Waterspiders as continuous improvement innovators

water_beetleThe term Waterspider or water beetle (mizusumashi in Japanese) comes from the behavior of the insect known in the States as a whirligig, an aquatic animal that skitters around on the top of a pond quickly changing direction as it goes.  For a lean enterprise the role of material handlers, expediters, and support staff changes. In the Toyota Production System this is the common name for a person assigned to support a production operation, so that others may focus exclusively on value-added work. The waterspider delivers parts to the other associates in the cell or on the line so that they don’t need to stop to replenish their work stations.

Unlike a ‘floater’, a waterspider is assigned specific tasks, such as replenishing raw material inventories (via milk run), common area clean-up, communicate status, maintain visual metrics, etc… Waterspider duties usually don’t include tasks which take them away from the production area, or detract from their specific, assigned duties (the waterspider is not the ‘5S’ person or a ‘fill in’). Think of the waterspider as the ‘race car pit crew’ for the production team, without which it would be impossible to win or even run the race.

Waterspiders quickly become experts in the withdrawal and production kanban system. They can ‘see’ more of the up and down stream flow in real time than most others, and because of this often making it possible to identify and eliminate errors. From recent experience the waterspiders often have a better grip on reality than their managers, planners, and engineers.

Non manufacturing examples abound in restaurants, hospitals, insurance claims processing; serving the folks that add the value isn’t just for manufacturing. In product and software development the role of the program manager is sometimes something like that of the waterspider, except bringing knowledge to the various development team members instead of parts.

Here are a few references:
Single piece flow at ConMed Linvatec
Inventory management in electronics manufacturing: The Move To Lean
Lean in the Oil Fields

Have any examples you’d like to share?