Managing Variety Using Standardized Tasks

January 12, 2010 - Tags:

Most firms have realized the importance of standardizing tasks; however, the degree of standardization often stops at the tasks that directly relate to producing a product or, to a lesser extent, service. For example, how to machine a part is often documented at length simply because an industrial engineer and a stopwatch can achieve the desired end. But how does a worker load a truck? How are invoices filled? How are cars driven to the parking lot? In what sequence are lights switched on or off at a factory or office? How is food ordered for a meeting? People who work on projects are often frustrated by competing demands. How does one standardize their tasks? Help them prioritize?

The unfortunate problem is that 85 to 90 percent of the tasks in most supply chains are not performed according to a standard procedure. Many of these tasks involve repetitive activity such as loading and unloading trucks, moving material in and out of warehouses, scheduling a route for picking up parts, and scheduling deliveries to dealers. In various chapters we have described these activities. In order to standardize pickups, a determination would need to be made as to how many deliveries are necessary from each supplier. Then, the trucks would be routed so that those that have similar frequency are picked up together. Doing so would allow the operator to find the route and routine that works the best. The operator can then be tasked with improvement of the process.

Wherever task standardization is difficult, it is possible to standardize recording and reporting so that similar activities can be compared across multiple locations or with the same reference framework. Toyota uses reports on one side of a standard A3 sheet in the same format to record problems and solutions. For example, if a heavy load needs to be moved across one plant to another, it should be possible to quickly access how it was done previously or at a similar location.

Standardization also facilitates the transfer of successful practices across the supply chains. The Toyota Way document puts it like this: “Successful practices are adopted as standard and then transferred, spread, and entrenched in the organization to leverage their effect.” Moreover, standardization facilitates coordination; for example, if there is a fire in the supplier’s factory (see the description of the Aisin Seiki episode in Chapter 10), a rapid response to the crisis is possible. Solutions can be brought to bear quickly because there is familiarity with operations and operating systems.

Task standardization also enables senior managers to recognize issues well before they go out of control by matching evolving patterns, similar to the innate capacity of chess grand masters.

Managing Variety Using Reliable Tested Technology That Serves People and Processes

The planning and control systems we have described are simple but effective because they serve people and processes. Many of the planning systems used at Toyota combine simplicity and visual controls into powerful tools. For example, new production lines are created virtually through use of ergonomic design in the workplace. The program can identify such issues as excessive bending, requirement of excessive force, and tools that cannot reach recesses. Spreadsheets that use color codes are utilized to plan the mix of cars to ship to different regions in Europe. Parts are associated with each car to be assembled in the precise sequence. Toyota is also not averse to using the most advanced technology if it serves people and processes. With the most recent technology, the car that leaves the paint line signals the seat producer.

This emphasis on serving people and processes does not preclude experimentation. Often design projects begin with several parallel paths until careful experimentation leads to pruning and convergence on the technology.