Lean for Leaders is an Antidote for Failure

By on March 9, 2016
Lean for Leaders is an Antidote for Failure

“We’ve got more critical issues than Lean. If we don’t improve day-to-day production and quality we won’t have to worry about Lean.”
– A Plant Manager

When a quality director told me that the plant manager had said this, it was brought home to me again, loud and clear, why Lean fails so often. I felt like walking into the plant manager’s office and saying to him, “If you don’t start ‘worrying about Lean’ you can forget about ‘worrying about production and quality’ because you’re not going to be in business.

I restrained myself. I really shouldn’t have been surprised by what he said. I’d heard far too often, comments like these:

“I’ve read about Lean. Sounds good. Let’s try 5S on our second line.”

“We’d like to give Value Stream Mapping a try in our ER.”

Give it a try.” I think of this comment as evidence of the “Lean is the icing on the cake” syndrome. Lean is cool. Folks are talking about it. The CEO says “Let’s do it.”

Unfortunately “Give it a try” typically means “let’s dabble in Lean” and “Let’s do it” often does not mean “I’ll do it.” Both perspectives are a sure recipe for failure. Lean can’t be “dabbled in” and top leadership has to understand that they can’t mandate Lean and then sit back and watch it happen. They have to be active participants in making the Lean transformation happen. If they aren’t, it won’t happen.

It’s not enough for the leadership team to “talk Lean,” they also have to “walk Lean.” The leadership team has to recognize that Lean isn’t the icing on the cake, it’s the cake. Or it’s nothing.

The existence of such misperceptions about what it takes to drive a sustainable Lean transformation shouldn’t be surprising. Many of us who studied management twenty five or thirty years ago were taught a method of managing employees, a mindset about the relationship between management and labor, which on many dimensions is not congruent with Lean thinking. We were taught to be expert data analysts, we were not taught to be expert observers of work processes. We were taught that the most important jobs in an organization were those at the top of the pyramid; we were not taught that, in fact, line workers jobs were the most important. We were taught how to speak, with only a passing glance at how to listen.

Beliefs such as these, expressed by Henry Ford, one of the key architects of Lean manufacturing, were not at the core of what we learned:

“Success and failure belong to everybody.”

“Quality means doing the right thing when no one is looking.”

“If there is one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”

“Even a mistake may turn out to be the one thing necessary to a worthwhile achievement.”

“We’re all in the same boat. Show respect for all employees.”

“We need our employees’ ideas.”

The wisdom of Henry Ford coupled with that of his student, Taiichi Ohno, key architect of the Toyota Production System, guided our development of a series of six, two-hour discussions entitled Lean for Leaders: Focusing on the What, How, and Why of Lean.

The structure of this series is based upon our understanding that the first step in becoming a highly competent Lean Leader is understanding the beliefs that undergird Lean. Following this, a Lean Leader needs to understand the primary tools of Lean such as 5S, Value Stream Mapping, Visual Management, Kanban, Pull Production, and others. And the final step in becoming a Lean Leader is to have a clear understanding of Lean Leader standard work, the actions that the leader must engage in on a daily basis to support his/her organization’s Lean transformation. The progression looks like this:

Lean Leader Progression

Lean for Leaders addresses the following topics:

  • An Overview of Lean: Origins, beliefs, tools.
  • The 5S System: Creating a lean, orderly, and clean work environment.
  • Value-Stream Mapping: Extracting waste from work processes.
  • Visual Management: Making order unbreakable.
  • Leader Standard Work: What Lean leaders do and how they do it.
  • Toyota KATA: Driving organizational learning.

Each participant is expected to read David Mann’s Shingo Prize winning book Creating a Lean Culture and Mike Rother’s best seller Toyota KATA.

When all members of an organization’s leadership team are active, very focused participants in a Lean transformation, great things happen: increases in productivity, profitability, and product quality. Most importantly, the leadership team will be helping to build a highly engaged workforce, the engine that drives continuous improvement.

I’d very much value having the opportunity to discuss Lean for Leaders with you, reviewing the ways in which it will maximize your investment in Lean manufacturing. Call me anytime at 314-303-0612 and let’s talk. I believe you’ll find it time very well spent.

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.

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