How do Andon and escalation differ?

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 04-14-20

I posted this question on LinkedIn and received numerous responses, and while each one furthered the discussion, there were also many differences between them. Some I believe were wrong, and some were just a different perspective. I think this is an important note in its own right because we often throw around these terms but this can lead to many different interpretations if we aren’t careful about defining what good looks like. 

When I consider any concept such as andon, I’m trying to look at its broad application, in a wide range of different applications, and not just how Toyota has applied the concept. Often, the Toyota example is (a) specific to their situation or industry and (b) must take into account the other elements of their system, culture, and capabilities. 

So here is my answer to the question. Escalation is often different in the following three ways. First, it is often unstructured, and involves intent but a range of different mechanisms. Second, rather than escalating at a predefined problem level, escalation implies the lack of ability to solve it on the part of the person escalating it. And third, and most important in my opinion, is that the response you receive is not defined, and therefore subject to the style, whim, or even mood of the leader. 

Andon is structured for a reason, beginning with defining “what is a problem” and ending with defining “how the person responds.” The first element is important to structure because if, for example, you believe being 5% behind schedule is a problem and I believe being 10% behind is a problem, we’re going to be misaligned an awful lot. The last element is important to structure because I need a reliable response. If I don’t know what response I’m going to get, then this becomes another variable in whether or not I decide to surface the problem.  

A very interesting comment in the LinkedIn post is the following: 

The difference usually is the emotions – an Andon signal illuminates and informs and the team knows their role in abnormality management to resolve the gap. An escalation is pulling management into the discussion, usually in a more combative and fault finding environment, in the hope that the incident is resolved more quickly,  which is often not the case…

Problems and abnormalities can be emotional moments. Relationships between a supervisor and employee, at any level of the org, can carry its own emotion. But the two together with escalation and it can lead to stress, indecision, and variation. Andon takes all of that away, and we focus on the problem, and the response. And this is why emotion is one of the differences. 

I have a white paper that goes further into my views on andon, which you can download here.