Andon Calls and Muri

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I’m currently working my way through Mike Rother’s book Toyota Kata.  A formal review will follow in the future as I’m approximately half done but I can already say there are many great insights into TPS.  However, one of the insights has sparked up an old fire that I always seem to struggle with understanding as I have never been employed by Toyota.

Mike talks about how a Toyota assembly plant was staffed to handle about 1,000 andon calls per shift and they became very concerned when the calls dropped to 700 per shift.  Toyota found that this could only mean two things:  1) people are not calling for help or 2) they were experiencing less problems.  In the first case everyone was reminded that they are to pull the andon cord for ALL problems.  In the second they reduced inventory buffers to put further stress on the system so the andon calls would increase back to the correct levels for their staffing.  Needing more problems is a  great problem to have!!!!

Now imagine a place where problems are not visually obvious at the source.  Problems are detected after they have moved downstream.  The choice is to run what you can with suspect materials or miss a shipment to the customer.  Imagine a place where the staffing levels have been set based on ‘blocks of work’ analysis and the ‘blocks of work’ only constitute enough time to complete internally focused compliance and cost issues which were pulled off of a spreadsheet created in corporate several states removed from the gemba.

Back to the book, it also explains that you shouldn’t get “pareto paralysis” and you must work on every problem.  Unfortunately, all of the companies I have worked in are nowhere close to the staff levels to work on “all” problems.  I realize to accomplish this an organization needs to develop every teammate to be a problem solver so there are resources to work on these.  However, in my experiences I have yet to be involved in an organization that had the capability to work on even  1/3 of the problems that arise daily.  The operators are left to perform workarounds or we just accept the waste and added costs in the process.

If it is physically impossible to answer every andon call in order to work on every problem, is it best to fix the first one that comes sequentially?  Then do work arounds and rework until we can respond to another one?

I have always used systems to prioritize what problems we work on whether it be pareto charts, value stream maps, or just plain standing in the circle.  Once directions, or as Toyota Kata describes them, process target conditions, are established and the highest priority items are “fixed” and then we move on the the next most important challenge.

Working on all problems in the process would overburden the organization’s problem solvers.  This would be a form of dreaded muri right?  I’ve read and heard much about the Toyota staffing levels required to operate TPS effectively.  Most range from 5 to 7 employees under each level of leadership position.  Again, my experiences are more like 30 to 40 employees under a 1st line leader.

Two questions:

  1. What percentage of daily problems are organizations that you work in staffed to handle?
  2. What philosophies do you utilize to ensure you don’t introduce Muri to the problem solving teammates in the organization?


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Ed. Note – This post contains a link to the domain.  This in no way represents a general endorsement of that school up there by the publishers of this blog.  The publishers of this blog advise you that visiting pages in the domain, other than the personal  pages of Mssrs. Rother and Liker, is done at your own risk.  Go Bucks!!


5 Responses

  1. First of all, I have just started reading this and one of the first things I picked up was the discontinuity of mindsets from someone who just looks at lean as tools as opposed to an approach of looking at your business. That very issue not only limits the use of the tools but also impedes your ability to continuously improve. For answers to your questions:
    1. Across my current organization, it is hard to say if we have enough staff or not because everyone seems to be working in broken processes so even though they may be working in their area, there are issues in the system. I think sometimes it may be the deployment of staff and resources that is the bigger hang-up than the number of employees.
    2. I don’t think the organization as any established plans to deal with muri. You sometimes get moved from issue to issue because what was important becomes less important over time.

  2. Okay, everybody go ahead and yell at me (CAPS LOCK) for what I am about to suggest. I am about to leave the ‘lean reservation.’ I am going to commit blasphemy. I am going to suggest that Toyota is not the logical model for everybody at every point in their learning journey. I might even do a post in the upcoming days and codify my blashphemy into a new dogma. Going to a Toyota factory that is 5 decades into transformation and describing what you see does not a constitute a prescription for successs in value streams who are just changing their paradigms. I had a really great mentor who helped me understand that when I read a book by one the masters of lean that what they described was not necessarily something that could be acheived in day, a year, or even a decade; furthermore, he suggested that some of the masters may never have been through the processes of changing an organizations fundamental paradigm about how to make stuff. Some of the masters may have always worked in organizations where the lean paradigm constituted their company’s “Way.” Some of the masters may never have actually helped implement a pull system in a real value stream. In all likelihood none of the masters had ever done it one of our value streams.
    On another note. Toyota doesn’t have it all figured out yet. I’ll stipulate, for the purpose of this comment, that they are the best manufacturer in the history of the known universe. That in no way logically establishes that their way is the best way, only the best known way. I am grateful to people at Toyota that they didn’t read Today and Tomorrow and decide that H. Ford ‘had it all figured out.” They learned what they could from him and continued the think, question, challenge, learn, and change stuff.
    Lastly, Mike Rother has never been to nor has any interest in your Gemba. It’s yours not his.

  3. I guess I didn’t say anything to try to help you. I don’t think I would quit doing pareto charts because Rother recommends it. It is pretty basic and fast if you allow it to be. I am familiar with the organization that you are talking about (although not that location) and I would beware of the organizational tendency to spend more resources “counting than doing.”
    Maybe you could ask some people to set aside time to respond to some andon calls. Ask them to schedule it on their Notes calendars and go to the gemba instead of waiting in the office for a call maybe.
    Organizationally try t get some admin stuff off the first line supervisor’s plates and help them in responding to abnormal conditions. Good luck. It’s hard.

  4. Bruce,

    Thank you for your comments! Agree highly that copying Toyota, or anyone else, is not a great idea. I think the benchmark to beat is yourself and your current condition (see bottom of page xvii and page 53 in Toyota Kata). What Toyota Kata explains is how to do that.

    For sure I do not know your Gemba (see page 242). But I do care about your Gemba! (See page 261.)

    Regarding role of Pareto charts, check out the bottom of page 180 plus page 181.

    Mike Rother

  5. Looking forward to the rest of the review. I’ve debated getting yet another book from the “Toyota” series.

    Staffing levels are based on historical performance. If the team isn’t fixing problems they are trained to look for them and find new opportunities.

    We also adjust (lower) inventory levels to maintain a certain level of stress on the system. With a goal to eliminate or reduce inventories, we are constantly looking at impediments to achieve our objective.

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