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Honda America and the Psychology of Continuous Improvement

Understanding human fears, blocks and motivations can go along way toward ensuring a successful—and sustainable—continuous improvement program. And helping people be successful can be as rewarding as stripping out another $1,000 worth of waste.

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“Lean is not about reducing manpower. Not about more automation or robotics or using some neat tools. It’s not about cost savings, and it’s not a management flavor of the month—it’s a cultural change, and cultures are made up of people,” says Tom Fink, a Lean consultant who spent 21 years at Honda of America Manufacturing. Fink spoke at Omron Industrial Automation’s annual partner conference and later talked to Automation World about some of the psychology of successful continuous improvement.

Fink spent his last six years at Honda leading the company’s Lean Network, a group of more than 60 Honda Tier One suppliers actively learning and implementing Lean. Fink worked on-site with their people to create cultures of continuous improvement and says, “The one thing that seemed to make the most difference to our success? No fear. If you’re not afraid, you can find things and say things.”  

Whether it’s during kaizen events or regular daily operations, fear can keep good ideas down. One way to alleviate some of that fear among kaizen team members is to train people to forget titles and focus on the common goal, says Fink. “Strength, creativity and a can-do attitude develops as all focus on the goals rather than on themselves,” he says. “What I’ve learned through experience is that a position or a title can help meet [Lean] goals, but it’s not required for team success. And it very often can hinder the process. Some team members can’t release their job title and just be an equal member of the team. I’ve actually dismissed [folks like that] from the team in two incidences.” By clinging to the hierarchy, they’re not supporting others to have no fear.

Other times, you have people who seem to over share, who are always asking questions or giving advice. “I’d always say, ‘If you’ve got someone that asks a lot of questions, give them to me,” says Fink. “They just need a structure to direct their energy—and you want that energy!”

Some people are better at planning, others are better at doing, but everyone has ideas about how improve things. All skills are valuable, and training can help reduce fear by helping people understand their differences. “During our kaizen events, we do 70 to 80 percent planning, 2 percent doing and the rest of the time is for reflecting. That lets the team learn,” says Fink. “Other times, it helps to split the team into smaller groups, being sure to break up departments so each person can become their own process expert.”

And then there’s “the negative guy.” He should be coached to come around, but if he can’t, you might want to send him off to observe a line by himself and then report back, says Fink. “You don’t kick him off the team, but you also don’t allow him to affect the performance of others.”

Quiet or negative people often don’t believe changes will really be implemented, or don’t think they have anything of value to contribute, says Fink. Sometimes you have to draw them out. One powerful tool for that is the simulation phase, he says. After a long day of sitting in a meeting room brainstorming process improvement suggestions in small groups, the whole team goes out on the floor to simulate new operations. People physically act out the roles of a cutting machine or storage rack, while others perform the assembly steps on the “redesigned line.”

Maybe it’s the hilarity of someone flapping his arms or miming the holding of a heavy load, but “at this point cooperation and teamwork seem to hit a major breakthrough and the team becomes really excited about what they’ve accomplished,” says Fink.   

Read "How to Create and Sustain Successful Continuous Improvement Teams" from the December 2011 issue of Automation World. 

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