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Lean Techniques: Yokoten

By Michael Paris President, Paris Consultants Inc.

This tool ensures that lean processes developed in one part of a company become available to all

If you have never heard the term Yokoten, prepare yourself. It has been added to the Lean Operations lexicon as an important activity. Yokoten is being used by lean firms to help them become leaner. Yokoten is a Japanese term that can be roughly translated as “across everywhere.” In the Japanese lean system, it is used to mean “best practice sharing.” In short, Yokoten is used to talk about the transfer of lean manufacturing knowledge and practices from one operation to another.

These best practices can be shared between departments of one plant or sister departments of multiple plants of a company. Operations of a lean plant can be shared with a sister plant that is not so lean or struggling with lean. Although there is little literature to support this, Yokoten could also involve sharing among divisions of the same large company. More importantly, it can also be used to reach out to closely-linked suppliers to make the supply chain leaner.

Practicing Yokoten is a key activity if you are to continually improve both your own operations and those of your supply chain. I must point out here that Yokoten is more than “technology transfer.” It is the transfer of actions, practices, Kaizen results, and technology applications. In the US, we have always had a difficult time with “technology transfer,” as we have traditionally referred to Yokoten practices. “Not invented here” and “we have little to learn from a firm that has just recalled eight million vehicles for fixes” might be common phrases in a US manufacturing operation. This would be a mistake. Firms in the US have made great strides in the last decade, and should be sharing these new practices within their operations and with key suppliers.

A second, more pervasive, problem in the US is the lack of a long-term perspective related to operations improvement and lean operations in general. I suspect I’m not the first nor the last to tell you this: Operations Improvement must be a way of life for your firm if you want it to stay lean. Improvement must be continuous and occurring every day. There is no lean destination; there is only the continuous journey toward leaner operations.

When I was a relatively inexperienced consultant, the book, In Search of Excellence, had just been published. A client called the consulting firm I was working for, and asked if we could help them become “excellent.” The officers of the firm assured them we could help, and dispatched a young Principal and an equally young Associate to help them. The two made several good recommendations for each of the three plants involved, but stopped short of declaring the nowimproved plants to be “excellent,” explaining to the chairman of the board that excellence was a moving concept. Excellence today would not be the same as excellence next year. The chairman was unhappy. This explanation meant he couldn’t buy a guarantee of excellence for even one day after we left. The same is true of lean. There is no guarantee that it will continue on its own into the future. We need to exploit Yokoten to assure that we continue to be lean into the future.

If we are to proliferate practices that would improve our sister plants and divisions, and our supplier firms, we ought to think for a few moments how to go about this task. Unless we are asked to do this proliferation within a single plant, we have a large job ahead of us. In a single plant, the plant manager can pretty much say what practices make sense and which do not. He can send a man from Department A to Department B, and tell the Department B people he is there to “help” them and obtain their (perhaps begrudging) cooperation. Moving from Plant A to Plant B is another issue. Moving from Division A to Division B is yet another matter, and moving to the supplier base of Plant A or Division A is a third matter entirely.

If we assume that the second plant, second division, or supplier firm practices the Toyota Production System (TPS), the task becomes easier but still formidable. Let’s look at how I suggest we begin practicing Yokoten with a sister plant or a sister division that understands and practices, however loosely, TPS. I suggest a coaching approach.

To begin with, those attempting to bring best practices into a second plant, a different division, or a supplier will be suspected of pushing their own agenda. There will not be a great deal of trust in them and what they have to offer. Coaching, instead of consulting, is a low-threat approach that often overcomes this issue.

In a coaching mode, we aren’t there to dictate practices, but to create a safe, encouraging, and supportive environment for employees to think through and put into action a way to make their product faster, of higher quality, at less cost, or with less waste. We are the impetus for creating a process that allows the client to rise to their own level of “excellence.” Coaches ask the hard questions about current practices, and help create the space for curiosity, insight, innovation, and creativity to take place.

The coaching process infuses energy into any situation, and the result is clients that are “thinking outside of the box,” strategizing solutions in new ways. If we do our job well enough, they will come up with a solution that works for them, with results very close to those of the first plant. They will “own” the solution because they devised it.

The person chosen to be a coach should have a thorough understanding of exactly how coaching works. Although they have gone through the operations improvement within their own plant or department, coaches cannot dictate how this exercise should be done in a second plant. They must suggest that the leader of the implementation team consider what he is trying to do, and suggest some considerations to accomplish this goal. Small mistakes must be tolerated, if not encouraged, as an important and integral part of learning a successful process. A coach should always be available for support and guidance. The coach must also assist in developing goals, so that constant monitoring of “what’s really working” takes place.

There are few “naturally” good coaches. The plant just embarking on Yokoten should consider hiring a professional executive coach to do two things: train your engineers on a coaching approach, and walk through a coaching approach with your first one or two installations. This initial investment will pay off in the long term.

The coach should be talking to the team leader of the second plant or department at frequent, regular intervals, and questioning how the improvement is progressing and what pitfalls the team is experiencing. The coach may suggest looking at a certain approach. The team leader is in charge, and if he or she rejects that suggestion in favor of a second approach, the coach must still maintain a positive, supportive attitude. In a situation like this, the coach must proceed cautiously lest the approach be a dead end, and be ready to warn the team leader of impending problems. The coach is more interested in teaching continuous improvement rather than specific solutions, always remembering there are many paths to successful lean operations.

Today, most costs faced by a manufacturing firm arise in the supply chain. Most firms have supply chains that draw materials, parts, components, and some finished goods from all over the world. Consequently, the supply chain represents the single best opportunity for improving a lean profile. Recent studies have shown that from 60 to 90% of product cost results from operations that take place in the supply chain. In addition, there is the concern about delivery reliability from far-flung suppliers. If a firm is to be lean today, it must address this portion of its manufacturing value chain.

If we wish the supply chain to be lean, we must look where we have the most leverage. Most firms today have learned the vocabulary of lean operations, and many have put into place practices and systematic tools that have helped them to become leaner than they were before they started. Most firms have felt the pinch of the current economy, and are anxious to put into place more and/or better tools that will help them to become leaner still. (Remember, it’s a journey.)

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