By Jon Miller | Post Date: November 4, 2006 11:46 AM | Comments: 1
A Lean service implementation has been in progress for the last three years at Japan Post, the public sector entity that is Japan's postal service. Japan Post is slated to be privatized in 2007, and Toyota executives were involved in launching JPS or "Japan Postal System" a project to do kaizen and streamline the operations there in preparation of privatization.
A front-page splash in the October 29, 2006 Asahi Shimbun titled Japan Post Confused by Toyota System, Auditors Find "Only Superficial Kaizen" (郵政公社、トヨタ式に混乱 指導社員「上辺のみ改善」) suggests that things are not going well with kaizen at Japan Post.
Japan Post announced positive results from their kaizen efforts, including freeing up 1,467 people in the spring of 2006. However Toyota employees who were sent in to 142 post offices between April and June of this year to audit them found that kaizen at post offices was "81% garbage" as well as evidence of "presenting false reports". The feedback from the gemba is that postal workers find work more confusing, productivity is down, and the delivery of culturally important New Year's cards may be delayed.
The Asahi article reports that JPS was launched with the help of Toyota employees in 2003 as a pilot in one post office branch complete with time studies of the postal workers, counting the walking distance, and examining all work processes and procedures. Today the Lean service effort has expanded to 1,000 of the 1,200 regular post offices in Japan.
The focus of productivity improvement at Japan Post was on defining "units of work" to enable measurement, elimination of waste and better utilization of labor. The Asahi article gives several examples of kaizen implemented in the post offices:
- Work was divided into containers that represented 15 minutes of work, making the assignment of labor more visual and less subjective
According to the Asahi article, the report by the Toyota auditors identified that only eight post offices were adopting the kaizen methods, 30 were "not doing JPS" and 56 were "not doing JPS at all" and summarized that the system at the post offices was "81% garbage". The conclusion is that the regional post offices were sending false reports and that there is the possibility that the Japan Post results presented were not a reflection of reality.
Furthermore, the Toyota auditors included their personal reactions in the report, such as Toyota auditors saying to the postmasters at some post offices "Get out! You're fired!" and that one auditor felt "I was beyond anger and frustration, I felt pity for them".
The article reports that labor costs have not been reduced, but in fact they have increased since 2005 in spite of JPS implementation. The Asahi article contained some critical voices from the gemba. The criticisms of the "Toyota way" as applied to the Japan Post include:
- "We pretend to be doing JPS only when they come by to check. The postmaster tacitly approves of this."
This is a typical mix of mis-steps and ignorance of success factors that we see in botched Lean implementations around the world. There is a lack of engagement by the site-level managers. There is a lack of employee input in how to improve their daily work. The variation in products and volume demand seems to have been ignored in the design of the operating system. It is top-down without bottom-up. The postmasters are being held accountable for performance in a system they neither understand nor support.
It is surprising to find Toyota instructors responsible for such a botched Lean implementation. Perhaps some Toyota managers are better at being Toyota managers than being instructors, consultants and change agents.
Or was it asking too much to expect the entrenched bureaucratic culture of a Japanese public sector organization to adopt the true spirit of kaizen? Certainly they deserved more than a few time studies, tape marks, and the removal of chairs in the name of productivity. If they had been given a set of ideas and tools that made sense to them and actually made the work easier, safer and improved quality the result would not have been "81% garbage".
Is it fair to say that Toyota botched the implementation? If they were the teachers, even only in the beginning, it was their responsibility to make sure that the current condition was understood, not only in terms of how packages were moved but in terms of how people were trained, measured, motivated and managed. The managers and supervisors at Japan Post should have been taught new management behaviors to support kaizen.
Toyota has learned through both success and failure what it takes to grow into the largest automobile manufacturer as well as the most efficient and most steadily improving. As Toyota has expanded and built factories in other countries, they have found ways to communicate the Toyota way. Yet they seem to have failed to do so at Japan Post, even though they are in the same country and speak the same language.
So to anyone who has ever faced the objection to Lean manufacturing that "it works in Japan but will not work at this company" because somehow the Japanese are more culturally open to change or working as teams, you can offer back "it fails in Japan, but will not fail here" so long as we learn and apply the lessons from Japan Post.Comments are moderated to filter spam and inappropriate content. There may be a delay before your comment is published.