Shinka Management is showing some of Australian industry's leading figures around Japanese factory giants like Toyota and Rinnai as part of their Lean manufacturing study tour to Japan this week.
Tour participants are given a master class in lean philosophy and concepts such as Kaizen; continuous improvement through reducing waste and improving productivity and quality, whether implemented by workers on the shop floor or through the highest levels of management.
Relationships take time to develop and you have to treat them with respect. We're lucky to have enough nous to know how to do it.
Ben Sparrow and Paul Smith are Shinka's directors and lead consultants. They've gained the trust of Japan's tight-knit business and industry community over years of living and working in the country - but it hasn't come easily.
"Relationships take time to develop and you have to treat them with respect. We're lucky to have enough nous to know how to do it," Smith said.
The Adelaide based team are fluent in Japanese and have extensive contacts from their time studying, lecturing and working in Japan.
Smith has his Masters and PhD from Kyoto University's Graduate School of Engineering. He was Chair of the Japan Australia Business Council of South Australia for six years, where he worked with Sparrow who acted as Deputy Chair.
Sparrow was a lecturer at Nippon Bunri University for four years and worked as a consultant for Japan Management Association Consultants for eight years.
"They took me under their arm. I was alongside some of the most experienced lean management consultants in the world, with 30 to 40 years' experience each. I was learning on the job, thrown in to the deep end," Sparrow said.
"I learned about lean through them, experienced it completely from a Japan background. Whereas for the rest of the world, somewhere it turns in to Chinese Whispers - you get misconceptions about what it means and how it works."
The Shinka team bring Japanese expertise to Australia as well. From left to right: Ben Sparrow, Daryl Kelly, Akinori Hyodo, Paul Smith and Keiko Shaw. Hyodo Sensei is a retired Toyota Factory Manager with years of experience, and still a member of the Toyota Group Training Center in Japan. He is now a Senior Consultant at Shinka - seen here leading a lean masterclass at Haigh's Chocolates in Adelaide. Photo courtesy of Juan Van Staden.
Sparrow considers himself fortunate that the understanding passed to him is straight from the source. In that way, Shinka represents the original learnings of lean - reducing waste and improving productivity without compromising quality.
"A lot of that thinking in Japan has come about because they've had a lack of something, whether that be a lack of money, lack of space, natural resources or whatever. They've had to challenge their way of thinking. They have to innovate from a management perspective," Sparrow explained.
It's a stark contrast to the way things typically work in Australian industry.
Blessed with space to spare and often a glut of resources, processes can become bloated and inefficient over time.
"We've got a lot of land, lots of big buildings. The answers to issues here have often been to throw money at it, build a big thing, a heavy thing. It's the complete opposite in Japan. Why do we have to spend money on it? Why can't we do this in the smallest space possible? Why don't we make it really light?"
This ability to maintain efficient processes, thereby keeping a business agile and adaptable, has led to Japan becoming an industrial powerhouse. It's that way of thinking that Shinka hopes to pass on to Australian industry - as well as their participants from New Zealand and Singapore.
Jeremy Hawkes of Bowhill Engineering, a steel fabrication company located in the Riverlands of South Australia, is a past participant of the tour. The opportunity came as part of the Industry Leaders Fund in South Australia recognising his exceptional leadership.
"The take-away for me was getting employees engaged, getting them to consider the company as a high priority. That's what I believe the Japanese do. It's a cultural thing," Hawkes said.
He visited Toyota, Rinnai, Gifu Auto Body and Chuo Malleable Iron, meeting with the leaders of their lean efforts and seeing the factory floor first hand - as well as getting a perspective on lean management.
"We can do the same in Australia if we're smart and think about it from the employee's perspective, if we build the incentives around looking after their company. If we do that they'll start to think of beneficial, continuous improvement for the company's sake - not just their own."
Tour participants get firsthand experience of the culture of continuous improvement.
That was a key difference for Hawkes - a focus on continuous improvement coming from all levels of business, not just management pushing it on people. Bowhill was recently named as the Telstra SA Regional Business of the Year for 2014.
"We want to be a chameleon. We want to be so flexible, so attuned to the next job that we aren't locked in to owning equipment that won't suit that job."
Shinka will take their group through the factories of Toyota, Rinnai, Gifu Auto Body, Metal One Isuzu, Chuo Malleable Iron and Suzaki Industries. While many of the attendees might be expecting high-tech, pristine workshops, the reality often surprises them.
"It's a shock," Sparrow explained, "They'll expect lots of robots - and there are - but there is a lot of labour too. It's a mix between machines and people. But lean is about how they work together, hand in hand."
The processes are designed to grab a second here or there - multiplied down the line and over hundreds of thousands of units, the efficiency gains are massive.
They'll also find a large focus on making employee's lives easier and less stressful. Whether that's a machine or jig to help lift a load - or something a little more out of the ordinary.
"When you walk in to Toyota's assembly, it sounds like Disney Land. Kid's tunes,Camptown Races, It's a Small World After All. Straight away, you think 'Where am I?' They use those sounds instead of sirens and buzzing because they want it to be a nice environment for the operators," Sparrow said.
Shinka act as a cultural bridge for Australian companies heading to Japan as well. Participants are immersed in Japanese culture as soon as they step off the plane in Tokyo for the Lean Japan Tour, an essential step in understanding the workings of the country's industry and building relationships.
"It could be anything from exchanging business cards, how to take a bath, how to dine - through to Japanese decision making and corporate structures. They love it. It opens their eyes to what they see for the rest of the tour, because the environment they're learning in is a Japanese environment," Smith said.
"They suddenly understand what's happening around them, why a certain person sits in a certain place. They gain confidence working and interacting there."
The tour isn't the only time that Shinka acts as a bridge between Japan and Australia. Smith and Sparrow also work with companies from either country trying to break in to each other's markets.
That might be a Japanese trading house deciding to purchase an Australian business and attempting to understand the intricacies of its workforce, or it might be an Australian business looking to export to Japan.
For participants of the lean tour, it's a direct line to the most competent areas of industry in the country - and they come back with the experience to expand their own operations and build engagement between the business and its members.
"It's a big wake up call for a lot of people," Smith said, "They see it with their own eyes. They understand that the opportunity for them is a lot bigger than they originally imagined. They see how the culture of continuous improvement can be sustained over decades."
The Shinka Management Lean Tour is taking place from 9 -15 November. More will follow in May and July 2015.