TOYOTATIMES

How it happened: Toyota Production System Leads to 100-fold Increase in Protective Gown Production (Part 1)

FROM THE EDITOR 2020.08.09

INDEX

“To support these manufacturers, we will first go where the medical equipment is being made, and we will do what we can to support increased production, even if the result is only one more [product] being made, as we determine improvements in the production process and start providing support by utilizing our know-how.”

On April 10, Akio Toyoda, as Chairman of Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, delivered a message to the media that represented the thoughts of four industry associations involved in automobile manufacturing in Japan.(INSIDE TOYOTA #67

How do the improvements in the production process affect actual output? What is it that Toyota really does with TPS? Editor-in-Chief Kagawa read the previous article on Toyota Times about producing medical protective gowns with great interest. (INSIDE TOYOTA #78
To better understand TPS and this project, Kagawa decided to go to the source, the factories producing the medical protective gowns, to report.

Requested to make 10,000 gowns a day

The first production site visited was Funahashi, a company based in Nagoya that produces raincoats. Funahashi, a family-run company, was established almost a hundred years ago, in 1921. On the day of our visit, we were welcome by the company’s president, Akihiko Funahashi, the third generation president from the founding family, and Takashi Mori, Plant General Manager. Also on site were three experts that had been dispatched from Toyota tasked with helping to support improvements at the genba using the Toyota Production System, namely: Tomokazu Takahashi from Operations Management Development Div., Hiroshi Suzuki from Best Skill Promotion Dept. within the Global Production Center, and Kazuhiko Furui from the Maintenance Management Dept. in the Global Production Center.

As mentioned earlier, Funahashi had worked solely on producing raincoats for almost a century. After receiving requests for help from hospitals and local authorities, the company aimed to start producing medical protective gowns. The decision was made in light of the growing need and concerns from the doctors and nurses in the frontlines of healthcare as they reported that the number of their personal protective equipment was declining rapidly, especially the medical protective gowns.

After hearing about their need, President Funahashi was determined to produce the protective gowns using his experience making rainwear. To get started, he immediately went to a home improvement store to purchase some materials, then he worked on developing protective gowns that would be suitable to help in the fight against COVID-19 by trial-and-error.

However, the shortage of protective gowns was far more serious than expected. The crisis wasn’t confined to Aichi Prefecture, but had already started to spread across Japan. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry made a request to Funahashi to produce an amount of protective gowns far beyond their initial estimate.

President Funahashi:
At the beginning of April, we got a call from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. They told us that Japan would experience a protective gown shortage nationwide in May, and asked us to make 200,000 gowns, with a request to produce 10,000 gowns a day...

Kagawa:
10,000 a day?!

President Funahashi:
We did not have the capacity to do that at all, so we placed an advertisement in the newspaper asking for assistance.

Kagawa:
At first, how many gowns could you make per day?

President Funahashi:
About 500.

Kagawa:
They wanted you to go from 500 to 10,000?

President Funahashi:
Yes, that’s right.

Kagawa:
That’s quite the challenge!

President Funahashi:
It really was challenging.

Newspaper placement becomes driving force behind a new “alliance of volunteers”

Following an advertisement placed in a newspaper by Funahashi seeking assistance, many companies responded with a willingness to help. Among the seven companies that responded with an offer to help were a swimwear manufacturer in Mie Prefecture, two companies from Gifu Prefecture including a producer of tent fabric and a maker of women’s wear, and a car seat maker in Aichi Prefecture. These companies combined to create an “alliance of volunteers,” a group of like-minded companies trying to make a difference by doing what they can to help healthcare facilities. The formation of this alliance soon led to a system for mass producing medical protective gowns.

Toyota also saw the newspaper placement and raised its hand to join. The management at Toyota had already been considering how to support the healthcare sector amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic, and one answer came when they happened to come across the ad in the newspaper. They decided that offering their support in this effort would make the best use of Toyota’s strengths.

Kagawa:
I can understand companies that make swimsuits, womenswear and even tents making gowns, but it seems strange that a car manufacturer is making gowns.

President Funahashi:
Yes, I know what you mean.

Kagawa:
It’s really beyond my imagination.

President Funahashi:
After the newspaper ad came out, the first company that contacted us was Toyota.

Kagawa:
It was Toyota?

President Funahashi:
Yes.

