The four amigos of supply chain

From the June 2022 print edition

Meet my four little friends. There are so many new supply chain professionals that a lot of them don’t know what they don’t know. So, I am introducing everyone to Gemba, Gembutsu, Muda and Kaizen.

My four friends, Japanese lean management concepts, have helped me a lot over the years. Three of them are very well known.

The first one I’ll discuss, Gembutsu, rarely gets mentioned. During a course, instructors might refer to this stage as “current state.” It refers to collecting data without making assumptions.

‘This is a critical stage. Remember that you shouldn’t have an outcome in mind when conducting Gembutsu. Your perceived solution might taint your viewpoint and the research being conducted. You then may end up with a future state that misses needs and requirements.

A trick I learned is that I do need extra help. If you are interested in making changes then go to a post-
secondary institution offering supply chain instruction and ask them if they have a capstone for Gembutsu’s nickname, “value stream mapping.” You’ll be impressed by the results.

My next friend is called Muda. When working with Muda, you are going to have to learn that Muda expects that your work area is clean. Muda loves the little things. Muda does not expect big changes. Muda is your champion when it comes to eliminating waste. It does not always have to be material. It can be a waste of resources, time or steps. Muda is all about finding deviations and unwanted activities.

There is a series of videos that you can view for free that might help you learn more about how companies use Muda’s talent. Muda wants you to improve and one way you can do this is by learning from others. The videos are often titled “How it is.” Watch them with Muda’s critical eye and you will quickly see what you might want to change to make Muda happy.

Change for the better
The next little friend needs little introduction. Everyone has heard of Kaizen. You can always tell if someone is popular by the number of nicknames they have. Kaizen is also known as “continuous process improvement,” “change for the better” and “quality circles.” Kaizen is all about taking responsibility, which means you don’t leave challenges for a team or others to solve.

Unfortunately, Kaizen is often asked to help when things are bad. When that happens, management
is looking for big changes that are going to make a significant difference. Kaizen is supposed to be the friend that is always there for you, encouraging you to just be a bit better. Over the years, Kaizen will enable you to be the best you can be.

Kaizen is a team player and how you pick your team is what matters the most. I prefer to allow people
to ask to be part of the team versus being nominated or appointed. Kaizen is about diversity and perspective. Normally, people think that harmony is needed for Kaizen to work. It does help that the team gets along. It is more important that the discussions are open and transparent. At that point you will then see what I call “catching the magic.”

This is where a team works so well together that significant progress can be made. It is unfortunate that this rarely happens. Yet when it does, it is a joy to behold.

A lesson is to avoid breaking up Kaizen’s team and moving them to different areas of the company
to help those areas improve. A lone person with Kaizen is lonely indeed. Kaizen needs the stimulus of others for it to be truly effective.

My last little friend is called Gemba. I shouldn’t play favorites, but I like spending a lot of time with Gemba. When we first met, Gemba was called MBWA. If you don’t know, MBWA is simply management by walking around. There are three ways to learn: auditory, visually and kinaesthetically.

I, for example, must go and see, which is often a plant tour. I take what information I already know and see what I can learn.

You need to go to the location and see for yourself how the job is done. Learn to read people versus reports. Ask open-ended questions to learn those doing the job. You need to spend more time with the people and less time on everything else. If the people doing the job say something that you can’t believe is true, you need to ask yourself why they believe it? Look at the situation from their perspective and you might realize what you thought was true might be flawed. Ask “why” to get to the root of the problem of challenge.

Feel free to spend time with my four little friends. I won’t be jealous. I enjoy when they help others make a difference.

Gerald Ford is director, supplier development, with Kinetic & CEO of QCsolver Supplier Management.