines though effectively only two are actually being used – not because two were not in use, but because the lady from KLM kept sending people to the busy machines. If the four machines were used this would help the throughput increase. My mind is in Lean, everywhere I look.
After security, I notice in the toilets there is an opportunity to provide feedback on the state of the toilets – a good way to retrieve customer feedback.
In the plane I open the envelope from my daughter wishing me luck in Japanese. Luckily there are Japanese people sitting next to me to help translate this.
After a long and quiet flight we land at Tokyo airport and venture our first steps on Japanese soil. We are welcomed to the airport and set off for immigrations and customs. For immigration we needed to prefill in a form during the flight, a typical old fashioned form. I couldn’t help but think why do we still make use of these forms – is there no other way to do this in our world of information gathering, check-in and data collection?
At immigration there are several desks in use and one person standing at the end of the queue to direct people to a free desk. This helped in processing large volumes of passengers in a very short time. It reminds me of the luggage check-in machine in Schiphol; why couldn’t it be done there as well so the capacity is used more efficiently?
Up to the trains and we have to change trains in Tokyo for the fast train to Nagoya. I have a quick lunch box (Bento Box) for breakfast/lunch/dinner (no idea what time of the day it is… jet lag!) and again, there are a lot of signs to make sure you go in the right direction.
We take the taxi from the railway station to the hotel and something interesting happens. We instruct the driver to go to the hotel we’ve booked, but during the journey, make the discovery that we’ve been rebooked from the from Tokyu hotel to Kanku hotel. As soon as we become aware of this, we ask the cab driver to change our destination. He still delivers us to the wrong hotel.
He tries to unload the luggage immediately to ‘get rid of the problem’, even though, at this stage, we know we are at the wrong hotel. With the help of the hotel’s bellboy he convinces the taxi driver to drop us off at the right hotel. My impression is that for a Japanese person there is a strong preference for structure and stability and when it comes to instantly adapting/adjusting, this is something difficult for them.
Now the Lean experience really begins. We go to the Toyota Management Institute for a day of lectures and workshops about Total-Toyota Production System (TPS) and Total Management System (TMS). Here, we meet the masters, with many years of experience with Toyota. They are now passing on their knowledge to us students.
The building itself is downtown Nagoya and does not have the fancy outlook you may might expect for such an institute. It is very basic and does not jump out. This is in line with the essence of Lean, Lean Management, Lean Manufacturing, Lean Production and Lean Six Sigma, which is all about adding value to the customer, streamlining resources and removing excess.
All communications are in Japanese and we’re fortunate to have a translator whit us. The main message we take from the morning sessions is that people are key in making Total-TPS and TMS work. This is very much in line with my personal view and I find it encouraging to see this philosophy embedded in the Total-TPS and TMS methods.
After a nice Japanese lunch (fingers sometimes needed to be used to help the chopsticks along if I’m very honest) we were given a task of a production line that we had to manage. We put into practice some of the learning points of the morning session and manage to improve the production line to a lower and more stable takt time. I’m impressed when I hear the takt times the other students achieved.
Being in Japan is quite a humbling experience. One word that keeps popping into my mind is ‘respect’. The people we speak with are very respectful to us, very respectful to each other and to the things they do. This leads to a very harmonious atmosphere and very structured and effective way of spending a day. This respect and structure is performed almost to the extreme and sometimes raises the question about situations where you need to adapt now, take a stand or intervene (see example of the cab driver yesterday).
The flip side is that in the Netherlands we often let the person who shouts the loudest decide. I believe that possibly the best way forward is that on a personal level you should pay respect to each other, but when it comes to an argument you need to speak your view out loud and put your point across.
Let’s see how this develops during the week…
In the evening we have some time to relax and go to the Nagoya Beergarden. Compared to our experiences during the day, this is a completely different scenario. Here Japanese people go to have fun.
When I say fun, I mean fun. People are overly excited. There’s a lot of lights, noise and laughter. Games and funny stuff. Where people were quiet and introverted during the day, here at night, they are loud and extroverted. I love seeing this other side to Japan and we too have a lot of fun here. It also seems that office workers go out together; managers and employees mix, and it means hierarchical structures are less visible. Perhaps this is how Japanese people get rid of pressures built up in normal life?
The next morning, we go to the Toyota museum in Nagoya. We learn about the history of the Toyoda family as industrials and how they set about bringing their vision to the world.
It all started with the loom. Using their engineering knowledge they decided to introduce a new system of working – one producing flawless results. They enhanced their machinery to work seamlessly, with little effort and developed their production lines to have zero defect products. We trace the very start of the company, through to the present and look to how Toyota sees the future.
In the afternoon we play the Lean Game. This is a very interactive game where we are sent out on an expedition to complete certain tasks around Nagoya. The game gives us an insight as to how Lean technologies are embedded in the day-to-day life in this city.
We observe so many examples where people on the streets and in buildings are provided information to guide them in the right direction. This varies from the lines on the platform at the metro station asking you to line up in an area so the unboarding and boarding can be done as effectively as possible, to the traffic sign above the road indicating a fast lane for when an earthquake happens, to a ticket in a coffee shop with information about the coffee beans used to educate the coffee lover.
Bowled over by so many things to see, we miss the tea ceremony in Nagoya castle. This is very unfortunate as we miss out on one of the most authentic Japanese cultural experiences. I feel a little like I have offended the group and that I lack respect towards the people in the tea house by being late. This was a learning point for me.
