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October 06, 2014 | Tom Ballard

Liker says Kaizen doesn’t end with automation

RAMPBy Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

“Kaizen doesn’t end because you automate,” Jeffrey Liker told a roomful of manufacturers and those who work with them on Monday night at the kickoff of the “RAMP Trade Conference and Expo.”

The University of Michigan Professor, consultant and author has spent years studying Toyota’s manufacturing system and its focus on continuous improvement, knowledge that he shared with the attendees at the reception and keynote event.

“Slim, simple, flexible . . . that’s the mantra within Toyota for new technologies,” Liker explained, adding that the global automotive giant is constantly focused on a smaller footprint for manufacturing and lowering its energy usage.

“To be lean and adaptive, you have to plan for the long-term,” he said. One example was the Prius, which was part of Toyota’s goal of preparing the company for the 21st century. Toyota started slowly, making sure that it got the vehicle just right.

Another key point that Liker repeatedly emphasized was PDCA. The acronym stands for “plan-do-check-act,” key steps in the Kaizen process.

“Pushing people into this zone of continuous improvement is not only difficult, but it goes against human nature,” Liker observed. “We naturally desire to get from the problem to the solution as quickly as possible. The ‘get it done’ mentality makes this approach (Kaizen) challenging.”

To emphasize the point of working repeatedly to find a solution and improve on it, Liker cited the work of Thomas Edison in developing the light bulb. He said the legendary inventor tried 2,000 different filaments before he found the right one.

“Working through things systematically is again counter intuitive,” Liker observed, adding a great line: “Thinking hurts.”

During his presentation, he cited several examples to illustrate Toyota’s culture and the work of some of its Kaizen leaders.

In response to a question, Liker said that he sees more examples of good lean manufacturing plants in Mexico and Brazil than the U.S.

“They are developing countries with a strong desire to learn,” he explained. “We are already developed.”

The conference continues today at the Holiday Inn World’s Fair in Knoxville. It is sponsored by the Regional Advanced Manufacturing Partnership coordinated by Tech 2020.

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