Takahashi:
Toyota had been considering how to support the healthcare sector, and it was at that time when we just happened to see the ad. We came here right away thinking that this was how we could provide support.

President Funahashi:
They came two days later. Eight people initially came to see what our production site was like.

President Funahashi:
We were really having a difficult time and at a loss trying to figure out how we could make 10,000 gowns, so when I saw this row of people coming up to our company, I thought they looked incredible.

Kagawa:
Did it seem like they had halos above their heads?

President Funahashi:
Yes, they did have halos above their heads.

First, take off your uniform!

The first thing the Toyota team did upon arriving at the genba was take off their Toyota-branded uniforms. All eight representatives from Toyota promptly removed their jackets that were emblazoned with the company logo. Next, they went to join the production process. By actually experiencing the operations for themselves and listening to the people in the genba, they were able to see the various challenges and hear feedback directly from the source, including what challenges or problems they faced. Gathering this information was the first step in Toyota’s kaizen (“continuous improvement”) process.

The next step was setting standards for the processes in production. In many production situations, the process or workflow can be found to vary from person to person, which can cause defects or delays. To have the best chance to guarantee the quality of the product, it is important to set standards for each process so that everyone can produce the same quality of work. The Toyota team worked with the manufacturers to help organize the relationships between people and things, and modified the production process.

Through the steady accumulation of kaizen that was implemented, the “alliance of volunteers” increased their overall total daily production from an initial volume of 500 to 50,000 protective gowns.

Kagawa:
If it were depicted in a TV drama, this is where the factory manager has a fit of anger.

hey yell, ‘I can’t take any more!’

So, how did you feel as the factory manager?

Mori:
Of course I was surprised at how much they wanted to change things, but we weren’t in a position to object.

Kagawa:
There was probably not much choice.

Kagawa:
Did the Toyota people take a rather forceful tone?

Suzuki:
No, I thought we were nice.

Kagawa:
Yes, you were nice.

Mori:
We had to increase our production from 500 gowns a day, which is all we were able to do, to make so much more.

Kagawa:
The president also said that you were desperate for help.

Suzuki:
About a week later, we produced several thousand gowns.

Kagawa:
What? That was quick – maybe it was the result of applying the Toyota Production System. Now how many gowns are you able to make, starting out from 500?

President Funahashi:
We’ve increased production up to 50,000 gowns per day along with everyone in the alliance of volunteers.

Kagawa:
A hundred-fold increase. Is it safe to say that it’s also the result of applying the Toyota Production System to everything?

Takahashi:
Yes, it is.

Kagawa:
Wow. He has a triumphant look on his face.

Everyone:
(laughs)

Takahashi:
Forgive me! I should have said it with more modesty.

Ensuring everyone has the same workflow

Kagawa pronounced “I want to see the genba.” So his host, Mr. Mori, served as his guide to take him through the stages involved in producing the protective gowns. Their first stop? A spreader used to spread and cut the material that would become the protective gowns.

Next up was the cutting process, a set process which takes five minutes. To improve the process at this part of production, the key was to figure out how many sheets of fabric can be prepared at the preceding station during the five-minute waiting period. Mr. Suzuki from Toyota came up with a surprisingly simple kaizen technique.

In the cutting preparation process, transparent sheets are layered and spread across a stretching machine, but, because they are transparent, it was hard to see the number of layers. Mr. Suzuki realized that this was because the surface of the table below was white, so he changed the surface color to black. Additionally, he taped a guideline on the table so that the sheet could be consistently aligned with it. The size had originally had the potential to be produced inconsistently without the guide to help when spreading the sheet, a potential defect that could affect later processes.

Next, a paper tube was set for the line to indicate where to cut the fabric. In this way, everyone could cut the sheets to the same size and in the same way just by sliding the scissor. Furthermore, a designated holding spot was made for the scissors, so it was always returned to the same place. This was to set a standard so that everyone could do the same thing. Kaizen is achieved with a series of these types of seemingly small and incremental ideas.

Kagawa:
Ever since my son was very young, I’ve always told him to put the scissors back in the same place too. I’ve said it over and over, but he said I’m too demanding. Now this shows that I was right all along! But about not being able to see with the white but being able to see with the black, was that something that immediately clicked when you came here?

Suzuki:
As I said, several of us came here from Toyota. When we tried the process ourselves, we found it difficult. So we decided to make it black and establish a standard.

Kagawa:
It’s something simple, but it dramatically improved efficiency.

