Linus Brodén, demand chain officer at HP Tronic, a contract electronics manufacturer in Sweden, presents a case study which explores how a lean transformation got underway at the factory.

We have been working with lean in our manufacturing areas since 2007 and made several attempts to introduce it into our administrative processes but have never been successful.

We tried to find situations where we could apply the lean toolbox, but this has been harder in the administrative areas, and the results always slipped back after a couple of weeks. We haven’t been able create any long-term commitment, which may be because there hasn’t been a clear connection between the toolbox and what we as a company are trying to achieve. Our efforts have been focused at eliminating waste, almost randomly, and with no clear target.

In February 2014, we were introduced to the improvement kata and coaching kata practice routines, as a part of a project with Produktionslyftet, a business development programme in Sweden to help manufacturing companies improve their competitiveness based on lean principles. These routines combine a pattern of scientific thinking with principles of deliberate practice, to make scientific thinking something anyone can learn.

The kata approach was different from what we’ve heard before. It’s more on the leadership and management side and instead of focusing on the lean toolbox, kata focused on defining a challenge and target condition and provided a clear procedure of iterative experiments to strive for it. The approach can be applied in any situation and practiced again and again. This was our key to successfully introducing lean principles in our administrative processes; we didn’t focus on the toolbox. We focused on a challenge and by what means to get there.

Our management team, with the assistance of a coach from Produktionslyftet, defined a three year challenge: to increase production by 50% with the same number of personnel and floor space.

We started our kata work in four areas: sales, purchasing, engineering and a joint group that we call the quotation process (which includes sales, purchasing and engineering).

The role of structured practice

Since the start we have conducted approximately 150 experiments and have achieved several target conditions on the way to the overall challenge. We are following the experiments daily using coaching cycles with the five coaching kata questions. Our coach, Lars Danielsson, has pointed out that coaching cycles are where the scientific routine gets established in our minds as a habit. Coaching cycles help to teach the improvement kata pattern, in the mind of both the learner and the coach.

“When you hear the idea of improvement activities every day it’s easy to be reluctant, I was. But when you start to experiment and see the results, you get it. Before we started kata, I believed a two hour meeting was better than a couple of ten minute meetings. Today, after three months with experiments, I’ve clearly changed my mind.”  – Emil, Sales Manager

In the beginning it felt odd to repeatedly ask the same questions as a kata coach, but the more experience you gain the more the importance of a structured coaching routine gets clearer. You have a standardised way of reminding yourself and the team of the target condition. It keeps you on track so you don’t lose focus and start with experiments that aren’t relevant for the current target condition. The five coaching kata questions help you to be more efficient and focus on what we learned from the last experiment and our next step, instead of entering a never ending discussion of possible solutions. Perhaps the most important point is that while we are working on real goals, we are practicing.

An example of improvement activity

In the quotation process we defined a target condition that described a work flow process with increased integration between the involved departments, and an outcome metric of 85% RFQs complete within standard time.

To increase the integration between the departments we started to experiment with ways to visualise the process. The work with this target condition resulted in a daily seven-minute meeting using a whiteboard to visualise the flow and a set meeting agenda. Everyone involved agrees that they now have much clearer picture of what’s going, as well (positive) crosstalk between the groups has increased. The rate of achieving the standard lead time has increased from an average of 60% to 85% (May 2014) and 90% (June 2014).

“Before we started experimenting toward this target condition, there were countless complaints of lacking resources and the involved departments didn’t hesitate to blame each other.

After the target condition was met, I haven’t heard any complaints and we are finally working as one group instead of three different departments.”
– Veronica, Plant Manager

Together with the work done toward target conditions in sales, purchasing and engineering, we are now able to measure the throughput time, quality and resource allocation through the entire quotation process; defined as “when we receive the RFQ until we deliver the quotation to the customer”.

The interesting thing is that this was developed out of a specific need and through following the pattern of the improvement kata, not something we benchmarked from someone else and then tried to copy.

The normal elements of a learner’s kata storyboard.

This one is in the sales department.

Some kata lessons learned

We have also had our share of difficulties with kata. Firstly, there are a lot of areas where you have to change your mindset: for example, we have previously worked with improvement projects that have a clear start and end. We talked about continuous improvements, but haven’t really understood what that meant in practice. The fact that improvement isn’t something you can take a break from was a big mindset change. This is still something that we work on every day, since it’s very easy to fall back to old habits.

The whiteboard to visualise the quotation process that the kata team developed.
Sales, engineering and purchasing meet here every day at 08:30.

Secondly, before we started to work with kata we always focused our improvements activities by picking the lowest hanging fruit with no clear direction. The kata approach is different; you have define a target condition and focus on the improvements needed to achieve it. Here it’s also quite easy to fall back to old habits, especially whenever you try to experiment against obstacles that are hard to overcome and solve.

“Today I have much better understanding of the sales process, my colleagues’ work and why we make certain priorities.”

– Lars, sales department

Lastly, it’s hard to learn how to formulate good target conditions. You have to find something that’s outside your current knowledge threshold, without using verbs (as if you were already there) and make it concrete enough so you know when we reached it. You’re defining where you are going without knowing how you will get there.

What’s the next step?

We are still in the early steps of deploying kata, but in the future we want this to be a part of HP Tronic’s DNA. Therefore our main focus is more of the same; create the habit of daily experiments.

By experimenting with ways to follow up our improvement activities in the management team, expanding kata to other departments, and developing more kata coaches we aim to create a pattern that will become normal through the organisation. If we are successful, then the organisation can meet all sorts of challenges with the help of structured experiments into the unknown.