Kanban perfect flow- but at what cost?

Over the last few weeks we’ve been improving the flow of the team’s work by adopting Kanban. And to be fair with a significant amount of success, including the experimentation/testing of new ideas, suggestions and ideas from different work areas and/or disciplines. As part of this curiosity, one of the team members emailed me a link to this fascinating case-study from Japan. (This was originally featured in the Wall Street Journal).

The article is entitled:‘Japanese Firm Uses a Single-Worker System to Make Its Products’ with the strap-line stating that ‘With the Help of Digital Tools, Any Roland DG Employee Can Build Any Product’ which is I’ll think you’ll agree quite incredible! 

A bit of contextual information might be useful.

The firm is Roland DG. They are a small company with about $300 million in annual sales and just short of 1,000 employees. Roland DG have quite a broad range of products, and they make everything from billboard printers to machines that shape dental crowns! The key concept is what they refer to as the ‘D-shop’. 

The ‘D-shop’ method means that workers in single-person stalls assemble products from the total end-to-end flow or from start to finish. This is quite something to see in all fairness! Each solitary worker is carefully guided by 3-D graphics and to maximise flow parts are delivered automatically from a rotating rack. The article claims that each and every worker is capable of assembling any variation of the 50 products in their range or portfolio.

The picture (below) captures the sense of a Roland worker making an industrial printer. To this end the employee follows prompts provided on the computer (1), they in turn pull the identified pieces from the rotating parts rack (2) and with using digital screwdrivers (3) that track the precise number of turns and torque so as to ensure the product quality standards.

On a typical day you can find an employee assembling from scratch an industrial printer that ultimately would be more than twice her size and weigh almost 900 pounds. In a different cell, another co-worker was making a prototype milling machine. Then in a third pod or cell another was assembling the dental-crown milling machine. You can easily get the sense of just-in-time production methods fully integrated with the finest Kanban principles for maximising flow including reducing any hand-overs to other workers to zero! Quite incredible. It is reported that workers are rarely confused given the level of training. However,when they are, the design includes a button that when pressed will bring the floor manager running to help within a few seconds.

What do you make of this? For those of us with a professional interest in agile working including Kanban, Lean methods and value streaming etc we would have to concede that the ‘D-shop’ is impressive along a number of criteria. However, when I watch, listen and learn from my own team what is missing, for me, is the social interactions of team-working. I know this seems obvious, but it did strike my interest and chime with my own embodied (and Western) values.

This gives rise to certain questions such as:-

  • What motives us to work or different types of work?
  • What does not?
  • Where are the ‘trade-off’ points?
  • Are workers from Japan different from us in the West?

I’ll pick-up the evidence from the first three points and then lend some speculation to the final point.

In a recent survey 72% of employees ranked “respectful treatment of all employees at all levels” to be the most important factor in job satisfaction. #respect

After that the other factors were:-

  • trust between employees and senior management (64%)
  • benefits (63%)
  • compensation/pay (61%)
  • job security (59%).

(See the Society for Human Resource Management).

The most fascinating insight from the survey was that the actual work itself was ranked all the way down the list to number 11. Of course, if the sector in which you work has fairly stable levels of trust, benefits, pay and security; then by definition, the ways by which the work is organised and made satisfying become all the more important or relevant. This would hold all the more in sector where the supply side for key workers is short and current market demand is high. In this latter scenario work design and job satisfaction are key ingredients for talent recruitment strategies.

So what about our Japanese case-study? Evidently, in this labour market workers are attracted by such modern, clean, well paid and varied work. They seem satisfied with the work design and by that I mean by working in isolated cells or pods. There seems little room for individual or team creativity or innovation to me. And these are key characteristics of Agile.

So they seem to have maximised flow but at what cost? It seems to me the costs are the social and psychological costs that interesting and demanding work brings, and especially in high performing teams. Perhaps it is the history of Scrum within software development that means that I have framed it in this way?

Stated simply, it is evident that these Japanese workers have a qualitatively different psychological work contract to that which underscores our current Western notions of Agile working. It seems that there is then, after all, more to Agile working (and values) than (just?) maximising flow and having the optimal value stream?

Are we, in the main,  social beings that enjoy, delight and find satisfaction in working in teams? This seems to chime true to my experience to date. But I recognise that I have always lived and worked in the West. So there are limits to my experience.

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