Making Lean Stick – Starting on the Road to Lean

By on September 13, 2012
Starting on the Road to Lean

The previous blog in this series ended with a lead-in to this week’s: “In this blog’s next installment, I’ll address the issue of not starting down the lean journey unless you’re sure you understand what Lean is.”

Well, here goes. This is what you need to understand before starting on road to Lean:

1. Lean is primarily a change in the culture of an organization and secondarily, a collection of tools used to shape work processes. Far too many organizations see Lean as being 5S, Six Sigma, Value Stream Mapping, Pull Production, Visual Management, Standardized Work, and other tools having to do with how work is done. I’ve heard organizations say, “We want to do Six Sigma” or “I’d like to do some Kaizen events.” Or “We’d like to do 5S.” Statements of this sort almost always mean that the organization’s leaders don’t understand that “doing Six Sigma” or “doing 5S” or “doing Value Stream Mapping” as single, stand-alone interventions are a waste of both time and money. Are these tools important? Yes. Can they drive change? Of course. Without being part of a unified, cohesive Lean implementation campaign, will they stick? No. Divorced from the recognition that Lean is about culture change, they won’t have any lasting impact.

2. The primary source of expertise in any organization is the line worker. Managers whose training was shaped by the teachings of Frederick Taylor and his scientific management theory have a perspective toward what their primary role should be that is at significant variance with what their role needs to be to support Lean. Taylor’s theory led to companies hiring armies of industrial engineers who would go through plants conducting time and motion studies and designing work processes that workers were then supposed to follow without questioning. Lean also teaches that managers and supervisors must focus on monitoring work processes. But there is one key difference between Taylor’s Scientific Management and Lean Management. It is this: In a Lean work environment it is understood that the primary source of creative thinking about how to improve work processes is the workers themselves, not some elite group of industrial engineers. The elitism that is inherent in Taylor’s approach to management is absolutely inconsistent with the beliefs that are at the heart of Lean manufacturing.

3. Lean is primarily about processes, results are secondary. Many analysts contend that the one central tenet of Toyota’s culture that is responsible for its success is this: All work processes must be controlled, scientific experiments, constantly modified and improved by the people who do the work. Results are critical but the point is this: It is only through the continual observation of work processes by managers and supervisors who know what they’re looking for, coupled with the ongoing analytical thinking of the people doing the work, that work processes can be improved. And, of course, only improved work processes can drive better results.

How’s the leadership team’s job going to change as a result of implementing Lean?

1. The organization’s leadership team has to be committed to taking an active, highly visible role in supporting Lean. I’ve had plant managers say to me, “Just keep me briefed on how our work to implement Lean is progressing.” This attitude just won’t work. The plant manager is a key factor in the transition to Lean and her/his involvement must be visible and vigorous. In any organization, there will always be a number of individuals who don’t believe in any form of change. These professional cynics will be continually on the lookout for evidence that the company’s commitment to Lean is far less than stated. Any sign that the plant’s top management is not totally supportive and involved in the transition to Lean will be interpreted as evidence that this attempt at change, like many before it, will also fade away. All managers have to be actively and effectively involved in the transition to Lean.

2. The process of implementing Lean never ends. There is no finish line.

Managers must remember that Lean is about the relentless pursuit of perfection … perfection that is always pursued but never quite achieved. As soon as the pursuit of perfection ends … as soon as the idea develops that we are finished with implementing Lean, at that moment Lean fails.

3. The leadership team has to understand that to successfully implement Lean the focus must be on long-term gains, not short-term ROI.

How much will productivity be increased when Lean is first implemented? Who knows, maybe none at all for a year or so. The focus has to be on the steady development of ever more productive standardized work processes created in partnership with line workers and undeterred by the demands of the moment no matter how potent. As soon as management allows a crisis to move it into a “just do it” mode, the effort to implement Lean will be seriously damaged to a degree that may make recovery impossible.

4. The leadership team must trust line workers, treat them with respect, and be prepared to let them make mistakes. Managers must also be prepared to share the mistakes they make with line workers.

As Henry Ford taught us in his book, “My Life and Work,” written in 1923 and studied by Toyota managers as a key source for those ideas that later germinated into what has become Lean manufacturing, relationships between managers and line workers are reciprocal, the manager is the partner of the worker and the worker is the partner of the manager. And partners share their defeats as well as their victories, learn from both, and continually move their organization closer to perfection.

Lean Leadership CertificateThe skills and knowledge needed to effectively fill the role of leader in a transition to Lean manufacturing are not present in many managers and supervisors. In order to meet this need, St. Louis Community College developed a Lean Leadership Certification Program, specifically designed to develop and sharpen those skills needed to support Lean work processes. This program includes ten, four to six hour seminars and can be delivered on-site at times most convenient for participants. Few investments in Lean could drive greater payback than this series of seminars.

Responses to the program have been outstanding. Here are just a few of the many very positive comments that have been made by participants:

“What a great set of experiences! This training really fueled my enthusiasm and gave a tremendous boost to my passion for improvement.”

“This training was just great! I’d recommend it for all managers and supervisors. I really enjoyed the discussions and also learned a lot that I can apply right now on the job.”

If you’d be interested in finding out more about the Lean Leadership Certification Program, please contact me, George Friesen, any time at 314-303-0612. Look forward to talking with you.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

One Comment

  1. Jim Duane

    January 10, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    As with most culture changes, two questions are very critical. “When should I start the change?” and “How do I start the change process?” This blog gives a good map that helps you start the thought process.

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