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How can I keep our lean management effort from becoming bureaucratic?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Isn’t there a risk that all these lean tools in the workplace turn into yet more bureaucracy?

Oh, absolutely. At most lean companies, the tools (implemented with the best intentions) have become bureaucratic. Try this method at your office, factory, hospital, etc., to run a search-and-destroy mission to find tools that have become mere rules.

Recently on a client’s gemba, the COO had a green marker and a red marker. The game was to look at lean efforts one by one during the gemba walk and decide whether they deserved green for improvement or red for bureaucracy: going through the motions of change without much changing anything. First we had to come up with an operational definition of improvement. After some thought, we settled on three criteria:

  1. It added value to the customer – at best expressed in $ gains, at worse in “it’s better.”
  2. It was conceived and implemented by the teams themselves.
  3. It reduced company total cost in $.

This rather sobering exercise can help answer your question as it showed us all the very varied way in which lean tools can turn into bureaucracy: self-perpetrating without producing any improvement other than “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – “the more it changes, the more it's the same.” 

Bureaucratic Snares on Your Gemba

Let’s go through our main gemba tools, looking for typical bureaucratic pitfalls to identify and correct:

  • Kanban: Kanban materializes the information flow in order to see the gap with one-piece-flow (actually focusing on making stuff one-by-one). Kaban is a tool to support kaizen if you regularly take kanban cards out of the loops to (1) increase frequency of pick-up and (2) reduce batches. This is the first thing Toyota ever explained to its suppliers back in the day (although we didn’t understand anything about their circles, squares, and triangles explanation). On the other hand, in many places, kanban has been used to replace (or complement) the MRP with lots of cards. It’s a bureaucracy. When launchers are full of uncompleted jobs, when each lot is full of cards, the kanban can happily run forever while hiding 4M (manpower, machine, materials, method) problems rather than revealing it – kanban becomes a bureaucracy.
  • 5S: 5S really is a method to teach people to take ownership of their own work environment so that they can perfect their standardized work by placing things at their most convenient place. Instead, in most companies I visit, 5S has become a bureaucratic program to make the workplace look neat, with no consideration for waste all over, and a fixation on “discipline.”
  • PDCA: Many of the lean tools are about revealing how people think about solving problems and, thus, how to get them to (1) better formulate problems, (2) analyze causes as gap to standards – which involves better understanding  standards, (3) looking harder for root causes asking why? And why? And (4) studying their countermeasures to distinguish what works from what doesn’t. But for this to make any sense, the problems have to be customer-focused product related problems. On the other hand, bureaucratic thinking is expert at turning PDCA into a way to solve bureaucratic problems. When on the gemba, you have to constantly check that PDCA is turned to correcting value problems and not support or administrative problems.
  • Andon: There aren’t enough working andons around to see how bureaucracy can turn them into a bureaucratic tool, but many companies have systems to record and process problems in huge databases of problems – managing the problem is more important than solving them, so we can well imagine what the andon can become.
  • Pokayoke: I’ve lost count of the times I’ve discovered that operators disconnect all engineering’s pokayokes simply to be able to make parts. Pokayokes are not supposed to hinder you in your work, but to stop mistakes or materialize non-quality. A bureaucratic way to use pokayoke is to overburden the system with all possible safeties and fail-safe devices, making the operation even more uncertain and, in the end, unsafe.
  • Kaizen: Kaizen is the true aim of the lean system (of tools). Kaizen, whether in the form of team quality circles or individual suggestions, is about accelerating the flow of ideas contributing to generating more value while generating less waste. True kaizen is about finding new ways to work so that (1) price for customers go down (or they get extra features, at no extra cost) and (2) total cost to the company goes down, even by a few cents. Kaizens that are just about making this or that better simply-because-we-can are rarely improvements. For instance, kaizen to improve the flow of treatment of problem solving reports in the quality system is NOT kaizen – just the bureaucracy keeping busy and owning the idea of “improvement.”
  • Hoshin kanri: Don’t get me started on how “visual policy deployment” can be used to hide the fact that no target is ever achieved, basic performance is forgotten at the expense of tactical plays and process guys (there to stop any work being done) promoted over the guys who deliver the goods.

 3 Root Causes of Snares

The aim of any bureaucracy is to keep itself going the way things are – and that’s not always a bad thing. I like my life environment to be stable just as much as the next guy – as long as things get done. Bureaucracy, therefore, is ready to play any game, including the lean one, as long as nothing really changes. Activities are small price to pay to keep things exactly as they are.

How can we, lean guys, inadvertently create the very bureaucracy we’re supposed to fight. Unfortunately, very easily, and mostly through committing three very common mistakes:

  1. Losing track of customers and products: Draw an imaginary line that either gets you closer to customers via your products or services, and closer to the people who actually do the work, or, the other way around, that points to people who manage those who do the work, and then those who coach those who manage those who do the work, and then those who design the training programs for the coaches to coach the people who manage the people who do the work for customers and so on – you get the picture. Oh, wait.  Isn’t that what you’re doing reading this post?
  2. Misunderstanding “visualization”: The term visualization itself is misleading. What we really mean is “materialization” – making information so physical that anyone can intuitively distinguish normal from abnormal. Going down the “visual” route usually ends up with lots of PowerPoint slides posted on boards … to hide the reality of the shop floor. In the same way, turning problems into “tickets” to solve, as with IT kanban, is the best way to lose track of the purpose of the problem solving tools – looking into how people think, not handling inventories of “problem” titles.
  3. Auditing the “system”: Using maturity levels, systems compliance grades, roadmap deployment, all the very tools of bureaucracy to make sure the box is ticked but no one ever looks at what, exactly, is in the box. I clearly believe in measuring performance – performance at the product and technical process level – but, come on, measuring the application of the system that is supposed to help people be creative problem solvers in order to enhance performance? Let me measure how creative you’ve been today.

So, yes, absolutely, lean can create its own bureaucracy – any human activity does. I vividly remember the lean team from a large U.S. automotive supplier going around plants measuring the exact dimensions of the production analysis boards and never worrying about the empty “comments” lines (I kid you not – yes, you guys, you know who you are!).

There is no way to avoid the bureaucratization of any system. So we fight this. We remind ourselves daily that lean is about “making quality products by first developing quality people,” which involves making one product at a time, and developing one person at a time, topic by topic. There is nothing else.

So keep a green marker and red marker at hand. When you see any lean activity, consider if you can you mark it green (value for customer, through local people’s initiative that reduces total cost for the company) or red (activity to fix some part of the support or administrative process in the hope this will “make things better” but that adds a further burden of waste on the organization). Then stop doing the red activities.  As Peter Drucker once wisely said, “There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.”


4 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Donovan June 14, 2016

Sobering.  Thanks for this great post Michael. 

Steve Ruqus June 17, 2016

What catches most I work with would be when Kaizen turns into countermeasure without having a deep understanding of the problem.  It is like whack a mole.  See the symptom, put out the fire and move to the next one.  I have found that a clear vision for change really helps along with a visual mangement tool.  My goto question is "How will you know when you are done?".

Mohan Boovaragan June 20, 2016

Great Post Mike!!Thanks for your valuable gudiance.

Anne Ramon June 22, 2016

An eye opening post ... Thanks !