Apr 7, 2007

Extreme gemba

In her book, "Animals in Translation," Temple Grandin talks about her work as a designer of animal handling systems in feedlots and slaughterhouses. Temple Grandin, also the author of "Thinking in Pictures," is a woman with autism who uses her different way of thinking to unique advantage. She is highly sensitive to details in an environment and has learned that animals react in much the same way. Things that alarm animals are usually unnoticed by the average human.

Grandin believes that as long as we're going to raise animals for food, we have a responsibility to treat them humanely, and when they need to be moved with force, there's something wrong with the system. In the animal-handling business, she is called in when systems break down.

When she goes to the gemba, she follows the process from the point of view of the product - the animal. One of the common conditions that spook animals is sparkling reflections on puddles. Here's her description of one investigation:

"I got down on my hands and knees and went through the chute the same way the pigs did. The managers probably thought I looked crazy, but that's the only way you can do it. You have to get to the same level as the animals, and look at things from the same level of vision.

"Sure enough, as soon as I got down on all fours I could see that there were a lot of tiny, bright reflections glancing off the wet floor. Plant floors are always wet, because they're always being hosed down to keep them clean. Nobody could have seen those reflections even if they did know what to look for, because the humans' eyes weren't on the same level as the pigs'.

"Once we knew what the problem was I got back down on my hands and knees, and while I was pretending I was a pig the employees moved the big hanging lights overhead with a stick until each little reflection was gone. And that was that. Once the reflections were gone the pigs walked right up the chute."

Not only did Grandin walk the process, she crawled it. While you might not want to crawl through a machining center, observing as though you were the material being processed might be just the way you could solve a perplexing problem.

One more thing about Grandin's approach. She's demonstrated that when animals react with fear, that's not "just the way things are." They don't know they're about to die. They just don't like to encounter a lot of little unexpected things. Grandin had compiled checklists of these that are readily available to animal processors from her website.

In good systems, animals will flow smoothly from walking in at the start of the process to leaving in a refrigerated truck packaged as pork chops. Employees know they are treating the animals with respect and kindness, and suffer less stress themselves. In this industry, Dr. Deming's admonition to drive out fear has a double resonance: Eliminate defects and respect employees at the same time.

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