There’s an old South African proverb that says: “When you want to eat an elephant in your path, approach it slice by slice”. In other words, the best way to solve a big problem is to take it a little at a time.
It’s an idea that lies behind Kaizen Week – an exercise that Pirelli runs every month at its 19 factories. The aim is to tackle strategic issues such as flow bottlenecks and quality issues by slicing the problem into smaller operational issues that are more likely to be successfully solved.
A culture of “success stories”, all together
Pirelli knows that holding a successful week is more important than the scale of the problem. If the problem selected is too big then the team could fail and it is more important to ensure a succession of small “success stories”, one after the other, involving all the operators and support functions. The goal is to inspire people’s motivation and commitment.
“Everyone wants to succeed, and this way staff are more likely to want to take part in the future,” says Hervé Ghesquières, who oversees Kaizen projects at Pirelli as part of his role as head of industrial engineering and Pirelli Manufacturing System (PMS). “The more we spread the method and get people’s buy-in, the faster the tasks get done and the more problems we can solve at a time.”
Pirelli started Kaizen Weeks in 2012 and they have proved so successful in improving efficiency and motivating staff that the company wants to hold more. “It’s like playing a musical instrument – if you want to play it well, you need to practise,” says Ghesquières.
The Kaizen approach
Kaizen is a word that loosely means “continuous improvement”. The concept was used with great success by Japanese manufacturers such as Toyota in the 1980s and was seen as a major plank of the country’s success in the world market. It is now an internationally-recognised business approach used by companies from manufacturing to banking and the public sector to become leaner and more productive.
You don’t need to be an expert to take part in Kaizen Week – employees generally know more about their own jobs than management – but you do need to prepare rigorously. In the approach to each Kaizen Week, Pirelli’s Industrial Engineering team works to identify a particular issue that needs attention and establishes the team that will try to solve it.
Each Kaizen Week usually involves some 15 employees from a staff of around 1,500. Taking operators off the factory floor can be a headache but the efficiency the results bring is worth any disruption, says Ghesquières.
These short, intense projects bring together small teams from production, quality, maintenance and other parts of a factory to try to find ways to work more efficiently. Sometimes teams from different countries work together on a similar problem in order to compare best practices. This enables more cross fertilisation between employees and benchmarking between factories, bringing outstanding results. There are clearly more ideas in 10 heads than just one.
Kaizen Weeks usually kick off with a visit from the plant manager and a game or two designed to warm up the Kaizen team. If at first participants cluster into groups of men, women, technicians or engineers, by the middle of the exercise they’ve begun to collaborate. By the end, they’re often socialising together outside work. Kaizen Week is, after all, about the people behind a company that produces 80 million premium tyres a year for discerning customers.
Celebrating collective success
The whole approach emphasises the team. It is about recognising people’s efforts and celebrating collective success rather than individual success, which is seen as fundamental to achieving further improvement. And this is key to Pirelli’s manufacturing philosophy which is all about solving problems together.
So, when a week concludes, Pirelli celebrates successes with photos, presentations and public recognition – employees are given the chance to show their managers what they’ve achieved.
Pirelli encourages a “learning by doing” approach or “try-storming”. It’s about trying something instead of overthinking it. Implementing 80 per cent of a solution is better than striving for perfection.
More than just a week
Once a Kaizen Week has drawn to a close, Pirelli trainers update operational procedures and the company standards. Later, Pirelli’s “green shirts” – home-grown experts and natural leaders who’ve been taken from the factory floor to train others – will coach employees and follow up on the gains achieved.
With up to 3,000 employees taking part each year, it would be easy to think Pirelli will eventually run out of momentum for events of this kind. But that is not likely. Kaizen Weeks account for a quarter of all efficiency savings generated by the plants and innovation is an ongoing process at the company. As Ghesquières has it, “improvement has no end”.