Lessons from a Train-Cleaning Company: Why Operational Transparency Matters in Industrial Production
Updated: May 27
If a Harvard Business School case study is to be believed, the secret to making industrial operations more efficient may be found in a Japanese train-cleaning company.
Tessei, the organization responsible for cleaning the bullet trains that stop in Tokyo, faces the challenge of cleaning all 1,000 seats on each train in just seven minutes, a task made more difficult by the fact that it so often went underappreciated by those who benefited from the service. However, in 2005, a change was made: the blue uniforms that matched the colour of the train carriages were swapped for bright red ones that were impossible for customers to miss. Customers immediately became tidier and employees began to feel more appreciated, and over time, this led to them valuing their own jobs more and thus making recommendations to their supervisors as to how to improve the service. The process of cleaning a train, which employees once struggled to do in seven minutes, can now be done in just four.
Though this case study is far removed from industrial production, it contains many valuable lessons for those who wish to optimise their operations. These lessons all revolve around the simple concept of operational transparency, the ideal that all parts of the production process should be visible to those who have a stake in it.
The first and most important thing to note from the case of Tessei is that the simple act of making a process visible can bring about improvements. In Tessei’s case, transparency made workers treat their jobs differently than they previously had, largely because knowing their work was being appreciated allowed them to take pride in what they do. On mining sites with hundreds of assets and multiple processes in operation at any given time, it is easy for workers to lose sight of just how important their individual jobs are. Letting them know that not only are people aware of their actions but they are also appreciative of them is therefore an excellent way to increase site productivity.
The second lesson that can be learned is that people are more willing to help others when they are aware of how hard they work. One of the amazing things about Tessei’s story is that when customers simply became aware of the effort that cleaners needed to put in, they became more conscious of their own actions and the ways in which they affected other people. On mining sites, this concept applies in the form of cross-departmental collaboration, where people from departments that do not frequently interact gain more insight into what the other departments do and work together to accomplish common organizational goals. Just by learning what members of other departments do, workers are more readily able to see what they can do to help each other.
From a young age, we learn the importance of being honest with each other. Transparency is a basic virtue that everyone should strive to incorporate into their professional lives, bringing with it a wide range of benefits for the entire operation.