A Lean Parable

By on July 17, 2018
A Lean Parable

This is a story about a manufacturer of equipment used to build America, our buildings, bridges, and highways. This is also a story about a manufacturer whose equipment helps feed the world. It’s no understatement to say that as this company goes, so goes much of our economy and our farms.

So, this company’s ability to extract waste from its production processes as it drives continuous improvement is of great importance, both to the company and to you and me.

Over twenty years ago, to increase their productivity and profitability, they decided to implement Lean manufacturing processes. They appeared to do all the right things. They conducted training programs. They met with UAW leadership to be sure that the union supported the effort. They did. After about a year, however, it appeared that little progress had been made. For example, they had “done 5S” but the only evidence of its impact were some lines on the floor that were largely ignored. They brought in a consultant team to conduct an investigation to find out what the problem was.

What did the consultant team find? Incredibly, they found that supervisors and middle managers would leave their World Class Manufacturing training programs, apparently in full support of them, and go back to their work areas and say to the workers, “Forget about this Lean stuff, we are doing it the way we’ve always done it.” For these supervisors and managers, Lean was just one more passing fancy of the leadership team that they could wait out, knowing that it too, like many “let’s do better” fads of the past, would simply fade away.

Reacting to what had been an obviously disastrous attempt to launch a Lean transformation and to get implementation back on track, they eliminated two levels of management on their organizational chart and, in some cases, made UAW members team leaders, taking responsibility for many of the functions that were previously the responsibility of the now missing supervisors.

How common is this manufacturer’s experience and why did it happen?

It’s all too common. Many attempts to implement Lean fail. Organizations “do the Lean tools” and discover that in relatively short order the use of these tools fades away. I’ve seen far too many of the faded lines and labels of a failed 5S implementation campaign. I’ve seen far too many future state value stream maps gathering dust, with the creativity it took to create them lost, overwhelmed by the inertia of things as they are. I’ve seen far too many leadership teams making a decision to “do Lean” without ever examining how their personal behavior needed to change if their “doing Lean” was going to have any long-term impact.

And, now, the more important question, why did this happen?

Here’s the first cause. This manufacturer’s leadership team never understood that “doing Lean” depends upon “thinking Lean” and on fully understanding the basic beliefs about work and workers upon which a Lean transformation is based.

Responding to this roadblock to progress: Had I been their Lean consultant, I would have first engaged them in a discussion focused on a comment made by Albert Einstein, “Things are the way they are because of the way we think and if we want to change the way things are, we have to change the way we think.” Next, we would have discussed Taiichi Ohno’s observation on how to change the way we think, “It’s easier to act your way to a new way of thinking than to think your way to a new way of acting.” We would have concluded these discussions with individual members of the leadership team defining specific ways in which their behavior needed to change if their attempt to drive a Lean transformation was to succeed.

And here’s the second cause. Members of this company’s leadership team never understood that that they needed to regularly walk through the plant floor, observing production and interacting with line workers.

Responding to this roadblock to progress: Focusing on Lean Management Standards Gemba Worksheets developed by David Mann and referenced in his Shingo Prize winning book, “Creating a Lean Culture,” we would have gone right to the heart of matter. Here it is. Unless leaders have a crystal clear, real time understanding of what’s happening as their company’s products are built, they can’t possibly be effective leaders. And the only way to achieve this level of understanding is by directly observing these products being built and communicating directly with the employees who are building them. To better understand the rationale for this, we would have discussed Taiichi Ohno’s observation that “data is important, but I trust facts more.” I would have asked them what the difference was between data and facts, what the difference was between depending upon data’s representation of the outcome of work and observing work in action, i.e., knowing the “facts” of work.

The failure of Lean that this company experienced was avoidable. Stated most directly, the leadership team needed to understand that a successful Lean transformation was only possible if they changed the way they thought about work environments, work processes, and workers. And members of the leadership team needed to frequently observe their products being built, having very focused discussions with the workers building these products.

Fujio Cho, former CEO of Toyota Motor Corporation, once said, “Americans grab tools. At Toyota, we concentrate on a philosophy.” That’s exactly what this manufacturer did, focusing on the tools of Lean without really understanding the philosophy upon which these tools are grounded.

St. Louis Community College’s Corporate Services Group has a wide variety of Lean training and coaching services that can support your drive toward a sustainable Lean transformation. We’d appreciate having the opportunity to discuss these resources with you. Just call George Friesen at 314-303-0612 or Eric Whitehead at 314-539-5022 and let’s schedule a time to talk. We’re confident that 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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