Use Your Digital Andon System to Foster Continuous Improvement

Setting the scene: Have you ever looked out across the plant floor in wonder and wondered about all the blinking lights on the machines? For us manufacturing junkies, uh, make that groupies, or highly interested observers, that sight can be mesmerizing, especially at this time of year. Perhaps you're wondering in wonderment if a light is burned out somewhere in that blanket of blinking colors. You likely have a step on the PM checklists used by your Maintenance Team to look for burned out lights and replace them as needed. But do you know what those lights represent? Is it a signal to tell you the status of the machine? Do you react to the signal or just use it as a reference because you're not quite sure? The blinking lights, the audible horn sounds and the buzzer noises can drive a person mad if you don’t have a process in place to make sense of all those signals. If the folks on the shop floor don't immediately recognize and understand their meaning, they're little more than bells and whistles.

What is an Andon System?

I think most people know that an andon system is used to alert people when a machine, process, or some other element of the production flow needs something. It can indicate machine downtime, or a signal that you're out of material, or that there is a quality issue. What most people might not know, especially if they have not spent much time in manufacturing, is that an Andon System can be triggered by both people and equipment, which is great. Operators can pull a cord or push a button. Machines and even processes can send a signal. But if you have no foundation in place to support the signal, then it's nothing more than noise in the system and could drive a person to drink. Since this might not be a very long trip, it's necessary to have this foundation built, and to have a process in place and understood, before you throw your Andon System into hyperdrive.

The last thing most of us on the plant floor need is another flavor of the day that will be quickly disregarded by the people who are supposed to pay attention. Meaning that it will be almost immediately discarded in favor of the next, must have, shiny penny. So, know what you want to accomplish. Understand why Andon was introduced, where it comes from, and how to use it judiciously. And just as important, put your money where your mouth is: make sure all the teams who will be on the triggering and receiving ends of your Andon System know and understand the objectives as well. Don't create a system, any system, that you are not fully committed to nurturing and supporting for the long haul.

The word Andon comes from the Japanese word meaning lamp or light. The term originated as part of the lean methodology of Jidoka. The literal meaning of Jidoka is porcelain, as in transparent. When Andon is applied as a Lean Manufacturing tool, this transparency put into action means 'Stop and Fix'. Using the Andon System as a way to immediately signal issues and compel action was developed by Toyota for these reasons: to shed light on (illuminate) problems immediately with the intention of stopping and fixing them (Jidoka) to prevent recurrence. The Andon System signals problems; the team is immediately aware of and can react to the machine, material, quality, or safety issue; the problem or potential concern is addressed and resolved; the quality of the product and the robustness of the process is ensured before the line is released to resume running.

So, if the methodology of stop and fix, along with the effort that goes into building and fostering a culture of continuous improvement, are so important to the success of manufacturing, why then is this simple concept ignored at times? Remember reading how the last thing people on the shop floor need is another flavor of the day dangled in front of them? That's a hint for all of you in management out there.

Have you ever heard these complaints and excuses before?

  • No time to stop and fix: Just push the FRG (fault reset go) button and keep running.
  • Here we go again, out of material. I sure hope I don’t have to work overtime because of this.
  • This giant hunk of junk machine keeps jamming. I’m sick of this thing.

An Andon System Case Study

I used to work at a factory where we wanted to institute an andon system in our facility. Our machines already had the Christmas tree lights on top of them, so we decided to use those as a way to signal when the equipment was down. The problem with our idea was that there were so many blinking lights all the time, nobody knew if the situation was real or not. Consequently, we decided that we needed to stick with one light tree on each line, and use that as the signal that a machine was down on the line. However, we seemed to forever run into the same issues, false or misleading signals: someone would forget to shut off the light from an earlier incident, or a person wouldn't realize that they had just switched the light on, signaling a problem when there really wasn't one. It was like a non-stop version of crying wolf, no matter how unintentional.

