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Can lean go wrong?

July 15, 2013
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Can the ideas be misused and can the outcome be bad for the company? Is there any way to prevent this?

Of course lean can go wrong. Any powerful set of ideas can go horribly wrong if used with the wrong intentions – just think of Darwin’s theory of evolution. The most powerful scientific theory of the nineteenth century was turned into “Social Darwinism” by a group of mean-spirited nuts, completely contrary to Darwin’s intentions, and Darwinism as a whole is still blemished by that. The same with lean, I guess. Used as a cost-cutting program (often sold as by consultants), it can indeed go wrong. It’s all a question of intent.

So let’s examine lean’s intent, typical syndromes and how to safeguard oneself against such misuse. I define lean as a set of learning activities that enable people to see the way they work with fresh eyes and improve their processes by focusing on:

  1. Muri: eliminating overburden on people and equipment, which creates accidents and breakdowns.
  2. Mura: stop-and-go variations, often created by either muri or silly planning (created demand) which strains people and equipment by creating peaks of activities and then troughs, and is a strong drain on resources
  3. Muda: wasteful activities that pollute work, demand energy without adding any value. Waste is built in any process, and is likely the results of muri, mura or both. The intention of lean is indeed to train every person to see the muda in their own work processes and come up with ideas to reduce it.

Note that waste reduction actions should NOT create either muri or mura. If they do, then clearly the thinking has gone astray and the action must be reconsidered. Kaizen is change for the better, not change for change’s sake.

At program level, the intent of lean is quite straightforward and explicit. The CEO is expected to go to the gemba frequently to learn how to:

  1. Safeguard employees – and guarantee their safety
  2. Protect customers from poor quality and missed deliveries
  3. Control the lead-time by rigorous flowing, leveling and pulling (which involves solving many muri and mura problems)
  4. Reduce lead-time by increasing flexibility
  5. Cash in on the cost opportunities reductions these activities will reveal.

The activities are carried out by employee’s involvement and engagement. Without the intent of participation of all people all the time, there is simply no lean. There might be a successful improvement program, but it wouldn’t qualify for the “lean” label.

Certain Failure

Lean can spur radical change at the executive level—specifically by fostering a type of “gemba leadership” that contrasts with boardroom leadership in two main ways. First, in lean, the locus of management is the workplace where the CEO engages in observation and discussion with the people adding the value themselves – and not with a handful of top executives looking at PowerPoint strategies and plans in the boardroom. Second, the aim of lean is to fully understand the problems we’re facing and to share their formulation across the company rather than jump at execution strategies and then pushing them through.

Oddly, even good management teams find it challenging to execute on this goal. At one great company I observed, at the debriefing after one of the first gemba walks, the management team concluded – correctly – that operational people were not talking to each other. I (foolishly) suggested creating an open plan to improve communication. These were good people, and they jumped on the idea and implemented it right away (much faster than I’d expected) without involving the people themselves. This created a big hoo-hah which the lean effort almost didn’t recover from.

In the end, the dust cleared, people got used to the open plan with modifications and the management team learned the key lesson of kaizen before you leap and went on to some rather spectacular results – but we still remind ourselves about it when we fall in love with a solution without having fully agreed on the problem first. Developing gemba leadership is one of the main points of lean and without it, failure is almost certain.

Wobbling Off Course

With hindsight, what would be sure signs that the lean initiative is getting off track? Every company is different, but I sometimes say that every lean success I see is different, but failures invariably come down to one main root cause: the CEO failed to get the “gemba” bug. Here are some of the symptoms:

  • The CEO supports lean, but doesn’t do gemba walks with a sensei. Because so much of lean is about understanding intent and the interpretation of general principles in specific contexts, the sensei-CEO discussion is essential to reaching the proper conclusions. Yes, sensei are hard to find, but that’s part of the journey. How to know whether someone who claims to be a sensei really is? My trick is to ask who is his or her sensei: I count the degrees of separation with Taiichi Ohno (My sensei is my father, who’s sensei was Mr. Hayashi, who worked for Ohno).
  • The lean program leader is not personally involved in the lean community. It’s very hard to reflect on one’s own, and the understanding of lean concepts evolves – the lean community around The Lean Enterprise Institute is the best place to test one’s thinking against other experienced practitioners. Not investing in doing so casts a serious shadow of doubt on the person’s learning attitude.
  • Consultants have sold a “kaizen blitz”. If consultants have sold a program of kaizen events, they need to show results no matter what. If there are obvious low-hanging fruit, this can be a good way to get started. In industries far from assembly, this can lead to ugly mistakes.
  • It has been decided that the leveled pull system doesn’t apply. Leveled pull is a basic anti petty boss tool: it stops workplace management from doing whatever comes to their mind, and steers everyone to a better, steadier flow of work that will show overburden and variation. If the lean program can’t figure out how to do level pull, (1) they don’t know what they’re doing and (2) whatever low-hanging fruits results they find won’t be sustained. One simply can’t claim to take JIT and jidoka out of lean and claim that it is still lean: it ain’t.
  • Someone says “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” If you hear this, run and hide – the lean effort has lost its way. It is absolutely true that people can leave the company because of lean, but they do so because they don’t agree with the changes, not because they’re pushed. Not every one is expected to get along, but it is lean’s firm intention to involve and engage every one – not force them.

Mutual trust is a key, explicit, element of lean. I have walked gembas with senior execs and we’ve looked at kaizen activities asking ourselves: “are we reinforcing mutual trust or not?” This is an essential calibration because kaizen can go astray even with the best intentions. So we question and we reflect. That is the intent of lean.

Can lean, as an approach, be blamed for its faulty interpretations? To be honest, I personally don’t think so (admittedly, I am biased as I have a dog in this fight). Ten years ago, maybe, much of lean was about reengineering processes to improve flow. But over the past ten years there have been many efforts such as John Shook’s Managing to Learn or Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata to explain the people involvement dimension of lean. These books are hard to ignore, and so, if people still do it’s on them. The engine of lean is about getting the improvement loop working:

Better results = better people + better processes

 In lean terms, this means on the one hand continuously training people to standards (on the job) to improve their competences about existing processes, and on the other involving people in kaizen to improve processes – often according to their better understanding of the gaps to standards (i.e. problems in lean’s definition). This is what I personally look for on the shop floor: can people show me examples of muri, mura, muda, and have they got a way to train employees to standards and involve them in kaizen of their own processes. If I see that, I’m pretty confident that the lean effort can’t go much wrong, and is actually likely to go right for all stakeholders.

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