Like other automakers, Honda preaches the gospel of kaizen to its parts suppliers. But continuous improvement does not come naturally to some suppliers - especially those in emerging markets. In his book, Powered by Honda, Dave Nelson - Honda's former senior vice president of purchasing - describes some of the challenges posed by a factory in Mexico.
She is working hard. This is a new job for her, and it pays well. She assembles and tests automotive component assemblies at a small plant in Reynosa, Mexico.
Rocio holds a master power window switch for a Honda Accord in her right hand. With her left hand, she orients a connector and plugs it into the bottom of the switch. Then she changes hands, and touching the assembly the way a driver would, she activates the four switches, one by one. She cycles the buttons with her thumb, while with her right hand she cycles the test board on and off. She watches the indicator lights, looking for good connections, or, occasionally, intermittent flashes that would mean, to the customer, intermittent problems.
Perched on a stool at the end of the assembly line, Rocio, and thousands of workers just like her, performs these repetitive movements dozens of times per hour, hundreds of times per day, thousands of times each week. Sometimes her shoulders ache from bending over her test table. Sometimes her wrists hurt from manipulating hundreds of small components. Sometimes the part passed to her by her upstream neighbor doesn't work. But always, Rocio quietly keeps up the pace.
At this TRW plant, something new is going to change the way Rocio and thousands of associates just like her in other plants worldwide do their jobs. Two visitors from Ohio, Tom Kiely and Steve Francis, have arrived to introduce Honda's powerful supplier development program, BP, to this and hopefully other TRW plants. Their plan? To give the Reynosa workers, whom Honda calls associates, a way to take control of the production process with which they work, to raise their own quality and productivity levels, to make their jobs easier and physically less taxing, and to help them prepare for the incredible growth opportunities coming their way as a key Honda supplier.
The BP program is a very simple 13-week, hands-on process that Honda has perfected and applied in over 120 successful projects to help achieve tremendous productivity improvements. Some of the 90 companies have, in turn, applied the BP process to their own suppliers. It's a many-tiered web of production success stories.
BP stands for Best Position, Best Productivity, Best Product, Best Price, and Best Partners. It is a very powerful continuous improvement process designed by Honda experts that can revolutionize the way companies raise their performance levels. ...
How it all started
... For the Reynosa project, Tom Kiely was chosen to work with Steve Francis, who had been working in BP for three years and had completed seven projects to Tom's 10. They had worked together on a tough stamping project and felt they knew the territory. However, neither of them spoke Spanish. ...
At week 3 in their 13-week program, Francis and Kiely were still making trips to the plant. Travel costs were piling up - airfare, food, and lodging. Quality and delivery problems persisted. Line workers were paid, parts or no parts. Red ink on the production control white board fed frustrations as the tally of shortages and unbuildable assemblies mounted. Whenever BP team members approached the line, workers stopped talking and averted their eyes.
They kept on smiling
To these workers, Kiely and Francis were, as manufacturing supervisor Hector Rodriguez remembers, 'just another parade of visitors, a charade.
'We used to joke about the 'parade,'' recalls Rodriguez, 'the parade of improvement programs marched through our plant, and we even threatened 'no new ideas until we know that new visitors are coming!' because we knew that that was the only time that support management, like maintenance, or engineering, would help us out. We were jaded.'
Francis and Kiely had introduced themselves and set up a suggestion box in the middle of the production line. Each morning Kiely 'emptied' the box, pantomiming a weeping engineer as he turned the box upside down and shook it - no suggestions. They had feared that associates would not trust them, and they were right. Why should they? Rodriguez met Kiely's 'Introduction to BP' speech with an experienced warning: 'Nice try, guys, but this will fail, too.' But Kiely and Francis just smiled. Plant supervisors asked, 'Why are you smiling? You are going to fall. You are in a different world here. Maybe this would work at Honda, but not here. I will see you, before three months are up, return to Honda, frustrated.'
And they just smiled.
Give us six weeks
Francis made a proposal. 'Give us six weeks and you'll be convinced. We've heard this before, but in six weeks, you'll see results.' Rodriguez raised his hand and volunteered six weeks, knowing 'they wouldn't last six weeks here. They'd be gone the first month.' ...