Suzuki:
It did.

Mori:
It really is something simple, but since we’ve been doing the same thing for a long time, we weren’t able to see what was needed here.

In the location used to set the sheet, the maintenance team installed some customized equipment. In fact, the sheets that are needed to make the gowns actually consist of two sheets per gown, and they are put together in stacks of two, similar to that of two-ply toilet paper. It was a laborious task to just divide them into pieces, one by one. As a solution, the maintenance team used gardening poles that were cheaply purchased at the hundred-yen store (100 yen = approx. $1 USD), to separate the materials. Then, using their experience and wisdom to further improve efficiency, the crew set four rolls of the material to be operated at the same time, resulting in a total of eight sheets that could be stacked and spread simultaneously. This small change allowed for the number of sheets being stretched during the five-minute waiting time for the cutting machine to jump from 5 to 120 sheets.

Later, this same concept would be further customized by the crew and introduced to other “alliance of volunteer” companies, as space would allow.

Mori:
Spreading is an important step, and all the processes have to wait on it.

Kagawa:
That’s true.

Mori:
So if we don’t improve things here at first, we won’t be able to improve the overall productivity.

Dismantling and repairing a 40-year-old machine

The station after the sheets have been cut is the welding station. Once again, a series of fine tunings allowed one operator to increase the yield to 600 sheets a day from the original 200. The high frequency welder used in this process was from the 1970-1980 era. Since the machine was in need of repair, Toyota’s maintenance team, led by Mr. Furui, dismantled the machine, figured out the problem and successfully repaired it.

The fact that Mr. Furui was able to repair this equipment was significant as Toyota neither has nor operates high frequency welders of its own. Without experience with the machines, the normal route would be to try to find a repairman or at least an old manual or guidebook; in this case, the Toyota maintenance team’s approach was different. The Toyota Production System dictates that "if you don't understand, then first understand." As such they thoroughly disassembled the equipment, learned how the equipment worked and what the problem might be, repaired the faulty part and put it back into service. The episode served as a beacon of hope that anything can be overcome with the appropriate wisdom.

Making the protective gowns also included a folding process. Here too was an opportunity for kaizen. Instead of moving the protective gowns in boxes, they decided to move them with hanger racks. Mr. Suzuki found some hanger racks by walking around the facility. These simple changes cut the production time of a single gown by one minute. If making 50,000 a day, that was 50,000 minutes that were now saved!

Kagawa:
Mr. Suzuki, do you look at everything in life like that? How can we shave a second off of this?! Can’t we shave three seconds off that?!

Suzuki:
Yes, I’m always thinking like that.

Kagawa:
I’m sure you are.

Wisdom doesn’t require any money

The kaizen points discovered by the Toyota team were implemented in every step of production, even including final folding and inspection. The kaizen consisted of a series of small changes, from how the workspaces were set up to better accommodate how people and things were organized for easier access and flow to setting standard processes so that everyone could work in the same fashion.

It is noteworthy to mention that the Toyota team didn’t introduce any cutting-edge systems or expensive tools. These incredible results were achieved using everyday tools, from simple things like unused hanger racks found around the company, to gardening tools from a hundred-yen (dollar) store as well as a trace stand worth only a few thousand yen (under $50 USD) bought online.

Kagawa:
Mr. Suzuki, do you look at everything in life like that? How can we shave a second off of this?! Can’t we shave three seconds off that?!

Suzuki:
Yes, I’m always thinking like that.

Kagawa:
I’m sure you are.

Suzuki:
Kaizen is an infinite process. For example, even if you get to 1,000 gowns, it’s not the end. Then you want to get to 1,001 and 1,002, and you just keep repeating this.

Kagawa:
Yes.

Suzuki:
It’s about resourcefulness, and resourcefulness doesn’t require any money.

A “production analysis board” to support the Toyota Production System

When asking again about Toyota’s strengths, Mr. Suzuki displayed a piece of paper referred to as the “production analysis board.” You can find production analysis boards all over Toyota. In this case, it was a record of how many gowns were produced per hour, organized by process.

“The purpose isn’t to go after big numbers,” says Mr. Suzuki. He was far more interested in observing the change of numbers on the production analysis board. Kaizen is brought about by taking note of the reasons why the numbers decreased. Mr. Suzuki mentioned that it would be a “production record board" if one only writes down whether the number increased or decreased. A “production analysis board" helps to identify kaizen points that may be hidden in processes by bringing attention to the times when production decreases more than when it increases.

