Kata principles and practices could reshape manufacturing in Arkansas

by George Jared (gjared@talkbusiness.net) 667 views 

A worker operating one of the lines inside a MPG Gear Technologies plant had an epiphany. The line would stall eight or 10 times per shift, and the restarts hurt productivity. The worker had a simple solution to solve the problem. He took a common stapler and tied it to a component on the line to see if it would stop the disruptions.

It did.

A permanent implement was welded to the line and a long-time problem was fixed using kata techniques and practices, MPG Quality and Continuous Improvement Manager Glen Inman told Talk Business & Politics.

“Kata … it’s the real deal,” Inman said. “It’s a game changer. Everything is an experiment.”

The kata system was developed by Toyota. The Arkansas Economic Development Commission through its Arkansas Manufacturing Solutions arm has been promoting these unique coaching and teaching methods to help industries statewide.

Kata is a system of individual training exercises, primarily utilized in karate and other martial arts. By using the regiment of exercises each day, martial artists are able to fine-tune their skills and identify weaknesses more efficiently. This is the core of the kata training for companies.

Each day workers in Toyota plants all around the world begin the same routine. The direction of the company is explicitly explained, the current situation at the company is expressed, goals or new targets are identified, and ways to achieve those new targets are pursued. Managers or coaches employ the scientific method to solve problems identified in the process.

These solutions are shared with workers. The process is exactly the same each day. Once targets and goals are met, new ones are identified. It becomes so mundane many employees conduct these practices without thought, similar to riding a bike, driving a car, or typing, according to the Learn Enterprise Institute (LEI). It’s the difference between understanding the car’s functioning parts and being able to navigate the road ahead, according to LEI.

MPG began using kata a couple of years ago, Inman said. MPG manufactures car parts at its plants in Forth Smith, Paris, and Subiaco. Each plant has assembly lines. A “coach” or manager and a “learner” or worker are placed in the Kata program and work the assembly line.

A current assessment is conducted to determine how efficiently the line is performing and what factors lead into the performance. Downtime when products are not moving along the assembly line is always an issue, Inman said.

Performance targets are identified and those working on the line can present solutions to aid in hitting those targets or goals. Those targets are typically set high because if the target is set at a 5% increase for instance, the workers will just try a little harder instead of inventing real solutions to accelerate productivity, Inman said.

It’s similar to a family saving money. If the goal for a family that makes $100,000 per year is to save $5,000, they can just modify how much they eat out or how they spend excess income to achieve their target. If the goal is to save $40,000, then a new revenue stream has to be developed to hit that goal.

Solutions are evaluated by using the scientific method. Experiments are conducted and results are catalogued. Challenges to meet new targets are issued. Individual workers are intimately involved in the process.

“We don’t always fully reach the challenge … but we’ve never done it and not had significant results,” Inman said. “You want to have an army of problem solvers.”

Kata practices recently helped MPG solve another problem in one of its plants. Workers often fall into the trap of believing in the “folklore” of what is or is not possible in executing their jobs, Inman said. This is often passed down from experienced workers to new ones. The ways of thinking are powerful, he added.

The company uses expensive grinders each day to shape parts. The grinder wheels were maintennanced after grinding 3,000 pieces. The maintenance takes about 30 minutes to perform. To improve productivity, MPG workers decided to recalibrate the grinders to allow 3,500 pieces to be processed before the maintenance. It worked, and there has not been any real effect on the wheels or the quality of the products produced, Inman said. There was just a long-standing belief by the workers that the maintenance had to be performed at a certain threshold, he said.

“We believe in kata … across all areas of our plants and in our organization,” Inman said.