A Gulf in Thinking

keep-calm-and-pull-andon-cord-4The Toyota Production System famously uses the andon system: the provision of a cord hanging from the ceiling* at every worker’s station that, once pulled, indicates that the worker has identified a problem and that no more work should pass through their section of the line until this problem has been resolved.

(* it doesn’t have to be a cord, it can be a button or other such device.)

The problem could be anything. If the worker isn’t happy about something, then the cord gets pulled!

Once pulled, a light and/or buzzer will be triggered. The worker’s supervisor will come to their station and, together, they will consider the problem and how to resolve it. Depending on the problem, it may be resolved fully or temporarily whilst a better countermeasure is worked on in parallel (i.e. the temporary doesn’t become permanent!)

This ‘stop the line’ mentality means that:

  • No more units of work can go through the line whilst the problem exists, meaning that the customers are protected from receiving a defective product/ service;
  • The problem is solved as soon as it occurs. It’s not a case of “yeah, we’ve known about it for ages but no one’s done anything about it (yet!)…”; and
  • The process is continually improving naturally, as it operates. I love this bit – the workers are the source of this improvement rather than specialist improvement teams being sent in to monitor them and their work.

And to be clear, this andon system is equally applicable to a service organisation and its processes as it is to a manufacturing line. If you are performing a service but experience a problem…stop…don’t keep processing yet more units through the problem…work to remove the problem. This ‘stop’ doesn’t mean stop answering customer demand (such as picking up the phone) but it does mean stop doing things that you know aren’t going to be good for that, and future, units of work.

Now, obviously, a process performer is constrained by the system and can’t resolve problems by themselves. The andon system is far more than a cord! It is workers, supervisors and managers all working together with the same ‘stop the line and fix it’ mentality.

H. Thomas Johnson, in his highly regarded book ‘Profit beyond measure’ explains a conversation he had with a training executive from one of the American ‘Big Three’ auto companies who were trying to emulate Toyota by copying their tools and techniques.

This is what the executive said when Johnson asked how her company presents the andon system in employee training:

“Employees are told that the andon system is very important to achieving high quality, but they are told that they must use the cord responsibly. That means don’t pull it unless it is absolutely necessary, because pulling the cord and stopping the line is very costly.”

…and so this executive exposes the absolute gulf in thinking between her organisation and (System Thinking organisations such as) Toyota!

THE point of the andon system is that the employee is able to stop their work at will.

How the hell does the worker know if it’s ‘absolutely necessary’? What does that even mean? Toyota want the worker to ‘pull the cord’ even if they are simply uncertain about something…so that this uncertainty can be identified, understood and removed – it’s not the workers fault if they aren’t sure about something! It’s the system.

They also want the worker to pull the cord if they can’t keep pace with the line. Again, this is the worker telling them something that they need to know…not an opportunity to blame the worker as a ‘slacker’. They can then look at why the worker can’t keep pace. This could be for a myriad of reasons.

You can see why a Toyota line will continue to get better and better every day and their workers more expert, feeling more respected and as a result more engaged in wanting to improve.

You can also see that their American competitor is playing a ‘command and control’ mind game on their workers. The worker is thinking “should I pull the cord? Not sure…best not to since I don’t want to be blamed for the cost.”

Paradoxically, it will be Toyota’s costs that will be going down!!!

Now, Toyota does monitor the number of times the cords are pulled in a given period (i.e. they do care about who is pulling it and how often) but not as you might think…

…they are most concerned when the number of ‘stop the line’ signals goes down…because this indicates that they are not improving as much as they were…and this concerns them: more andon cord pulls please!!!

Oh, and one last (yet important) thing: targets, and contingent rewards , are the sworn enemy of stopping the line to resolve a problem!

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