With our eyes trained and minds now set in the right mode we are ready for the next step of our visit – a trip to Gemba of Gemba’s, the Toyota production facilities in Toyota city.
Picked up by the bus, (which of course was indicated by a sign stating the name of our group in the front window – you wouldn’t expect anything less) we head for Toyota city. After an hour’s drive and a ton of Wim’s jokes to keep us entertained, we arrive at the plant.
After a tour through the on-site museum we go right inside the plant to see the TPS elements in action with our own eyes. I see how parts are moved to the assembly line, how the assembly line is managed and how good products are made based on good Lean thinking.
And then it’s time for Tokyo. Now that we knew what to expect from the train (the first time round at the airport, we were too weary to be highly observational), I’m amazed by the smoothness of the ride. Seemingly without effort the bullet train, or as it’s better known, the duck train, speeds at a massive 330Km/h through the Japanese countryside.
The landscape zooms by like we’re in a movie – I feel as though I am floating. I realize how perfect this engineering is – the only way such a train can travel so fast is because all is under control and the build of the train and the track supporting it nears perfection.
This strive for perfection is visible in all aspects of Japanese culture and comes together as a pure example in this train. Not only does it run smoothly, it runs on time as well. I notice that a railway station in Japan only has a few tracks to deal with incoming trains, whereas in the Netherlands we have in general more track to deal with the volumes in travellers.
To achieve this efficiency with limited tracks, the time a train is on the platform should be as short as possible and requires passengers to unboard/board as quickly as possible. The trains must run exactly on time. This is exactly what I saw ever since we’d arrived in Japan.
The difference on arrival to Tokyo was striking. While Nagoya is a fairly large city, there is still a sense of serenity. Tokyo on the other hand is enormous and life is much more hectic.
Our hotel was located in out of the tourist flashy centres of Tokyo city. Now where could the lean principles be used in such a chaotic environment?
City of the people
Day six of our trip and we’re off to the city hall of Nakano. During the presentation we are told how the City Hall is continuously improving its services to the population.
Issues such as the ever increasing average age and the level of illiteracy were important topics when it comes to customer service. One example where lean principles were introduced at City Hall was to change the waiting area to accommodate for older people.
We learn that the challenge for the organization is not just to perform Kaizen (continuous change), but to implement Kaikun (major change). The kaizen is being performed but the organization faces resistance implementing drastic changes in its operations.
In the evening we receive Aikido lessons. Aikido originates from three words Ai (Harmony) Ki (Energy) and Do (the path) which is very much in line with my experiences of Lean so far.
In harmony resides the mutual respect that I has do far experienced in Japanese society around me. Ki represents the intrinsic organizational motivation that drives continuous change and self-operating and autonomous teams.
We are shown that the goal is to continuously learn/improve for the longer term rather than to defeat your opponent for the short term. While participating in the Aikido exercises we get the- opportunity to experience this.
Fish market of Tsukiji
The fish market offers a setting to see the implementation of Lean in a completely other and unexpected way. The whole value chain from sea to end user is visible in this market.
The market is like a beehive where everyone and everything has a task that revolves around adding value to the customer. It is so packed there is simply no room for waste.
The fish market provides a direct production line to restaurants. Karts go back and forth between the stations on the market. They take the produce from fish processor to fish trader to restaurant to consumer. The restaurants are small and replenished via the back door while via the front door the customers enter the restaurants for truly fresh fish.
Dry cleaning service
In the afternoon we are brought to a dry-cleaning service located in the outskirts of Tokyo. The manager tells us how they changed their business from being a season sensitive dry-cleaning business to a business model where their production facilities were utilized more evenly throughout the year.
This was achieved by offering storage of seasonal clothing as part of the dry-cleaning service. Considering the fact that Japanese houses are relatively small and storage is therefore limited, this service offers additional value to customers, while the company can spread their production more evenly over the year, resulting in an improved efficiency of the production lines and dry cleaning machines.
After a full week of learning, we now have a day to explore Tokyo and go wherever we fancy. It offers a chance to reflect a little and take in everything we have seen so far. I’m aware that even though we have had only seen a small part of this enormous city, everything is organized – even the chaos.
A trip to the reminds us that the principles of respect and elegance in simplicity are embedded in Japanese culture, which is also reflected in the Lean philosophy. After the temple we go straight to the 600m high SkyTree and find another pure example of what achievements can be made by applying these principles in making a better or more beautiful world.
The day ends with a visit to the tech shopping area in Tokyo, a must-see if you are somewhat tech crazy like me. The shops are stocked with a gazillion gadgets, most useful, some not, many simply incomprehensible. This is also Japan in its drive to innovate to the extreme to make life for people easier, or just to provide some fun.
We close off our week with dinner with the group and I enjoy it and their company very much. There is diversity in the characters of the group and the whole experience has been truly enjoyable. The shared interest and curiosity to learn more about Japan and see Lean in practice has made it a fascinating trip. I have to say a special thank you to everyone who took part and a special thanks to Lean.nl: Anend Harkhoe and Menno Dijkstra for making Lean Expedition to Japan possible and so unique.
We are up early on the final day of the trip to make our way to the airport. Airport handling was not very effective and there is continuously room for improvement. Wouldn’t you know it? We purchase the last of the presents for family at home and say goodbye to a country we have learned to love – in the leanest way possible.
Derk de Vries, 2017
Derk de Vries is a Senior manager in leading improvement and transformations, mainly in the IT and Telecommunications related services industry, where the focus is put in improving efficiency and the creation of customer value.