Belief-Based Lean Transformations

By on November 27, 2018
Belief-Based Lean Transformations

A large percentage of attempts to successfully implement the very powerful tools of Lean manufacturing fail. Why? A comment made by Fujio Cho, former Chairman of the Board of Toyota Motor Corporation, answers this question, “Many good American companies have respect for individuals, and practice Kaizen and other Toyota Production System tools. But what is important is having all the elements together as a system. It must be practiced every day in a very consistent manner—not in spurts—in a concrete way on the shop floor.” He added, “Americans grab tools. At Toyota we concentrate on a philosophy.”

Put very directly, Lean tools work. For a while. But if their use isn’t built upon a philosophy—a set of beliefs about work and workers—their impact will be short-term. Not so very gradually, the tools of Lean will not be used, dirt and junk will accumulate in work areas, work processes will degrade to their previous state, and all the time, energy, and money spent on Lean will have been wasted.

Here’s an all-too-typical story. An organization’s leader reads about Lean manufacturing and what it’s accomplished in driving high levels of productivity, product quality, and profitability in companies across a wide spectrum of industries. And s/he decides that they’re going to “do Lean.” Here’s how they do it.

First step: They interview a consultant who describes the ways in which s/he can make Lean happen in their organization.

Second step: They hire this consultant.

Third step: Assured that Lean is happening, the leadership team turns its attention to other issues, hearing occasional reports on the impact of Kaizen Events, 5S, and other Lean tools.

And often some very nice improvements in work environments and work processes happen rather quickly as “low hanging” waste is identified and eliminated.

Fast forward three years. The low hanging waste has returned and what’s left is a cynical group of employees who have just experienced another stillborn attempt at improving work and working conditions.

What happened? Why didn’t Lean do its job? The organization’s leadership team made three basic mistakes.

  1. The first mistake the leadership team made was not addressing this question. Do we accept the fact that maintaining the status quo is a sure road to failure in our marketplaces and that we only have two options: change or fail?
  2. The second mistake the leadership team made was not engaging in a rigorous examination of what they believe about their employees and the work their employees do, focusing on questions such as these:
    a. Do we believe that our employees have the capability of being active, intelligent contributors to the improvement of work processes?
    b. Do we believe that if we show we trust our employees that they will reciprocate by being trustworthy?
    c. Do we believe that the best sources of information on the improvement of work processes are those employees who do the work?
    d. Do we concede that things are the way they are because of the way we think, accepting what Albert Einstein once said, “Things are the way they are because of the way we think”?
    e. Do we accept the fact that our behavior has been shaped by what we believe about our employees and the work these employees do and that these beliefs, as well as the behavior that is driven by these beliefs, are counter-productive?
    f. Can we accept what Taiichi Ohno, one of the key architects of Lean, said about changing our beliefs, “It’s easier to act your way to a new way of thinking than to think your way to a new way of acting”?
    g. Do we here and now commit ourselves to new ways of acting, ways of acting that will convey to all our employees that we respect and greatly value their individual intelligence and creativity?
    Until the leadership team can answer each of these questions with a resounding “yes,” they’re not ready to effectively lead a Lean transformation in their organization.
  3. Accepting the fact that change is their only option and being poised to drive this change, the third mistake the leadership team made is for their individual members to not engage directly in very focused daily personal activities on the plant floor that demonstrate their new perspective on work and workers to all employees. They assumed they could delegate the heavy lifting to an outside consultant and an internal Lean champion. This never works. Leadership teams can’t sit back and watch Lean transformations happen. Every time this is attempted, Lean fails. They must be actively involved in the process.

It’s only after an organization’s leadership team has engaged in vigorous, productive discussions of the sort I’ve just described that a belief-based Lean transformation can start to happen.

And when a belief-based Lean transformation takes place, beautiful things happen. I’ll never forget a comment made by an employee at one of our clients as she experienced this type of transformation. She said: “No adventure is more exciting that the exercise of human creativity and ingenuity.”

This is exactly what happens when a belief-based Lean transformation is underway. Employees experience the absolute joy that comes from experiencing the power of their creativity and ingenuity in action. They view the very effective tools of Lean, 5S, Value Stream Mapping, Kaizen Events, Kanban, JIT, Pull Production and others, as mere tools to support the application of their individual creativity and ingenuity. The prime driver of change resides in their hearts and minds.

St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group has well-tested training and coaching resources that will help your organization’s leadership team to actively and very effectively support a Lean transformation. Just call George Friesen at 314-303-0612 or Eric Whitehead at 314-539-5022 and let’s arrange a time to review these resources. We’re confident it will be a very productive discussion.

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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