Lean, Supervision, and Profitability

By on June 27, 2013
Lean, Supervision, and Profitability

About ten years ago, I was sitting across the table from a plant manager talking about Lean manufacturing. What he told me brought home a point I’ve never forgotten. Here’s what he said: “You know, George, I understand Lean manufacturing and I know what it can do for my company. But let me draw a simple illustration of the challenge I face in making Lean work in this plant.” Here’s what he drew. He went on to explain that he and his leadership team fully supported a transition to Lean manufacturing. They knew it would make their company more competitive. He added that, while he believed his managers would support Lean, he felt far less certain about the degree of effective support for change that would be provided by his front-line supervisors. This despite the fact that he believed his line-workers would be open to change. In short, he believed that his first level supervisors were a major barrier to a successful transition to Lean manufacturing.

Chart: Degrees of Readiness/Enthusiasm for Lean Transformations

Numerous experiences I’ve had over the years as a Lean consultant have verified the fact that the situation described by this plant manager is commonplace. Just six months ago, I was walking down the line in a plant that’s in the process of laying the groundwork for a transition to Lean by implementing the 5S System when a line worker called out, “George, I’d like to tell you something.” I went over and this is what she said, “You know, I understand why we’re doing 5S but it’s real hard to be enthusiastic about it when your supervisor tells you it’s a waste of time and to forget about it because it’ll go away.” I told her I sure could understand how a statement like that could really dampen enthusiasm for 5S.

In my last Lean blog entry, I told a story about an employee who exhibited that type of passivity and detachment that are the typical products of an authoritarian style of supervision, a style of supervision that is almost totally devoid of any show of respect for the intelligence and creativity of line workers. The results are predictable and they are totally foreign to the values of Lean manufacturing.

Chart: Lean ROI

These encounters, coupled with discussions with other clients, convinced me of the importance of developing training and consulting interventions that were specifically targeted at changing those supervisor behaviors that block the implementation of Lean work processes. Related directly to this issue, I’ve had a number of extended discussions with clients about the cost of limited supervisor support for Lean. We’ve concluded that the cost is very significant. We’ve come to realize that there was a strong correlation between supervisor involvement in the support of Lean and the degree to which an organization’s investment in Lean really pays off, as shown in this chart. We concluded that without the energetic support of supervisors Lean would fail. But failure was not an option. Too much was at stake. Things like being competitive, being productive, being profitable, surviving, were at stake. We recalled a statement made a number of years ago by W. Edwards Deming, “It’s not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

Lean Leadership Certification ProgramWe developed the Lean Leadership Certification Program to provide our clients with the resources needed to create teams of supervisors and managers who have the ability…and the desire…to drive change. To receive certification as Lean Leaders, learners participate in ten seminars, addressing a wide of topics ranging from the primary tools of Lean manufacturing to the supervisory skills required to lead a Lean transition effort. Since launching this program, we’re continually receiving e-mails from participants who tell us that what they learned and practiced in the program’s ten seminars had a tangible, immediate, and very positive impact on their ability to communicate with line workers. Here’s what they’ve said:

“The techniques we learned in the Lean Leadership Certification Program really work! I’ve used them and I see more people wanting to be real contributors to the success of the department and a whole lot less of ‘what’s in it for me.’”

“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 to all managers and supervisors. I really enjoyed the discussions and also learned a lot that I can apply right now on the job.”

The power of Lean thinking and work processes are transforming organizations worldwide, driving very significant increases in productivity and profitability. But Lean simply cannot succeed without a knowledgeable and energized cadre of first-level supervisors and managers who perform in ways that unleash the power of line-worker engagement. I’d like to introduce you and your company to a powerful set of career changing experiences that will make your investment in Lean really pay off. Call me anytime at 314-303-0612. Let’s talk.

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.