Sure, this was really a management issue, but as one of the managers was famous for saying, "It's not your fault, it's just your problem." We needed to get to a point where our team, along with everyone else, understood what we wanted to get out of the process. We had to build a standard procedure that was easy to follow and repeatable. We had to be transparent and clearly communicate how the process would work, what we wanted to achieve, and what our short and long term intentions were. There was no other way to ensure everyone's buy-in. And without a clear understanding and everyone being on board, we were doomed to fail before we even got started.

We had to step back and ask, "What are the benefits of an Andon System?"

  • Andon is a tool that helps reinforce the jidoka philosophy to stop the line and fix the issues
  • Andon is a form of visual management system
  • Makes problems immediately visible in real time
  • The line and machine status is clearly visible to everyone on the floor
  • It creates transparency within the production process
  • Improves communication across disciplines and departments
  • Increases accountability of both the operators and the support teams responsible to address issues on the line
  • Highlights opportunities to kaizen for improvements

After thinking about the benefits of implementing a true Andon System, we began visualizing a process by which we could utilize this tool to help production operators get the help they needed. We quickly realized that what we really wanted was a way to create an emergency response system in the plant: one that mirrored calling 911.

"911. What's your emergency?" 

You don't want to dial 911 and have this be the response you hear: "Thank you for calling 911. Your emergency is very important to us. Please leave a detailed message and someone will get back to you."

Utilizing our Andon System, all production would have to do was put in a "call" (Dispatch, Work Order, etc.) and provide some information. That call would immediately be directed to the correct support department responsible for responding to the issue. Whether that meant Quality Engineering, Maintenance, or Material runners, the urgency to respond quickly and help fix the problem was the culture we needed to cultivate. We desperately needed an easy way to break down the silos of the different departments and figure out a way to work together to solve the problems.

We also needed to be able to capture that and other relevant data much more easily than we could currently. With a more user friendly vehicle to input information, we would then be able to quickly retrieve and analyze the data. Ideally, this would enable us to go back and finally have a much clearer picture of the recurring problems in totality. Armed with accurate information, emotion is soon eradicated from the equation. Finger pointing and apathy give way to jidoka and implementing corrective actions. If your teams have good data readily available to them, they will make good decisions.

The Power of an Andon System

Make waste visible, teach what waste looks like, and react to the uncovered waste to solve problems one by one. By solving problems and involving everyone – including operators, maintenance, and other support groups – you:

  • Raise the skill level of your people: no need for them to feel like they have to check their brains at the door
  • Improve the quality of your Kaizen Events
  • Make your goal of a continuous improvement culture a reality
  • Remember "Safety First". It is still first and foremost.

It wasn’t easy, but a good LES (lean execution system) aided in our vision for andon and helped us solve our biggest problems – knocking them down one by one. And, just like in the old magazine articles from Outdoor life, "This happened to me!"

Why a Digital Andon System - and why NOW more than ever

As we transition further into the New Normal in 2021, we will continue to realize that many facets of our lives, of our world, will never be the same again. And that includes our manufacturing lives inside our factories. If any of us could not see the value of making our plants more visual before, we surely can now.

It has never been as critical to help people recognize and respond to problems quickly as it is today. Every indicator tells us these circumstances are not going away anytime soon. By eliminating the need for people to meet face to face, or even be in the same geographical location, we have previously unimagined opportunities. And not just to improve measurables like throughput and quality. As leaders, we have not only opportunities, but responsibilities as well. Responsibility to not only help safeguard people's workplace safety and their livelihoods. We have a responsibility to help safeguard their very well-being. Remember when "phoning it in" was considered somehow lesser than? Not anymore.

With a robust yet simple to use Andon System like L2L in your plant, people can truly see, react, and respond to any problem: quickly and in real-time. Every player does not have to be physically present to grasp the situation. Between remote monitoring, timely updates, the ability to immediately assess any situation, you and your teams have the tools they need. Not only to grasp the situation, but to remedy the problems.

Learn how Leading2Lean's CloudDISPATCH Andon module can help you solve some of your biggest problems on the plant floor and help you avoid coming face to face with problems you've never seen before.

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Kevin Bryan


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