Distributed Leadership anchored in the Power to Object
Andon: Halting the Line
In most traditional Japanese ‘lean’ manufacturing plants you will find sets of two cords dangling from above every few meters along the production line, within everyone’s reach, one yellow one red. If the yellow is pulled an alarm sounds, orange lights flash and the affected workstation number affected is displayed on an overhead board. This is a call for help when a problem has arisen. If the red cord is pulled, however, the whole production line comes to a standstill. This is used when a problem is deemed serious enough that it cannot be resolved within the cycle time without disrupting the smooth pull flow of production. This instigates a quick ‘gemba’ review of the situation to decide remedial action in order to quickly get the line flowing again, while at the same time ensuring the problem does not recur.
This system is called “Andon”. It is significant in that every production line employee is empowered to pull the red cord and stop the whole production line in order to deal with any quality or safety problem immediately as it arises. In a typical car plant every minute of line stoppage represents approximately one car less produced, not an insignificant productivity loss. The Andon philosophy considers it more important for shop-floor staff to stop the whole line, pausing production, to ensure each product is “perfect”, rather than lose customers later on through poor quality reputation. This empowerment of each front-line worker to stop the line is at the heart of Japanese product reliability.
The Andon system is rarely discussed even in Lean or Agile circles or literature in the West. To the Japanese, entrusting all employees at all levels with the power to stop the line for the sake of customer satisfaction is deemed more important than “efficiency”, corporate power structure or shareholder value. Nowadays, as companies here become more collaborative and responsive to user needs, the ability of every employee to temporarily ‘halt the line’ will increasingly be required. Workplace democratization, distributed leadership thinking and networked responsive organizations need Andon. This ability to ‘halt the line’ and raise objections is also at the heart of sociocracy.