The Philosophy of Plant Tours

October 1, 2019

The other day I came across an interesting article about Kaizen, the Japanese philosophy often associated with Toyota’s high productivity. Basically, the idea is to continuously improve, through small or significant changes, and to involve all employees in this process. Therefore, workers on the floor can make suggestions for changes and these are considered seriously. What was interesting to me was that the article didn’t
emphasize a complete overhaul of how we do things but rather a constant effort to improve, as Kaizen is a philosophy rather than a strict system. The goal is to improve effectiveness, satisfaction, and prevent spending wasteful energy by making incremental changes and avoiding upheaval and mistakes that can result from major innovation.

It occurred to me that this is the whole point of plant tours. In early October, nearly 400 participants from all over North America gathered in Toronto to tour four facilities in the area: Pallet Management Group, Topax Protektive Packaging, Weston Forest Products, and Woodbridge Pallet. Leading up to the event I did not really understand why a pallet manufacturer would come all the way to Toronto from California to walk through someone else’s shop. Things can’t be that different, can they?  During the tour, I was speaking to a man from New Jersey who has been to many of these plant tours. He told me that he’s never not made money from attending, whether by making new business connections or by trying out different ideas he’s learned over the course of the tours. I guess that answered my question.

Coming back to the Kaizen principles, are you wondering where to start?

1. Figure out where time and energy is being wasted

A great lesson learned on one of the tours was how Weston Forest Products used GPS trackers on their forklifts to determine how much time it was taking to make trips to and

from the shop. They then used this data to better organize their yard, thereby increasing their efficiency. Others have used stop watches to time how long it takes their employees to accomplish certain tasks with the current set up and then reorganized things from there.

2. Consider which small changes could make your shop more productive or efficient

There are many ideas that lead to small changes that can be picked up by observing how others operate their facilities. Whether it’s the kind of nailer they use, how they organize their repair stations, or how they deal with waste and scrap, there are all kinds of details worth considering. Why are they using that equipment? Why are they organized in this way? Is this something you could implement in your own shop? Would it be effective in your operation? Remember that not all changes will be effective and that’s ok. The point is to keep trying. 

3. Take the time to review what’s working and what can be improved

It could be worth taking the time to talk to your employees and ask them what they think works well and what they think could make their jobs easier, their tasks faster, and their productivity higher. What causes frustration or friction? Make note of these. The next time you have the opportunity to attend a plant tour, keep your eyes and ears open for how others address the same issues. You may find answers not only in what you observe on the tours themselves, but in conversations you have on the bus or during networking receptions with others in the industry. Better still, involve your employees in these tours. Invest in your staff and let them see first hand what others are doing and have them formulate their own thoughts on how to improve and report them to you. Many of these small changes will require your staff to buy in, especially if you are reorganizing a work station, changing or adding equipment. This is where involving your employees in the planning pays dividends.  Explain to them what you observed, how it appeared to make the task at hand less onerous or time consuming. Ask for AND CONSIDER their input. One thing is for sure, change will occur much more efficiently if the person making the change has buy in, or can take some ownership for the plan.

On the other hand, sometimes plant tours will help people realize what they are doing in their own shop works quite well. There is value in this, as you won’t waste time fixing what isn’t broken.

The Fall Plant Tours we co-hosted with NWPCA was a great success and we received a lot of positive feedback. Many participants noted how much they learned and how impressed they were with what they saw. We’d like to thank the hosts, who graciously opened their doors to so many people, the sponsors who made this event possible, and everyone who attended! 


PO Box 280 ,Carleton Place, ON, K7C 3P4
T. 613.521.6468 or 1.877.224.3555 F. 866.375.1835
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