The Honda team decided to go one-on-one with line workers. Their first customer was Rocio. The workers were shy, and they knew that whenever they had a good idea, an engineer would steal it and pass it off as his. Kiely remembers, 'They thought we were just there to give it to them in the ribs.'
'We had ideas,' says Francis, 'but we wanted them to come from the associates. We knew how to speed and balance the line, but the improvement had to come from them.' The team was looking for a quick hit, that day if possible.
Rocio seemed approachable. Francis and Kiely asked if she had any ideas that would make her job easier. She acted as if she didn't understand. The Honda people spoke only English, and she knew they would not be around long enough to learn Spanish.
But in a small whisper, Rocio told Hector, 'I want the test fixture angled so I can see the lights better.' This was their first suggestion! She left for lunch, and the team got to work.
In the back of many small plants, there is a scrap pile filled with corrugated cardboard, wood pallets, and scrap metal. Kiely and Francis paw through the junk, looking for a way to follow through on their first inroad. Kiely spots it first - a small chrome magazine rack, the wall-hanging type.
Thirty minutes later the new test fixture is in place, and Rocio returns from lunch. The team hides in the BP room, watching Rocio's face through the window blinds. She starts to smile. ... 'The Honda visitors had listened!' Rocio's expression seemed to say.
The line starts up again as Rocio picks up her tools, and gradually her hand movements smooth and quicken. She tells her friends. The next day the BP mailbox has several ideas, and the following day, more than 20. Francis and Kiely, anxious to build on small successes, post 65 ideas from 13 line operators on a tracking chart, and next to each idea the owner's name is clearly written. ...
It's not engineering, it's communication
The Reynosa project is not unlike most BP projects. They all hinge on communication - from employees on the line to executives whose real-time support is a basic requirement for success. The simplicity of the concept baffles managers who may be expecting work requiring minimal upper-level commitment - 'edicted excellence.'
Indeed, the Reynosa project was headed to oblivion as executives, part of the continuing 'parade' of plant visitors, attempted to cut short project meetings to board airplanes, leaving plant personnel with ongoing, unidentifiable shortage problems.
Frustration fuels action, and Francis and Kiely challenged management commitment to accountability by calling upstream parts suppliers to a group meeting in Reynosa, where the results of their pareto analysis on parts shortages identified the top four or five offenders. Kiely describes that meeting as chaotic, when hastily assembled overheads pounded away at waste-rejected parts, unaccounted-for rework, downtime, premium air freight charges, second inspection costs, etc. - caused by the lack of communication and cooperation.
What better way to illustrate another tenet of the Honda BP philosophy - the 3 A's? To understand a problem, go to the actual spot, examine the actual part, and see the actual situation.
TRW supplier management had to learn from actual visits who their internal customer really was - Rocio and her colleagues. Management had to see and experience the pain caused by a failed philosophy that tried to inspect quality into a product. And management had to be held accountable.
Honda BP engineers revolutionized old practice when they marked each improvement suggestion with the originator's name, in the same way they simultaneously marked each parts shortage with the name of the accountable manager.
Celebrate the results
Change may sometimes be painful, but it is always powerful. With BP, a process limited to a 13week start-up, the results are powerful and immediate. Reynosa was ripe for change, and the results showed it.
Good pieces produced per man-hour at the beginning of the project measured 4.93 units. After 13 weeks, the number rose to 7.6 pieces, an increase of 54 percent. Line balance improved from 55.5 percent to 72.5 percent; throughput time dropped from 10 minutes and 43 seconds to 9 minutes. Production efficiency, 66 percent at the start, rose to 85 percent, well on the path to excellence. One year into the program, manufacturing associates had generated 432 suggestions, of which 340 were adopted. ...
On the day of the final presentation, TRW and Honda executives flew in to hear the remarkable story and celebrate the results. Rodriguez and his team presented the results of their BP activity to Honda and TRW executives, many of whom had never seen -and perhaps had not expected - this type of change from a group of production workers. Proud co-workers cheered them on as cameras flashed, and production associates donned new BP program white smocks modeled after the Honda white uniform.
Excerpted from Powered by Honda: Developing Excellence in the Global Enterprise, by Dave Nelson, Rick Mayo and Patricia E. Moody. Copyright C 1998 by the authors. Reprinted by permission of John Wiley & Sons Inc.