The production analysis board also acts as a motivator. If the best they could do was 150 gowns per day, then the stretch goal for the production workers is now 151 gowns. If they’re able to reach 151 gowns, then the next goal will be 152, and so on. Always looking for kaizen and constantly moving forward also contributes to nurturing human resources, because everyone in the genba begins to take initiative to search for kaizen opportunities from the perspective of their own work.

Suzuki:
It means never stopping kaizen. This production analysis board is in fact also a human resource development tool. You can train people by using it. Production analysis boards are an integral part of our production sites.

Kagawa:
So you’re saying that this has produced some results at Toyota to date, and that’s why it’s useful as a manual.

Suzuki:
To be clear, this is my life.

Kagawa:
This is your life? The production analysis board?

Suzuki:
Yes.

Mori:
As I said before, we had never experienced mass-production like this.

Mori:
First we made 500 gowns, and that became 1,000 and then 2,000. If it were us before, I think we probably would have been satisfied when we hit 2,000 gowns.

Kagawa:
Yes, I understand.

Mori:
At that timing, Mr. Takahashi said, ‘I know Funahashi can reach 5,000 gowns.’ I thought he was crazy.

Kagawa:
Understandable.

Mori:
That’s honestly what I thought, but now we can produce 6,000 gowns.

Kagawa:
That’s incredible.

Mori:
The driver for this was everyone trying to outperform our record from yesterday.

Kagawa:
I see.

Mori:
They’re maintaining this motivated feeling. I’m truly thankful to everyone for what we have been able to achieve.

It can be done even at a raincoat company!

In one of the conversations, the head and namesake of the company, President Funahashi, began talking about his son. His son had left his hometown to enter a college away from home where he was studying science. The son had said that he felt as though “it doesn't matter if there’s a raincoat maker in this world or not.” As such, he had abandoned the idea of working at a raincoat manufacturer and instead study energy, citing the reason that it was because he wanted to do something to make the world better.

However, after his son saw the production of protective gowns his father’s company was engaged in, he realized that he wants to do something to benefit the world and benefit people. It never occurred to him that even this was something that could now be accomplished at a humble raincoat company. Inspired by the enthusiastic genba infused with Funahashi’s knowledge and ideas combined with Toyota’s kaizen, he decided he will return to the family enterprise and eventually become the fourth-generation the Funahashi family to lead of the company.

Kagawa:
Yes.

President Funahashi:
So just last month, he told me that he wanted to succeed me as the fourth president and keep Funahashi running.

Kagawa:
That’s wonderful!

President Funahashi:
I was really happy to hear that. It made me very happy.

Kagawa:
Toyota has connected the generations of this family! I’m sure his grandfather is crying with joy over this!

President Funahashi:
Yes, I think he is crying tears of joy.

This is what we call “Made in Japan”

The production of protective gowns was implemented out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, now that the mass production has gained momentum, President Funahashi is considering what it would mean to keep this technology moving forward.

According to Mr. Mori, the welding technology available for protective gowns in Japan results in visibly better quality compared to protective gowns produced overseas, and the unit price is competitive as well. So if further value can be added to the gowns by improving the production performance even more, it would absolutely be possible to have this technology survive, and maybe even thrive, in Japan, and possibly beyond. For example, if a product could be created that uses material that can prevents the person wearing it from overheating, comfort can be increased without sacrificing protection. That could be a big deal to some markets in hotter climates.

Mori:
What we thought about first was finding material that could help to reduce the moisture inside, so that even if you’re wearing the protective gown for a long time, it doesn’t get hot and humid inside.

Takahashi:
I think this moisture-reducing technology of the gown could really be of a “Made in Japan” quality. I think if we can do this, we can manage to compete in Japanese healthcare settings, and differentiate ourselves from others.

Kagawa:
That’s amazing.

Mori:
By all means, we’d like to have the gown project not be limited to this time, but to continue to operate as a medical gown manufacturer going forward, with a separate business unit at Funahashi’s Mukoujima factory.

Kagawa:
Sounds interesting.

Mori:
We feel very strongly now that we’d like to make this a lasting business.

Kagawa:
That’s wonderful. So you’ve created a new company maybe as well. Toyota has also helped to connect the generations of the family and even create a new business unit.

(To be continued in Part 2)

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